“You’re really lucky”, says Zongmin Huang when he sees us approaching. He immediately explains why: “Last night I stayed up quite late with friends. It was well past midnight by the time we said goodbye. Because I fell asleep rather late, I wasn’t at all sure whether I would make it to our early meeting.”
Luckily, he did. The entrepreneur not only appears spirited, he is also in a great mood. Full of curiosity, he takes a close look at the visitors from faraway Germany. He is obviously delighted and no doubt also somewhat flattered that we undertook the long trip to China especially for him.
Licence to drive: “The classic cars deserve our appreciation”, Zongmin Huang says. “They have had mine for a long time now.”
Silver glamour: Zongmin Huang’s employees ensure that his vintage cars are always in tip-top condition.
We are here because he is something of a pioneer, a trailblazer. And because he’s on a mission: he is enthusiastically working on opening up China to the vintage vehicle market. The 61-year-old is wearing light brown shoes, yellow trousers, a vanilla-coloured jacket. With a relaxed and inviting gesture, he asks us to take a seat. Tea, coffee and fruit juice are passed around. The armchairs and sofas are deep and cushiony. The expansive light-filled lounge is dominated by bright colours. Art hangs on the walls, expensive originals. Stucco on the ceiling. A tasteful ambience right in the middle of an industrial area close to the motorway leading to the airport.
We are in southwestern China, in Chengdu. With 16 million inhabitants, this is one of the megacities of Szechuan Province, also known as the “land of plenty”. Zongmin Huang lives in this city, which is home to China’s largest panda breeding centre and the largest free-standing building in the world, the New Century Global Center. He is one of the leading luxury car dealers in the province with a total population of 83 million, and is one of the richest men in China.
His collection of vintage vehicles numbers well over 200 exhibits; about every tenth vehicle is a Mercedes-Benz. “Later I’ll take you for a spin in my red 170, which I’m sure you already noticed outside. Unfortunately not in the city, just here on my – okay, not completely tiny – company premises”, he says. “I can’t drive on the roads. Well, not yet!”
First love: The Chinese businessman’s passion for collecting began with the Hongqi (“red flag”) 28 years ago.
It is currently not permissible to import vintage or classic cars to China. Driving old cars on public roads is only possible, if at all, with a special permit that is extremely hard to come by. According to many Chinese, older cars – as was the situation 30 or 40 years ago in Western Europe – are simply old: uncomfortable, uninteresting and uncool. Does anyone in China have a larger vintage car collection than he has? Mr Zongmin cradles his head as he thinks. “I am surely at the top of the ranking. Vintage cars are still a very delicate flower in China. But they are gradually coming into fashion here, too. They deserve our appreciation; they have had mine for a long time now.”
He explains the situation: there are already a few thousand vintage vehicles in the country, often imported as exhibition pieces, cultural assets or furniture. However, many more vintage cars in containers and warehouses abroad and at the borders are still waiting to enter the country. Around 40 of Mr Zongmin’s 200 valuables spanning more than 100 years of automotive history are parked in his private Classic Car Museum, which is the only one of its kind in China in this form and in terms of its range of exhibits. And he also runs a vintage car workshop with 50 employees. This is China’s first workshop dedicated to vintage car restoration and repair, he says. “Let me tell you how my passion for these pieces of history on wheels developed.”
Precision: Around 50 employees work in the vintage car workshop.
Craftsmanship: He made a name for himself as an expert for foreign vehicles throughout the province of Szechuan back in the 1980s.
Zongmin Huang is a trained car mechanic, having become a master craftsman in his trade at 22 years of age following his years as an apprentice in a rural area. He mainly repaired Japanese cars, which were well established on the Chinese market at that time. He specialised in repairs and then opened his first workshop along with three friends. He made a name for himself as an expert for foreign vehicles throughout the province of Szechuan back in the 1980s: “Back then, many workshop operators tried their luck, but quite a number of them quickly went bankrupt. We went about things in a more serious and methodical way. Repairing and restoring particularly hopeless cases was our speciality – and we were good at it.” The word quickly got around: Huang can help!
His business rapidly grew. In 1993 he employed 300 mechanics in two large workshops: “Motivated and well-trained men, and women too. Oh, just a moment”, Mr Zongmin interrupts himself. He sips his tea, stretches and crosses his arms behind his head. “1991 was a decisive year. That’s when I acquired a car that sparked my passion for vintage vehicles.”
But he didn’t buy the car for himself, rather for a customer. A rich fellow countryman wished to acquire an older model of the Chinese state saloon by the name of Hongqi, meaning “red flag”.
He found one of these rare specimens, paid the equivalent of around 10,000 euros for the Red Flag model, and reckoned with a further 3,000 euros for restoration work. The businessman from Hong Kong was willing to pay 20,000 euros for the restored car, so Mr Zongmin still made a profit of around 7,000 euros: not bad, he thought. However, his customer went bankrupt all of a sudden. Mr Zongmin was left with the black state carriage with a V8 engine and a good 200 PS. The Hongqi went into series production in 1959 with the model designation CA72 and was built until 1981 (from 1965 as CA770).
The Sanhe Classic Car Museum.
“I became more and more familiar with the car that I now unexpectedly had in my possession”, he explained. “The saloon was not simply beautiful, breathtaking and rare, it was also a piece of history. And that’s what I found fascinating. I became interested in this vehicle and saw it with very different, curious, interested and even admiring eyes.” Before long, there were three Red Flag models in the exhibition area of his business, known as Sanhe, established in 1966 in Chengdu. He still owns all of them today, and he won a major prize with one of them at the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach in California: the “Chairman’s Trophy”.
Sanhe, with around 4,000 employees, has long since become one of the best-known car dealerships in Szechuan. What does Sanhe actually mean? “Three harmonies: sky, earth, humans. The sky stands for big chances; earth for the physical background; humans for the community, a common desire as it were.”
When visiting the Blackhawk automobile museum in Las Vegas at the beginning of the new millennium, he had an idea: “I’ll build my own Classic Car Museum – the first of its kind in China!”
Treasure trove: Valuables from more than 100 years of automotive history can be found behind this door.
Star classics: No fewer than 44 automotive treasures are parked in the museum on an exhibition area of 4,000 square metres.
He acquired models from almost every manufacturer. He found many of them in the People’s Republic, and others abroad: Italy, England, America and Germany. The red 170 Da OTP (open police touring car) was the first Mercedes-Benz he bought. A businessman from western Europe who had long since moved elsewhere had left the car in China, where it had been standing around for a long time. “Follow me down here; I’ll now show you the museum”, Mr Zongmin says.
It is 4,000 square metres in area and located on the ground floor. The door opens and a sparkling treasure trove is revealed. We walk through the two halls, amazed at the impeccable vintage cars.
“I acquired both of my Mercedes-Benz 190 SL cars on exhibit, one in white, the other in red, in Germany and had them restored there, just like the 220 Cabriolet A”, he explains, his eyes aglow. The green 220 S in front of me belonged to a Chinese enthusiast before Mr Zongmin acquired it, and the Benz 8/20 PS from 1913 was owned by a collector in New Zealand. “I’ve driven in the annual Beijing–Shanghai rally in many of my Mercedes-Benz”, he says. “They are my emperors, and they must be driven over long distances.”
What does a man dream of who already owns a lot and can afford almost anything? Mr Zongmin rests his chin on his hand: “The strict import and driving restrictions have been lifted in China. Classic cars are no longer just my passion, they are my business. And whenever the mood takes me, I take a spin in my 190 SL or 170 D through the city – or a road trip through the beautiful Szechuan landscape with a group of fellow classic fanatics.”