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Soft Ride for Foreign Investors : After 36 Years, Cadillac Limos Again Cruise China

Times Staff Writer

China on Friday welcomed back a symbol of affluence not sold here since the Communists came to power 36 years ago--the Cadillac limousine.

Executives from the Detroit headquarters of the General Motors Corp. proudly turned over to the China International Trust and Investment Corp. a fleet of 20 Fleetwood limousines,equipped with such items as television sets and ice storage. The organization is China’s conduit for attracting foreign investment.

U.S. Ambassador Arthur W. Hummel Jr. labeled the sale of the limousines a “historic transaction,” adding that foreign dignitaries visiting China will now be able to enjoy a “smooth, quiet and luxurious ride.”

Ordinary Chinese Amazed

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The Cadillacs were presented to Chinese officials in formal ceremonies at the investment corporation’s new 29-story office and apartment building, Peking’s tallest, where foreign business executives will soon be living in three-room suites that rent for $38,000 a year.

While the ceremonies were taking place, hundreds of Chinese bystanders stared in astonishment outside the office building at the new cars, which are longer than many of their living rooms. Across the street, red signboards exhorted the Chinese masses to “Advance Hygiene” and to “Carry Out the Four Modernizations.”

“Even when you drive one of these down the street in Los Angeles, you get a lot of looks,” said Edward F. O’Gara, president of O’Gara Coachworks of Simi Valley, whose company turned 15 of the Cadillacs into special stretch-model limos. “So here, it’s like outer space. We’re working the other side of the world.”

Not for Average Folk

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The annual per-capita income for China’s 200 million urban residents last year was 608 yuan, equivalent to about $210. Private car ownership is virtually unknown, and most Chinese travel either by bicycle or by bus.

“The foreign guests want to have limousines that are comfortable,” explained China Investment Chairman Rong Yiren. Asked if leaders of foreign countries who visit Peking will use the cars, Rong replied, “It will depend on the opportunities.”

Rong, 68, a former capitalist who stayed on here after the Communist takeover, recalled that he and his family had cruised around Shanghai in a Cadillac limo in the 1940s. During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, he was compelled to work for a year as a janitor.

China Investment will rent the limos through a joint venture called the Union Car Rental Co. This week, Cadillac General Manager John O. Grettenberger admitted, the biggest clients will be the visiting GM executives themselves.

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Magnet for Other Sales

No one would say how much China Investment paid for the limousines, which sell in the United States for almost $33,000. However, Rong suggested that the package deal--which includes spare parts and training--comes to more than $1 million. GM officials also made clear that they hope the limousines and the attention they attract may help them sell ordinary cars and trucks here.

China has for years produced its own brand of limousine--the Hongqi, or Red Flag. After seeing one here this week, Grettenberger marveled, “Did you see the size of the tires on those things?”

In recent years, foreign cars have become increasingly popular with high-ranking Chinese officials. For example, Deng Xiaoping, the country’s top leader, often travels in a Mercedes-Benz.

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