China’s Red Flag Looks to the Past for Inspiration

·7 min read
Photo credit: Newspress/seoulmark
Photo credit: Newspress/seoulmark
  • Hongqi L-Concept in Shanghai is a nod to the original CA72 limousine, which was effectively China's first luxury limousine.

  • The Hongqi CA72 of 1958 liberally mixed Russian and American design influences, featuring some design details common with the GAZ 21 of the time.

  • The latest Hongqi designs attempt to incorporate stylistic nods to the marque's history, even as the brand focuses on SUVs and crossovers.

This year's Shanghai Motor Show saw no shortage concepts in many different segments, but few were quite as imposing as the Hongqi L-Concept. The marque itself (pronounced hong-chi) may not be a household name in the US, but it happens to be one of China's oldest, tracing its roots all the way back to the 1950s as a luxury brand from Beijing's First Automotive Works (FAW). And the concept shown in Shanghai this year represents a callback to one of the marque's earliest and most memorable luxury cars.

During its appearance in Shanghai relatively little was shared about the concept sedan, which features no steering wheel at all, one seat up front, and two seats in the back. The reason for such a layout, of course, is to give the right-side rear seat passenger room to stretch out, as in a personal limousine. The profile of the L-Concept also adopted more of a fastback look, with a contrasting white roof stretching all the way to the trunk with a diamond-shaped pattern covering the rear glass. The diamond-shaped pattern continues up front, cascading down from the headlights and extending to the front spoiler, giving the front fascia a bit of a spider web look.

It's safe to say that the 2021 Hongqi L-Concept was more about design than anything else, and was promised to preview a future sedan model that could arrive as soon as 2023. For being a design exercise, however, the Hongqi, or Red Flag, is one of the few Chinese concept cars able to give nod to cars actually decades old—namely, the CA72.

Photo credit: Autoweek
Photo credit: Autoweek

This Chinese limousine was effectively the country's first modern luxury limo of the post-war era, debuting in 1958, just five years after First Automotive Works (FAW) was founded.

"Up until the arrival of the CA72, the top leadership relied on a mix of Russian and American cars, believe it or not," Yaroslav, an expert on Eastern Bloc cars, tells us. "First Automotive Works was making versions of Russian trucks at the time, which is one of the reasons it was founded, but the first passenger car was mostly based on the Simca Vedette and the Mercedes-Benz W120, they say. It was called the CA71 and it had a roughly European appearance with an eggcrate grille, slabby sides, and a bubble-style roof. The CA71 was pretty much handmade, as you'd guess, but just a handful were made. It wasn't a very large car, more of a sedan than a proper limousine, and after a few examples were made it didn't really catch on. Just a couple of them are left. But the car that followed was styled differently, and it managed to catch on with the country's top leadership."

When it debuted the CA72 adopted a larger footprint and a more expansive layout, closer in size to American and Russian sedans of the time. The design, however, gravitated closer to one particular Russian car, namely the GAZ 21.

Photo credit: Autoweek
Photo credit: Autoweek

"The CA72 came out in 1958, and it was pretty much the first of two Chinese luxury cars, the other being the Beijing CB4," Yaroslav tells Autoweek. "The GAZ 21 had been out for a couple of years by that point, and the CA72 came out a couple of years after it, so the resemblance was very noticeable. The GAZ 21 itself was styled after the Ford Mainline, but it introduced some of its own design details that we later saw pop up on the CA72."

While the design of the CA72 was a mix of Russian and American design influences, the motors were definitely American, with Chrysler's 331-cubic-inch Hemi V8 powering the large sedan. That's definitely not what the GAZ 21 had, but it's worth noting that that the CA72 was quite a bit larger than the GAZ and was intended as a personal luxury limo.

"The profile of the CA72 was more like that of a Chaika," Yaroslav adds. "One of the major differences was that in back the taillights were narrow and vertical and more American, and the rear also had a series of horizontal chrome slats. That's what we see in this year's Shanghai concept, too."

Photo credit: Newspress/seoulmark
Photo credit: Newspress/seoulmark

Autoweek had a chance to see a CA72 in a Shanghai auto museum a few years ago with that particular example, seen in these photos, hailing from 1959. The scale of the car was far more imposing than that of the GAZ 21, several examples of which we've seen stateside, featuring slabbier sides and a taller sill line. The long limousine featured suicide doors, with just about the sole element breaking up the sides being the long chrome strip starting at the front doors.

"The scale of the CA72 is certainly more Chaika-like," Yaroslav says, referring to the V8-engined GAZ 13. "The Chaika followed Packard designs pretty closely, and we see that in the profile of the CA72. But the front is more Volga-like. The CA72 is just a little more compact on the outside than the Chaika, which also had a V8 itself and an automatic transmission."

Production of the CA72 continued until around 1965 when it evolved into the CA770, which was an evolution of the design, introducing some visual updates and adopting straighter lines but keeping the look of the front fascia. The limo also kept Chrysler V8 power underhood, and stayed in production until 1981.

Photo credit: Autoweek
Photo credit: Autoweek

"It's worth noting that CA770 and the Chaika exited production around the same time, and they were also really, really past their prime at that point, from the standpoint of design" Yaroslav says. "They were essentially cars of the 1950s that just happened to stick around into the 1980s. The Hongqi marque went on hiatus around that time, while the GAZ 13 Chaika was replaced by a more modern GAZ 14. But both the CA770 and the old Chaika stayed in production until 1981, amazingly."

Where are these cars today?

Quite a few were simply used up, with Hongqi CA72 and CA770 limos accumulating lots of miles. Afterward they were simply replaced by newer examples and newer cars, so little effort was made to preserve them, unless they ended up in a factory museum early on. Restorations were rarely attempted since car collecting in China was still in its infancy until about 20 years ago, and in some ways still is today. This means that there wasn't really an effort to find and restore older examples of the Hongqi until relatively recently.

"Unless they ended up in a museum early on, these cars were pretty much run into the ground," Yaroslav comments. "Either that, or if they were lucky they weren't used much and just sat around in some far-off government garage. That's pretty much the cars we see in museums today, and they're really the only ones that survived. Everything else was used up."

The surviving examples of these limos are pretty much all in museums at this point, and once every few years a dusty example is pulled out of some government garage. A few, however, are in private collections.

Two years ago a pair of CA770 limousines took to the lawn at Pebble Beach, brought by owner Zongmin "Jason" Huang for their US concours debut, with Jay Leno also going for a spin in one of the limousines.

Hongqi is not really a marque of the past, though, even if it has the deepest history to draw on from any of the current passenger car brands in China. The marque is looking to the future with an extensive lineup of cars that can now be bought by China's middle class, rather than solely the political elite.

Let us know what you think about this Chinese concept and its design homage in the comments below.

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