By on May 10, 2008

In 1971, I committed a crime, the repercussions of which still affect me today. I was a bored eighteen year-old whose over-developed automotive memory banks craved stimulus. In those pre-web dark ages, the information gap between monthly car magazines was excruciating. Desperate, I plied the 629.22 rack of the Iowa City Public Library, and found the font of automotive history. I slipped the heavy Rosetta stone under my baggy Army surplus jacket and walked out. I’ve been guiltily absorbing its contents ever since.

“The Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars – 1885 to the present” covers over four thousand makes, from the A.A.A. to the Zwickau. And for some inexplicable (but prescient) reason, the make and photo that first captured my imagination was the 1965 “The East Glows.”

Sure, the Chinese sedan has an evocative name. But the encyclopedia is a cornucopia of catchy (or not) names from the pre-Lexus alphanumeric naming era. Some didn’t even try, as in the No Name, or the CAR. Others plagiarized, resulting in nine different “Standards.” High-school Latin was common, such as the Quo Vadis (“where are you going?”), Stimula, Audi and the German EGO (a “Super” model was available).

Hyperbole is sprinkled liberally throughout. The Faultless is just “one of many ephemeral cyclecars.” The Famous’ only claim to fame was “rear wheels were larger than the front ones.” Unsurprisingly, American makes dominate the category of superlatives: Primo, Superior, Speedy (4 hp!), Pridemore, and the humble Super-Kar.

Speaking of humility, some makers were disarmingly honest: Rough, Riddle, Static, Troll, Lugly (pre-cursor to “fugly”?) and the predictive Lost Cause.

Idealism might have seemed a better approach, but none found traction in the Darwinian marketplace. The Utopian, appropriately enough, was “built for a local clergyman, possibly only one made”. The Joymobile “never went into production.” And the Peace “never came.”

Rounding out the ranks are random oddballs: Flying Feather, Ben Hur, Tic-Tac, O-We-Go, Lu-Lu, Egg, Wizard, U2, Ponder, Rip, LSD and the prophetic Lutz “formed to make electric steam cars; no evidence that they were ever made.”

So why did the 1965 The East Glows make such a lasting impression? It’s just a mish-mash of mid-fifties American design themes: a 1958 Studebaker crossed with a 1956 Buick. Built by “Car Factory No. 1, Peking,” it’s described as “one of the more recent designs to appear in China… a hand-built saloon with a six cylinder 150hp engine.”

Nevertheless The East Glows became (and remains) a Niedermeyer family legend. On a car trip years ago, when the boys needed something to focus on, I spontaneously made the following offer: a $500 reward for spotting any car with a Chinese license plate; and $20k for a The East Glows with valid Chinese plates. My younger son still occasionally keeps his eyes peeled “just in case,” but I’m not too worried; the offer is limited to U.S. roads.

Are there any The East Glows left in China? Given that they were “hand-built,” and China’s passenger car industry then was mostly limited to a few Hong Qi (“Red Flag”) limousines for party big-wigs, it’s highly unlikely. On a recent chip to China, older son Ted’s (TTAC’s Edward) confirmed that restored, hot-rodded, or low-rider The East Glows are NOT seen cruising Beijing’s Chang’An Boulevard on hot summer nights. Is there any old-car culture in China?

We’ve been steeped in all things automotive for over a hundred years. Family lore, childhood memories, museums, racing, collecting, cruising, modifying, buying and selling, off-roading, car show dreaming, memorizing the Complete Encyclopedia of Motor Cars, writing about car-experiences on web-sites like this one; they’re all about the breadth and depth of our auto-biographies.

I suspect it’s very different for the typical Chinese.  Mass-produced cars, and the incomes to buy them, are very recent phenomena. And their relationship to them is… different, undoubtedly. In large cities, where actually getting around by car is impractical, they’re mostly a status symbol.

The Chinese lead designer for Buick’s Shanghai studio (Riviera and Invicta concepts) does not drive. He gets his inspiration from night clubs. Contrast that to GM’s legendary Bill Mitchell, who drove his various Corvette concepts home; a man inspired by racing cars, fighter jets and sharks. Yet China will build more cars by 2010 than the US. And Buicks are being designed for us in China.

So, ironically, in 640 pages of obscure automotive history, The East Glows turns out to be the one car in the Almanac that points to the future.

Somewhere in China, there must be memories of The East Glows. Someone hand-made them; others drove or rode in them. Maybe, just maybe, there’s one stashed away in a museum, or in someone’s barn. I’m pumped to find out. Or maybe I’m really looking for the car of the future. Any sponsors out there for a documentary “In Search of… The East Glows”?

[Update: thanks to a commentator, it’s now clear that there never was an “The East Glows”. Later versions of the encyclopedia say it was simply called the “Beijing”, and built in very small numbers. I guess my $20k is truly safe]

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14 Comments on “Auto-Biography: In Search of… The East Glows...”


  • avatar
    UnclePete

    Paul, from your many columns here, we did a lot of the same things growing up at about the same time – very scary! For example, “The Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars” – I remember taking that same book out of the local library.

    I grew up in a very small town, so when the librarian saw I was the only one taking it out for months in a row, she’d mark the return date for -4- weeks rather than the customary two. Have to love that.

    Maybe there are people who read TTAC who grew up in China (heck, who maybe read this in China), who could comment on The East Glows.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I would say that you owe the Iowa City Public Library the book plus a fine of at least 2 cents per day for 37 years — about $270.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Robert Schwartz: “I would say that you owe the Iowa City Public Library the book plus a fine of at least 2 cents per day for 37 years — about $270.”

    I meant to add to the article that the real reason I wrote it was to generate a down payment on what I owe them. I will be sending a check to them.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    Interesting thread I found about this car (it was a “name the car” game, and used the same picture from the same source):

    http://www.autopuzzles.com/forum/index.php?PHPSESSID=3366375adf68f2278724f1d4778f934f&topic=3450.0

    Looks like the actual name of the car was simply “Beijing”:

    By the way I found this on the Georgano’s Encyclopedya :

    “BEIJING (p); PEKING (wg) (chi) 1958;1966 to date
    Beijing Motor Vehicle Factory, Beijing

    The original car from this factory was a large sedan with v-8 engine made in very limited numbers. This vehicle was erroneously referred to as “The East Glows” in earlier editions of this book.”

    No entries about “The East Glows”.
    I found some forums where is reported this name toghether with Zhonggui but that’s all…so IMHO someone put a scanned pic of the first edition of Georgano’s Encyclopedia with that name and than it lasted!
    At the end I think that is a Beijing V8 Sedan!

    (quoting from the second to last post in the thread I linked to above)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Geotpf:

    I guess I better forget about going to China to look for one! Thanks for the heads up.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The Beijing has end run Packard/ 58 Studabaker Hawk cues. Sorta like when Boris and Natasha stole the 54 Packard plans so Fearless Leader could ride in a Zil. Those were hand wrought too. The first big Tupelov 4 engine bomber was a hand made copy of a B29 that flew into far eastern Russia during WWII.

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    # Paul Niedermeyer :
    May 10th, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Geotpf:

    I guess I better forget about going to China to look for one! Thanks for the heads up.

    Yep, the bizarre and useless trivia one learns on this site. Now my mind will be stuck on the “East Glows” and it’s convoluted history for a few days.

  • avatar
    spencer

    My eight-year-old self wondered where that book went. It was *really* interesting.

    No, not really, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. I probably spent more time at the main branch of the Iowa City Public Library than some of the staff did, and in the same timeframe as you mention.

  • avatar
    50merc

    “And Buicks are being designed for us in China.”

    Because, sadly, “When better Buicks are built, the Chinese will build them.” They understand the concept better.

  • avatar
    menno

    I also remember that book and the Librarian probably knew that I was the only guy in town taking it out, and let me telephone extensions to my keeping it. For months on end. I think I wore the book out.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    So in that picture, is that grille a smile or a handlebar mustache?

  • avatar
    bugo

    That is a really cool car.  It reminds me of a ’58 Ford Fairlane 500 with a cheap Communist grille.  What is it with Communist cars and those cheap looking grilles?

  • avatar
    bugo

    Turns out the name of this car is Beijing CB4. I’ve done some research and some of it contradicts other facts. I’ve read it was a 6 cylinder and I’ve also read its a V8, and I’ve read that it was produced from ’59 to ’62 and I’ve seen websites that claimed it was produced in 1965. Who knows what the truth is.

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