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The brand Fenghuang, which means "phoenix" in Chinese, was synonymous with luxury automobiles until it went out of production 21 years ago, but now it is poised to rise again like its namesake bird thanks to a government-sponsored program to revive out-of-commission car brands.
For years, this clunky parlor on wheels ruled the roads in Beijing, Shanghai and any other city around the country. However, the brand, which was later renamed Shanghai, met its demise in the 1980s after its owner went into a partnership with Volkswagen to manufacture a range of models by the German car company in newly built and heavily automated facilities.
The first Shanghai brand car is displayed in Shanghai Auto Museum. [File photo]
The government plans to revive the brand so that it is not lost forever in the collective memory of the Chinese public. It is among the automotive brands the government is bringing back to life to showcase China's newly found industrial might.
Although it has not been specified when the Shanghai brand will resume mass production, Shanghai local media has reported that future models will target the high-end business vehicle and government cars market.
An industry insider in Shanghai told China Daily that new models bearing the Shanghai brand name are expected to make their debut at the 2012 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition in late April.
The rebirth of this once-beloved brand will be driven by new technologies, insiders say. The Shanghai brand fuel-cell car, researched and developed independently by Chinese engineers, produces zero emission because it is fueled by hydrogen.
The company's hybrid electric car meets the Euro IV Standard and saves 25 percent of oil under complicated urban road conditions.
For people born before the 1980s, the Shanghai brand has an appeal because its name had much prestige that time, said Wang Xiaole, director of the Financial Brand Institute of the Central University of Finance and Economics.
Gao Yang, a 56-year-old taxi driver, said that he started out in the business driving Shanghai brand taxis. "Driving a Shanghai brand taxi was really something that one could be proud of back in the 1970s or 1980s," Gao said. Now, he drives a mid-sized Volkswagen, which is, as he said, "a world apart" from he was used to.
"Because the Shanghai brand was quite widely used by government officials at that time and Shanghai brand taxis looked almost the same as those government cars, the passers-by always looked at us with admiration. The State guest taxi fleet was even more well furnished, with covered seats, white curtains and thick rugs," Gao said.
The traffic lights were all controlled manually during the 1970s, and traffic police officers would immediately turn on the green light to let a Shanghai car pass because "they thought we were government cars", Gao recalled.
"Driving a taxi, especially a Shanghai brand taxi, was considered to be a pretty decent job in our time. I kid you not. Quite a few doctors or teachers married taxi drivers back then," he added.
Due to the less advanced technologies in the old days, driving a Shanghai brand was not always a pleasure, Gao said.
"There was a saying among us: 'Be an emperor for six months and a slave for the other half of the year'. Driving in winter was quite pleasant because there was a heater in the car, but in the summer heat, laboring through the gears while wearing the company's uniform would tire you out in a short time," he said.
Huang Jun, 44, has been working as an automobile mechanic for more than 20 years and is currently working at the Shanghai Shihao Automobile Service Company. He could clearly recall the times when the rumbling Shanghai brand cars were all one could see on the streets along with many thousands of bicycles and the occasional bus.
"The evolution of Shanghai brand cars peaked between 1988 and 1989. The model ran on a trusted inline six-cylinder engine with twin carburetors," Huang explained.
"As far as I can see, that car had two major defects. The stick shift, or 'gun handle', as we called it jokingly, is installed on the steering wheel, which makes the operation somewhat imprecise and unwieldy," he said.
Also, the car's radiator tended to breakdown frequently, requiring a full replacement, he said.
"However, the car rides quite comfortably, causes less noise and performs well in terms of acceleration and steering control. Compared to the other cars at that time, it could be considered a nice car, which probably explains why the car was popular among government officials," he said.
Li Heping, 60, now the deputy chief economist of Shanghai Qiangsheng Holdings Co, recalled that the Qiangsheng Taxi Co introduced its very first Shanghai brand automobiles in 1972.
"The number of Shanghai brand automobiles grew later as more international sailors dropped by Shanghai. We usually picked up the sailors at the ports first and then took them to their destinations, such as the Shanghai Hongqiao Friendship Shopping Center, the then Sailor's Hospital or the former international sailors club, which has now grown into the well-known Three On the Bund," he said.
"Later, ordinary customers turned to us, but for special purposes, mainly picking up a woman who had just given birth to a child, picking up a bride, taking people to hospital in an emergency or taking people to attend funerals. In a nutshell, we were serving people in their moments of greatest need at that time," Li added.
Wang Danfei contributed to this story.
Model of Fenghuang car, predecessor of Shanghai brand car. [Photo/China Daily]