Speeding up one-way streets, and ignoring red lights, Liu Wenhe dares any Beijing cop to get in his way.
“If the police want to confiscate my car, I’ll tell them to take my wife too,” laughs Liu, 62, gesturing to his smiling 61-year-old wife in the back seat.
Though not street legal, Liu’s tiny, enclosed four-wheeler is one of the growing fleet of low-speed electric minicars appearing in China’s traffic-choked cities. Factories are ramping up production of the vehicles, which can squeeze past gridlock as well as bypass government laws that restrict car use and ownership in China.
Legally speaking, police are supposed to pull over the unlicensed, uninsured and in some cases unsafe vehicles used predominantly by the elderly. But the battery-powered 7-by-3½-foot cars cruise the streets in open view and are stopped only during irregular crackdowns.
“Sales are rising each year,” says Tuo Weifan, 23, a salesman at the Great Electric Bike World, one of Beijing’s largest electric vehicle shops. “Legally, it’s a gray area. But most drivers are old people so the police don’t stop them.”
China’s economic boom years have prompted voracious demand for cars, especially in the country’s major cities, making China the world’s largest automotive market.
In Beijing, the number of vehicles on the road went from 2 million in 2008 to 5.18 million by mid-2013, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. The total number of cars in China was 240 million at the end of 2012, says the Ministry of Public Security.
Road construction has not kept up with the pace of car production. Drivers can run into hours-long logjams in major cities, and the stalled traffic is blamed for worsening the air pollution problem.
Beijing has mandated better emissions-control equipment for new automobiles; Shanghai is among cities that have limited the number of new vehicles that can be registered to 20,000 a month. Still, the cost of a car is too much for many Chinese.
The minicars, known officially as “elderly walk-substituting vehicles,” can be had for a mere $2,000, making them a fast-growing, funny-looking fleet of low-speed vehicles buzzing through city streets.
With big names like Victory Bull, Power Pioneer and Constant Wealth, the small vehicles satisfy a growing desire in China for cheap transportation.
Almost 100 different makers of the vehicles have emerged in recent years in east China’s Shandong province, says state-run Beijing Daily newspaper. Manufacturers sold more than 20,000 vehicles last year, far outpacing China’s paltry sales of full-speed electric cars. In 2015 sales are expected to hit 300,000, and rise to 1 million by 2020.
Among the top markets for the cars are college campuses, says salesman Tuo, as he talked up the $2,600 Handsome Horse, a Shandong-made 3-seater. The car can travel 30 miles on an 8-hour charge. Max speed: 25 mph.
In China, however, anything that has yet to be officially approved by the government is generally prohibited. Yet Liu Wenhe is undaunted by the threat of fines, vehicle confiscation or even 15 days’ detention for driving his minicar on city thoroughfares.
Liu, who worked a lifetime at the Beijing Motor Factory, says he drives his wife across town three times a week for dialysis.
“People often stop me to ask where I bought it, and neighbors want to buy one, too,” he says of his first car.
Prized in poorer communities for their price tag, minicars are a hit in megacities like Beijing because they don’t come under the limits imposed on drivers of larger gas vehicles to cut down on traffic and pollution.
Minicar drivers don’t have to wait years to win a license plate in a lottery, and they don’t have to keep their vehicles off the road one day each working week as regular drivers do.
Wang Yufeng owns and rents out two Buick minivans, made by General Motors in Shanghai, but prefers his Rich Road minicar, a 4-door ultra-compact 3-wheeler.
“No other car is as convenient as this; I can drive and park anywhere, anytime, I have heating and a radio,” says Wang, 49. “I wish the government would issue licenses and make these vehicles legal.”
China appears to be going the other way, advising citizens not to buy the vehicles, especially for the elderly.
“Have ‘elderly walk-substituting vehicles’ become new killers on the road?” asked the Beijing Daily report, echoing the China Consumer Association’s advice not to buy what it labels as “dangerous” cars for ageing parents.
On a rain-swept Beijing street, Han Xue, 37, got off her electric-powered bicycle to get a closer look at some Cheetah and Field Pigeon brands of minicars. She said she was considering buying one for her retired in-laws, who need something to protect her 7-year old-son from winter’s bite when they take him to school.
A saleswoman earning more than $1,000 a month, Han owns a VW Skoda but complains “you can’t go against one-way traffic.” A minicar “will be quicker and more environmentally friendly,” says Han, although more minicars means more demand for electricity from coal-burning power plants blamed for much of Beijing’s chronic air pollution.
And the minicars may begin to become a traffic problem too.
Many of the cars, especially gas-run models designed for disabled drivers, crowd subway exits where their drivers offer short rides for $1.50. Cui Baotai says he was detained for five days in September for “disturbing public order,” by using his minicar as a taxi service.
Cui, 48, seated inside his box-like vehicle, said the car provides an income “much better” than farming in his home village in central China.
Waiting for his wife outside a store, Wang Yufeng says the minicars offer too many advantages over conventional cars for people to ignore.
“Some people buy expensive brands just for ‘face,’ but it’s so tiring to repay the loan,” Wang says.
His Rich Road minicar is for his own use, Wang says, and “For own use” signs are seen on many of the vehicles to deter police and potential cab fares. With a smile and a wave, he leaves — with a paying passenger on board.