Luo Wenyou has around 200 classic cars, mainly kept in the Beijing Classic Car Museum:
his enormous headquarters in Beijing’s Huairou district.
Right now he’s sat in the back of a 1975 limo made by the Chinese brand Hongqi, complete with a telephone and soft, velvety fittings. The car was made by the firm as a gift for Mao Zedong, but he died before he could receive it. Now it’s the centrepiece in Luo’s collection, which was showcased in a mini documentary named Driven, released last December.
Luo’s collection began in 1979, when he first became what was a rarity in China shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution: a private car owner. He bought a blue Polish Warszawa car, production of which began in the 1950s, for 5,000RMB.
He didn’t hesitate to show off his acquisition, which is now on display in the museum. 'I changed my white gloves every day and wore sunglasses when I was driving,' says Luo. 'Even in the winter I would lower my window so people could see me. It was so rare to see a car on the roads and there were no traffic lights, just police officers giving signals.'
Luo had worked as a driver for government officials, and would later run his own businesses, including an auto repair shop, a travel company, and a go-kart track. But after competing in the Louis Vuitton Classic China Run rally in 1998, he sold his businesses and dedicated his resources to building his car collection, eventually opening the museum in 2009.
His Government connections have helped him secure rare cars to this day. 'People were in awe of drivers,' says Luo of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when using a car was limited to the elite.
The spine of Luo’s collection is his cache of Hongqis: broad, sleek black vehicles that were made exclusively for highranking government officials. The stretch limo Hongqi is by far the most striking of the bunch.
'Back then, there was a culture in which everything was exaggerated to an unbelievable level,' Luo says. 'It was a time when a steel factory boss would say their place could produce thousands of tonnes of steel, and produce fake reports to please the government. The car technicians were excited, and wanted to produce the longest car as a gift for Mao.'
Mao’s influence can be felt through much of the collection. Luo explains that a red Dongfeng car only has Chinese characters on its bonnet because Mao couldn’t read the original pinyin lettering.
Also on display is a stocky 1945 ZIS car with a shattered window pane that was used by Liu Shaoqi, President of China from 1959 to 1968. Liu was accused of being a traitor during the Cultural Revolution. 'When the Red Guards saw his car, they would throw stones at it to express their anger,' says Luo. 'It was a time when people believed that they had to ruin the old world to create a new one.'
A depiction of Mao, his right hand held aloft, is on the wall behind a red-and-white 1950s Dongfanghong. Luo says only a few dozen of them were made because, in the late 1950s, Beijing’s mayor deemed them too bourgeois and Western looking, and halted their production.
Perhaps the most significant car for Luo, though, is his Hongqi 770. Made in the late 1970s, the car used to belong to Nie Rongzhen, a People’s Liberation Army marshal. Luo drove it on the 1,300km-long Louis Vuitton Classic China Run rally from Dalian to Beijing. Luo says he was the only Chinese driver to take part, making him something of a local celebrity to onlookers.
'I was penalised by the rally officials because my car was surrounded by so many people in Dalian,' he says. 'I remember a grandpa holding his granddaughter, then when I drove by he was so excited he started clapping and dropped her.'
Today, in contrast to the time when Luo began driving, China is the biggest car market in the world. The museum is yet another reminder of the change that has occurred here over the past 40 years.
But is there a car he’s still desperate to add to his collection? 'I do really want a British steam car,' he says. 'I think I have most of the Chinese ones already.'