The cars we loved.
The ideal of a national design identity is an ideal whose time has come and gone. Thanks to global product development, German cars can be built in South Carolina or Mexico and be a bit less “German” in order to sell more units in America. While the notion of a national design heritage is not as strong as it once was, the long legacies of company’s like Mercedes Benz, Cadillac or Ferrari are firmly embedded in the respective design languages of the places they come from.
As a relative newcomer to mass automobile consumption, China has not developed any design language to speak of beyond copying. Copying or inspired replication might be what the Chinese are best known for now, but in time that could change. Imagine a future where it might be possible to see the influences of nearly 1,000 years of culture distilled into a SUV, family sedan or supercar?
For now the dreamers can only awaken to the reality of the replicant car. For anyone who follows the Chinese automotive industry, the new products that are regularly introduced offer a window into a strange alternative universe where the best of the outside world is mixed, re-mixed and fused into weird composites of the cars we have come to love or loath.
China’s first real supercar is a great example. Designed by students at Tongya University, the hybrid all-wheel drive coupe has bits and pieces of Ferrari, Audi and Lamborghini all wrapped up in a package that looks less alluring than any one of them on its own. When first shown at the Shanghai Motor Show in 2009, the Tong Jian S11 created quite a stir, not just because it was named for a popular Chinese figure skater, but because it would employ an advance drive mechanism, just like eco-exotics in the West from Fisker and Tesla.
Little was known about the actual gasoline-electric setup, but examples of the car were paraded around for good measure. For all the casual observer can tell, its a front engine design, although the car’s proportions say mid-engine. Even the inside copies heavily from various Ferraris. The rear of the car in keeping with its Italian theme, borrows so heavily from the Ferrari F430, that it could have been made from a altered mold from some toy factory.
To call it a clone of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Nissan, Audi or whoever is a bit of a disservice to its influences. Those cars are far more resolved designs, yet the S11 is attractive. Some credit should be given to the design teams ability to toss in everyone’s favorite car into what looks like a nearly cohesive design. Far worse has come out of China.
Plans to put the car into production had floated around until an official announcement by Jianghuai Automotive. They basically bought the rights to the design and flaunted it at the 2012 Beijing Auto show sans the original Tong Jian badges. The re-christened S11 would see production under its JAC Motors brand. Like details about the car, no definitive date for production is known. JAC Motors is the same company who notoriously replicated a knockoff Ford F-150 a few years back, so the ideal of copying is not new to them, this time they’ve set the target inspiration higher.
Perhaps at some point in the future Chinese supercars will offer exotic car performance at near luxury car prices. If that were to ever happen, Chinese companies will have to do more than just copy as their interpretations often end up looking like kit cars. While the Tong Jian (or JAC S11) represents baby steps in China’s sports car market, someday it might mirror the success of the Korean’s who took less than 20 years to go from Excel to cars like the Optima and Equus. Watch out Ferrari, Lamborghini and Audi. The S11 just might eat your lunch one day (or copy it).