A sub-brand of China’s First Auto Works (FAW), the Hongqi has been China’s answer to the Rolls Royce since 1958 when it was first manufactured under the direction of Chairman Mao Zedong. The Hongqi (which means Red Flag) is enjoying a newfound resurgence as we discovered recently at the Shanghai Auto Show.
This original Chinese car with its chromed grille work and Rolls Royce cabin has changed little since its inception some 55 years ago. Even though the grille appears to be a copy from many circa 1950s British cars like the Morris Minor, the design actually plays off that of a traditional Chinese fan. You say fan, I say Morris.
The early Red Flag cars, with their American aesthetics and chrome bumpers, hubcaps and flag holder were specifically designed for shuttling about foreign dignitary types and elite party members. First generation Hongqi’s were powered by an anemic V8 that produced only 197 horsepower. Even though the series has evolved slightly in terms of aesthetics it still comes off as a very cool old-school chromed out saloon. In 1981, because of ongoing oil price issues, production of the gas-hungry Red Flag was halted. Three times over the past thirty years FAW tried to bring the Hongqi back to life, and three times it failed. As more and more foreign producers, like Mercedes and Audi, were allowed entry into the Chinese market, it seems the less appealing the Red Flag became.
So nearly thirty years later, why the change of heart by the Chinese government to bring the Red Flag back? According to Bloomberg, the new Hongqi is also part of an effort by the Chinese government to reclaim market share from foreign entities like Audi, which produces thirty percent of the cars used by public servants ion China.
It is estimated FAW plans to invest 1.98 billion yuan (US$280 million) in the Red Flag project and produce 30,000 vehicles over the next year.
The revised Red Flag series shown in Shanghai offered three different variations. The imposing black and chrome L9 “civilian version” measures out at a lengthy 6.39 meters long (20.98 ft) by 2.02 meters (6.63 ft) wide and 1.72 meters (5.64 ft) tall . The L9 is definitely not the inner-city solution most would seek. Nor would the FAW derived 6.0 liter V12 engine and its 400 hp and 550 Nm (406.65 lb.ft) of torque be perceived as an eco-friendly alternative. Pricing for the L9 is reported at very un-Mao-like US$800,000.
The middle child, the L7 Hongqi, uses the same 400 horsepower V12 as the L9 but runs on a smaller wheelbase. Rear doors open traditional style, unlike the L9’s suicide door treatment. Interior details are lacking but the series looks to be of offer similar comfort levels to most limousines. Recently French President, François Hollande, became the first foreign dignitary to travel in the new L7.
The smallest on the Red Flag lot, the L5, again runs a shorter wheelbase than the L7. Details around its powertrain architecture are unavailable but it is most likely to receive a locally derived V8.
The newest and most contemporary of the series, the H7 also debuted at the Shanghai Show. The H7 is apparently based on Toyota’s Crown Majestathe and is tagged as "the official car for minister-level officials.”
Despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding the return of the retro Red Flag series, and the fact that the Chinese government spends between US$13 and US$16 billion on cars a year, it could prove to be a tough battle for Mr. Mao’s 55 year old Hongqi brand to hold its own against foreign entities.