Paul Berliet was the first Western automotive entrepreneur who was involved in the Communist China automotive industry, already in 1965. He developed a great love for China and he was much appreciated by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. His ‘Licence Chine’ had a very strong influence on the heavy truck industry in China. It helped China to develop her own truck industry, independently of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
After the liberation in 1949, the development of China’s economy was completely depending on Soviet help. The cause was a 21 years during trade embargo set by the United States and the United Nations (1951-1972). At the end of the 1960s the relations between the USSR and China started to cool down. China’s truck transport, in the first years depending on the left overs of the US Army and US help to the Kuomintang, was completely based on Soviet and East Block trucks and their Chinese copies, made in factories organised with Russian/ East Block help: like ZIS (Jiefang), GAZ (Yuejin), Skoda (Huanghe) etc. Now China was looking for replacement outside the Soviet Union and the East Block countries.
Paul Berliet was born in 1918 an died in 2012. He was the son of Marius Berliet who started the Berliet automobile company in France in 1895. Production of Berliet vehicles started in 1899. Paul became chairman and CEO of the company in 1962, his father had died in 1949.
In the 1950s and 1960s Berliet had not only truck factories in France, but also in Morocco and Algeria. The US/UN trade embargo did not apply for these new countries, with which China had warm relations.
It was prime minister Zhou Enlai who visited at the end of 1963 the Berliet factory in Morocco and at the beginning of 1964 the one in Algeria. Berliet sold in total 3000 trucks from and via these facilities to China. (Before Zhou Enlai’s visit was already a relationship between Berliet North Africa and China growing; in 1958: 25 trucks were sold to China, 1959: 59 of the model GLC6, 1961: 20, 1962: 150 of the GLC6, in total up to 350 including 1963).
General de Gaulle, president of France, started exchanging political relations and exchanging ambassadors in 1964. The people’s republic was recognized by France as the representative of the Chinese people and the Chinese territory. Political relations existed already between the people’s republic and some European countries (Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands , United Kingdom, Switzerland) but they were only functioning on a low level. De Gaulle persuaded French businessmen to trade with China.
France organised a French Industrial Exhibition in Beijing in 1965. De Gaulle had convinced Paul Berliet to go there and to send a small delegation with some trucks.
Peng Zhen (1902-1997), the mayor of Beijing, received him.
Paul Berliet and Peng Zhen, mayor of Beijing
Zhou Enlai came by. Paul Berliet and his wife were invited to visit several truck factories in China.
This led to what is known as the “License Chine”, a huge contract for the delivery of complete trucks, technology transfer, documentation how to produce the Berliet models GLM, TCO and T25, other documents (in total 20 ton), and internships for 35 Chinese technicians in Berliet factories. The contract was worth 41 million French francs.
In total 11.290 Berliet trucks were delivered to China between 1958 and 1976, most as a result of this contract.
The agreed models in the contract were: 55 ton Dumper T25, 90 ton truck TCO, 26 ton GCH (especially designed for China) and the 26 ton GLM.
In 1967 the last three technicians went back to China, called home because of the Cultural Revolution. Berliet lost contact and had even problems to get the last truck deliveries paid. Everything stopped.
It was Deng Xiaoping (1904-1977), who returned in the political arena as vice prime minister in 1974, who visited France in 1975, including Paul Berliet and his factory in Lyon. Deng came as a representative of prime minister Zhou Enlai who had cancer. Deng had been in Lyon before: he worked in France from 1920-1924. There are items in newspapers (or nowadays internet) telling that Deng worked in Lyon at Berliet, that is not true, yes Deng worked in the automobile industry, but at Renault in Paris. Berliet had other Chinese workers and trainees at that time.
Berliet became chairman of the Comité France-Chine in 1975, till 1983.
Paul Berliet was shocked when he was confronted with a photo in the China Pictorial of August 1977 and the China Reconstructs of September 1977, showing the production of the Hongyan CQ261 in Dazu (near Chongqing), Sichuan province. The CQ261 was the Chinese version of the Berliet GCH, from which 1278 were built for China in Bourg-en Bresse under the “License Chine”. The Chinese technicians had used their knowledge learned in Lyon to develop the truck production in Dazu, behind the black curtain of the cultural revolution.
Berliet was asked to come back, to assist with the production development and he made a China travel in 1978. He visited the Shanghai Truck Works and the Sichuan Auto Works in Dazu. He was not allowed to make pictures but in Dazu, sleeping in the factory hotel, he managed to take a picture of a batch of CQ261s. When I visited him in 2004 he showed me the (poor) photo in his notebook.
The same year, the Berliet company became part of Renault Véhicules Industriels (RVI). The Berliet name, together with Saviem, disappeared and all the trucks became Renault trucks.
Renault was much more Africa-orientated than Asia-, and lost interest in all the contacts and relations Berliet had made in China. There was a short revival in the 1980s when Renault Trucks developed together with Dongfeng a Renault-diesel version of the EQ140. The truck was named EQD-142 and was sold under the Renault brand in several African countries.
In 1980 Berliet got a personal present from Zhou Enlai’s widow, Deng Yingchao.
Berliet trucks were not only made in Dazu (though the CQ261 is the most successful Chinese Berliet) but also by the Changzhou Metallurgical Machinery Works in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, from 1971. In 1984 I received a letter from this factory telling that the Changjiang CZ361, CZ161, CZ360, CZ361A and CZ371 were not made since 1979. How many there are made? I don’t know, but it can’t be much. In 2004 Paul Berliet was surprised to hear that there had been production of Berliet copies in other factories than in Dazu.
Berliet trucks inspired the Shanghai Truck Works (Jiaotong trucks) and the No.1 Tractor Works (Truck division), which made the Dongfanghong LT665.
Except for the photos and information from my personal archive (from which this is of course only a selection), this article is mainly based on two superb sources:
la Fondation de l’Automobile Marius Berliet (https://www.fondationberliet.org/)
They supply you with great information.
Where can I find Berliet trucks in China nowadays? (many thanks, Sam Faulkner!)
The Taiyuan Old Vehicle Culture Museum in Shanxi Province has a GBC which we showed already above, and a Hongyan CQ261.
The Weifang Dongshen Classic Car Museum in Shandong Province has two Berliet GBC. They are quite similar.