Will Classic Car Ownership Take Off in China?

fiat x19
Will Classic Car Ownership Take Off in China?Autoweek

If you've never seen photos from a classic car show in China, there's a very good reason for this.

Generally, cars over the age of 15 were required to be scrapped, while importing a car from outside the country—especially a classic one—is problematic if you're a private citizen. So even if you've somehow stashed away a Shanghai sedan from the 1970s, registering it for the road is going to be difficult if not impossible if you don't operate a museum.

And importing a classic from overseas presents its own set of challenges, as "used" cars are only permitted in the country for a term of six months. (After that period, they must exit the country but can re-enter again).


Needless to say, there is no shortage of red tape that makes the hated US' 25-year import rule and all of its asterisks sound like a permissive utopia.

Just about the oldest car we've seen in China on the road in the recent past was a red Fiat X/19 street-parked in Hong Kong, seen at the top, which itself deserves an asterisk or two and a brief explanation.

China has car museums, but you won't find too many cars from the recent past in them, especially domestic Chinese cars from the last 50 years. They've all been used up, with the exception of some first-off-the-line examples that have been preserved in automakers' collections.

So the handful of car museums and wealthy private collectors own most of the classic cars in China. But that's not quite the same thing as a middle-class citizen taking a cheap classic for a spin on the weekends.

1959 hongqi ca72
Chinese classics like this Hongqi Ca72 from 1959 are rare and are usually found only in museums, having been one of the few classes of cars to have been preserved.Autoweek

First, Hong Kong is a right-hand drive market filled with Japanese cars that still enjoys special legal status as part of China, and it still has a somewhat sizeable population of foreign nationals. So it's a lot more permissive to older cars, even if their total numbers are barely enough to fill up a local cruise-in in the Midwest.

Ownership of cars in Hong Kong, even cheap ones, is still difficult and expensive, as one must also typically own a parking space. So the financial cost of running a Fiat X1/9 with some rust issues is unappetizing to say the least, as most citizens would spend that money (and parking spot) on a reliable new car.

The second oldest cars we've seen on the street in China were a duo of Mercedes-Benz W140 Pullman limousines from the 1990s, which were still used by the city administration of Shanghai in the late 2000s. But that's another asterisk-laden phenomenon as these are government cars, and also quite valuable ones at that.

Purchasing and registering a W140 sedan from the 1990s in China for a private individual today is a different task, one that is not easily accomplished, making running a cheap older car from the 1990s a process with serious hurdles. (The practical process of accomplishing feat this is too long and complex to get into here).

But things are slowly changing to make the country more classic-friendly, or at least more youngtimer-friendly.

The Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA) notes that it is no longer compulsory to recycle cars over the age of 15. And since 2019, the importation of cars over the age of 100 has been permitted, as an exception to the general ban on import of used vehicles.

Now, this doesn't sound like a very wide window, and it's not. This essentially means that some cars over the age of 15 will be preserved, and also that Chinese citizens will be open to importing a car made in 1924 or earlier.

fiat x19
Owning a foreign youngtimer in China is pretty straightforward... if you’re a city-owned museum and a foreign automaker has loaned you a car to display indoors.Autoweek

As such, this is a narrow audience and the list of eligible cars isn't very attractive if you want to actually drive one around town.

The population of classic cars in China is also rather fixed, with several thousand classics in the loose sense thought to be in the country (with or without license plates) with many classics having been sourced from the diplomatic community over the decades. And acquiring one within the country is the most common way that wealthy collectors can get their hands on something old. (Once again, acquiring and driving them on public roads are two very different things).

But some cars present in China now that are approaching the age of 15 that could be worth preserving, at least in the financial sense, are supercars a decade and a half old owned by the wealthy. Essentially, these are the slightly dated supercars of first-gen millionaires from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

1970 pontiac gto judge
A Pontiac GT Judge from 1970, seen here in a Shanghai museum in 2008, would still be a rare sight in China today, especially outdoors.Autoweek

FIVA has recently attended the China International Classic Car Industry Outlook Conference in Hainan, China, meeting with with the President of the Classic Vehicle Union of China (CUVC), and went for a spin in a few 1980s cars that had been there on a temporary permit. And that is actually how most recent foreign classics exist at all in China outside of museums, as they're there on temporary permits and belong to foreign nationals.

"The focus of the conference was the careful development of China’s classic vehicle sector, addressing such issues as the definition of classic cars in China, the potential reform of importation policies, and the importance of international cooperation," FIVA noted.

One of the broader goals of the participants has been to actually kick-start classic car culture in China, as well as introduce reforms to importation laws, which could eventually open up China to a more permissive import regime.

vw santana
In 2008, the later versions of the VW Santana produced locally by SAIC were still plentiful, but that’s not the case anymore. This car has most likely already been scrapped.Autoweek

The baby step that's hoped for is effectively allowing Chinese citizens to import something like a Porsche from the 1980s or thereabouts.

Needless to say, this agenda is bound to rub up against the government's emissions regulations, which are now far more of a concern than they were a mere decade ago. Buying and registering a new car in a large city like Shanghai is difficult enough.

But the first steps have been made to foster a classic car culture in China, with older millennials (whose parents likely never owned a car before the mid-2000s) being one of the target audiences.

"Most of the participants in the Hainan Pride Tour were under 40, or even 30, years old," said said FIVA president Tiddo Bresters. "Attracting younger people to the historic vehicle movement is a mainstay of FIVA’s aims, so to see this in a country with a potentially a vast contribution to make to the preservation of our automotive heritage is very encouraging."

The question is: What kinds of cars would middle-aged, middle-income people in China would like to own?

Figuring this out and catering to that audience will not be easy even if all the import restrictions suddenly disappear overnight.

Will we see classic car collecting take off in China in the next 20 years, or will this process take much longer to materialize? Let us know what you think.