Li Shufu’s first car was not a Daihatsu Charade copy but a Mercedes-Benz!
Read here how mr. Li started with taking photos of tourists with a Seagull camera to end up as the owner of five car manufacturers.
Most people believe that mr. Li Shufu started to create his fortune by manufacturing refrigerators but the truth is that as soon as he graduated in 1982 Li bought a ‘Seagull’ camera, which was once a well-respected brand in China. Li’s goal was simply to take photos of tourists at scenic spots. With his first profits he opened his own camera store which gave him strong profits, after a few years he had made his first million renminbi or Bai Wan as it’s known in China.
In 1984 Li came up with the idea of making refrigerator parts. Having a fridge was a major point of personal wealth at that time. Li managed to take his business from nothing to having a total value of 400-500 million renminbi. In 1987 Li went into making his own refrigerators under the ‘Arctic’brand. By 1989 the Central Government started giving out production licenses for refrigerators, Arctic was not one of the lucky companies. In 1991 Li Shufu and his brother Li Xubing had a factory to produce aluminium magnesium decoration boards. This factory still existed under the Geely Group.
In 1993 the idea of making cars came up. Initial consultations with government bureaus left Li without easy access to automobile production, due to limitations placed on the industry. Li drifted his focus to scooters.
When the motorbike business was booming he decided to look at the auto industry once again. Li Shufu’s brother cave in and they decided to invest a maximum of 100 million renminbi. With Geely as a private company it was nearly impossible for them to get government support especially as the central government was controlling the industry to an extremely high degree and openly refused privately owned companies.
Li Shufu loved Mercedes and wanted to make his own “Chinese Mercedes”, he bought and took apart a Mercedes and went to FAW to buy a Hongqi platform, engine and gearbox. As the Benz E-class and Hongqi’s sizing were about the same in terms of platform and body size Li created his first Geely vehicle, named the Geely Yi Hao or Geely Number One. The body was made of fiberglass reinforced plastic. He took his new car downtown Taizhou, received loud applause in the streets and took a series of adverts in the Taizhou Daily News. People called for info and prices. But quality became a major issue.
Li got a factory in Taizhou but he lacked a license to produce automobiles.
He heard that the Deyang Prison Vehicle Factory in Sichuan province was out of business but it still held its license.
The truck factory of the Deyang Prison was officially named Deyang No.95 Factory. They produced trucks since the 1970s. A 5-ton truck was based on the Dongfeng EQ140 named Dujiang DJ140. Here an advertisement of that time. Barnham (yes, our friend Oliver, see the Wuqi story) made a picture of this truck in Sichuan in 1980. (Note the Shanghai SH760A rear, left on the picture.)
In 1985 the factory advertised with a standard EQ140 named Shufeng DY140. The factory was at that time named Deyang Auto Works. Yearly production in 1985 was 353 trucks.
Li struck a deal with this prison factory they would invest 24 million renminbi , take 70% of the shares and create the Sichuan Geely Boyin Automotive Company. After the elderly prison director passed away Li bought the remaining 30% and moved the factory equipment to Linhai in March 1997.
Li really wanted to make a luxury car but quickly found that technology requirements were beyond his limited capacity. So he decided to make small cheap cars that everyday men could afford. The Daihatsu Charade, in the Chinese form of the Tianjin Xiali, was essentially perfect for what was needed for the first mass market Geely vehicle.
So what happened with the Mercedes? The car was left in one of the Taizhou factory halls. In 2009 it showed up in a CCTV documentary about Li Shufu. Unfortunately the car was already decaying, especially the fiberglass didn’t resist the years. We show you an image from the documentary. After that, nothing was heard about the car, till we got the message this year from someone near to Li who told us that the car was destroyed when the factory was demolished.
Why not preserved this first attempt from a man who is now billionaire, owner of Geely, Volvo, Lynk&Co, London Taxi, Lotus Cars and 49,9% of Proton.
The reason is Li himself: Yes, it is the start of his automotive career, but he finds it a very foolish effort. It is a touchy subject for him. So no reason to preserve the car…
For this article I used this 2013 Chinese language article http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_8e26c1cb0101kjkt.html which was at that time thoroughly translated and edited by Ash Sutcliffe for his website chinacartimes. Sorry to tell you that the website is no longer on-line. The Deyang material is from my archive of the China Motor Vehicle Documentation Centre. The Operating Instructions for the Seagull 4A Series 120 Twin-lens Reflex Camera are from my own Seagull Camera…