Louwman Museum II : 5 Year Plan / 35 Year Production

Carrying on our look at the exhibits in the Louwman Museum, we consider a rarity, a car manufactured by a city.

China’s first production car was built by the Shanghai City Power Machinery Manufacturing Company. Supposedly a copy of the 1954 ‘Ponton’ Mercedes 220, on actual viewing the Shanghai SH760 seems to have been copied through the wrong end of a telescope. Its introduction in 1958 as the Fenghuang (Phoenix) coincided with the start of the odious Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and this was the car that lower ranking officials might have toured the country in whilst implementing the Chairman’s ill-informed industrial and agricultural schemes. Later on, as long as they weren’t too ‘intellectual’, these same officials might have monitored progress of the Cultural Revolution from the seats of a Shanghai. A probably conservative 40 million deaths from starvation, murder and suicide later, the SH760 was still in production.

I’ll just get the film developed then get it to the Embassy.

The Louwman example was acquired brand new in 1986, has covered minimal distance and is still, as car ads once liked to state, fitted with the original transparent plastic seat covers. However I’d hesitate to say that it was in mint condition, since manufacture of the car seems to have been in line with the ideas of the great theorist Mao, that you could produce steel in your backyard. Pressings and panel gaps are inconsistent and chromework is of abysmal quality, testament to a production process that might be politely described as ‘artisan’. Looking at it almost fulfills my childhood wish that I could shrink and drive my Dinky cars – it has the appearance of a full-scale metal toy.

Powered by a 2.2 litre straight six also copied from the Mercedes W180, front and rear end treatment were revised through the years, but never really complemented the rounded central section. Despite disorganised and labour-intensive manufacturing methods, the SH760 had a quite impressive production of nearly 80,000 units; though possibly less impressive when you consider over a 33 year life that only averages about 2,400 a year. Actual peak production in a year was 6,000 in 1984.

Production ceased in 1991 and reflected the gradual transition of China’s economy in the later part of the 20th Century. Nine years previously, in 1982, Shanghai Automotive became the first Chinese car manufacturer to start collaborating with the West. Once again they were copying a solid German saloon, but this time officially with the VW Passat based Santana. Today, now renamed, SAIC of course owns the MG and Roewe brands, acquired from the coincidentally named Phoenix Consortium.

One may gawp in incomprehension at the SH760, but it serves to underline just how far China has come as an automotive manufacturer. Less that 10 years ago, the web forums of Car Magazine were still discussing whether anyone would buy a Korean car except on a bargain basement scrappage deal and, certainly, most would have dismissed outright the idea of China becoming a credible player. The awful Brilliance Zhonghua introduced to Europe in 2005 confirmed such prejudices by carrying on the cack-handed tradition of the SH760 and SAIC’s current products still haven’t properly established themselves in Europe. But in the latter case, it’s probably lack of dealers and unfair customer perception – the cars themselves seem perfectly acceptable. Waiting in the wings are Borgward, Lynk, Qoros and others and, in terms of knowing what should be done, Geely have shown themselves more capable than Ford in nurturing the Volvo brand to profit. So who’s having the last laugh?

8 thoughts on “Louwman Museum II : 5 Year Plan / 35 Year Production”

  1. Imagine you have absolutely no car industry whatsoever, or indeed any industry much at all except to make Mig 15 and 17s with actual Russian help, and the word comes down to build a vehicle. Where do you source all the bits? No friendly Pilkington Glass down the street to make your curved glass for the backlight. What about the steering wheel and the parking brake lever? The moulded rubber bits. Instruments – that’s a whole side industry in itself. Do you make everything from absolute scratch? It’s one heck of a big job starting from nothing. So I was always impressed with these early Chinese “knockoffs” – even making a copy isn’t an easy task. Knocking off the engine, now there’s a head-scratcher, especially the crankshaft. Won Ling two streets over maybe made truck (lorry) cranks based on a Russian pattern, so perhaps he got the job.

    From Wikipedia, I see the 1964 SH760 had a 1955 Plymouth grille and headlights, near as dammit with additional centre embellishment, and putting that on what looks like a 1955 Austin Cambridge midsection with faint Mercedes flavour fore and aft is a bit grating. Still, it would be hard to know where to start and handwork would have been a necessity. That and a big pouchbag of excellent metalworking files.

    I remember when I first cracked the lid on a 1971 Datsun 510, the engine looked like a Mercedes as the front cam drive cover to the SOHC was a dead ringer, as was the 240Z’s. They kept the BMC B series knockoffs for the 210 as they had been produced under licence, much as Toyota made Chevrolet 216 sixes but without a licence (some parts rumoured to fit exactly), while Austin Lorries copied the Chev too after buying a Bedford truck (documented on ARO online) just prewar. That was the best copy of the lot, recreating an engine that refused to die, and in later 261 cubic inch form powered all the school buses at our regional high school in the 1960s. Plus, it was a smoothie in cars. Nevertheless, Austin, Toyota and Datsun were hardly beginning from utter scratch unlike Shanghai Automotive, merely being expedient.

    But, you have to start somewhere in the quest for reliable product, and not everyone had Mr Honda’s innate need to create from absolute scratch. He was however in an industrialized country and that allowed him leeway in design and he already made excellent piston rings. The rest took the path of least resistance instead, and boy was it still a lot of work! The Chinese really had to go to a lot of trouble though. Got to give them some credit for that.

    1. Good points Bill, and my attitude towards the SH760 is contempt for the flawed ideological system that spawned it, not the undoubted resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Chinese people who produced it. Doubtless many people in Shanghai’s factory knew how to make it a better car, even without referencing the West, yet would not even dare to make those thoughts public for fear of suffering an entirely disproportionate punishment.

  2. Speaking of odious, the Chairman still hasn’t fully joined the ranks of the officially monstrous. “Mao” is still the name of a noodle restaurant in Dublin selling “Asian” meals. Imagine finding an eaterie in China named after a certain ex-painter from Braunau which offered bad copies of European meals.
    What are those lines on the rear door?

    1. I think it’s probably the best approximation of the Ponton Curve of the Mercedes that the Shanghai stamping process could produce. It would be easier to make it risen rather than curving down into a crease. As Bill points out, we take a lot for granted as to how easy it is to make a car.

    2. It’s a revealing detail. It has a shape suggesting a moulding formed of plaster or icing, not a shape suggestive of stamping. Could it be the designer didn’t intuitively understand the difference?

    3. Here’s a slightly more detailed shot.

      As I said, I assume that it was dictated in part by production constraints but, again, it might be that the designer thought it looked well. It’s actually quite elaborate – it curves in, curves out to a crease, then curves in again. It’s not part of the usual vocabulary of car design, so it looks ‘wrong’. Maybe Gordon Wagener would consider returning the compliment and incorporating it into a future bit of Sensual Purity.

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