When you’re thinking about Chinese cars, you’re perhaps thinking of small, cheap cars. But there was a crazy project. A large sedan that was supposed to compete with the best iron from Germany and made in the poor region of Liaoning. Behold the Brilliance BS6 !
In the 80s, the economic gravity center China shifted from the north, to the south. The once-unknown villages of Shenzhen and Zhuhai were now megapolis, surrounded by thousands of factories. How about the North-East (protip : never use the term “Manchuria” in front of Chinese) ? For one century and half, it was the economic force of China. Russia and Japan litteraly fought over the control of its steel factories! But now, the time of heavy industry was over. Do you think that UK Coal’s fate was bad? Imagine this over a region three times as big as Great-Britain and one and a half time as populated… And over the course of just one single decade. If you come accross an undocumented construction worker or a prostitute in her late 40s or 50s, both Chinese, chances are they’re from the North-East and they use to hold a middle-management position in one of those steel factories.
The Liaoning was the most impacted province. Wen Shizhen, the governor, tried to bring some cash with privatisations. Wen was an old-school politician, who played by the book. By his own words, the privatisation program was a disaster. He was removed for being incompetent and replaced by Zhang Guoguang. Zhang was far less bureaucratic…
Enough for the introduction. Let’s move on to automobiles. Liaoning had a few LCV factories. The greatest of them is Jinbei, located in Shenyang. In 1949, in the city once known as Mukden, Chinese communists opened a truck maintenance factory. In 1972, this factory displayed a few prototypes of the SY622, the first Chinese minibus. Possibly only a propaganda stunt. In 1989, as a compensation for the closure of the steel factories, the Shenyang Auto Work was turned into a minibus factories. Toyota provided some CKD kits of the Hiace, which was sold under the brand Jinbei. Jinbei was slowly moving toward complete production. There were dozens of factories like Jinbei in China. Zhang Guoguang was aware that if Jinbei wasn’t keeping up in term of output and added-value, the company’s days would be numbered. And if Liaoning lost its biggest factory, Zhang days would be numbered ! So, he brought in a private investor, Yang Rong. Yang wanted to build a passenger car in Ningbo, near Shanghai. China didn’t want to see any private players in the automotive field and Yang’s project was red light. At least, Yang knew how to build cars. In order to attract him, Zhang allegedly sold him 450 million USD worth of Jinbei’s share for 250 million USD, using Yang’s wife as a strawperson. Yang’s input was crucial in developping Jinbei. Thanks to him, Jinbei was able to launch the Hiase (was an “s”), its first minivan, in 2002.
The Zhonghua, the german-class sedan from the Liaoning
Yang hasn’t forgotten about his passenger car project. China was flooded with car projects. The total output was hardly over a million car per year, well under the demand. Many Chinese businessmen were considering an inexpensive car for the masses. Meanwhile, Yang’s project was a premium sedan. A car with German standards of luxury. He called it, the Zhonghua, a word-play on the chinese word for China (Zhongguo.) The english name would be Brilliance (which is actually the name of Jinbei’s parent company.) He asked Giugiaro’s Ital Design for the styling. TRW and Bridgestone supplied components. Porsche helped with the industrialisation. He couldn’t built his own engine. He had to do with the geriatric 2,0l 4G63 100bhp and the 2,4l 4G64 140bhp. Just because Mitsubishi built them in Shenyang.
As the launch of the Brilliance approached, Zhang Guoguang was rumoured to be corrupted. He was relocated in the central province of Hubei, before being arrested, in 2001. The new Liaoning governor was Bo Xilai. Bo was the up-and-coming Chinese politician. He was the son of one of Mao’s secretary, he had the hear of president Jiang Zemin and his second wife, Gu Kailai, was a successfull business lawyer. The sky was the limit for Bo and Yang’s almost impossible idea of producing a world-class luxury sedan in poor Liaoning was pleasing.
Yang knew that, at first, Brilliance wouldn’t meet its expectations, even before the first car was produced. The quality was nowhere near it should have been. To gain some know-how, he considered buying London Taxi International. Since he was scouting in Great-Britain, he got approached by MG-Rover. While the first Brilliance came out of the Shenyang fatory, the company also built a handfull of Rover 75 (known as the Zhonghua 75-800.) MG-Rover was looking for an investor. Yang only wanted to set-up a joint-venture and possibly get some technology transfer. Yet, the negociations looked promising for both parties. Bo’s son, Bo Guagua, was in Great Britain, where he was aiming for the Oxford University. Apparently Bo wanted Brilliance to pay for his son tuition. Yang was opposed to that idea. Bo had Yang accused of corruption and the businessman was given the choice of fleeing to the USA or facing jail time. Qi Yumin was the next Brilliance chairman and of course, he had nothing against financing Bo’s son British adventures. But the negociations will MG-Rover were over.
Bo had a back-up plan : BMW. The German car manufacturer wanted a factory in China, just like Audi and Mercedes. They still had ties and informants at MG-Rover who told them about Brilliance. Thanks to Bo’s contact at the top level of Beijing, Brilliance got the right to set-up a joint-venture with BMW. It was a Chinese first for a manufacturer that wasn’t state-owned (the Brilliance group is owned by a province-owned fund.)
Bo was apointed secretary of economy. Nontheless, his wife still had many interst in Liaoning and he kept an eye on Brilliance. The manufacturer planed a whole range of cars, its own engine factory and international expensions. Ital Design got to design all the models. With BMW, Brilliance learned to make better cars. The large sedan (which became the BS6, as more models were expected) was redesigned.
During 2006 and 2008, all the projects came to fruition. Brilliance now had a range of four models : the BS6, the smaller BS4, the BS2 supermini and the BC3 coupe. The company started building its first engine : a 1.8 liter turbo petrol dubbed the “airplane engine”. HSO had built a small network of potential dealerships and Germany, with agreements all over Europe. Brilliance appeared at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show. Rocket capital, an investment company, wants to represent Brilliance stateside. In 2009, HSO happily shows some BS4 (the smaller sedan) with german plates. Things were looking great.
The higher you rise, the harder you fall
In France, HSO made an agreement with Asie Auto, an independant importer made with the ashes of MG-Rover France. I personnaly acted as an adviser for Asie Auto. My opinion was that the BS6 was underpowered. The BS2 supermini and the BS4 sedan were bargains, but only had petrol engines. At the time, two third of all cars sold in France had a diesel engine and Brilliance promised us they were working on diesel and hybrid engines (editor’s note, we’re still waiting for them…) Yet, I identified that the biggest challenge was the brand. Why would somebody buy a car from an unknown Chinese brands, for the price of a low-mileage well-known brand ? People are looking for resell value, reliability and trust. It’s a long way to build a brand and I knew that we were looking at a few hundred cars per year, at first. Which is what exactly happened with the MG6. The German car manufacturer disagreed. They felt threaten by Brilliance. They prevented Brilliance to get a booth at the Frankfurt auto show. Then, they crashed a car. The BS4 got a 3-star rating. But they say that since the car didn’t have an ESP (which was actually coming on the 2010 model), it deserved a 0-star rating. And the German press headlined “Chinese car got 0-stars”. It was devastating. HSO, the European importer, went bankrupt. Rocket Capital, the potential American representative, cancelled their plan.
Back in Shenyang, the European fiasco had financial consequences. It wasn’t about competing with Mercedes-Benz and flooding the world with luxury sedans… It was about saving the company. More bad news came as Brilliance has lost its protector. Bo Xilai and his wife were suspected of corruption. He was relocated as the maire of Chongqing and there was nothing he could do for Brilliance. In a crazy turn of events, a few year later, Bo was trialed for poisoning his English adviser, because Bo suspected he had an affair with his wife. Luckily, the joint-venture with BMW was blooming. Also, Jinbei launched a brand new van, the Grace. Chinese VIP enjoy travelling at the back of vans with leather-clad capitain seats and TV screens. The Grace was this kind of van. Yet, that wasn’t enough to save the group. The Liaoning province had to create the Huachen Holding fund, which took over the Brilliance group. Qi Yumin was let go. Brilliance also focused on its best selling products. The BS6 left the scene in 2010.
After 2010, Brilliance wanted to play safe. The H220/H230 was a smaller supermini and it gained moderate success. The manufacturer missed the SUV trend. It negociated the use of the N20 2.0l engine and the E60 platform from BMW. The later was to be used The Greater China, an ambitious large sedan. The name of the car itself was quite confrontational. Unfortunately, after 2012, this project was cancelled. And so were Brillance’s ambitions in the premium car market…