‘China’s Rolls’ poaches Rolls-Royce design director

Chairman Mao’s own car company wants to compete on the global luxury stage

FAW could, eventually, become a very serious rival for Rolls-Royce

FAW could, eventually, become a very serious rival for Rolls-Royce

 

Rolls-Royce has lost its head of design to the very Chinese car maker that could, in some ways, eventually prove to be the biggest threat to the famed British luxury car maker. Giles Taylor, who left Rolls-Royce earlier this year “to pursue alternative business interests” has confirmed this week that he’s going to work, instead, for Chinese car maker FAW.

That sounds perhaps unexciting. After all, big-name European and US car designers have been moving east, to China, Japan, and Korea, for some time now. The difference, in this case, is that FAW could, eventually, become a very serious rival for Rolls-Royce.

FAW isn’t just a meaningless acronym, it stands for First Automotive Works, and it was established in 1956 with (FAW still proudly announces) “assistance from the former Soviet Union. ” Its task? To produce a car fit for the chairman himself, Mao Zedong.

The car the FAW produced, called the Hongqi CA770, was like so many Soviet cars of the time, heavily influenced by the capitalist west. In fact, the Hongqi rode on a decadent Chrysler Imperial chassis, and used a V8 that drew heavily on American engine design. Only around 1,600 of these massive limousines were built, all intended strictly for use by the Chinese Communist Party elite.

The CA770 went out of production in 1981, but the styling was revived in 2013, and put back into production as the L5, with modern mechanical and electronics. Originally intended again for the Communist high-ups (Xi Xinping rides around in one) it’s now also available for the well-heeled Chinese cheif executive. Currently based on a Lincoln Continental chassis (decadent westerners again…) you can see the influence of its own name in the styling. Hongqi translates as Red Flag, and the bonnet mascot and indicator repeaters are shaped to look like exactly that.

“I am very much looking forward to embarking on an exciting new career path with FAW. Hongqi, as the oldest and most famous Chinese car brand, carries with it a deeply significant and diverse cultural history,” Taylor said in a statement. “There are many inspirational elements surrounding the marque with which to create fresh, modern vehicles for the new era.” Taylor has been responsible for the styling of all recent Rolls-Royce models, including the Dawn and Wraith, the new Phantom, and the Cullinan SUV.

FAW chairperson Xu Liuping has big plans for the Hongqi luxury brand. He has already stated that he wants to build it up to around 300,000 sales per year, globally, and that it should become “a new noble brand - the best in China and famous around the world.”

Not all of those sales will be of the massive L5 though. Hongqi also makes the H7 and H5 (think of them as rivals to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 5 Series, respectively) and Taylor will also be kept busy working on FAWs other model lines - Besturn, Junpai, and Senia hatchbacks, saloons, and SUV and the company’s J-series commercial vehicles.

The L5 is the crown though, with its massive seats, tortoiseshell inlays, and LED recreations of those original round headlamps. It’s a distinctive design, one that could be easily tweaked and adapted to global tastes. While Rolls-Royce might claim to be ‘the finest motor-car in the world’ Hongqi says that the L5 is all about being “solemn, tranquil, and sublime.” With the tastes of the Chinese market exerting ever greater influence over the products we buy and use, expect the Rolls-versus-Hongqi battle to run and run.