Geely wants a part of Daimler. After a public rejection in November the Chinese company is now buying Daimler stock on the open market. The Germans better watch out because Geely founder Li Shufu wants Daimler really bad, especially the Mercedes-Benz brand.
How bad is really bad? Very bad. As my colleague Erik explained earlier on in his brilliant article about Geely’s early history it has always been Li’s dream to build a “Chinese Benz”. Geely’s very first car was in fact a Mercedes-Benz lookalike. And we now have more information about this car.
Geely’s first car was born in 1996. It is seen here at the Geely factory wearing celebratory red ribbons. The license plate reads ‘浙 J 0011 试’. The first caharcter is zhe, short for Zhejiang Province, where Geely is based. The last craracter is shi, meaning ‘test’ as in test car or prototype.
The car existed because Li Shufu wanted to prove a point. In a 2009 interview with China’s CCTV Li Shufu explains that in the early 1990’s he felt frustrated about China not having a homegrown luxury car maker like Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz. He says he wanted to show that a Chinese company, his company, was able to produce a similar car. And therefore he decided to build a “Chinese Benz”.
That car became the ‘Geely Number 01’ (吉利一号). To get there wan’t easy. At the time Geely didn’t make cars yet, so where to start? Li Shufu wanted his Chinese Benz to look like the contemporary W210 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which was made from 1995 until 2002.
Hongqi too wanted to make luxury cars to compete with brands like Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz. But at the time they only made an ancient parade car and a series of cars based on the C3 Audi 100/200.
These Audi’s were made in China by a joint venture between FAW and Volkswagen. Under the agreement FAW had the right to use them to underpin sedans of their own Hongqi brand. Basically, FAW didn’t do much more than change the grille and add new badges. Production of the C3 ended in 1999, but production of the Hongqi variant continued until 2005.
It was that car that Li Shufu choose to base his Chinese Benz on. So there you have it: the first Geely was a Mercedes-Benz lookalike based on a Honqi that was basically on an Audi.
Li Shufu was not ashamed of that. In the aforementioned interview he openly admits that the Geely Number 01 was a “mix” between a Benz and a Hongqi.
Geely simply purchased a Hongqi and shipped it to their factory. They completely stripped down the body to the front and rear sub frames.
And then they created the new body. Some parts of the body were made of fiber glass, others from steel. The interior, including the seats, were taken over from the Hongqi.
In the same interview Li Shufu recalls how hard he worked to get the car ready, sleeping only two hours a night for many weeks. Happily, everything came together just fine.
A proud Li Shufu with the Geely Number 01.
Staff meeting celebrating. Note ‘吉利一号’ on the red banner on the wall.
When it launched the car used basic Audi wheel covers, which were used by Hongqi as well. The photo above, with an engineer measuring a wheel, shows a more expensive looking Mercedes-Benz style wheel.
Mercedes-Benz W210 E-Class: 4818/1798/1471, wheelbase 2832.
Hongqi CA7200: 4792/1814/1422, wheelbase 2687.
The biggest difference is the wheelbase, the Merc’s is 14.5 centimeters longer. We don’t know the size of the Geely Number 1 but looking at the profile pic it seems they didn’t change the wheelbase, making the car look somewhat out of proportions, with a very long front overhang.
Sadly, we also don’t know what engine powered the Geely Number 01. The Hongqi was available with various engines, some from Audi, some from Nissan, and even one from Chrysler (for an overview of all the engines Honqgi used in their Audi-based cars, see this article).
In the interview Li Shufu says he was so happy with the car that he drove it everywhere. He also took it to town where, he says, the local folks thought he was totally crazy.
Badly, things ended up rather bad for the Geely Number 01. It was never intended for production so it remained a single prototype. It was stored in a factory where it slowly died away. It was seen in 2009 by the CCTV crew, in a horrible state. The grille is gone, there is rust and rot, and the doors are missing. But at least that allows us to see the typical Audi seats, which were also used by Hongqi. The whereabouts of the car today are unknown. Some sources say it is still stored somewhere, others say it has been scrapped. It should be in museum.
Li Shufu kept dreaming about Mercedes-Benz, and in 2005 he launched the Geely CK, with a front resembling the Mercedes-Benz W203 C-Class. This car made it to production and sold fairly well, although as a basic budget car it was hardly a competitor for Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz.
And where is it going to end? Apparently, Volvo wasn’t luxury enough for Li Shufu, and he turned his eyes on Daimler. He has about 3% of Daimler now, so he needs 48% more to own it. If he manages to do so he can stick Geely badges on any Mercedes-Benz he wants, making his dream finally come true.
Watch the CCTV documentary here.