It would be an understatement to suggest that the Chinese as a nation are besotted with cars. And in the nation’s capital, the scrabble for scarce space on the roads has resulted in a lottery system being introduced to even allow them to buy a car, let alone the fact that they are then only allowed to drive it on certain days of the week within the fourth ring road.
So it is no surprise that a government-run Being Auto Museum (not to be confused with the privately-run Beijing Classic Car Museum) was originally planned in 2001 as one of five major museums to be built in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. It rapidly fell behind schedule and ground was only broken in 2006, two years late, with an opening date projected for 2010; then May 2011; and finally it opened its doors in September of last year.
According to some reports, in order to ensure the collection was comprehensive enough and the museum was built to a high standard, an evaluation committee was established to draw up the exhibition catalogue and supervise the process of collecting cars in China and from other countries in the world. Having now finally been there I have to wonder why they even bothered.
I have read some disparaging descriptions of the museum on the internet, such as blatantly Guggenheim-derived, while the exterior can best be described as a “Space Slug”.
Not so, according to the Beijing Travel Information and Travel Guide web site. “The museum looks like a giant eye, and it takes 8 years to build it. Similar to the many wonderful, now ‘hiding’ the South Fourth Ring Road in Beijing, eyes resembles the edge of a building, the unprecedented shock for us! This Beijing Auto Museum, he incurs named ‘Science and Technology Beijing New Eight’ one. The selection by the Hong Kong Wen Wei Po, Beijing Municipal Government Information Office, and get the Beijing Tourism Development Committee, the overseas Chinese media organizations and other units to support cooperation.”
The Beijing Auto Museum, the largest auto museum in China, is actually located in Sihezhuang Village in Fengtai – a district on the south west corner of Beijing. Entrance is 30 Yuan for adults; but free to “the children not enough 1.2 m tall and the seniors, the disadvantaged and the armymen with valid cards”. I ponder for a second whether I might claim to be disadvantaged, but decide instead to pay my full whack.
Anyway, I get up at the crack of dawn and head on down to the subway. Sihezhuang has its own stop on line 9 at Keyilu; but at the time of writing, line 9 is not connected to the rest of the subway network (that’s planned for the end of December 2012), so I have to take a 10 minute hike in the middle of my journey to Beijing West station before boarding the next train.
The museum itself is across the fourth ring road, opposite what appears to be an affluent neighbourhood.
As I enter the main gate, I make a mental note to myself that if ever I am desperate enough to buy a pet goldfish, aardvark or other such companion, I must leave it at home if I want to make the journey out here again. As for inflammable thingies, I have no intention of laying them or doing anything else with them; so I feel it quite safe to go in…
I round the corner to the ticket office and do a double take.
Hang on a moment… I thought this is a car museum. Yes, there above me is a sign reassuring me of this fact. And yet…
I am left wondering if this auto museum is the only one in the world selling tickets from a railway carriage! What I would have given to have been a (bilingual) fly on the wall at those evaluation planning committee meetings!
The auto museum has close to 50,000 square metres of interior space; and it’s clear they must have thought long and hard about how on earth they were going to fill it all.
Beijing Travel Information and Travel Guide web site offers the following helpful advice: From the first to enter one of China’s Empress car prototype car, ‘Du Ruiya L-typ’ to the Soviet Union presented to our Keystone 110, Beijing series, Shanghai Series, Red Series, Eastern Europe series, Beijing Automotive Group donated BJ212, BJ130 , Beijing Institute for the steam electric car test car donation … … behind every one of the exhibits, there is a moving story. Reporters slowly walking in the corridors of five of the visit, as if walking in the car’s history gallery, seeing it from the simplest and most primitive state step by step toward a modern, convenient, comfortable, beautiful and stylish.
Which, I feel, sums up this museum nicely.
As I ride the escalator up to the first floor my eyes fall on a Shanghai Dongfeng passenger car dating back to 1958. The Dongfeng was the only domestically made car for official business made from 1958 for 30 years. We are told that after Chairman Mao tried out the car for ride and comfort, he smiled and proclaimed, "How wonderful it is to ride in a car of our own!" (Mao could always be relied upon for a good one liner!)
Also, at the end of the 1970s, a Japanese journalist wrote “It is more comfortable to ride on a Shanghai for a short distance than on a Toyota”, which indicates that Shanghai was of very good quality. I note the hack wrote “on” rather than “in” and wonder how short the distance was!
Also on this floor is a collection of Hongqi (Red Flag) limousines. During the 1980s, they stopped being made owing to their massive fuel consumption, high costs and low production rate.
There is also a Soviet-made GIS110 luxury sedan, complete with 6 litre 8 cylinder engine which could go as fast as 135kph. Although only 2,083 units were produced in its 14 years of production, Mao was given two of them by his friend Stalin. The one on display was once used by former President Liu Shaoqi.
Once through this handful of old cars, I find myself in an exhibition all about the construction of the museum itself. There’s a model, which appears to bear more than a passing resemblance to the design of Abu Dhabi’s new Performing Arts Centre, together with lots of photos and artists' impressions…
There are also numerous shops in which you could fork out well over 3,000 kwai for a model of a car if you had a mind to…
But right now I feel anything but satiated from an excess of car paraphernalia. So when I come across an interactive exhibit of car radios I can hardly hold myself back from pressing every button in sight. Alas I discover very soon that the wire to my pair of headphones has come adrift, and all I can hear is the sound of silence.
I move on, helped in no small part by the feet outlined on the floor pointing me in the right direction, lest I should miss anything. I think back to the Natural History Museum and feel this is a lot better than being guided by spermatozoa.
It appears that the feet have led me to the kiddie section – and maybe that explains why Batman is standing next the wreckage of his car. But then, what does he expect if he will drive it through a wall! But wait a moment… Something appears not quite right here. Didn’t the masked crusader actually wear a mask? I thought that was the whole point???
Oh dear – his friend Spiderman also appears to be having some difficulty with his car. Could he have backed it into a wall? Huh! So much for super heroes. Strikes me they need a few good driving lessons if you ask me.
Next up is a wall display featuring car number plates from most of the American states. Now, call me picky if you will, but wouldn’t a display of Chinese car licence plates be more appropriate? Oh well, maybe they got them as a job lot in a clearance sale. Who knows?
I’m delighted to see that with the generally abysmal quality of driving in China, this museum is making a little effort to bring up the younger generation into learning something of the rudiments of driving techniques.
In this interactive display, a kid has to jump on the correct floor panels after getting visual clues from a video monitor above his head. There is an added incentive to getting the answers correct … only when you have completed the game will the doors open and let you out!
Throughout the museum, the latest technology is employed to ensure trouble free operation… like this bottle of water used to stop the no photography sign from falling over – not that anyone pays a blind bit of notice to such strictures since, as we all know, the rules only apply to other people. As if to prove a point, a family asks one of the attendants if he will take a picture of them in front of an electric taxi with its own no photos sign. He is, of course, only too happy to oblige.
Throughout the museum, you can tell that the minds of the committee have been feverishly at work trying to think up how on earth they can fill the available space allotted to them.
Ah, here’s a good wheeze – make a wall of compacted trashed cars … not a short wall, but a wall that goes on and on and can be used to illustrate the theme of planet sustainability and the need to conserve resources… hmmmm
There’s even a wall covered in miniature models of concept cars, naturally positioned in front of little mirrors so you get to see two for the price of one!
Onto another floor – this in the grandly named Hall of Development; and this time there’s an exploded model car hanging from bits of thread tied to the ceiling. “The secret of a car is infinite,” we are told. “Each of the 20000 separate parts of a car has its functions and roles, albeit they cooperate intimately to make the car run. How can such numerous and various parts work together harmoniously? Who is the leader and who carry out the orders? The mysterious and complex automotive world has unfolded itself, so let us set out for an exploratory tour now.”
The “tour” includes a collection of engines laid out on plinths; but it’s all boring stuff and no one is the slightest bit interested in them, to the point where they are totally ignored.
Ah, but here is something that captures the public imagination. “Dancing with the Wind” is the name of this interactive exhibit. “Wind constitutes the greatest resistance for a speeding car. Here is a simulation wind tunnel specially designed for you. Why not experience the great power of the fierce gale and dance with the automotive wind!”
In front of a model car, which has a steering wheel that can be turned an infinite number of times, are placed three nozzles fed – by the sound of it – from a hair dryer. A mere 10 kwai to experience wind on your face. Errr, no thank you!
Fatigue is starting to set in. Eventually your favourite blogger reaches the top – 5th – floor. And finally things start to get a little bit more interesting.
“A guide car quietly stand in yellow light, the car tells the story in the distant past. Guide pointing device to point the car south, one that is thousands of years, livestock and slowly pull the vehicle through a long period of years. In modern times, the vehicle was out of bio-power, gasoline power, a real car. This is a very wonderful place: onto a step, a three-dimensional automotive design guru suddenly appeared in front of you, face to face and chat with you, while he himself had passed away several years; the Open button, a car suddenly accompanied by music dance, it is also still winked smile; Bantang down, pedal to the metal, you will ride the same as the cosine of the arrow at the race track …”
Or, to put it more succinctly, we are reminded that the invention of the wheel revolutionized work, making it easier to carry loads and travel long distances. China, we are assured, was one of the earliest countries to have invented wheels. “Greatness lies in innovation. Let’s witness and share the sadness and happiness experienced by human beings in their pursuit of the dream of freedom and speed.”
And thus, from the wheel, the museum progresses to specimens of horse-drawn carriages from ancient dynasties.
There’s also a model of the Yellow Emperor’s South-pointing vehicle. Unlike a compass which uses a magnetic needle, a south-pointing vehicle was based on the principle of differential gears. No matter where the wheel turns, the figure on board always points south. Clever chaps, these Chinese!
Also on display is a working model of perhaps the world's first odometer. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), this device travelled in a cart with the emperor's caravan. Two ornate male figures were mounted next to a drum; the gears turned and, every 500 metres, one of the figurines beat the drum.
After this, one moves on to what probably everyone has come to this museum to see – real old cars – finally! Well, there are a few authentic vintage cars including a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost Coupe, and this Oldsmobile Curved Dash which was built in 1902 and still works 110 years later.
A few years earier – in 1885, to be exact - the word's first petrol-driven automobile put in an appearance. It was widely ridiculed because it went even slower than a horse drawn carriage. This replica of the Benz Patent Motorwagon is a replica of an original in Stuttgart. To convince the public of the vehicle's capability for travel, inventor Karl Benz's wife Bertha drove the Benz Patent Motorwagon 106km to visit her parents, becoming the world's first female driver, and driving the first long-distance trip at one and the same time. As they say, the rest is history and I guess Herr Benz had the last laugh!
Moving on a few years – to 1908 – that was when the Ford Model T came into being. At first they were all manufactured in the traditional way and sold for around $850. But in 1931 Henry Ford had the brilliant idea of creating an assembly line – a world first. Output increased dramatically and the price fell to as low as $265. The age of cheap mass transport had arrived.
The Model T on display is one of the earlier traditionally made ones, however, manufactured in 1927 and said to be still running perfectly.
But what have we here? Whoops – round on the back of the Model T is an advertisement for ‘Ageless Autos - purveyor of antique, classic and special interest autos’. So that’s where the museum obtained its display cars. Did no one think of removing the advert, or did they think it was part of Henry Ford’s original livery? Come to that, did they really think that Henry Ford would use a website URL without his name in it?
Anyway, perhaps someone should tell them that Ageless Autos is no more. It closed down in September 2012. As its close down notice says, Dave is retiring and ageless Autos is closing. After 12 years of playing with cars we are calling it quits.
Round another corner and this time I come across a Jaguar XK120 vintage 1951. A notice tells me that some of its electrical parts are still working.
And then back in time once again – this time to 1906 and this De-Dion Bouton. Did you know that in the first ever Beijing to Paris rally held in 1907, only five cars made it to the finishing line, two of them being De-Dion Boutons? No, <yawn>, neither did I.
And lest you feel that this Chinese auto museum is placing too much emphasis on foreign made cars, then you’ll no doubt be glad to see that a Chery Ruiqi G5 is on display vintage 2009. Yes, amazingly this car is three years old, and, I am led to believe, it still works!
But back in time we go again – this time to see a Beetle from the Volkswagen stable. Though they kicked off in 1936, this one first saw the light of day in 1959. Rather ominously, the blurb board says “As Volkswagen is an economical car, it is very difficult to preserve it”. Make what you will of that!
Time for a little more in the way of Chinese autos again. From 1984 to 1999 the Tianjin Automobile plant manufactured 30,000 Daihatsu-style mini-vans, 90 per cent of which were snatched up by taxi companies and became the first mass-used taxis, to be known as Yellow Insects. They were cheap and spacious and met the needs of the market as people’s incomes were generally low.
And now we come to the classy stuff. “One of the dreams of man is to own something best. Therefore the birth of each luxury car is the moment of man’s dream coming true.” How true! Take this Lincoln KB-V12 Dual cowl Phaeton, for example. Lincoln is Ford’s luxury brand, used by no lesser people than US presidents. This model was built in 1932, one of only 28 units ever produced.
Oh, and what have we here? Multiple mirrors give a perfect view of the many facets of your favourite blogger. Hang on for a moment while I admire myself….
Talking of luxury brands, here’s a copy of a 1901 Duryea Runabout ‘L’ (this one actually made in 1903) given to the Empress Dowager Cixi by Yuan Shikai for her 60th birthday. It was Yuan, you may recall, who made a short-lived attempt to revive the Chinese monarchy in 1915, with himself as the ‘Great Emperor of China’ before being widely denounced and dying the following year.
There’s even a photo of the original car parked in the Dehe Garden in the Summer Palace.
All of this part is in a darkened section of the museum with dim lighting – as if this gives it a better mood. Hmmmm. It’s almost too dark to read the warning signs telling you to take care of the uneven floor!
Finally there are some more examples of early Chinese cars from the 1950s-80s, including a replica Dongfeng CA-71, a replica Dongfanghong (meaning The East is Red), a Hongqi CA773 and a Guangzhou Peugeot 505.
They are none of them what one might call “exciting” cars in the slightest; but the flying dragon logo on the CA-71, I guess, is rather cute.
But to be perfectly honest, I have rarely if ever been so ready to arrive at the last exhibit in a car museum, anywhere in the world. I guess this gentleman summed up the entire experience for me. I know just how he was feeling.
Since this blog was written, I have returned for another visit and the museum is now much better than it was.
Line 9 to Fengtai Science Park, exit B. Then walk 300 metres north and 300 metres east.