Jinggangshan: Once Upon a Time in China

In the past 30 years, and in particular the last ten, China’s car industry has grown exponentially. In the mid-1980s China built just a few thousand cars a year, mostly licensed designs or CKD kits, and private car ownership was extremely rare. Today there are 300 million vehicles on the road there, up from just 62M in 2009.

But few people realize that Chinese cars actually go much further back. These tiny archival photos are of the Jinggangshan, one of the very first Chinese cars.

1959 Jinggangshan

This car never really got beyond the prototype phase, but it was probably the first attempt at a car for actual people in China, rather than just a limo for Party elites.

The long period of instability in China that began with the decline of the Qing regime in the late 19th century and effectively ended with the Korean war ceasefire in 1953 effectively prevented car manufacturing from taking root in China. During the period when other countries were starting to turn to mass production of automobiles, China entered the Warlord era, when rival militias and military commanders effectively kept any kind of central government from functioning. It was only after that, after World War II, after the civil war, and once the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) first five-year plan went into effect that carmaking even became a possibility. Even then, the PRC remained a difficult place to make cars.

In 1956, the same year the first Chinese trucks were made, plans began on several car projects that reached fruition about two years later.

The First Chinese Cars

The first domestically-produced car in China was the 1958 Dongfeng CA71, heavily based on the 1954 Simca Vedette with a Mercedes-derived engine. The second was the Hongqi CA72, based on a ’55 Chrysler but with unique styling, which quickly replaced the CA71. Both were built in Changchun in Jilin province in the north by First Auto Works (FAW) which still exists today.

The two FAW cars were intended as transport for the Party elite and were built in tiny numbers. Just 30 CA71s were built before the car was dropped in favor of the Hongqi limos that would become China’s most familiar diplomatic cars for the next 30 years.

Jinggangshan Takes Shape

1959 Jinggangshan

The Jinggangshan, made in Beijing by the Beijing Auto Works (BAW) – a former repair shop for military trucks, was far more ambitious – it was a small car meant to be used as taxis or by local officials. A production run of 10,000 was planned. That was small potatoes by global standards even then, but wildly ambitious in a country that had only produced a few dozen cars at the time of the car’s June, 1958 launch.

Like the two FAW products, the Jinggangshan was based on a western car – the VW Beetle, after the engineers (which included students and professors from local universities in Beijing) decided the 2CV was inadequate.

A sample VW was stripped down and reverse engineered – but BAW didn’t want to just copy the VW, so they designed their own shell – a prototype 2-door and a production 4-door sedan. The result looked vaguely like the later VW Type 3 Notchback (the two-door Jinggangshan) and Hino Contessa (the four-door). It was a contemporary design, since both of those cars were still three years in the future.

30 Jinggangshans rode through Beijing in the 1st of October parade that year. They all ran through the parade but the engineering team still had many little problems to solve; the cars were mostly untested.

A Leap Too Far

But forces were already in motion that scuttled the plan.

The cars were largely hand made and Beijing, while China’ political capital, was an industrial backwater.

Automotive media often focuses on designers and factories, but the supply chain is also key to making cars happen, and it’s really hard to make a supply chain from scratch. Without the necessary suppliers and shops to build components reliably and in quantity, it’s impossible to make a mass-produced vehicle.

1959 Jinggangshan

Very quickly the Great Leap Forward and the Sino-Soviet Split made things even worse. The former saw the very people who worked on the project, intellectuals and engineers, in the crosshairs of political partisans, while the latter saw the withdrawl of important Russian industrial experts from many projects in China. The challenge of making a new company and car from scratch, even one that’s based on an existing design, is a high hurdle to clear.

The Jinggangshan project stalled and ultimately ground to a halt. 154 sedans were made but all were eventually taken off the road due to a lack of spare parts. At the same time, the company was tasked with building two slightly larger cars derived from the Russian Volga M21, neither of which was built in great numbers.

Epilogue: Beijing Jeep

In 1961 BAW it began work on the BJ210/212, an off-roader with roots in the Russian GAZ-69. It became the China’s most produced vehicle until the 80s and is still in production. In 1983, American Motors began a JV with BAW, Beijing Jeep, building XJ Cherokees. The company is still going today.

Note: The archival photos used in this piece were originally taken by the manufacturer.

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