A car caught between ideological conflicts

On a sunny afternoon in 2014 while flipping through a classic car auction catalogue, I came across a car I knew I had to make a bid for – a 1965 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman first owned by the People’s Republic of China and assigned to its Foreign Minister Chen Yi.  I still remember on the day of the auction, I was on holiday with my family in St. Petersburg so I enlisted the help of a friend to make a phone bid for me.  When he told me I won the lot with a single bid, I was a bit worried because that meant nobody wanted it and I was the only bidder.  Anyway, that’s how my story with this 600 began.

What captured my fascination about this car was not only its stately provenance but the story of how it came to China at a time when trade sanctions were in place between China and the West.  People’s Republic of China was initially recognized by the Soviet Union, North Korea and other Communist Bloc countries.  Under the Hallstein Doctrine, the Federation Republic of Germany or West Germany were among those adopting a hard-line anti-communist foreign policy.  Was the car a secret gift from West Germany government as a good faith gesture in opening trade talks which paved the way to eventual partnership between the two countries?  

Chen Yi was no ordinary statesman – he was a military commander, spokesman for Chairman Mao Zedong and one of the ten founding fathers of modern China.  When he moved to Paris in 1919, he met Deng Xiaoping, later regarded as the architect of Modern China. Deng was working at the Renault factory’s labour union at the time.  Returning to China in 1922 following his expulsion after participating in a mass protest, Chen joined the Chinese Communist Party.  He steadily rose through the ranks, becoming the first Mayor of Shanghai in 1949. He was further promoted to Vice Premier in 1954 and ultimately succeeded Zhou Enlai to become China’s Foreign Minister in 1958.  At a time when most Chinese Communist leaders were dressed uniformly in grey Mao suit (aka ZhongShan suit) as they appear in public, the well-travelled Chen Yi was sporting western-tailored attire in all white with sunglasses during his visits abroad, reflecting his international exposure and individual style.    His entrance to the world stage of geo-politics was closely followed by the Western media, as marked by his appearance on the cover of TIME Magazine (26 February, 1965 Edition) under the headline “The Enemy in Asia – Red China’s Foreign Minister Chen Yi”

Chen Yi appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1965

Mercedes-Benz introduced the 600 series (W-100), also known as Grosse Mercedes (Grand Mercedes) or simply The Grosser, in 1963 and took the motoring press by storm with its state-of-the-art technology, advanced engineering and ultra-luxury interior.  It brought a whole new meaning to luxury limousines.  The world had never seen a car so majestic, so sophisticated and so expensive. It was built without cost consideration and every single one of the 2,677 units were hand-built by craftsmen to the highest level of quality.  With a price tag of DM63,500, ten times the cost of a Volkswagen Beetle, it was the world’s most expensive production car at the time but that did not deter buyers from opening their wallets.  In fact, it instantly became the car of choice among heads of states, royalty, celebrities and even dictators.  Famous owners included The Pope, John Lennon, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il and Mao Zedong.  A highly sophisticated hydraulic system running at 2,000 psi pressure powers everything from windows control to door locks in absolute silence.  Its air suspension delivered a ride so smooth you can sip champagne inside without worrying about it spilling over.  The Grosser came in 2 versions – Saloons (short wheelbase) and Pullmans (long wheelbase). A number of Pullmans, known as Landaulets, featured convertible tops allowing their passengers be easily seen when the occasion calls for it, such as during military parades.  

China’s car manufacturing was still in its infancy and the first luxury sedan, CA72, was launched in 1958.  It was built by First Automotive Works (FAW), one of the “Big-Four” state-owned Chinese automaker, under the Hongqi brand (literally translates as Red Flag).  Hongqi’s emblem, a series of 3 red flags symbolizes China’s national flag, proudly adorns the bonnet of all its cars.  The mechanics of the CA72 were based on the Cadillac C69 but the rest was completely redesigned, including a new body, Rosewood interior trim, a dashboard painted with natural lacquer native to Fujian Province and seats reupholstered with Hangzhou brocade.  Zhou Enlai wanted to host oversees dignitaries but thought the CA72 was too small.  FAW subsequently began development of the long wheelbase version and reportedly brought in Chen’s Grosser as a reference car.  In 1966, the long wheelbase CA770 was born.  Only 20 units were built and they were assigned to senior party members including Chen Yi.   In addition, FAW built 7 armoured versions, known as CA772T, featuring 8cm-thick bulletproof glass and fitted with runflat tyres.  They were assigned to Lin Biao (No. 1), Jiang Qing – Lead of Gang of Four and also wife of Mao Zedong (No. 2), Kang Sheng (No. 3), Wang Hao Wen (No. 4), Zhou Enlai (No. 5 & No. 6)  and Mao Zedong (No. 7).  Richard Nixon was one of the few dignitaries who rode in Zhou Enlai’s CA772T during his official state visit to China in 1972, one of the most important events in Sino-US history after 25 years of diplomatic isolation bewteen the two nations.

According to Mercedes-Benz’s data card, this car was ordered in 1964 destined to the People’s Republic of China (country code 819) and delivered on 17 February, 1965 to Automotive Limited Hong Kong China, a subsidiary of the official Mercedes Benz dealer in Hong Kong and China called Zung Fu.  Hong Kong was a thriving trading hub under the British rule in 1965 and China imported many of its foreign goods through this port.  Upon its arrival in Hong Kong, the Grosser was immediately loaded onto a train destined for Mainland China.  Once there, it was assigned to Chen Yi and reportedly also used by Mao Zedong during his visits to Shanghai.  Cultural Revolution broke out just over a year later and Chen was bitterly attacked for disloyalty and came under investigation in February, 1967.  His political reputation was eventually restored and his position reinstated in 1969.  Nonetheless, the Grosser fell into the hands of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), another state-owned Chinese Automakers.  During the Cultural Revolution, Chen’s Grosser was put into long-term storage until it was recovered in the 90s by Hans Luwich, a German engineer working for Volkswagen Shanghai (a SAIC subsidiary).  Luwich acquired the car and repatriated it to Germany in 1993.  It was featured in Germany’s leading motoring magazine Autobild.  A collector in the Netherlands purchased the car from Luwich before my acquisition.  

The Grosser returned to Hong Kong in 2015, exactly 50 years after it first arrived.  I felt a sense of relief in safely bringing it back again and it was a bit of a homecoming after all these years abroad.  It’s only a matter of time before it finds its way back to its spiritual home – Shanghai.  As the custodian of a highly original, unrestored example of one of the greatest Mercedes-Benz of all time, I feel compelled to document the fascinating story in which the car was a quiet yet central character of an unusual Sino-German diplomatic encounter, tracing back to an era of a world separated by ideologies in rhetorics, but not in the desire to reach out and connect despite the differences.   

Photo credits: LBI Limited 

Goodwood Revival - The best garden party on earth

Goodwood Revival has long been sitting on my wish list of top 5 car events to visit and finally, with a great excuse this year, I made my pilgrimage.  It’s been a Mecca for car enthusiasts worldwide for decades, nowadays attracting more than 200,000 visitors every year over the 3-day carnival. Its attraction not only lies in seeing vintage cars raced around a race track, the highlight is seeing everyone dressed in vintage clothing from the 1940s-60s.  The atmosphere is unique and the experience nostalgic – like stepping into a time machine.

Set in the South Downs National Park in Chichester, West Sussex, the Goodwood House and Estate has been the family home of The Duke of Richmond for the last 300 years.   In addition to Goodwood Revival, the Estate also hosts the Festival of Speed and Glorious Goodwood.   To put things into perspective, it’s like hosting a garden party at home, inviting our neighbours and friends to dress funny, come to the front lawn to talk about cars over tea and biscuits – only that The Duke’s front lawn is the size of a county, has a race track, an airstrip, a horse racecourse, a stable, a hotel, a club house, two 18-hole golf courses and covers 10,000 acres.

It is no wonder why so many people returns to Goodwood year after year.  See you in 2020.

Kyoto Concorso d’Eleganza

Ultra-rare cars showcase at Kyoto Concorso d'Eleganza 2019

Kyoto Concorso d’Eleganza 2019
On the picturesque grounds of Nijō Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former shogun residence in the heart of Kyoto, Japan, 54 of the rarest and most prized classic cars were on display for Kyoto Concorso d’Eleganza 2019. Founded by Hidetomo Kimura and chaired by world famous car collector Corrado Lopresto, this is the third edition and now officially recognised by the Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA), the worldwide federative association of historic automobile clubs, as an important concorso in Asia.  The majestic architectural settings coupled with the quality of the cars on displayed could have rivaled the experience at Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este – except there is no prosecco on tap (no F&B allowed in the castle) and Simon Kidston is split into 3 persons speaking English, Italian and Japanese.

Zagato Celebrates 100th Anniversary
As part of Zagato’s centenary celebration, there was a wide range of super rare Zagato bodied cars spanning the century starting with 1930’s Alfa Romeo pre-war race cars, 1950’s diminutive Fiat-Abarths, 1960’s GTs, 1980’s oddities to modern day carbon-fibre bodied limited editions penned by Zagato design chief Norihiko Harada.

American collector Bill Pope’s unique 1965 Lamborghini 3500 GT Zagato was awarded “Best of Show” and “Best Zagato” by a panel of judges led by Sandra Button, chairman of Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.  “Best Lamborghini” went to a 1971 Miura SV in Verde Miura. “Best Alfa Romeo” went to a 1931 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS Zagato. “CHAPAL Desirable to drive” went to a 1976 Lamborghini Countach LP400 Periscopio.

My Car
My 1957 Fiat-Abarth 750GT Zagato competed in “Class 750” but lost to a well-deserved Moretti 750 Zagato with period racing history. Kudos to the Japanese owner for keeping it on the road.  The other entrant from Hong Kong Douglas Young brought along his Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ that has been his daily driver for the last 20 years.  It’s full of originality and patina that it would’ve surely won Conservation Class if there was one.

Tour d’Eleganza
The morning after the show, some of us took part on a 3-day Tour d’Eleganza rally starting from Nijō Castle, traveling 300km westbound towards Takamatsu via the beautiful Seto-ohashi Bridge.  The second day we explored the wonders of Naoshima and stayed overnight in Kotohira.  On the last day, co-driver Carl Yuen and I woke up at 6am to do a morning drive through the mountains of Kagawa before heading back to the hotel for breakfast.  On the last leg of the journey, my car suffered an engine problem and we had to make an emergency stop on the hard shoulder.  A very helpful Emii Matsunaga in the convoy asked her friend Akihiro-san to call for a tow truck which came to my rescue.  He later showed up in his Jaguar XK120 in which he raced at the Mille Miglia five times!  I caught up with the convoy again at the next meeting point and hitch-hiked the rest of my journey in an open top Cisitalia 202MM Nuvolari Spider.  How cool is that?

The car currently is at the shop awaiting inspection.  I hope to be back on the road soon to explore rural Japan again.

Bloomberg Invest Asia

5 things to consider before buying a classic car

Last week I took part at the Bloomberg Invest Asia “Investing in your passion” panel where I shared my thoughts on things to consider when buying a classic car.  Here’s a recap:
1. Do homework
Identify the car brand, model, color and specs.  The next step is to take a deep dive and conduct due diligence.  Thanks to the proliferation of internet, knowledge is a commodity and so much information can be found with just a few clicks on the computer.  Auction catalogues from leading auction houses such as RM Sotheby’s, Bonhams, Gooding & Co. are a good starting point.  Catalogue description often provides a brief background of the models’ history as well as details specific to each lot.  Attending car club meetings is another great way to learn about a particular brand as well as an opportunity to mingle with other car enthusiasts and see their cars.  First hand experience from past/current owners is often the best resource.
2. Buy from reputable dealers and auction houses
It goes without saying that working with trusted people is the number one priority.  The vast majority of classic car dealers in the industry maintains a high degree of ethical standards and professionalism but when there are financial transactions there are scammers and fraudsters.  For private sales, bring a knowledgable friend for a second opinion, arrange a test drive, do pre-purchase inspection, check legitimacy of the paperwork, confirm the seller holds clear title to the car and is authorised to sell before handing over cash.
3. Condition, Condition, Condition
There is no such thing as a cheap Ferrari.  Classic car market is very efficient and price generally reflects condition.  As the old saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”.  Contrary to conventional investment wisdom of buy-low-sell-high, paying top dollars for the best example often works well in the long run.  Buy high sell even higher.
4. Expectations
Automotive engineering and manufacturing technology has come a long way since the arrival of Ford’s Model T in 1908 – the first mass production vehicle in the world.  Modern cars are comfortable, reliable, environmental friendly and economical, everything classic cars is not. If you want to impress a spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend on a date in a newly bought pride and joy, chances are it may well end up on a tow truck.  Having said that, giving up modern day comfort in exchange for a rewarding driving experience is what this is all about.  Getting admiring glances and thumbs up from passer-bys is the icing on the cake.
6.  Purpose
Buying any car is already a big financial and emotional commitment, buying a classic car just takes this commitment to a whole new level.  Classic car is an expensive hobby that requires a lot of TLC.  What is it that makes you want to go down this route?  What are the objectives? Will your spouses or children be part of this journey?  Can you see your children sharing your passion and wanting to drive it one day?
There is nothing more discouraging than buying a childhood dream that turns out to be a living nightmare.  I have made many of the mistakes mentioned about and I hope this will be helpful to your journey to classic car ownership.
Would love to hear your comments and experience, please share them below.

5 cae events to go in 2019

5 Best Car Shows in 2019

  • When & Where – 6-10 Feb, Paris, France
  • Reason to go – Europe largest classic car show
  • What to wear – Your best suit
  • Theme – Celebrating 60 years of Mini
  • When & Where – 12-13 Apr, Kyoto, Japan
  • Reason to go – Held at Nijo Castle, UNESCO Heritage Site
  • What to wear – Japanese kimono
  • Theme – Celebrating Zagato 100th Anniversary
  • When & Where – 15-18 May, Brescia, Italy
  • Reason to go – Held at Nijo Castle, UNESCO Heritage Site
  • What to wear – Italian chic
  • Theme – “a unique and fascinating traveling museum, staged in an extraordinary framework of cheering crowds” – Enzo Ferrari
  • When & Where – 16 Aug, Carmel, USA
  • Reason to go – Part of Monterrey Car Week, biggest car event on earth
  • What to wear – Straw hat
  • Theme – Celebrating 70 years of the Iconic Porsche 356
  • When & Where – 13-15 Sep, Chichester, United Kingdom
  • Reason to go – travel back in time to the golden age of motor racing
  • What to wear – anything from your parents’ wardrobe
  • Theme – If you are into vintage racing themed dress parties then look no further

Auto italia future delta

Lancia Hyena Zagato hits the cover of Auto Italia!

My 1995 Lancia Hyena Zagato appears on the front cover of the current issue of Auto Italia magazine.  Thank you Chris Rees and your team at Auto Italia for taking it out for a spin and putting together such a brilliant feature article.

Glad you had a good laugh, the privilege is mine!

To see the full article, click here.

Fiat-Abarth 750GT Zagato

Fiat-Abarth 750GT Zagato wins Best in Class at 2018 Concorso Italiano

Thank you Concorso Italiano and Keith Martin.

Fullerton 90

2018 Fullerton Singapore Concours d'Elegance

Celebrating 90th anniversary of the Fullerton Building where the Fullerton Hotel now stands, the inaugural Fullerton Concours d’Elegance officially launches. It brings together 90 classic cars across a wide range of marques and eras available for public viewing over a 3-day event.

gold coast motor festival

2017 Goldcoast Motor Festival: Hypercars steal the show


Highlights include the Pagani Zonda Fantasma Evo, a one-off special edition; Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, one of 20 ever produced; a McLaren P1GTR, the iconic McLaren F1 as well as Bugatti Chiron, which is making its Hong Kong public début at the festival.

And guess what – I forgot to take photos, haha……

1958 Porsche

Jerry Seinfeld sells some cars...


Perhaps one of the most famous car nut in the world, Jerry Seinfeld decided to sell 16 Porsches from his personal collection.  Amongst them included a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, a 1958 Porsche 356 A 1500 GS/GT Carrera Speedster, and a 1974 Porsche 911 Carrera 3.0 IROC RSR.

“Jerry Seinfeld sell some cars.”