Vale the Santana, symbol of rapid change

Zachary Lowell
While many of the cars found their way into private hands thanks to its affordable price and reliability, the vehicle has been a taxi-fleet staple throughout its history.
Zachary Lowell

My nostalgia shifted into high gear recently when I read that Qiangsheng, one of Shanghai’s largest taxi companies, would soon be retiring its classic Volkswagen Santanas in favor of newer, roomier models.

According to a Shanghai Daily report, this move would make Qiangsheng the first taxi firm in the city to completely phase out this once ubiquitous vehicle, which ceased production years ago. Other companies are still operating the iconic sedan, although its days are clearly numbered as they too upgrade their fleets with more spacious minivan-style cabs.

While the Santana may have a special place in my heart, as these boxy buggies disappear from local streets so too will Shanghai bid farewell to an emblem of a bygone era.

When I first arrived in Shanghai more than 10 years ago, the city’s roads were rainbows of multi-colored Santanas, with each shade representing a different taxi brand.

At the time, these cabs were affordable, easy to come by, and provided fast transportation at most times of the day. It may seem difficult to believe now, but in those days it was rare to wait more than 30 seconds for a curb-side cab pick-up. There was also a popular joke at the time that officials were considering printing an 11-yuan (US$1.6) bill, since that was the flag-fall rate and the final fare on most shorter rides. True, the Santana was never going to excite auto enthusiasts with its rigid styling and utilitarian design, yet it was a distinctive and indispensable part of life in Shanghai for many years.

But this was a simpler time — before Didi, before Mobike, before the rapid expansion of the city’s Metro system, before fancy double-length buses under the elevated road, before a surge in car ownership snarled traffic for hours each day. You could always count on a Santana to take you to your destination.

Although I’m content to use a shared bike these days, I often reflect upon those bygone days when jumping in a Santana taxi and whizzing across town seemed so effortless. While much has evolved over the past decade, the changes I’ve witnessed are only part of the picture.

When the first Santanas hit local streets in the early 1980s, China had only a few years earlier opened up to international markets and global capital. Private car ownership was almost non-existent, and virtually all domestically produced cars were intended for commercial use.

Volkswagen was one of the first foreign auto companies to tap the Chinese market, as well as one of the first to set up local production facilities, through its joint venture with an earlier incarnation of the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (popularly known today by its acronym SAIC). According to reports, production started with 100 knock-down kits shipped from Germany and assembled in China; but within a few years the process had localized with China-based production lines.

From somewhat humble beginnings, China was on the path toward mass motorization as well as a joint-venture model that continues to define its automotive industry even today (although a decades’ old policy limiting foreign ownership in local car-making ventures was recently unraveled).

Explosive growth

By late 1985, Shanghai Volkswagen had produced 10,000 Santanas; a figure which eventually climbed to 4 million by the time production of the model stopped in 2013. While many of the cars found their way into private hands thanks to its affordable price and reliability, the vehicle has been a taxi-fleet staple throughout its history. The popularity of the Santana may have helped kick-start the domestic passenger car market through a combination of foreign technology transfers and local labor. Government policies to raise incomes and promote vehicle consumption further fueled the development of the market.

The passenger vehicle market is one of the most complicated, competitive and demanding in the world; and Chinese firms have ascended its heights both in terms of sales success and technological prowess. China is the world’s largest national automotive market, and local car brands are increasingly confident when it comes to tapping foreign markets.

In South Africa, where I’m currently writing this piece, one can find a number of Chinese-branded cars for sale, sometimes at dealerships which fly the Chinese flag.

At the same time, though, many have blamed the explosive growth of car sales for an equally sharp rise in air pollution. And the traffic-snarled roads I mentioned earlier: Those are another downside of development.

While the Santana may not have single-handedly created the local passenger vehicle market in China, the impact of its mass production and appeal should not be underestimated.

The car not only brought increased mobility and access to motoring to countless people, it also represented an early foray for Chinese actors into a high-value-added industry where it has become competitive globally.

It is also a symbol of the gains that can be achieved through productive partnerships between Chinese and foreign enterprises. The Santana may seem a bit dated compared to newer models, but as it heads toward retirement it deserves to be remembered as part of China’s opening up and development.

Zachary Lowell is a former copy editor at Shanghai Daily.

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