Wealth on wheels

Updated: 2013-01-17 07:29

By Xu Lin (China Daily)

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 Wealth on wheels

Luo Wenyou, 57, has spent almost his entire fortune on the Beijing Classic Car Museum. Photos by Cui Meng / China Daily

After converting millions of assets into classic automobiles and then a museum to house them, a car fancier drives his hobby as a full-time endeavor, he tells Xu Lin.

Luo Wenyou, 57, is probably the poorest zillionaire in China.

After spending all his fortune - about 70 million yuan ($11.10 million) - on classic cars, the former businessman started his own museum in 2009 to promote car culture and now saves every spare penny to maintain it.

"I never regret my decision because what I have been doing is very significant. Besides, I'm obsessed with vintage cars, which come in all shapes," says Luo, who is from Chengde, Hebei province.

Located near the Beijing-Chengde highway, the Beijing Classic Car Museum attracts about 70,000 visitors each year with its more than 100 vintage cars from the 1920s to 1970s in a 3,200-square-meter hall.

The precious cars are of various brands from home and abroad, including Rolls-Royce, Morgan, Ford and Shanghai. These come from only half his collections as there is limited space in the museum.

Cars once driven by celebrities are of great value, he says. His collections include cars that belonged to Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi.

Different designs of cars have different functions. For example, China's flagship sedan brand Hongqi, or Red Flag, has a car with a stretcher in it, a ready-made ambulance for national leaders if needed.

He's very proud he's collected a nearly complete set of Chinese classic cars, including a 10.08-meter-long Red Flag, the only existing one of its type.

"Each car has its story and tells us the history," he says. For instance, windows of Liu Shaoqi's car are full of cracks hit by the Red Guards during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Luo is a relentless pursuer of cars through garages or friends all over the country.

Once, when a car owner was not willing to sell, Luo made friends with him, communicated with him often and even did housework for him. Six years later, the owner was finally touched by his sincerity and sold him the car.

It's expensive and difficult to transport these cars. In the 1990s, when he was transporting a classic car from Dandong, Liaoning province, in winter, he had to keep adding water because of a malfunction of the truck he drove. When he went to get water from a river at night, he fell into an ice hole and was nearly drowned.

As a successful businessman who used to own three small enterprises - a car repairing factory, a transportation company and a kart racing track - he bought his first vintage car at the age of 24, with 5,000 yuan, to drive as an ordinary automobile.

Three years later, he bought his second vintage car and started his bittersweet journey as a collector. By 1998 he had about 50.

That year was a turning point, when the Louis Vuitton Classic China Run was held in Beijing. Among the 50 competitors, Luo was the only Chinese - and the first ever to be part of such an international contest, he says.

After rubbing shoulders with other racers, he learned about classic-car organizations, museums and regular races abroad.

He is always moved wherever he drives a Red Flag: throngs of Chinese gather on the road to watch the car. Once an old man who was carrying his granddaughter in his arms got so excited applauding the car's appearance that he dropped the girl on the ground.

"Chinese people like Chinese classic cars very much. I feel responsible to boost the development of vintage cars in China," says Luo, who began to focus mainly on Chinese classic cars after that.

As soon as the contest was over, he sold his enterprises at a low price and established The Classic Car Association in Chengde, which turned into the Automobile Collecting Committee under China Association of Collectors in 2006. It attracted more than 500 members and now numbers about 3,000.

He moved from Chengde to Beijing in 2002, to communicate better with car fans. Seven years later, he spent about 8 million yuan establishing the museum, despite the strong opposition from his family and friends.

He says he never could have succeeded without the full support of his wife.

"His hobby costs a lot of money. He's very persistent and can bear any hardship for his dream, after struggling for a long time I changed my mind to support him," says his 57-year-old wife, Yang Yijun, who retired early to help Luo found the museum.

"Although our material lives can never be compared with the past, our spiritual lives are greatly satisfied by the praise and encouragement from the public," she says.

Now, money is Luo's biggest headache.

Income from the entrance fee - 50 yuan per visit - is a mere drop in the bucket. He has to rent his cars to film and TV series crews at nearby studios to make some money.

He earns about 1,000 yuan for an appearance as a walk-on to drive a vintage car, and there are usually four or five such opportunities per month. He appeared in many films, such as The Founding of a Republic and Beginning of the Great Revival.

Wealth on wheels

To save costs, Luo and Yang do all the work in the museum. They are cleaners, ticket sellers, guides, receptionists and janitors.

Luo says he hardly has time to rest. Even when he's not busy, there are many cars to be repaired.

For the past 14 years, he says, his wife has never bought new clothes or been to shopping malls, and they have never traveled around.

"We have no money or energy to go traveling. Whenever I have some money, I will spend it on repairing the cars," he says.

His classic car association now often interacts with foreign associations and organizes activities every year.

"Few people in China know about the classic car culture, which not only reflects the history of Chinese cars, but also promotes the modern automobile's development. Compared with the mature classic car industry abroad, there's still a long way to go in China."

Contact the writer at xulin@chinadaily.com.cn.

 Wealth on wheels

Luo Wenyou personally maintains the vintage cars in his museum.

(China Daily 01/17/2013 page20)