In the early 1990s many small Chinese carmakers started building weird body-on-frame versions of the legendary unibody SUV, the Jeep Cherokee XJ. These Chinese XJ-like machines featured unique engines and came as pickup trucks and even wagon-like vans. Here’s a look at how these bizarre XJ lookalikes came to be.
It all started in 1984, the XJ’s first model-year and also the birth year of the Beijing Jeep Corporation, abbreviated BJC and commonly known as Beijing-Jeep. This was a joint venture between the Beijing Auto Industry Corporation (BAIC) and the American Motors Corporation (AMC), which owned Jeep. Under the terms of the agreement, the Chinese side would bring in land, factories, and people, while the American side would bring in the actual cars and technology. This was a typical joint venture arrangement, similar to other agreements signed around the same time, like Shanghai-Volkswagen (1984) and Dongfeng-Peugeot Citroen (1992).
Initially, Beijing-Jeep produced two vehicles: the Jeep Cherokee XJ and the Beijing BJ212L (a body-on-frame off-roader whose chassis, you’ll learn soon, would later be used to build utterly absurd XJ lookalikes). Under Chinese law at the time, joint ventures were necessary to gain access to the Chinese car market; the foreign partner was not allowed to own more than 50% of the shares in a joint venture.
The Beijing-Jeep Corporation
When Chrysler bought AMC in 1987 it became the new partner in Beijing-Jeep. This continued until 1998 when Chrysler merged with Daimler to become DaimlerChrysler. From then on DaimlerChrysler was the new partner. The Beijing-Jeep joint venture remained alive until 2007 when Chrysler was sold to Cerberus. At that time, now-Chrysler-less Daimler-Benz took full control of the joint venture and renamed it Beijing-Benz. This joint venture remains to this day.
Production of the Cherokee XJ continued almost until the end of Beijing-Jeep, and even afterwards, with BAIC continuing the production of some Cherokee variants for a few years more. Over the intervening years, the joint venture also produced the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler Sebring JS, Chrysler 300C, the Mitsubishi Outlander and Pajero Sport (Chrysler had a partnership with Mitsubishi), and the early versions of the BJ2022 Brave Warrior. The latter was a military vehicle for the Chinese army developed by Beijing-Jeep.
The Beijing-Jeep Cherokee XJ
In China, every production car gets one or more government-assigned designations. The system is extremely complicated and has changed many times over the years. But basically, the designation depends upon the car maker, the sort of vehicle, the vehicle’s size, and the vehicle’s engine. In 1985, the initial Cherokee XJ got “BJ2021” and “BJ2026.” BJ stands for Beijing, short for Beijing Auto Industry Corporation. Every car made by BAIC, including the ones made by its joint ventures, has a designation starting with BJ.
The Beijing Jeep Corporation made the Cherokee XJ only as a four-door, never as a two-door offered in other markets including the U.S. Like American-market XJs, the Beijing-Jeep was available with the 2.5 liter four and the legendary 4.0 liter inline-six engine. Over the following years, the range expanded rapidly. In 1999, Beijing-Jeep created a long-wheelbase version (BJ7250EL), various variants with a raised roof, and a basic variant with rear-wheel drive only. The 2.5-liter versions had a five-speed manual gearbox, and the 4.0-liter version a five-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic; this all aligns with U.S. models.
The basic versions were very basic indeed. I was lucky enough to own one for many years. It did without any luxuries; there were no automatic windows, there was no sunroof, and there wasn’t even a rev counter. The big advantage of this, and of similar basic variants of other cars made by other joint ventures, was that any repair shop in the country could fix my Jeep. This came in very handy, as build-quality was not, shall we say, fantastic. During my travels, I regularly had to take my Jeep to small repair shops in faraway places. But the mechanic, cigarette in hand, always managed to fix the car — and on we went.
Anyway, these XJs weren’t that weird since they were based on the actual XJ platform and featured the same engines. But don’t worry, things are about to go off the rails.
The BAW Beijing BJ212 and the Beijing-Jeep Beijing BJ212L
The other car made by the “Beijing-Jeep” joint venture between Jeep and BAIC was the Beijing BJ212L. The brand is Beijing, the designation BJ212L, so the full name was Beijing-Jeep Beijing BJ212L. This was a rudimentary body-on-frame off road vehicle based on the iconic Beijing BJ212 (without the L) that acted as a 4×4 utility vehicle for the Chinese armed forces.
Production of this Beijing BJ212 started in 1965 at Beijing Auto Works (BAW), which eventually became a part of BAIC. The names BJ212 and BJ212L led to some confusion, so later on the Beijing-Jeep version was renamed BJ2020.
The BAW Chassis Business
Besides producing the BJ212 under its own brand name, BAW also sold the chassis and powertrain to many other Chinese automakers. These automakers then fitted their own bodies on. In almost any province one could find a locally-made variant of the BAW Beijing BJ212, with many different brand names. However, there was no technological development to speak of, and in 1985 the BJ212 was basically the same car as the 1965 version.
The Beijing-Jeep joint venture was tasked with updating the BJ212. From then on, there would be two lines: The Beijing-Jeep BJ212L and the BAW BJ212.
Beijing-Jeep was to modernize the original design, and to develop new variants. At the same time, chassis maker BAW would use technology provided by Beijing-Jeep to update its BAW BJ212. This may sound rather complicated but this sort of arrangement was common for the early joint-ventures, when the main aim of the Chinese side was updating their own cars.
Over the next decade, Beijing-Jeep created dozens and dozens of upgraded and new versions of the BJ212L; with four doors, five doors, pickup trucks, wagons, military variants, and many more. Some of these upgraded cars got the 2.5-liter Cherokee engine, though none ever used the 4.0. And BAW did indeed improve the original as well, creating new versions, even including an amphibious car.
From BJ212 to Cherokee Clone
During this time, the Beijing-Jeep Cherokee XJ gained popularity and sales exploded. Many cars went to various government agencies, but private sales were gaining momentum too. BAW continued to sell the original BJ212 platform to other automakers, and this is where something typical Chinese started to happen.
These other automakers noticed the success and popularity of the Cherokee XJ. However, they couldn’t get their hands on it, as the joint venture didn’t license the XJ to others. But the carmakers did have the BJ212 body-on-frame vehicle. The obvious solution: build a Cherokee body and drop it on the BJ212 chassis. And that is precisely what they did.
From the mid until late 1990s, a dozen or so smaller Chinese outfits created their own Cherokee clones. But they didn’t stop at the basic four-door version. They also came up with entire new Cherokee variants: four-door pickup trucks and wagon-like vans. They were all powered by the BJ212 engine: a “492Q” 2.4 liter four-cylinder gasoline unit with 75 hp.
They were based on a platform provided by BAW, a subsidiary of BAIC, the partner of AMC/Chrysler in the Beijing-Jeep joint venture, which made the real Cherokee XJ.
Naturally, the dimensions were a little off. The Cherokee XJ was 360 millimeters longer than the BJ212, 340 higher, 40 wider, and with a 276 millimeter longer wheelbase.
Besides the 4×4 utility chassis, BAW also sold a pickup truck chassis to these other automakers. This chassis was basically a stretched variant of the BJ212, but mostly rear-wheel drive instead of four wheel drive. This chassis was used for some Cherokee clones as well.
These smaller companies did not only clone the Cherokee XJ, although it was by far the most popular car-to-clone. There were also clones of the Dacia Pick-Up, the Nissan Patrol, the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Toyota Previa, the Chevrolet Lumina (see above), and much more.
A Closer Look At The Bizarre Body-On-Frame Cherokee Lookalikes
Beijing Changping Shahe Specialty Vehicle Factory
The Beijing Changping Shahe Specialty Vehicle Plant was a small automaker based in Beijing’s Changping District. Officially, it was a so-called “specialty vehicle maker.” In China, that meant a company that made vehicles based on existing chassis from other companies — mostly flatbed and box trucks, but also more exotic machinery like refrigerator trucks, garbage trucks, and street-cleaning vehicles. In a way, one might say a pickup truck based one another’s chassis — like a Cherokee clone, for example — fit within the description, though most specialty vehicles were more like work trucks and commercial vehicles.
The BCS1021S was a typical Cherokee clone, based on the BJ212 with a clean design. It even had the badge on the same spot on the grille as the real Chinese-market Beijing-Jeep Cherokee! Sadly, the Beijing Changping Shahe Specialty Vehicle Plant is no longer with us today. It was taken over by Foton, a large truck maker now majority-owned by BAIC.
(Incidentally, in China, companies are very often named after the province, city, or even district where they are based. This practice started in the state-controlled economy of the 1950’s but survives until today. Mostly, the full company name includes the city and district, like with Beijing Changping. When researching Chinese companies, one can easily know its base, or historic base, just by looking at the full name).
Beijing Kaite Specialty Vehicle
Beijing Kaite Specialty Vehicle Cooperation was based in Changping as well. The operation made over a dozen different Cherokee clones, both wagons and pickup trucks. Their brand name was Kaite, and their company designation was BKC. The BKC6460 was a cool Cherokee clone with an extended rear compartment with benches in the back. It was rated as a nine-seat car.
The BKC1030 SFQ was a double-cab pickup truck with an interesting “flowing” C-pillar/sail pillar design.
The BKC2030S was a more basic truck, with a low flat bed and high-mounted mirrors. The grille perfectly resembles the grille of the early Beijing-Jeep Cherokees.
Beijing Automobile and Motorcycle Joint Manufacturing Company
The history of the Beijing Automobile and Motorcycle (BAM) Joint Manufacturing Company is almost as complex as its name. It was established in 1953 and merged and un-merged many times. Eventually, like so many smaller Beijing-based automakers, it morphed into the BAIC conglomerate. The BAM BJ6400 was a rather compact Cherokee clone, and, as always, was based on the BJ212.
The BAM BJ6451 was less of a Cherokee clone. It had an entirely different body and wasn’t based on a BAW BJ212 chassis. But it does have a Cherokee front, so I include it just to show how popular the Cherokee was in those days. Even non-Cherokee-style cars had Cherokee looks!
Beijing Xinhai Automobile Factory
The Beijing Xinhai Automobile Factory made some very pretty Cherokee clones, resembling the original a lot. The brand name was Xinhai. The company is no longer around today.
Their double-cab pickup truck is so good looking that one wonders why AMC never developed a similar vehicle by itself. Strangely, it also gives me some Lamborghini LM002 vibes…
State-owned North China Traffic Machinery Factory
The State-owned North China Traffic Machinery Factory was a company from Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing. In the 1990’s they made several buses and SUVs. They produced one Cherokee clone, the HBJ6440. Red was a popular color! Note the oddly small mirrors and the cool 4×4 badge on the front fender. The company is no longer alive today.
Hebei Renqiu Bus Factory
The Hebei Renqiu Bus Factory was a bus maker based in Renqui City in Hebei Province. It made a mix of small buses, SUVs and pickup trucks. There were two Cherokee clones: the RK1020S pickup truck and the RK6490 wagon.
Interestingly, the Cherokee clones had small reflector lights in the front bumper, a design feature unique to this company.
Hebei Xingtai Automobile Factory
Like so many of these carmakers, the Hebei Xingtai Automobile Factory started life as a bus maker, later on they moved into small trucks and vans. In the late 1980’s they started with passenger cars. The company made at least two Jeep Cherokee clones: the XT1030 double cab pickup truck, fitted with very classy wheels, and the CT6470A five-door wagon.
Sadly, the XT6470A didn’t have the same shiny wheels as the XT1030. Instead, it had to do with simple plastic covers.
Hebei Xingtai 114th Automobile Factory
Although similarly named, the Hebei Xingtai 114th Automobile Factory was not directly related to the Hebei Xingtai Automobile Factory. They were both based in the same city but the 114th made far crazier cars, including a somewhat famous Dacia clone. The company made only one Cherokee clone, the short-wheelbase XTC6460 4×4. The headlights appear to be smaller than on most other “Cherokees.”
Hebei Yanxing Machinery Factory
The Hebei Yanxing Machinery Factory was, or is, originally a manufacturer of guns and missile launchers. In the late 1980’s it ventured into the auto industry, producing small trucks, minibuses, and a single Cherokee clone — the cool XYC6480, which was fitted with steel wheels and strangely small door handles. The company is still around, nowadays as part of the Norinco Group, China’s largest weapon maker.
Shijiazhuang Automobile Manufacturing Plant
Shijiazhuang is the capital of Hebei Province, and in the 1990’s home to many small automakers. Among those, the Shijiazhuang Automobile Factory was the biggest. They made three Cherokee clones: a four-door pickup truck, a wagon, and an extended wagon.
The wagons had cool striping over the sides and mud flaps behind all wheels. The one above is the shorter SQQ6440.
The SQQ6482 was much longer car, with a larger wheelbase and rear overhang. It was rated as a nine-seat vehicle!
Songliao Automobile Factory
The Songliao Automobile Factory was based in Shenyang, capital of northeast Liaoning Province. It was founded in 1949 as a repair shop for the army. In 1958, it started to make vehicles, and became one of the earliest automakers in China. The company made minibuses and small trucks at first, and in the late 1980’s went into more mainstream carmaking. They made a Cherokee pickup truck and various wagons. Interestingly, the latter were a mix of Cherokee and Toyota Land Cruiser design.
The SLQ6450 had a Cherokee front but the rest of the vehicle looks much more like a Toyota Land Cruiser. Note the bench in the rear cabin. It seated two, and there was another one on the other side. That made it a nine-seat vehicle again. The company also made a variant with a Nissan Patrol-style front.
Yizheng Huaxing Automobile Factory
The Yizheng Huaxing Automobile Factory was based in the city of Yizheng in Jiangsu Province. The company made two Cherokee clones: a wagon and a double-cab pickup truck. Every Cherokee and Cherokee clone has a rather square shape, but Yizheng Huaxing took it to the extreme: Its Cherokee clones are the squarest of all.
Behold the HQX1030, painted in a trendy light green shape with yellow fog lights on the bumper. Sadly, the company existed only for a short time and is no longer with us. As far as I can see, it didn’t make any other vehicles than the Cherokee clones.
Weifang Dongyue Automobile Manufacturing Plant
The Weifang Dongyue Automobile Manufacturing Plant was based in Weifang city in Shandong Province. I know the city well; they have lots of great cars down there, and nowadays the city is home to several low-speed electric vehicle (LSEV) companies. Weifang Dongyue made a wagon and a pickup truck, but unlike many of its competitors, theyits really tried to design something. The wagon especially looks great, with added panels below the doors and bumpers. The vehicle on the photo is a prisoner’ van, complete with blue decals and a police light bar on the roof
The WFD1021S double cab pickup truck. The wheel arch extensions at the front run all the way down the bumper.
Xinxiang Firefighting Machinery Factory
The Xinxiang Firefighting Machinery Factory was based in Xinxiang city, Henan Province. As the name implies, the company made firefighting vehicles and related equipment. The company also made other specialty vehicles like refrigerated trucks. It only made one passenger car and that was the XFJ6460 five-door Cherokee clone, fitted with big off-road tires and orange fog lights. The same lights, probably, as they used on its firefighting trucks.
Zhengzhou Automobile Refitting Factory
The Zhengzhou Specialty Vehicle Factory was based in the city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province. The company mainly made minibuses. The ZZG5020XBG was its only passenger vehicle, a clone Cherokee wagon with old-school door handles and black steel wheels.
Sichuan Nanchong Automobile Refitting Factory
Sichuan Nanchong Automobile Refitting Factory made various kinds of police vehicles based on minivans. In the 1990’s its started to develop its own cars, mainly minivans and minibuses. The company made one Cherokee clone, the NQG6480 4×4 wagon. The factory photo shows two red cars going over rough terrain. Any Cherokee can handle that! (Though, oddly, these appear to be two-wheel drive).
And those were the Chinese Jeep Cherokee XJ clones of the 1990’s. At least, the ones I know about. Undoubtedly, there were more of them. How many of each were made is largely unknown. There was no proper central register for car production numbers at the time, and I’m not sure these smaller car makers cared to tell their numbers to anyone. The cars were largely produced by hand using any part available at a given time. So even within a small series there could be lots of differences between the cars.
An intriguing question is why the Beijing-Jeep joint venture never tried to stop the cloning. First, the cloning period didn’t last very long. In the early 2000’s most of the Jeep Cherokee clones disappeared, almost as fast as they had arrived. The Chinese government had started one of its many restructuring schemes for the auto industry, which led to the takeover of many of these smaller automakers by bigger ones, and that came with the killing of the brands. This was especially so in the big cities, with companies like BAIC and the Shanghai Auto Industry Corporation (SAIC) gobbling up lots of companies.
Secondly, one may wonder how much Beijing-Jeep knew about it. This was long before the internet, and many of these smaller automakers mainly sold cars in their home provinces, or even just in their own cities. In the great book ‘Beijing-Jeep’ by Jim Mann, the clones aren’t mentioned at all. Mann was one of the first American managers on the ground; he brilliantly tells the tragicomic story of the ups and downs of the early years of BJC. Finally, a third reason why BJC didn’t do anything about the clones may have been the simple fact that BAW was a subsidiary of BAIC, and that it was earning much-needed money by selling chassis to others. What these others did exactly with the chassis wasn’t really BAW’s problem.
In any case, the fascinating episode in Chinese car history leaves us with a lot of colorful clone cars made by a diverse lot of small Chinese automakers. There were so many of them that they had to be creative to survive, and yet, in the end, they all more or less made the same kind of cars, and more or less disappeared.
|北京汽车制造厂||Beijing Auto Works (BAW)|
|北京昌平沙河汽车改装厂||Beijing Changping Shahe Specialty Vehicle Factory|
|北京凯特专用汽车||Beijing Kaite Specialty Vehicle|
|北京汽车摩托车联合制造公司||Beijing Automobile and Motorcycle Joint Manufacturing Company|
|北京新海汽车厂||Beijing Xinhai Automobile Factory|
|国营华北交通机械厂||State-owned North China Traffic Machinery Factory|
|河北省任丘市客车厂||Hebei Renqiu Bus Factory|
|河北省邢台汽车厂||Hebei Xingtai Automobile Factory|
|河北省邢台 114 汽车厂||Hebei Xingtai 114th Automobile Factory|
|河北燕兴机械厂||Hebei Yanxing Machinery Factory|
|石家庄市汽车制造厂||Shijiazhuang Automobile Manufacturing Plant|
|松辽汽车厂||Songliao Automobile Factory|
|仪征华兴汽车厂||Yizheng Huaxing Automobile Factory|
|潍坊东岳汽车制造厂||Weifang Dongyue Automobile Manufacturing Plant|
|新乡消防机械厂||Xinxiang Firefighting Machinery Factory|
|郑州市汽车改装厂||Zhengzhou Automobile Refitting Factory|
|四川南充汽车改装厂||Sichuan Nanchong Automobile Refitting Factory|