For years now the Chinese automakers have been the bête noir of the global car industry, inspiring equal parts fear and contempt in boardrooms and editorial meetings from Detroit to Stuttgart. In an industry built on scale, China’s huge population and rapid growth can not be ignored as one scans the horizon for dark horse competitors. And yet no Chinese automaker has yet been able to get even a firm toehold in the market China recently passed as the world’s largest: the United States.
Certainly many have tried, as the last decade is littered with companies who have tried to import Chinese vehicles, only to go out of business or radically rethink their strategy (think Zap for the former and Miles/CODA for the latter). Others, like BYD (or India’s Mahindra), have teased America endlessly with big promises of low costs and high efficiency, only to delay launch dates endlessly. In short, a huge gulf has emerged between overblown fears of developing world (particularly Chinese) auto imports and the ability of Chinese automakers to actually deliver anything. No wonder then, that we found what appears to be the first legitimate attempt at importing Chinese cars to the US quite by accident…
The internet is an amazing thing: on any given day you literally never know what you’re going to find. Typically when I find a story that shows promise as a TTAC post, I open a few tabs in a new window and search for words and phrases associated with that story in hopes of finding related reporting and greater context. And sometimes those searches lead to a story that’s infinitely more interesting than the original idea that lead to them.
A few days ago, for example, an Automotive News [sub] story about Wheego Electric Cars Inc caught my eye. The firm, which imports Shuanghuan Noble gliders and converts them to electric power using US suppliers, sold its first retail vehicle last Earth Day (April 22), but AN [sub]‘s piece was hardly the puff piece you might expect from such an opportunity. Instead, the industry paper reported that Wheego was out of money and had retained a VC outfit to raise cash, even quoting CEO Mike McQuary as saying
My constraint is primarily capital. We’ll be living hand-to-mouth as we try to get the first cars built. The next 200 will creep out as we raise money.
It’s the kind of story that appeals to TTAC’s occasionally vulture-like editorial instincts, as I know that more than a few of TTAC’s readers would probably get a schadenfreude-laden chuckle out of the struggles of a firm trying to sell an electrified Chinese Smart Car clone for “$33,995, including shipping” (before $7,500 federal tax credit). But after a little bit of digging through the search results for “Shuanghuan” (looking for mmore background on this Hebei Province-based automaker) I came across a website that I hadn’t expected to find: www.shuanghuanofdesmoines.com. Never having seen anything resembling a Chinese-branded dealership in the US, I clicked over.
There, I found a website titled “Shuanghuan Auto,” advertising two versions of the Noble and the SCEO (neé CEO) SUV… with an Iowa address. A glance at TTAC’s archives showed one incredulous write up from Bertel two years ago, and little else to explain this unexpected find. The Noble G4 was advertised as having gasoline (1.1 liter Suzuki design, made in China) or electric options. The SCEO was shown with a 2.4 liter Mitsubishi engine or a 2.5 liter “Yuchai” turbodiesel. I briefly checked the EPA website and, finding no signs of “Shuanghuan” or “Yuchai,” I dialed the number on the website and a day later I spoke with the owner of Shuanghuan Auto Des Moines.
Gene Gabus lives up to the finest Iowan standards of friendliness, instantly warming my expectation-free cold call with immediate candor. “I don’t know if you realize this,” he says, “but it takes a ton of work to get these cars up to American market standards.” As it so happens I had heard that it was tough to import cars to the US, and soon Gabus is explaining the extensive re-working that was needed to bring the Noble’s fuel system and rear-crashworthiness up to snuff. “We’re just working on the advanced airbag system now,” he says. Having seen a Noble crash test and been impressed by everything but the fact that there didn’t appear to be any airbag, this sounded promising. He describes extensive fuel tank modifications and says that dual-fuel figured heavily into US market plans. “You’ve heard of CNG cars?” he asks. I had. This was becoming even more interesting.
“Why have I barely heard of you guys?” I ask. “We’re used to hearing a lot of hype from importers of brands like Mahindra and BYD.” “Well,” he answers, “the feds don’t like a lot of talk before they approve a vehicle. Besides, we’ve watched the other guys talk a big game and fail to deliver. We want to avoid that.”
“And you are a former Chrysler dealer?” I ask. The address had been listed as Des Moines Chrysler on Google Maps. “Did you lose the franchise during the bailout?” There’s a brief pause. “I was robbed,” he growls. His profitable dealership had lost its franchise, while a pair of smaller local competitors had kept theirs. It’s clear that the wounds are still fresh, but they haven’t stopped Gabus from diving into a full-on attempt to homologate Chinese cars for the US. I press him with more questions. “Look,” he says, “let me give you Bob Smith’s number. He’ll be able to answer all of your questions.”
Sure enough, Mr Smith answers my first phone call, and in short order is answering my questions in a warm, Southern drawl. “I’ve done business in China since 1985,” he explains. “Computers, wheelchairs, that kind of thing.” And why cars? “I’ve seen how China is growing,” he explains. “I’ve seen their demand for gasoline grow and grow. Supply won’t keep up with their growing demand, and we’ve seen what happens when gas prices approach $5/gallon. People begin to seek out alternatives.”
Smith and Gabus plan on selling gasoline and electric-powered versions of the Noble, but the centerpiece of their plan involves dual-fuel version, which run on gasoline or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Like many people who have spent a lot of time around the car industry, Smith and Gabus are skeptical about all the hype surrounding electric vehicles, and given that most importers of Chinese vehicles focus on electric conversions, this puts them in a unique position relative to their competition. Smith waxes enthusiastic about the low prices and high supplies of natural gas in the US, and says the key to his business case is the relatively low cost of natural gas conversions.
“Look,” he says, “batteries often cost as much or more than the car itself.” The struggles at Wheego, which has split homologation costs with Smith and Gabus’s Shuanghuan importation outfit (Smith calls Wheego “good guys”), fill in all the necessary details. An electric Smart clone might appeal to hard-core greenies, but at $33k, their chances of mass-market acceptance are slim. Like Wheego, Smith is banking on help from the federal government in order to break into the market, but unlike the EV hawkers, his natural gas focus helps avoid the trap of having to sell a low-cost car at high prices.
“We expect the Pickens Plan to pass this summer,” explains Smith, referencing the natural gas subsidy bill that’s been championed for years by natural gas baron T. Boone Pickens, and was recently re-introduced and endorsed by the Obama Administration. “When that happens, people will be able to build home refueling stations which tap into their home heating natural gas lines and they’ll receive a $2,000 tax credit to install it.” But that’s just the beginning. Under the Pickens Plan bill, light duty vehicles (powered by natural gas or dual-fuel) would be eligible for a $7,500 consumer tax credit, the same amount currently available to plug-in vehicles.
It’s starting to add up. Not long ago, Edmunds CEO Jeremy Anwyl called for parity between EV and natural gas tax credits, and Honda has recently announced 50-state sales of its natural gas Civic GX. These guys are surfing a building trend. “So,” I ask, “what price point are you targeting post-tax credit?” His answer drops my jaw: “$4,000 to $5,000,” he says. I suddenly get it, and I’m floored by the idea. Low-cost, high-efficiency Chinese cars that sell at a price that’s less than half of the cheapest gasoline-powered cars on the marketplace. This is the kind of plan that has had the industry terrified, and yet has yet to be seriously pursued. And here are a couple of guys, flying under the radar, bringing a truly disruptive Chinese import to market… in Des Moine, Iowa. You can’t make this stuff up.
At this point, I stop thinking of Smith and Gabus as underdogs (or possible hucksters), and start thinking of them as a couple of shrewd operators. But, says Smith, the plan is still a huge gamble. They’ve already spent millions crashing some 32 Shuanghuan Nobles, and upgrading their bracing, fuel tanks, evaporative emissions control systems, advanced airbags and seatbelts. Having been working with the EPA and DOT for two years already, Smith confirms that he expects full DOT/EPA approval by the end of the second quarter of this year… within the next two months (Wheego has reportedly already received DOT crash-test approval). The SCEO SUV has not yet started testing, he says, and the process will take two years, so they’re starting with the Noble. Even with a crazily low targeted price point and high natural gas efficiency, there’s no guarantee that the Noble will take off. “But,” says Smith, “you have to take a chance and put some money on the table if you want to change anything.” And rather than trying to make the cover of every green magazine in the country, Smith and Gabus have started with the tough task of homologation… and now they’re almost done. Their huge bet is about to hit the table.
Before getting off the phone with Smith, I ask when he’ll next be in Des Moines. I explain that I want to meet him and Gabus at Shuanghuan Auto Des Moines, drive the Noble, and hear more about the origins of their import scheme, as well as their plans for the future. “Sure,”he says, “I’ll be there in June.” “In that case,” I reply, “so will I.” This story, which has flown below the media’s radar for two years now, is starting to take off… and TTAC will be there to cover it. By June, EPA and DOT approval should be rapidly approaching, and Smith and Gabus will be approaching the next challenge: pricing and selling these tiny Chinese cars. If the Pickens Plan passes and they’re able to hit their price points (both still “ifs,” the men admit), these industry outsiders could put Chinese cars –and Des Moines, Iowa– on the automotive map in this country. In an industry with seemingly infinite barriers to entrants, that’s a huge story… and one we’ll continue to cover.