The Complete Story of the Austin Maestro in China (part 2: Yema)

According the official website of Yema , www.yemaauto.cn, Yema was founded in 1988. That is not correct.

Yema ‘suv”, photos Jos van der Wiel, Leshan (Sichuan) 1982.

Chengdu Light Auto Refit Works made Yema suv’s already in the early 1980s. In 1988 this factory merged with three other factories to start the Chengdu Light Vehicle General Works. Tycho has written about this and more.

Yema ‘suv’, photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, Chengdu 1985.

In 1994 Chengdu Light Vehicle General Works merged again with three other factories, now named Sichuan Automobile Industry Group.

In the first half of the 1990s, the Mianyang facility of Yema made a small car, like so many factories at that time.

Yema SQJ6401, early 1990s.
Fulin Group, Sichuan Automobile Industry Group.

In 2002 a merger with the Fulin Group followed.

In 2008 Yema bought the tooling and rights from Etsong to produce the Maestro Van. Both van versions were made, the two-seat commercial van and the four-seat passenger van. They were named Yema SQJ6450 and SQJ6450N.

Yema SQJ6450N. Factory photo.
Six Yema SQJ6450N donated to the red cross.
Yema SQJ6450, high roof commercial van. Photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, Yema factory, Chengdu 2009. Note new grille.
Yema SQJ6450N, brochure. A little mistake: Yemnnuto…

The sizes of the car were LxWxH: 4505/4549 x 1704 x 1623mm, wheelbase 2559mm, engine MR479QA or CQ4C15, both 1498cc, 69 or 72kW, curb weight 1060kg, max. speed 150km/h.

Yema SQJ6450N. Note different grille with only one bar. Photo MIIT 2008. 
Yema SQJ6450H, seven-seat five-door high roof van. Photo MIIT 2010.

The latest Maestro development was in 2010, a seven-seat, five-door van, named SQJ6450H. The high roof was 25cm higher than the normal version, height now 1875mm. The engine was a 1294cc (63kW) named CQ4C13F.

The real Maestro story ends here, but not for Yema as they used the platform and technology to develop a complete F-series SUV’s: F99, F10, F11, F12 etc.).

I visited the factory in 2009, made a report for AROnline. Here the article:

“The original production lines for the Morris Marina and the Austin Maestro were sold to the Chinese and, ironically, both ended up in different factories located in the city of Chengdu.

Yema factory main building, photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, 2009.

I reckoned that was reason enough to visit Chengdu and discover what had happened to those production lines. The Ital (Marina) tale is a short one: I didn’t find a single Marina sedan, Marina van or pick-up in the streets of Chengdu. 

Sichuan Auto is a very small company with a long history of building strong SUVs in extremely small quantities – they are, though, particularly suitable for the rough roads of South West China.

A visit to a small manufacturer like Sichuan Auto is not easy. Nobody speaks English but, more importantly, people don’t understand why there is foreign interest in their factory and products. When one tries to make an appointment, there is always the promise to call you back, but they never call you and emails are not answered. There is only one solution: just go there.

Sichuan Auto lies 30 km from the Chengdu city centre, in a large industrial area, and not far away from a new Volkswagen complex. The factory has two divisions: left a bus factory, right the automobile factory. The receptionists were very friendly and, after two hours of phone calls and taking me from one office to the other, they decided that I was welcome and that the Sales Department should have the job of showing me around.

Yema factory. Very clean. Photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, 2009.

My first impression was that the factory was clearly very clean. However, when I had looked into the production halls, there was something strange: where were the workers? I counted 10 to 15 men throughout the whole factory – the friendly girl who showed me around claimed that there was a workforce of 750. Just two men are welding in the massive Welding Hall and three are working in the Paint Hall…

Yema factory. Where are the workers? Photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, 2009.
Yema factory. Van bodies. Photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, 2009.

Two cars seem to be in production: the SQJ 6450N, a 4-seat van which is, in fact, an updated Maestro van (which also exists as two-seat van, the SQJ 6450) and the SQJ 6451, a small 4×2 SUV-like car based on the Maestro platform. The body of this car resembles the previous generation Subaru Forester.

Driving a Yema F99, Chengdu 2009. Photo Erik van Ingen Schenau.

I was allowed to take the SQJ 6451 for a short test drive around the factory facilities. The engine sounded strange: a very high-tone noise. It is the CQ4C15 engine, which is based on the old 1498 cc Toyota 5A and made at a sister factory in Mianyang near the epicentre of the devastating earthquake of May 2008.

OK, they let me walk around and take pictures. Only one strange restriction: I was not allowed to take pictures of… cars. A strange request: how to do you take photographs in a car factory without photographing the cars?

Yema factory, Yema F99. “Illegal”picture of two cars… Photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, 2009.

I spotted two heavier SQJ 6485s in one of the halls. This model is a much bigger (Toyota Land Cruiser size) 4×4 SUV. It is not clear whether these cars are already in production or that it is the intention to produce them in the near future.

Another product is the M72. This was a 2000 concept from Matra of France. Sichuan Auto is copying this concept. I counted five test models in different stages of assembly. They were completely hand-made and I was told that they were used to test different alternative-fuel engines, like CNG (natural gas, very popular in Chengdu), electrical engines and hybrids. I distinguished two different models. Here, though, I really had really no chance to take photographs.

M72 made by Yema. Factory photo.

The quality of the cars was poor – they were very cheaply and roughly built and no match for the competition. I was disappointed to find a clean and nice factory with a lot of potential which was seemingly being underutilized because of a lack of expertise and effective management.

Yema factory. Rusty back doors… Photo Erik van Ingen Schenau, 2009.

The result: a plant with a production capacity of 10,000 cars per annum which produces just 100 cars a year. Yes, the Maestro still survives, but probably not for long…”. 

Since 2017 Yema is part of the Levdeo Group. Yema had better years after my visit, but the production figures are now going down each year: 2016: 41.326; 2017: 28.004; 2018: 19.509; 2019: 7.917; 2020: 7.497.

Another thing: in 2016 Yema sued the Ford Motor (China) Co., they registered their trademark in 1986 (Yema means Mustang in Chinese) and the Ford Mustang trademark was regsitered in 2006. They won in 2018, Ford had to pay them 1 million yuan. (they asked 10 million..)

Alexander Boucke: https://www.aronline.co.uk/cars/austin/maestro/yemasqj6450/

Erik van Ingen Schenau:
https://www.aronline.co.uk/news/china-watch/alive-and-not-so-well/

Tycho de Feyter, the Yema archive 2011-2017:
https://www.carnewschina.com/category/brands/yema/

 

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somil

“Since 2017 Yema is part of the Levdeo Group.” The same group that produces LSEVs?

Erik Van Ingen Schenau

yes.

somil

thanks!