By Joest Jonathan OUAKNINE
Let’s start with a bit of history. Zhengzhou (to be pronounced “jeng-joe”) is a town in the geographical middle of China with a very ancient history. According to legends, the very first kingdom of China was founded nearby, in 2500 BC, by the Five kings. It’s also nearby that Wu the great started the Xia dynasty, the first Chinese dynasty (whose existence is mostly unproved.) At around 1500 BC, the Shang dynasty came to power and during their reign, writing came to China. In 1046 BC, the Zhou dynasty overthrow the Shang and the capital moved to Chang’An (present-day Xi’An), in the West. In 495AD, a monk coming from India opened the now-infamous Shaolin temple in the vicinity. Then, not much happened. In the early 20th century, some of China’s first railroads went to Zhengzhou. This brought prosperity to the small-town, which was elevated to prefecture of the Henan province. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. In 1938, when the imperial army invaded the area, the Chinese sabotaged a dam. It flooded the area and stopped the army, but there were lots of casualties. During the 50s, Zhengzhou suffered many other floodings. By the 80s Henan was one of the poorest region in China.
The long march of the pick-up truck
In 1979, Deng Xiaoping started its economic and social reforms in China. One of his first gesture was to go to Japan and visit the Nissan factory. The Chinese Communist Party viewed Japan as an arch-nemesis. But the time of ideology was over. Back then, China was only producing ten thousand vehicles (mostly lorries) a year. It wasn’t enough for the needs of over 1 billion people and on top of that, they were outdated models, going back from the 50s (when China had ties with USSR.) China craved for commercial vehicles. Japan was looking for outputs and deals were passed. In the mid-80s, China started producing some licensed-built minivans, known as “bees” (they were painted yellow and they looked fast in a bike-dominated traffic) or “bread box” (due to their shape.) Minivans were useful for building contractors, wholesalers and small business owners. Then, rural China wanted vehicles, too. They needed an inexpensive, rugged, commercial vehicle, capable of driving on dusty trails. Or, to be summed up, they wanted pickup trucks.
Nissan’s Hardbody (D21) was a perfect fit. That’s when politics stepped in. China didn’t want Japanese to own or even to co-own a car-builder. So, Nissan had to hide behind its Taiwanese partner, Yue Long. China decided that the Second Automobile Works (SAW) would assemble those pickup trucks. And in order to revitalize the poor Henan, they would be assembled in a brand-new factory in Zhengzhou. Eventually, in 1993, Yue Long and DongFeng (SAW’s new name) officially launched DongFeng LTD (DFL) in Zhengzhou. Of course, the pickups wore Dongfeng’s badge. Yue Long and Dongfeng also made a joint-venture for passenger cars. Informations about the pick-up are scarce. Apparently, the Zhengzhou factory only started in the late-90s and it was only a screwdriver factory.
In 2003, Nissan finally got the right to build cars in China. They took over both Yue Long’s joint-ventures. The passenger-car division was renamed DongFeng-Nissan and the pickup trucks division, Zhengzhou-Nissan. In the later one, they brought the newer Navara (D22) pickup truck and the Pathfinder (D50) SUV. The factory was turned into an actual production factory. By this time, China got to build its own pickup trucks. The market was flooded with almost identical cheap Isuzu clones. Nissan Rich (Navara) and Paladin (Pathfinder) were more expensive. In order to show that the price difference was justified by its quality, Zhengzhou-Nissan entered cross-country rallying (we’ll get to that later on.)
Zhengzhou-Nissan exported its pickup trucks to developing countries. Angola and Sudan even had short-lived CKD factories. As China got richer, contractors and farmers wanted better pickup and SUV. Many manufacturers closed their door within a few years and of course, Zhengzhou-Nissan’s sales were up. China wanted to develop Zhengzhou-Nissan and they started to built more factories. In exchange, the DongFeng badge went away. Yet, the Cabstar lorry and the NV200 minivan were commercial failures. One of the factory have been sold to a Chinese car-manufacturer, Haima. Last year, Zhengzhou-Nissan launched the latest generation of the Navara (D23.)
The oldest and the biggest factory is located in Zhongmu. It’s an almost one-hour drive from Zhengzhou city-center. The industrial zone was built from scratch and it now looks outdated. The Nissan-factory itself looks old. It’s a far-cry of the Alliance’s standards. It still produce the Rich. There are many orange naked bodies waiting outside. Orange being the colour of China’s electricity utility. And of course, there are Navara, which the company is now trying to push. In China, pickup trucks have to carry informations about gross weight and capacity on the side, some reflecting strips on the back and the license-plate number has to be painted on the hatch.
As an heritage of Dongfeng-Nissan and Zhengzhou-Nissan being two companies, they have their own reselling network. Nissan LCV dealerships have lots of brochures and totems. One of them is about the pickup lineage, starting with the 1938 17T. Back then, Nissan showed proudly in its advertising that it supplied this very truck to the imperial army during the “Nanking pacification” (a Japanese euphemism for the Nanking massacre.) Of course, there’s no period advertisement on the totem and most Chinese won’t know about this story. Another totem is dedicated to Florence Pham’s victory in the women-only Rebel Rally, in the USA, with a Navara. Florence is a French amateur racing driver who works for Nissan’s PR Team.
The Zhengzhou-Nissan factory might have brought some jobs. But Zhengzhou’s current prosperity is due to another jobs, Steve Jobs, to be precise. Foxconn built a giant factory in the “Zhengzhou Technology Park”, near the airport. Hundred of thousands of people are assembling iPhones there. Today, Zhengzhou looks like a generic small town with dozens of shopping-centers and McDonalds.
Zhongzhou road is a square-shaped street that circles the city-center. In a back-alley, one might notice some racing-pickup trucks. Even Wang Yi, a local racing-car PR, is a bit lost. Then, one have to follow a trail of old Toyota toward an unmarked greasy garage. A racing FJ Cruiser being serviced is a small clue. Upstairs, there are aftermarket parts for pickup trucks. But then, there’s Song Hai Tao’s office. His desk is surround with trophies, pamphlets and rally plates.
In 2003, racing was on its infancy in China. The team started with a Patrol with both ends sawed for trial meetings. Then cross-country rallies appeared and the Patrol was raced. In 2007, Zhengzhou-Nissan wanted to enter racing, in order to promote their pickup trucks and SUVs. They turned to the local team. Dessoude, a French Nissan dealership, was already building racing trucks. Some of them got a DongFeng front-end. The goal was the 2008 Dakar. Zhengzhou-Nissan hired both Chinese drivers who already did the race, Xu Lang and Zhou Yong. Unfortunately, due to terrorism, the 2008 Dakar was cancelled and the 2009 edition moved to South America. The Chinese team entered the Transorientale instead. Xu was doing great. He won a stage and was 4th in the provisional ranking. Then, one day, he encountered another Nissan stuck in the mud. The driver put a tow bar and asked his codriver to start. As the rope got stiff, Xu was struck and died instantly. Zhengzhou-Nissan withdraw from world-rallying. Xu was perceived as a hero and with the buzz around his memory, many Chinese drivers and car-builders wanted to enter the Dakar. The team kept the Dessoude-built pickup trucks and turned to local rallying. Then they got hold of some near-stock Rich. The team is still the Zhengzhou-Nissan factory-team, but they’re known by their main supporter, Sailun-Jinyu tires. Due to limited space, the team keeps its racing cars outside, in the street. But that’s not an issue in a country where thief is almost non-existing.
The journey carries-on in a cosy-part of the city-center. A bar is decorated with old posters, old music instruments and even furnitures. Welcome to Zhang Xiao Long’s tavern. He got into racing as a painter. He was the one who painted the Dessoude-built pick-up trucks’ livery. Later on, he became a racing driver himself. Now, he has this bar and he also sells tea. But in the winter, he arranges journey over snowy roads with a bunch of black Jeep.
It seems that all racing teams are in unexpected places. Let’s now go to the airport and its brand new warehouses. One of them still has its previous owner’s logo, a datte wholesaler. But in lieu of fruits, there are four Nissan Navara inside. 10 years after Xu’s death, his legacy is still alive. There were two Chinese privaters in the Dakar 2018. Donnie wants to be the next one. A racing driver, he hang up is helmet in late 2016, brought some racing-trucks and set-up the Fire Knight team.
Donnie is proud to say that his Navara are South-African-sourced. A few dozen kilometers away, the Zhongmu factory makes the same Navara. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy some from Zhengzhou-Nissan and rebuild them? Donnie prefers those factory-made South-African pickup trucks. Unlike the Sailun-Jinyu team, everything is clinically-clean. Some of his racing mechanics are from the French foreign legion.
Fire Knight won the Chinese cross-country championship on its first complete season. The next step is the Dakar 2019. “With Christian Lavieille”, ads Donnie. Back when the Dakar had nearly 200 competitors in the automobile category, Chinese entrants were overlooked. I recent years, the number of entrants got slimmer and the Dakar could definitely use a couple of Donnie’s cars.
Zhengzhou International Car Park
Zhengzhou is now a pickup trucks city. But some people would like to turn it into a racing-circuit city. Some kilometers away from the Fire Knight premise, there’s a construction site. China already has 7 permanent racetracks. 2 more came out last year. Zhengzhou wants to bring that number to 10.
The racetrack was designed with the help of Zhuhai International Racetrack (China’s oldest facility.) It has a number of configurations, including a rallycross track and an easier club track. In order to host racing events, the FIA says it must be 2.5 km long. To reach that length, the track has an extension all around a square. The site is near a river. The main straight is actually curvy and that’s the key-point of the track. There’s only one small tribune, but there will be VIP loge on top of the paddock and an hotel will be located in front of one of the curve.
Of course, the track owners aren’t expecting F1. But they have many project, including a 24 hour-long endurance race. A country-first. And of course, there will be buildings, to host permanently local teams.
The Zhengzhou International Car Park should be finished by July, when it is scheduled to host its first meeting.
There’s definitely a lot going on, car-wise, in this apparently dull small city.