Today we take a good look at the beginning of the development of the Hongqi CA72 state limousine. The CA72 was the very first Hongqi-branded car, 198 examples were made from 1959 until 1965. The development of the CA72 started in early 1958, and Hongqi build five prototypes in about a year.
The prototypes were numbered 1E, 2E, 3E, 4E, and 5E. This post is about 1E, featuring a design that was so wild one could almost call it a concept car.
The decision to develop the CA72 was taken in 1958 by the Chinese central government and approved personally by Chairman Mao Zedong. The target was to have a car that could compete with Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, and ZIL.
The assignment to build the car went to First Auto Works (FAW), China’s first automaker, based in the great city of Changchun in northeastern Jilin Province. At the time FAW was just rolling out the first examples of their new Dongfeng sedan. That car, however pretty, was too small for the Party’s wishes. They wanted something bigger.
FAW went to work, but first they had to decide on a new brand name. This was not a decision that could be taken lightly considering the involvement of the government and Mao himself. There way a mere auto factory could decide about such a monumental issue. This was a question for politics!
So the Jilin Provincial Party committee, the local arm of the Communist Party, was tasked with branding the limousine. In honor of the famous red banners and flags that waved with Communism they decided to call the new brand Hongqi, meaning ‘Red Flag’. Beijing approved.
FAW was now free to start working on the car itself. They were in a hurry because the government wanted the car ready in 1959, to celebrate the 10th birthday of Communist rule in China. FAW had a car designed and started working on clay models. One of those can be seen above, with a mass of workers hard at work, following directions of a drawing placed in against the windshield. There are at least four men of the roof! It is obviously posed but it does give an indication of the frenzy at the factory.
But design wasn’t FAW’s biggest problem. They had a much bigger one. About something that they didn’t have. A car.
FAW went for the Imperial because there was one in town, at the College of Automotive Engineering, part of the Jilin University of Technology. How the American sled got there in the first place is sadly unknown. In any way, FAW pulled some strings and ‘borrowed’ the Imperial from the university. They never got it back.
The engineers and designers now had a vehicle. They went to work on it. They kept the platform, the transmission, the engine, the roof, and the hard points of the chassis. Everything else was totally changed to create a car with “Chinese national characteristics”, as said by period newspapers.
All the body panels were removed and replaced by new hand-made panels. On the photo we can see two engineers wearing an all-white uniform, working under the bonnet while dozens of men are looking on. Looking-at-things is a favorite Chinese pastime, but it is somewhat unusual in a car factory. Likely a posed photo again!
The hard work resulted in beauty; the Hongqi CA72 1E was unveiled in early Augist 1958. Note the Jiefang truck in the background. The vehicle feautured a wild design with an enormous shiny grille shaped like a Chinese hand fan. It had big lights housed in shiny casings, a long sculpted bonnet, large rectangular housings for the indicators, giant chrome bumpers, heavily chromed window frames, a chrome strip running from the font fender to the rear end, white roof, and most interestingly it also had space-age fake air ducts in the rear fenders!
The rear was almost tame by comparison. Large lights, a Hongqi badge, and a shiny bumper. These photos were taken on the day on the public unveiling at the factory in Jilin. Lots on onlookers again, admiring the CA72 1E’s lines.
FAW said it could do 185 kilometers per hour! Power came from the Chrysler ‘Firepower‘ 5.4 liter V8. Chrysler quoted a max power of 180 hp. Hongqi however claimed 200.
Size: 5700/2000/1610, wheelbase 3380. The C69 Imperial: 5664/2009/1562, wheelbase 3378. The extra length of the CA72 1E was likely due to the enormous bumpers, just look at that front bumper of the photo, it sticks out at least 20 centimeters.
The arrival of the Ca72 E1 was a big thing in China in 1958. There were very few cars around, if any, and here was a real homegrown luxury limousine, of a new Chinese brand with characteristic Chinese looks . Every newspaper around the country reported in glowing terms about the new car, calling it a milestone in the development of the Communist state.
After completion the CA72 1E was shipped to Beijing and presented as a gift to Chairman Mao Zedong. It is unknown if he ever used it, there are no known photos of Mao in or around the car.
FAW continued the development of the CA72 with another four prototypes. At the same time they also developed two open-top parade car prototypes. More on all these beautiful cars in the new and next posts.