Red Flag for China’s Elite
China has contributed many great things to the world throughout the ages. Gunpowder, paper, printing, the umbrella and the compass are among their list of their many contributions to society, however Chinese luxury automobile manufacturing is not on most historian’s lists. Most people, including many car enthusiasts, are unaware of the fact that China produced hand-made luxury limousines starting in the 1950’s. This fact came to light for many automotive enthusiasts during the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, when two elegant and mysterious Chinese automobiles were on display, making this the first time in history that cars built in Mainland China graced the lawn of the most prestigious car show on the planet.
Establishing a new industry
In 1949 the Peoples Republic of China was founded and party leaders and dignitaries required limousines and parade cars. The cars used most commonly in the early post-war era were Packard 180 look-a-likes called the ZIS 110, produced in the Soviet Union. These served their purpose, however China wanted to build their own cars for government use and to show the rest of the world that they had the capability to produce a car with enough style and luxury suited to transport heads of state. England had Rolls-Royce, Germany had Mercedes and the United States had Lincoln and Cadillac, now China would strive to build their own prestige car.
A World War ll factory was refurbished in 1953 to create a new factory in Changchun, in the Jilin province of Manchuria, the first industrialized area in China. The new government owned enterprise was known as Diyi Qiche Zhizao Chang (First Auto Works) or FAW. An earlier translation of the Chinese name was Number One Automobile Factory. The factory was completed in 1956 and the first vehicle produced at the new plant was the Jiefang (Liberation) CA 10 4-ton truck, based on the Russian ZIS, which was a copy of the International Harvester K-Series truck. “ During construction of the new truck plant in Changchun, the Soviet government provided technical support, tooling, and more than 80% of the production machinery.” According to the official FAW website. “A large number of Soviet advisors were stationed in Changchun during the ramp-up period to help orchestrate factory construction, production preparation, and training of FAW employees. During the 3 year preparation span, talented management and support staff were recruited from all over the country. Thousands of assembly line workers were hired and trained. More than 20,000 workers from the 5th construction division, composed of mechanical and electrical tradesman, were put to the task of transforming the daily arrivals of construction material into a state-of-the-art production facility on schedule.”
Now that the truck manufacturing plant was operating successfully, attention was turned to the manufacturing of automobiles. First, a new 1956 Simca Vedette sedan was purchased by FAW to use as a model to create the first car they would build. After research and development was completed, the first automobile produced by FAW was shown to Chairman Mao Zedong on May 21, 1958. The new car, called the Dongfeng (East Wind), was a mid-size sedan powered by a copy of the 4-cylinder engine Mercedes-Benz used in the 190. In less than two years, the Chinese had designed and created their very first automobile from scratch. Yes, it was largely copied from other manufacture’s products, but an impressive feat none the less from a country with zero experience building cars. Approximately 30 Dongfangs were produced, all by hand, in 1958. With the experience gained from the manufacturing trucks and the development of the Donfeng, China was posed to finally create a luxury car.
The Red Flag rises with the CA 72
Party leaders were impressed with the Dongfeng and gave FAW the green light to design and build a limousine. Work on the new car began at a fever pitch, producing a prototype shown at a ceremony on August 2, 1958. The new car was named the Hongqi, or Red Flag. “The design was completed in less than a month”, claimed a FAW press release. “It was a black 6-seat sedan with a maximum speed of 185km/h. The new car was powered by an 8-cylinder engine, delivering 200hp. One of the new devises was a hydraulic power transmission and steering. It was shock and sound proof, and air conditioned. Doors and windows were all electrically controlled. The dashboard, made of scented mahogany, a famous Chinese timber, and a Chinese rug on the floor gave the Hongqi a special Chinese flavor. On September 19th, Deng Xiaoping and other central leaders praised the car.”
FAW went through five prototypes, each more refined in engineering and styling than the last. The first few cars had a very pronounced front grill resembling a Chinese fan and tail lamps in the form of Chinese lanterns. The body design was reminiscent of a 1955 Chrysler Imperial limousine, but with rear front-opening “suicide” doors. This first series of cars was known as the CA 72, which would be the designation of the production car.
The fifth prototype CA 72 design would become the production car, shown in September of 1959 to the public for the first time. Production was originally slated to begin in 1962, but was rescheduled and production commenced in September of 1959. “The ‘Hongqi’ (Red Flag) is the first de luxe limousine ever to be made in China.” According to the December, 22, 1959 issue of the Peking Review in an article titled, “Hongqi “ – China’s First Passenger Car. The state owned English language newspaper went on to extol the virtues of the new car: “An excellent car, it can stand comparison with any foreign model. Long, low and beautifully streamlined, it introduces elements of Chinese traditional art into modern automobile design, as for example in the palace lantern motif of its rear lights.” The article went on say, “It has a powerful engine with noise and vibration kept to a minimum. Start and acceleration are very rapid.”
The Hongqi CA 72 remained in production with only a few minor changes from 1959 through 1965. A total of 202 CA72 where produced, including four “Inspection Car” four door convertibles.
A new, longer, more modern Hongqi, the CA 770, was put into production in April 1966, stretching the wheelbase from 133.85 inches of the CA 72 to 146.45 inches. Overall length was increased from 225.60 inches to 235.43 inches. Sleeker and more streamlined than its predecessor, its styling looks to have been influenced by the Mercedes 600. A pair of forward-facing jump seats in the new CA 770 made room for two more passengers, giving it technically three rows of seats. “A new high quality 6-seater car has gone into production.” Triumphantly announced in a press release by the New China News Agency in May of 1966, “This upholstered car with three rows of seats is an improvement on the existing double-row “Red Flag” model, until now in production. The new car introduces many improvements in body shape, interior decoration and engine structure. It embodies a variety of up-to-date skills in its manufacture. It has a “V” type engine, hydraulic automatic transmission, and a novel type of body frame. Sound-proof glass between the rows of seats makes travelling quiet. The car also has an electric temperature-regulating device. A well-equipped workshop especially for the manufacture of this new model has been set up in the plant. The Changchun plant has already turned out the first batch of new cars, working in cooperation with a number of other factories and enterprises in the country.”
The CA 770 would remain in production unchanged, with exception of revisions made to the fog lights and mirrors, until 1981. A total of 847 were produced, including a handful of CA 770 parade car convertibles.
Up close and driving impressions
The first thing you notice about the Hongqi cars is that they have an old-world formal elegance. These cars look like important people should be riding in them. A little larger in size is the 1974 CA 770. The styling is cleaner and more refined than its predecessor. The design motifs for the grill and tail lights are updated but similar to the CA72. This car is equipped with inter division window, air conditioning, power steering, power brakes and automatic transmission. Again the driving position is high, which is welcomed on such a large car. Equally appreciated are the automatic transmission and the power steering that make the CA 770 easy to drive. The engine looks pretty much the same at the CA72, but is rated with 15 more horsepower. The CA 770 tips the scale at around 6,000 pounds, making it 1,000 pounds heavier that the CA72. A generous amount of luxurious genuine wood trim adds to the elegance of the interior.
FAW is still producing cars in China and vintage Hongqi cars are coveted collectables in their native country and in some other parts of the world. FAW has a collection of cars they have produced in the past with several on display in museums in China. A China Motor Vehicle Documentation Center was established in 1972 in the Netherlands to preserve Chinese automotive history. There are many passionate Hongqi collectors, several of which maintain large collections.
- Body Types Limousine
- Exterior Colour Black
- Number of Doors 4
- Drive LHD
- Year of manufacture 1974