Chinese enthusiast who keeps the Red Flag flying

Building Brics: In a country where private car ownership is a relatively new phenomenon, it is perhaps not surprising the classic car market is still stuck in first gear.

Luo Wenyou stands in a Hongqi, or Red Flag car; limousines that were custom-built for the Chinese leadership and used by visiting dignitaries at his museum for classic cars in Beijing. James Wasserman for The National
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In a country where private car ownership is a relatively new phenomenon - it is, after all, just over three decades since individuals started to buy cars - it is perhaps not surprising the classic car market is still stuck in first gear.

Strict rules forbidding cars more than 10 years old on China's roads have also held back the market but rising middle-class incomes and growing national obsession with four-wheelers has led to increased interest in classic cars in the country.

A report in March by Knight Frank showed the Chinese new wealthy are increasingly bullish on the classic car market as an investment vehicle and collectors believe it is only a matter of time before we start to see Chinese enthusiasts combing the international markets looking for hot classic cars as an investment.

One of China's most passionate collectors of classic cars, and a pioneer of the practice, is Luo Wenyou.

Mr Luo opened the country's first private museum for classic cars in 2009 and he has more than 200 examples, both Chinese and foreign examples.

Among Chinese marques, the biggest name is the Hongqi, or Red Flag, from First Automobile Works (FAW). This was originally a limousine custom-built for chairman Mao Zedong back in 1958, and has strong associations among Chinese people

The Red Flag limousine has recently been revived in the shape of the H7, which FAW hopes to make the official car for minister-level officials.

"The Chinese brands that I have include the Red Flag series, such as the Three Flag series and the Five Flag series, including the Red flag that Zhou Enlai used for taking part in parades and Zhou's personal car," says Mr Lou.

"I like collecting Red Flag cars because it is our national brand. In the old days, when foreign leaders came to visit China, they all wanted to travel in the Red Flag cars.

"I also collect foreign classic cars, such as Citroën, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz and others. There are more than 130 foreign classic cars in my museum."

"I have never thought of making money from my collections. It is my hobby and that is why I decided to open the museum and display the cars there. Collecting classic cars is a new fashion.

"Some rich people do it out of interest and some do it as an investment. From the investment perspective, I don't think it is the best investment because in China, classic cars are not allowed to go on the road. It will take a long time for them to revalue.

However, there is no doubt that classic cars won't lose their value," he says. In 2011, Beijing Poly International, one of China's leading auction houses, sold five vintage cars at its spring auction, the first such in China.

In December, the state administration of culture heritage held the first classic car seminar in the Shanghai Auto Museum, which was attended by collectors, experts and museum directors, part of efforts to promote vintage car collecting and culture in China.

Meanwhile, in October Volkswagen held an antique and classic car rally from Beijing to Shanghai.

The company shipped a 1930 8-litre Bentley, a 1960s Lamborghini 400GT, a 1975 2.7-litre Porsche 911, a 1956 Volkswagen Kaefer Beetle Miglia Mille and a 1972 VS Beetle Salzburg rally car from Europe to participate in the rally, the China Daily reported. In May, the Classic Car Union of China launched the fifth Beijing-to-Paris classic car rally near the Great Wall of China, at Juyongguan on the outskirts of Beijing.

Some 96 cars from 26 countries took part in the 12,500km journey over 33 days, and 86 crossed the finish line at the end of last month.

The first Peking-to-Paris Race was held in 1907, when the winner won a bottle of champagne, and there have been three since then.

Twenty five competitors did not make it past Mongolia, and there were crashes, including the tragic death of a British driver in Russia, and numerous incidents over the course of the rally.

Competing cars included a century-old Model T Ford, a 1929 Ford Model A Speedster, a 1917 La France Tourer and a 1950 Bentley Mark VI Special.

The winners of the vintage category, which covers pre-1941 models, were the Britons Phil Garratt and Kieron Brown in a 1937 Chevrolet Fangio Coupe. The collector and businessman Ian Wade has some advice for fledgling Chinese classic car enthusiasts, urging them to pay attention to auctions for famous brands and to seek help from professionals.

"Just as with rare and ancient antique collecting, investing in cars carries risk," he told the China Daily.

"Buying cars at an auction house in the United States and Europe is a good idea, though transporting the vehicles back to China will be difficult due to import regulations," he said.

"And the high maintenance costs and lack of antique car mechanics in China are also challenges."

Still, the lure of solid investment for the future and the sheer beauty of many classic vehicles should be enough to continue to fuel the growing interest in the market in the world's second-biggest economy.