Shanghai, China — The Red Flag limousine, the favored transport of Chairman Mao and China’s communist leaders, is back 25 years after the last model rolled off the production line. But in a sign of the times, its target market is not the party hierarchy, but China’s new super-rich capitalists.
A revised version of the car that swept world leaders to see Mao Zedong was revealed amid the bourgeois glitz of the Shanghai Auto Show. Unashamedly borrowing stylistic devices from Rolls Royce, it aims to compete with international luxury brands, too.
The original Red Flags were, like large parts of China’s industry today, pirated from abroad. Stalin presented Mao with five Russian-built limousines in the early 1950s and Mao liked them so much he decided China should build its own.
That era was perfectly captured on a giant video screen behind the new model recently, where old film footage showed workers cheering outside the factory gates at First Auto Works, the car’s state-owned manufacturer. Design team member Jiang Honqjun said the new version was deliberately modeled on the old, out of deference to its history — though the firm, with a long-term view on the export market, may also be aware of the popularity of Cultural Revolution chic in the West.
The limousine has the chunkiness of the original, with the rear resembling the stern of a ship, and some of its propaganda devices, such as wheels designed like suns, representing Mao. The front is supposed to recall the pillars, and inscrutability, of the Forbidden City, but its grille has been raised even higher than before, in homage to Rolls Royce.
Between 1955 and 1980, only 100 of the original version were built. The number of other manufacturers exhibiting would suggest that First Auto has a ready market.