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China 1980-1985: Fiat 126p best-seller, 1 passenger car for every 6 million people

Fiat 126P China 1980. Picture courtesy of chinacartimes.comFiat 126p taxi in Shanghai, China

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Up until 1979, cars were an extremely rare sight on Chinese roads, only high ranking civil servants were permitted to have cars and a privately owned vehicle was unthinkable. In the early eighties, China bought 10,000 Fiat 126P from Poland, but as they were too small for official use and personal car ownership was not yet permitted the cars became part of the taxi fleet.

Eventually car ownership rules were relaxed which allowed for the 126p to be sold on the private market at a price of 5,000 yuan, an astronomical sum at the time but not out of the reach of the nations first entrepreneurs who eagerly snapped them up, the majority in Shanghai where the economic reforms were really having an effect on consumer spending habits. Later on the Toyota Crown and VW Santana would join the market at the price of 10,000 yuan but the 126p continued to be a strong seller with 30,000 units being sold each year on average during the eighties.

A fascinating article from the Christian Science Monitor describes China in 1985: 1 passenger car for every 6 million people, the cheapest model on sale being the Fiat 126p  at 23,000 yuan ($8,000), with the Toyota Crown, popular with officials, selling for 80,000 yuan ($28,500). 1985 was the year China’s first passenger car sales offices opened their doors. The CSM describes the scene: “In Beijing, some 200 people a day pour into the trading center’s newly built offices to look over glossy brochures and to study a chalkboard listing the prices and models of cars and trucks for sale.

There is no showroom and there are seldom any vehicles to inspect. The center provides no servicing and no financing – cash must be paid in advance. And buyers have to travel to the port of delivery to pick up imported models – to Tianjin (2.5 hours away by train) or more likely to a port near Canton (36 hours by train)… Buyers need only a letter of introduction from their work unit, neighborhood committee, or village government. The letter must confirm the need for a vehicle and attest that it will not be resold for profit.”

The CSM continues: “Owning a car in China is so unusual it hasn’t become a status symbol. Out of some 3 million vehicles on China’s roads, about 170,000 are passenger cars. Most are state-owned. In Beijing, a city of 9.5 million people, fewer than 1,000 Chinese own their own cars, according to local residents. Car owners include top officials, celebrities, or leading intellectuals. How times have changed!

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