In Search of… The East Glows

2129907781 In Search of... The East Glows

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”?

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