On the floor of the Beijing International Motor Show that fall, among the shiny bold names and futuristic concepts was a car that looked like a 1958 Corvette from a distance.
Up close, however, it was clear that this wasn’t a classic Chevrolet. It was a sporty coupe called the SS Dolphin.
“How can you get away with it?” was one of the most common questions asked during the old west style reveal (yes, both of them) Route 66 style. On Corvette Blogger, an enthusiast website, Keith Cornett wrote: “They say imitation is flattery, so we consider this a ‘tribute’ to the Corvette as opposed to imitators, even if we find the side view and front end compared to one actual ’58 Corvette to be absolutely awful. “
Admittedly, the proportions are clearly wrong – as if the dolphin’s designer had only looked at a 1958 Corvette photo and no blueprints. For starters, the Dolphin is 11.8 “longer and 3.4” taller than the original, and it runs on a hybrid gas-electric powerplant, not a proper V-8. With the top down it looks like everything is backwards.
The tribute doesn’t make Chevy sweat. “We have no plans to take legal action in relation to the SS Dolphin,” said Kevin Kelly, a General Motors spokesman, “as they don’t use any of our brands and the design is not identical” to the first. Generation Corvette, the so-called C1.
The maker of the SS Dolphin, SongSan Motors, plans to bring its imaginative concept car into production in eight hues inspired by candy and ice cream. SongSan said the base price would be 590,000 yuan (about $ 89,000). Hagty’s Value Guide puts the price of an actual ’58 Vette – $ 3,591 new or over $ 32,000 after adjusting for inflation – up to $ 82,000 in tip-top condition.
When the Dolphin goes on sale in the US, the final sum including taxes, fees and duties could nearly double to more than $ 160,000, but such plans remain nebulous. Known for its farm tractors, large rigs and imitations of Toyota’s Hi-Lux mini pickup trucks, SongSan has no known US outlet.
The Dolphin was hardly the only controversially designed model shown in Beijing. There was also Foton’s G9 or “Big General,” a dead alarm clock for a Ford F-150 pickup – albeit the reduced size of a Ford Ranger. Hongqi’s E-HS9 is similar to a Lincoln SUV. The Ora GT is a distinctive first cousin of Mini Cooper, with some DNA in the scatter style of the Volkswagen Golf GTi and the Hyundai Veloster.
What’s wrong with this obvious clone battle?
It’s complicated. In the world of Chinese automakers, anything produced by competing automakers is a fair game. Yeah, it’s kind of a compliment. But not all of these automakers are as tolerant as Chevrolet or Ford, for example.
The practice can likely be traced back to 2007, when Shuanghuan introduced its CEO at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
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“It’s an exact copy of our X5,” said Chris Bangle, BMW’s chief designer at the time. He asked BMW to sue, which it did, but its victory in a German court was not exactly satisfactory. While the CEO’s front fairing had to be redesigned before it could be sold in Germany, Shuanghuan dealers offered the original BMW-like front fairing pieces as accessories.
To push his case beyond Germany, BMW had to file lawsuits in almost every other country where Shuanghuan wanted to sell the CEO. This legal mess would have dragged on for years – most likely beyond the expected lifetime of the CEO – and cost millions in litigation costs. After BMW lost a similar case in Italy, the matter was dropped.
Although clones are in shape, many of these Chinese endeavors are far less in function. The CEO was critically derided as “the worst SUV in the world”. An author of a German magazine took a test drive and set it on fire. He wrote: “The fiery death that it deserves.”
Sales figures for the CEO are not available, but it is widely believed that it was a flop. Shuanghuan has also been involved in litigation over his copies of the Smart Fortwo and the Honda CR-V. In 2016, the Chinese government shut down Shuanghuan because of unspecified “defects”.
For the past few years, Jaguar Land Rover has been outraged by a Chinese automaker’s attempt to produce something called the LandWind X7. JLR believed it was a direct demolition of the Range Rover Evoque concept that was intended for production. Here JLR has drawn the line.
Evoque designer Gerry McGovern said the concept contained proprietary “future technology” and that LandWind X7 maker, Jiangling Motors, caused “customer confusion” by bringing a production version to market before JLR could build the Evoque.
JLR sued – in China. This was a rare move as outsiders rarely seem to assert themselves in Chinese courts. In addition, lawsuits filed by large multinational corporations against Chinese domestic companies are often classified as bullying, so public perception can be costly.
There is one more consideration: in order to do business in China, foreign automakers must enter into a “joint venture partnership” with a Chinese manufacturer. Because of these often complex relationships, most automakers decide that just turning the other cheek is less of a problem and makes fewer enemies.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Are you really stealing something we care about?'” Said Mr. McGovern. “If they copied something from an old model of ours, maybe not. But in the case of the Evoque concept – something that hadn’t hit the market yet – the answer was yes. “
Surprisingly, JLR won after a lengthy legal battle last year. In fact, the judge further ruled that Jiangling had to stop manufacturing, marketing and selling the LandWind X7 and compensate Land Rover for models that had already been sold.
Jiangling appealed China’s Supreme Court equivalent, but Land Rover prevailed there too. The court also invalidated patents that Jiangling had filed for LandWind in China.
It was a milestone, a complete victory. Still, Jiangling got away with selling a significant number of LandWinds in China.
And if Chinese automakers were expected to learn something here, models like the SS Dolphin, Big General and Ora GT at this week’s Beijing Auto Show were a clue that things will continue as usual.