This is a story is about the Beijing Classic Car Museum in Huairou, to the far north of Beijing. It is the best car museum in the capital, and probably the best car museum in China.
The Chinese auto industry was born in 1956 and the first passenger car debuted two years later. Initially, production was very small, sometimes literally ten cars per year, and largely manually. Soviet Russia assisted in the construction of the factories and supplied design, platforms, and engines for the first generations of Chinese cars.
The Chinese leader Mao Zedong was always afraid of an invasion and therefore spread the factories throughout the country. Important vehicles, such as lorries for the army, were produced in different places. If the enemy were to bomb a factory, the others could boost production.
All factories and brands were owned by the state, with “shareholders” at central and local level. Beijing Auto Works, for example, was in the hands of the central Chinese government and the Beijing municipal government. The state decided which factories were allowed to produce which cars, so there was no real competition, and therefore no innovation. Factories continued to produce the same car, sometimes for more than fifteen years, without innovations in design or technology.
The state was also the only customer. At that time there was hardly any private ownership of cars. The large limousines went to the Beijing government, the slightly smaller limousines to the provinces and the large state-owned companies, and the lower authorities had to make do with Jeep-like 4x4s. The trucks went to the army, and the tractors to the collective farms.
Only in the second half of the 1980s did a change start. Foreign brands started producing in China, companies got more autonomy, and the first private cars appeared on the street. However, it was not until the early ‘100s that car ownership really began to grow, and at that time the brands that are now best known were established, such as Chery, Great Wall, Geely, and also Landwind. Growth then went very fast and in 2009 China became the largest car market in the world. From almost nothing to the largest in nine years!
The Beijing Classic Car Museum focuses in particular on the early period from 1956 to around 1995. It is a private museum, and that is still a rarity in China. It opened in 2009 and was extensively renovated in 2014.
The owner is the fanatic collector Luo Wenyou. In 2005 he started collecting and over the years he managed to build up a huge collection. Initially, the cars were scattered throughout northern China in drastic barns, but after much lobbying, he managed to get enough grants and donations to build the museum.
The collection has around 500 vehicles, 100 in the museum itself and the rest in workshops around the museum. The museum is located in Huairou, a district about an hour and a half’s drive from the center of Beijing. That is too far for most visitors and the museum is always very quiet.
The museum earns most of its money by renting cars and trucks at the neighboring film studios. As a result, it can sometimes happen that the army of trucks suddenly disappear when a war film is recorded again.
The most famous brands from the early days are Hongqi, Shanghai, and Beijing. The Hongqi collection of the museum is world famous in China. Luo Wenyou has more than 20, including rare state limousines, an ambulance, and a prototype.
The museum building, with a cool cave-like entrance.
First Auto Works Dongfeng CA71
The Dongfeng CA71 is China’s first car, production started in 1958 at the special request of Mao Zedong. The Great Helmsman demanded its own state limousine for the still young communist country.
First Auto Works, China’s first car factory, subsequently developed the Dongfeng CA71. The design was based on the Simca Vedette and the first production cars had a 2.0 liter 70 hp Mercedes-Benz M121 in the front. That engine was later replaced by a Russian GAZ motor. Around 20 CA71s were made in four years, and only two are left today. On top of the hood is a golden dragon, a traditional Chinese symbol for strength, happiness, and especially power.
First Auto Works came in 1959 with the Hongqi CA72, a huge state limousine with suicide doors, a length of 5.7 meters, and a weight of 2800 kilos. It was the first car of the new Hongqi brand, translated as “Red Flag”, to the red communist and Chinese flag. Under the hood was a large V8 with a capacity of 5.6 liters and a capacity of 220 hp. Hongqi only built 198 copies, all for the government. Nowadays there are at least a dozen left, most in museums in China.
The rear light was shaped like a traditional Chinese lantern.
The CA770 is the most famous Hongqi state limousine, made in many variants. The CA770 was the successor to the CA72 but retained the 5.6 liter V8. Production started in 1966 and continued until 1981, a total of 847 cars rolled off the line.
Most went to the Chinese government and to state-owned companies, and a small number were donated to friendly communist countries. The CA770 is very popular among collectors, a good one costs around 100,000 euros. It is a true “limousine” with a length of 5.98 meters and a weight of 2730 kilos.
Hongqi CA770J parade car
The CA770J is a parade car based on the CA770. Communist countries love parades, and China was simply fanatic. Foreign visitors were paraded through the streets of Beijing, every major city organized parades for the people, and huge military parades came over it. The CA770J was made from 1965 to 1972, and only five cars were made.
The person being paraded, usually a senior official or a friendly head of state, stood in the car behind the front seat, one hand on the rod and the other hand waving in the air. At quiet moments the head of state could rest the back on a bar stool-high couch, which after the parade was folded back into a normal couch. Ingenious, but it could have been much crazier. Other Chinese parade cars came with a built-in platform lift to lift the highly honored head of state, and others came with a man-sized bulletproof glass plate.
Light unit, CA770J.
Hongqi CA770JH Ambulance
The CA770JH is one of the most interesting CA770 variants. It is not a limousine, but an ambulance. The interior after the B-pillar has been completely rebuilt, the sofas went out and a bed and medical equipment were added instead. The patient was slid into the car lying flat on a stretcher, via the … tailgate!
There is exactly enough space there; the valve is higher than a normal CA770 and has a convex surface, and the valve extends all the way to the bottom of the bumper. The CA770JH was exclusively designed for the Chinese government. The highest rulers each had their own copy, the car in the museum belonged to former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai.
CA770JH, flag ornament.
Hongqi CA770 stretched limousine
A six-door variant of the CA770 with a length of 10.08 meters, a wheelbase of 8 meters, and an extended rear overhang. The car was built in the early 1980s and has an interior with lots of brown velvet, thick carpets, a television and a minibar. On the right is a full-fledged three-seater sofa that can be folded out into a bed.
The CA771 was a first attempt to make a smaller Hongqi. Small is relative; the CA771 was still 5.3 meters long and weighed 2100 kilos. The car had normal doors and less luxury, but the engine was the same 5.6 liter V8 again. Unfortunately it was not a success, from 1967 to 1971 only 126 copies were made.
The CA773 was a shortened version of the CA770 and was more successful. 290 copies were made from 1969 to 1976. The CA773 had a length of 5.6 meters, all the luxury, and the stylish suicide doors. The car was especially popular among large state hotels that were not eligible for the CA770. These hotels were later privatized and many CA773s ended up on the free market.
The CA774 was intended as the successor to the CA770. It was again a large state limousine of almost six meters long. He was given a sleek carriage and square headlights. Hongqi built six prototypes from 1972 to 1979, but ultimately the CA774 was not put into production. The CA774 in the museum is the sixth and final one.
In the 1980s Hongqi tried it out a few more times with new prototypes, and again and again without success. It took until 2009 before the successor to the CA770 rolled off the line.
Shanghai Auto Works was founded in 1960 and sold cars under the Shanghai brand name. The SH760 was born in 1964 and had a heavily chromed grille and a bright red badge. The car was developed for the “middle management” of the government and communist party. The SH760 was only 4.8 meters long and equipped with a 2.2 liter six-cylinder engine with 90 hp.
Shanghai SH761 parade car
Shanghai Auto Works also had a parade car; the SH761 was on a unique platform but had the same engine as the SH760. The mechanism for the rear seat was similar to the Hongqi CA770J. Production lasted from 1965 to 1971, and a total of 14 were built. The SH761 was mainly used to parade high foreign visitors to Shanghai, including Dutch Princess Beatrix during her visit to China in 1977.
The successor arrived in 1974. The Communists did not care much for beautiful names and called the new car SH760A, and its successor was called … SH760B. The “A” got a more modern, and duller, appearance. The thick chrome and the round headlights disappeared, but nothing changed under the skin.
Shanghai SA5020 wagon
Various companies made station wagons based on the Shanghai sedans. These were mainly sold to government services. A small number, including the SA5020, were intended for the free market. The production of the wagons continued until mid-1990s, the beautiful white-green in the museum dates from 1993. The engine was still the 2.2-liter six in-line.
Tricycles are very popular in China. They are small, inexpensive, and can go anywhere in between. The Shanghai SH58-1 was made from 1958 to 1969. Today almost all tricycles are electric, but the SH58-1 was equipped with a thick 1,005 liter four-stroke petrol engine with 25 hp. The tricycle was made by a consortium of companies in Shanghai under the leadership of the Shanghai Car Decoration Factory.
Beijing Dongfanghong BJ760
Beijing Auto Works was founded in 1958 and production under the Beijing name began a year later. The BJ760 was largely based on the Russian GAZ-21 Volga, including the 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine with 70 hp. The BJ760 was made from 1960 to 1969 but was not a success; only 240 were built in nine years. Beijing Auto Works was more lucky with 4x4s:
The BJ210C was developed with Russian assistance and used the same 2.2 liter GAZ engine as the BJ760 sedan. It was a very compact 4×4 with a length of just over 3 meters. Production started in 1965 and stopped in 1978 after 14,000 cars. Most went directly from the factory to the army.
Beijing Auto Works developed many variants of the BJ210C, including a four-door version with a soft top. However, there was not enough capacity in Beijing and therefore the production of the four-door was moved to Tianjin Auto Works in the port city of Tianjin. The four-door is 3.4 meters long and again uses the same 2.2-liter engine.
The BJ212 is a larger 4×4 with a length of almost four meters. It is based on the Russian UAZ 469 and had the well-known 2.2 under the hood. The BJ212 is one of the most famous Chinese cars with literally hundreds of variants and versions. Production started in 1966 and continues until today (!). The current version has a 2.0 with 102 hp and is decorated with a radio but hardly differs from the original model.
Beijing BJ212 T75-105
The T75-105 is a beautiful military variant of the BJ212, armed with a Type 75 105 millimeter cannon. The cannon could shoot in direct line or through the heavens in the mortar way, maximum range was 1.2 kilometers. The Chinese army employed tens of thousands of T75-105s until the mid-1990s, and they were also exported to the Middle East and Africa. The engine was slightly drilled to 2.5 liters and therefore had a capacity of 75 hp.
Beijing Dongfeng BM021A tricycle
The Dongfeng BM021A was a size smaller than the Shanghai SH58-1. It was made from 1965 to 1978 by the Beijing Motorcycle Factory, a subsidiary of Beijing Auto Works. The 250cc single-cylinder two-stroke engine delivered 12 hp. Maximum load capacity was a neat 400 kilos. The blue BM021A in the museum was used to transport parts and tools until two years ago, and it has only been safe in the collection since 2014.
Dongfanghong 28 tractor
The Dongfanghong 28 is one of China’s first tractors and played an important role in the mechanization of arable farming. Until the arrival of the 28 the ox was the most used tool. The tractor was made by the First Tractor Factory and production lasted from 1965 to 1979. The name “28” refers to the horsepower of the four-cylinder gasoline engine. The beautiful artwork in the grille is a red rising sun. ‘Red’ of course for communism.
Fengshou 35 tractor
The green Fengshou 35 is a beautifully restored tractor from 1978. The name Fengshou translated as “abundant harvest” and it could hardly be more beautiful for an agricultural vehicle. 35 again refers to horsepower. On the grille is a bright red star, an important communist symbol. The tractor was made by the Shanghai Fengshou Tractor Factory.
The Jiefang CA10 is the first Chinese truck to go into mass production. Jiefang means liberation, and refers to the victory of the Communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949. The Jiefang is largely based on the Russian ZIS-150, which in turn was based on the American International KR-11. During the Second World War, the Russians received massive assistance from the United, and that included the KR-11. Production in China began in 1956 and ended in 1986, and even today, many are still in use. Under the long hood was a 5.6-liter six-cylinder diesel engine with 90 hp.
Nanjing NJ230 Type 63 130mm Multiple Rocket Launcher
A very dangerous four-wheel drive truck with a Type 63 rocket launch installation on the back. The system has 19 launch tubes for 130 mm rockets with a maximum range of 10 kilometers. The chassis and cab come from a Nanjing 230, a military truck built by the Nanjing Automobile Factory from 1965 to 1980, powered by a 3.5-liter six-cylinder diesel engine.
The museum also has a number of special Russian cars. Stalin donated seven ZIS-110 sedans to China in the 1950s, including five armored versions, and today there are four left, all of which are in museums in Beijing. The car in the photo was the personal limousine of Mao Zedong. The six meter long ZIS-110 was made from 1946 to 1958 by the famous manufacturer ZiL, the design was based on the Packard Super Eight. The engine was a six liter 8-in-line.
At 5.5 meters, the ZIM-12 is half a meter shorter than the ZIS-110. It was made by GAZ, better known as the Gorky Automotive Plant. Horsepower came from a 3.5 liter six-in-line. The ZIM-12 was made from 1950 to 1960. This special white example was once owned by the Beijing police.
This blue colossus is a Russian GAZ Chaika, the successor of the GAZ ZIM-12. The design was clearly inspired by Chevrolets from the 50s. The Chaika debuted in 1959 and production continued until 1976. Engine is a 5.5 liter V8. The car in the museum was a gift from Russia to the Chinese communist party.
GAZ M20 Pobeda
The M20 Pobeda was the first post-war Russian car. The name Pobeda, victory, meant the victory over Germany. It was made from 1946 to 1958, with a surprisingly small 2.1-liter four-cylinder engine with 50 hp under the hood. A larger engine was possible, GAZ built a version especially for the KGB with the 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine from the GAZ M12 ZIM.
GAZ 21 Volga
The 21 Volga was the successor to the M20. It was a small sedan for GAZ. Just like with the Hongqi CA771, small is a relative term; the Volga was still 4.8 meters long. The car was high on its wheels so that it could also handle the rougher areas in Russia. It was made from 1956 to 1970 and GAZ exported hundreds of cars to China. These oldies were still visible until the early ’00s, especially in northern China in the border areas with Russia.
FSO M20 Warszawa
The Pobeda was also made in Poland by FSO under the M20 Warszawa name. It was built from 1957 to 1964. The blue M20 is a very special one because it was the first car owned by Luo Wenyou, the owner of the museum, and he even took it on his honeymoon. The car stands proudly on a special platform near the exit, so that nobody can miss it.
I have been to this museum, before and after the renovation, at least 10 times. For more details on several unique cars in the pre-reno museum, check here.