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July 21, 2013

China revives Red Flag limo in display of ambition

Eds: With AP photos.

BEIJING (AP) — The massive frame, bug-eyed headlights, huge retro front grille and scarlet glass hood ornament can mean only one thing: China’s big and brash Red Flag limousine is back.

The giant homegrown sedans were once among the most distinctive icons of the People’s Republic. Chairman Mao Zedong perched in the back of one to inspect Red Guards in the 1960s. President Richard Nixon rode through Beijing in one during his breakthrough 1972 visit. Bob Hope rode in one too, and was mysteriously told that the trunk was off-limits.

The Red Flag disappeared in the 1980s, replaced by humbler joint efforts with foreign partners that produced boxy Lincoln copies and rebranded black Audis. Now Beijing is reviving the brand to its former glory as a rolling chrome-and-steel embodiment of national pride and ambition.

Since this spring, the newly designed L7 model has conveyed dignitaries including French President Francois Hollande and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye in motorcades from Beijing’s airport.

“China wants to make clear to foreign visitors that it will not become just another Western society with Western goods and taste,” said Jonathan Holslag, a research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at the University of Brussels. “China in the first place wants to be different from the West, and in the second place to be respected as a strong, muscular power.”

The L7 is a 6-meter (20-foot) dreadnought of an automobile, boasting a mammoth 12-cylinder engine and roughly resembling an oversized Bentley Flying Spur.

Foreign dignitaries and officials above the rank of minister get the L7, while top-level Chinese officials are chauffeured in an even bigger version, the leviathan L9, which reportedly costs about $800,000 and looks like the kind of car rock stars might drive into swimming pools. Almost 40 centimeters (15 inches) longer than the L7, the L9 comes with an armored chassis, rear-opening “suicide doors” and an optional sun roof from which Chinese leaders emerge when reviewing troops.

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