SHANGHAI, CHINA—There are two major auto shows in China—Shanghai and Beijing, which occur on alternative years—another large auto event in the southern city of Guangzhou, and then perhaps 100 more scattered around this enormous country.
How many automakers are there? Perhaps 400, and 200 that make electric cars. China has the world’s largest auto industry now, and the world’s biggest EV market too. Dramatic sights are always just around the corner in China. At night, walking down a darkened street, we came across a troupe of ballroom dancers, their movements beautifully synchronized to a boombox. The scooters going by constantly don’t drown the music out because, practically overnight, they all went electric.
Shanghai is different, but also familiar. You want Papa Joe’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Starbucks? No problem. In Shanghai’s financial district, the world’s third tallest building snakes up until its top is lost in the clouds. But there is also, just a short ferry ride away, a row of colonial buildings dating back to British occupation, and warrens of tiny shops that undoubtedly had their origins much further back.
Automakers don’t just show their cars in Shanghai; they’re also headquartered in the city. We visited Weltmeister (a/k/a WM), where a team of 100 young trainees in identical green shirts were getting their orders for the auto show the next day. The place was an office, showroom and, from all appearances, a play center for children.
We were greeted by CEO Freeman H. Shen, an experienced executive with stints in both Europe and the U.S. “We will focus on smart electric vehicles and build fun and affordable cars,” he said, WM’s approach is something like Tesla in reverse—it’s starting with the equivalent of the $35,000 Model 3 and maybe building more expensive models later.
The cars definitely focus on fun—with a screen instead of a grille, the EX5 even says hello to its drivers. And there’s some cool tech—the car will build IDs of its different pilots and then predict its battery range based on what it knows about individual driving behavior. Some 50 Chinese cities have signed on with WM, but it was unclear whether that will mean there will be full dealer and service networks in each place.
The show itself was a sensory overload. Each big hall—and there were eight on each of two floors—had a dozen or more automakers, many of them Chinese brands not previously encountered. Standard fare was a range of SUVs, a couple of sedans, battery power (on all the cars, or just some of them) and a very fanciful concept vehicle. Multiply that times 50 and you have the Shanghai show.
Many of the automakers have export plans, but many others are content with just servicing the Chinese market—which is in a bit of a lull now but has shown meteoric growth. Admittedly, the cities pay for it. Shanghai has both bad air pollution and serious congestion, though not as horrendous as Beijing.
The Chinese industry in 2019 has echoes of the U.S. in the roaring 20s. There were then hundreds of American automakers, some of them just regional players. Have you ever heard of Brush, Maxwell, Autocar, American Underslung, Knox, Stutz (well, maybe you’ve heard of Stutz), Apperson, Peerless, Trumbull and Locomobile?
They’ll probably be some shakeout in China, too, but with insatiable demand it hasn’t happened yet. In addition to all the Chinese automakers, the show floor was filled with virtually all of the American, European and Asian brands, all eager to grab a piece of the action with Chinese partners and special long wheelbase models. With so many Chinese billionaires and multi-millionaires, the luxury brands were here, too, from Lamborghini and McLaren to Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Tesla and Lotus.
One thing that still happens at Chinese auto shows is high rollers buying cars directly off the stands. That happened at Rolls, Bentley and Aston Martin. It’s impressive when some of the supercars are approaching $1 million in price.
Courtesy of the China-based Internet Info Agency, we spent a day at the show meeting executives and learning about cars that might eventually be for sale across America. The idea seems funny now, but people also laughed at the idea of cars from Japan. In the few years I’ve been coming to China, I’ve seen quality increase dramatically, right along with the determination to sell vehicles around the world.