June 18, 2009 / 9:23 AM / 10 years ago

Auto obsession fuels Beijing vintage car museum

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin’s wooden Rolls-Royce and cars from the first made-in-China brand are on display at a newly opened Chinese museum geared toward showcasing the wheels of Communism.

Chinese vintage car fanatic Yang Yi-Jun cleans a stretched car that former Chinese chairman Mao Zedong owned that is now on display at the Beijing classic car museum June 17, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

Set up by a private antique car collector who sold his multi-million dollar transport business to finance his hobby, the China Classic Car Museum exhibits some 170 vintage, and rare, automobiles from various eras and from all over the world.

But to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, on October 1, the museum has polished up its “red” fleet, which includes the convertible vehicle Chairman Mao used for army inspections and a car that once belonged to former leader Deng Xiaoping.

There is also a Gaz-69, an Soviet army vehicle, which collector Luo Wenyou sought the help of one of China’s former vice premiers to obtain.

Among the antiques, there are motorcycles with sidecars that were used by the German army in World War Two, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The museum is a dream come true for 57-year-old Luo, who has been obsessed by cars since he was a child and who spent more than $4 million to build up the collection.

“Now, cars are seen as means of transport. When I was young, the coolest professions were those of doctor or driver. These were the trendiest jobs. If you could drive a car, you could be really proud of yourself,” he told Reuters.

Luo, who started out as a miner and then built a successful delivery business from scratch, spent all his savings and borrowed money from relatives who thought he was crazy to set up the museum. And money remains his biggest concern.

“The main thing is money. As long as I have money, everything will be fine. I was lucky to have the local government’s support. I couldn’t afford to pay the rent of this space so the government acted as my warrant so I could get a mortgage,” he said.

“Red Flag,” a household name in China, made the country’s first batch of cars. However, its origin is not as socialist as its name may suggest, Luo says.

In 1958, about a year before the 10th anniversary of the founding of the republic, the government ordered the country’s main automobile manufacturer to produce a local car brand in time for an anniversary parade.

According to Luo, the factory workers, under pressure, purchased a Chrysler car, dismantled it, hand-painted every part and then re-created an exact copy. On October 1, 1959, ten “Red Flag” cars took part in the parade.

Luo, who set up the China Classic Car Association in 1999 which now has more than 300 members, believes his collection could inspire others to do the same. His museum is open to other collectors who cannot find, or afford, space for their items.

Art expert Chen Lingran, whose company specializes in paintings and Chinese calligraphy, said Luo may just spark off a new collecting trend.

“I believe that sooner or later vintage cars will become very popular in China, just like in some Western countries. After all, classic cars represent a culture and a particular culture from a particular time period. When you look at these cars, you can see the lifestyle of that era,” Chen said.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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