China was even more primitive than I imagined it would be in the fall of 1985, when I joined world-renowned motorcycle enduro champion Malcolm Smith and a group of twelve riders on a 1000-mile motorcycle trip in Zhejiang province. Despite having the most advanced telecommunications and transportation system in China, Zhejiang pretty much had no cars. We were headquartered in beautiful Hangzhou, a city of one million, with 700,000 registered bicycles and 18,000 registered motor vehicles. Expansive eight-lane boulevards were packed with bike riders, while a single lane of trucks – punctuated by a few taxis and primitive motorcycles – hugged the center line in each direction. The first personal vehicles had shown up just a year earlier, but in the capital city of Beijing, and they belonged to government officials. Among the rules of the road at the time: It was illegal to pass a slower vehicle, and it was illegal to use your headlights at night, lest you blind oncoming “traffic.” We drove at night only once and it was like being in a deadly video game, using the red glow of taillights in front of you and the light cast off by your own parking lights to feel the way. With intuition honed by years of dirt-bike racing, our gang of fourteen would flick on the lights every now and then, just in time to swerve violently and avoid the truck bearing down on us.
In the countryside outside Hangzhou, we rode our Kawasaki KLR600s on newly poured concrete highways that had yet to bear anything bigger than a walking tractor. People sat out on the pavement, sewing in the twilight, using the road as an extension of their living rooms.
Maybe they were already dreaming about cars back then. The doors had just opened to the West. The children we saw were the first generation of Chinese to break out of their Mao-wear and embrace the more flamboyant colors of the rainbow. Rambo had hit the local theaters. And everywhere we went, the roads were lined with cheering throngs.
We always thought we were the ones who would dig that tunnel straight from our Detroit backyard to China. The laugh is on us.
In 1985, Detroit’s population was on par with Hangzhou’s one million. Today, eight million people live in Hangzhou. It’s expected that the 2010 census will see Detroit’s population come in well below 800,000.
Owning a car may be the number-one dream of the average Chinese person. All but banned from private vehicle ownership until 1994, Chinese citizens quickly made up for lost time. They bought 433,000 cars in 1995. (Imagine an entire country of drivers with the experience of a teenager.) New-car sales gradually climbed from 538,000 in 1999 to just over a million in 2002. Two million in 2003. Three million in 2005. China surpassed the U.S. in 2009 as the largest car market in the world, with 13.6 million vehicles sold. China could reach sixteen million sales this year, and General Motors predicts it to be twice the size of the U.S. market by 2020. And still, fewer than five in 100 Chinese own a car.
As we know, they’ve done it with cheap labor and by begging, borrowing, or stealing the design and engineering know-how of the world’s carmakers. Look at the BYD S8 below.
Yeah, look at it.
Nice, isn’t it?
Thinking back to my days in Hangzhou, it was a time when Ford had begun to gobble up little car companies. As this year ends, Ford will have shed the last of its acquisitions – Volvo – as it focuses on the blue oval.
Meanwhile, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, based in Hangzhou, will gladly be taking over Volvo.
Sniffpetrol.com‘s coverage of the 2010 Beijing show began thusly: “The Beijing Motor Show provides the perfect opportunity to have one final bloody good laugh at rubbish Chinese carmakers before they get their act together and destroy us all.”
That moment may have come and gone for Detroit.
Written By: Jean Jennings