Chinese Car Dealerships Used To Sell Incredibly Detailed Miniature Models Of Their Cars. Here’s The Collection I … – The Autopian

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I have been collecting Chinese dealer models for 20 years. Most are in 1:18, but I also have many in 1:24, and 1:43, and some in more exotic scales like 1:32 and 1:16. I bought most of my dealer models in China, which was easy, as I lived in Beijing from 2003 until 2019. This is the story of my collection.

Just to get us started, here’s a picture of my 1:18-model Geely Meirenbao, Chia’s first mass-produced sports car.

Vidframe Min Top

Vidframe Min Bottom

The model is a beauty, painted in a fiery shade of red, with extra wide tires. The spoiler on the back is made of metal too.

The Beginning

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My 2002 thesis, with a Hongqi CA7202E3L Century Star on the cover This example has been in the archives of the economic department of the Dutch embassy for years. The title translates as: “The Chinese Automotive Industry and the WTO: a curse or a blessing?”

I have always been crazy about cars. When I backpacked in China in the late 1990s, I saw many odd vehicles that were unknown in the rest of the world. Fascinated, I decided to write my thesis about the Chinese automotive industry, and I stayed one year at Beijing University for my research. In 2003 I moved to China permanently for work. I found myself an apartment in central Beijing and immediately started collecting scale model cars. 


Two Tracks Two Stories

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From my Chinese tin toy collection: a Hongqi CA70JG inspection car and a Hongqi CA770 state limousine. From the late 1970s.

Collecting one kind of scale model is too easy, so I went for two: classic Chinese tin toy car models from the 1970s and 1980s, and new Chinese dealer car models. This story is about the latter collection, but I may write a story on the tin stuff later on. 

What is a dealer model?

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An early Chinese dealer model. This is a Hongqi CA7460 (based on the Lincoln Town Car), with a certificate of authenticity and the number 07083 of of 10.000. The secondary certificate is attached to the front axle.

By the early 2000s, China had become the largest producer of toys and scale models in the world. It was therefore relatively easy and cheap to go to a toy maker and order a batch of a certain scale model. Chinese car makers did just that. Whenever a new car would be launched, they would commission a scale model series of that very car. In the beginning, these were limited to a certain number, let’s say 10.000, and each model would come with a certificate and an official ink stamp. Later, the series became larger and the certificates disappeared.

The Distribution Thing

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Dongfeng-PSA Citroen ZX Fukang. This model was available in hatchback and sedan forms, in various colors, and as a rally car. I own five, The hatchback in white and gold, the sedan in white and yellow, and the rally car. From the early 2000s.

In the early scale model days of the late 1990s, models were only distributed directly from the factory, so these were not technically dealer models. Later on, distribution moved to the dealers. Later on again, the models were distributed on auto shows at the launch of a new model, and via the dealers. Later on, again, the models were distributed via auto shows, dealers, and general toy markets. By this time, there was no production limitation at all anymore. Today, the distribution model is shows, dealers, and the internet. The wonderful Chinese toy markets that I loved so much have mostly died, replaced by anonymous internet shops.  

How did that work in reality?

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A Shanghai-GM Buick Sail SR-V. One of the prettiest 1:18 models from that time. It was available in wagon and sedan forms, and various colors. I have the wagon and the sedan, both in this brilliant shade of red, which was indeed a factory color for the real thing.

In the early 2000s, the only place where I could get 1:18 dealer models was at dealers. But there weren’t any dealers in the commonly understood sense of: a separate building with a brand’s logo on the door where you can see and try car models of that particular brand. Nope! At the time, cars were sold via markets, with small shops situated around a large parking lot. The cars were outside on the lot, and you had to find the right shop for the car you liked. That was more complicated than it seemed, as popular brands were sold in more than one shop. Anyway, that’s for buying real cars, and in 2004 I bought one, so I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I wanted the 1:18s!

The deal at the dealer

To get my car models, I had to check with every shop. These were small buildings, sheds really, with lots of folks sitting inside, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea. The boss would usually sit behind a desk in the back of the shop, and his staff sat on a sofa against the wall. There was a water cooker, some plants, a radio, and sometimes a television. There would be brochures and all sorts of other paperwork with specs and prices.


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Dongfeng-Yueda-Kia Qianlima, based on the Hyundai Excel. Very nice model, with mud flaps and metal-colored door handles. The sunroof is a tad too large, but it can be opened.

Somewhere along the wall, there would be a cabinet with small aftermarket accessories like phone holders and car perfume bottles. And that is where a scale model would be if I was lucky. But that didn’t mean I would get it. First, a foreigner was a rarity on car markets back then, so sometimes folks wouldn’t even talk to me; they either ignored or shoved me out of the door, saying they were closed.

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Changan-Ford Mondeo V6 Ghia.

It helped that I smoked heavy stinky Chinese local cigarettes, so one of my tricks was to offer the boss a cigarette before panic set in. That got ‘m talking. My Chinese was just good enough to make them understand that I wanted to buy that model in the cabinet. Initially, they wondered: Why would a foreigner want to buy a model of a Chinese car? I’ve had that a lot. Even today, if I go around Beijing taking photos of vintage Chinese cars, folks may come up to me, asking why I am interested in “that old crappy car”.

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BAW BJ2022 Brave Warrior is a Chinese military utility vehicle with American roots. This one has the Nissan 3.2 liter turbo diesel under the hood. Fantastic model, all doors can open, working winch, the frame comes off and the windshield folds down. Rear seats can fold down too. The wheels are perfect. One of the best!

With the amazement over, it would be time to discuss a deal. That wasn’t easy, because these models were not actually for sale. They were like a present for someone who bought a real car, so the boss would be hesitant to sell. Well, everything is for sale, isn’t it? So usually I would name a number, like 150 yuan (that’s like $20), and that would be the end of any hesitations. Then, negotiations would start, with more cigarettes and tea. After an hour or so, we would say goodbye as friends, and I had the car with me in a plastic bag. This, however, was not how it usually ended. Most of the time, there wouldn’t be any model car, and if there was, they wouldn’t let me have it, no matter what. Still, I managed to acquire a small collection.

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Landwind X9 (pre-facelift) with a super cool bull bar that was factory standard on the real thing. With a pretty red-black interior, sidebars, roof rails, and a sunroof. There is also a 1:18 rally version of the X9, very rare, I don’t have it yet.

Things got much easier in the late 2000s. The Chinese car market was starting to boom, and ever more Chinese car brands commissioned 1:18 scale models. The series became much larger, and the models were sold via toy markets as well as via dealers. The dealers became more professional, with larger buildings, more staff, and a more regular flow of 1:18 models. However, I still had to visit several dealers to find one model, and I still was regularly ignored by staff. Happily, from about 2007 or so, a new distribution channel became available.

The Magic Toy Markets

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Toys, toys, toys & some other fuzzy stuff.

The toy markets were a paradise. They were usually part of a larger department store, but some were stand-alone. There would be floors and floors and floors of brilliant toys! Hundreds of square meters, with mostly small shops selling all sorts of toys. There was some organization, sometimes, with puzzles on one side and RC cars on the other. Most of that stuff broke down quickly and easily, but some of it still works even today. The markets were chaotic, with small alleys between the shops, kids running around screaming, folks calling other folks, smoking was still permitted, and every shop had its stereo blaring music or they had TVs wired up to DVD players showing commercials, cartoons, or Chinese sitcoms.


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A battery-operated plastic birthday pie, with a dog and a rabbit on top. It has lights, it makes sounds, and it moves around. It has stop & go. See it in action on YouTube.

Most of the toys were kid’s stuff, but all of it was weird in a brilliant way. I started a small side collection of the craziest toys, like a battery-powered plastic birthday pie on wheels, a miniature keyboard that doubled as a lighter, or a battery-powered fish bowl. Yes, the markets were magic. The more expensive 1:18 models were usually sold in larger and quieter shops on the top floors. They would have hundreds of boxed models. If you wanted to look at one, the staff would theatrically grab the box, put it on a shiny table, and take it out like it was some treasure. Some sellers had white gloves on! I have bought a few very expensive models, and they came complete with a set of gloves! No pics of that, sorry, I threw them all away.

[Editor’s Note: I really like that Tycho calls a birthday cake a “birthday pie.” – JT]

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Changan Star minivan -police version. The sliding door works, or worked. It is so fragile now that I don’t dare to try it out anymore. Note the ABS badge on the front fender. ABS systems were still rare in China in the mid-2000s, especially on minivans, so brands that had it showed off.

So, with the car on the table, cigarette in hand, negotiations would begin. The sales guys drank soda instead of tea like the dealers did. Fine with me, tea makes me pee. I mostly had Pepsi or red iced tea, the sellers mainly had green iced tea. There was normally a price tag on the box, but that was just a base price for negotiating. My first bid would be half of that price, and we would usually end up at about ¾. Their trick was to stretch the negotiations as long as possible, hoping that the foreigner would get sick of it and agree. But hey! I had been living in China for many years by that time; I could play that game and beat them if I wanted to. After an hour or so, the deal was done. It got complicated when I wanted to buy multiple cars in one go. The seller used an old-school electronic calculator to compute the numbers, which gave him an advantage. I didn’t like being disadvantaged, so I brought my calculator with me at all times. A deal was usually sealed with a friendly nod and the writing down of the final number on a random piece of paper. My collection started to grow larger and larger.

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Great Wall Voleex C10. The real thing came out in 2010, with a controversial grille design.

I developed a habit, odd in hindsight, to go to these markets immediately after a heavy night of drinking. Many bars in Beijing were open 24/7 and those were my heaviest party years, and probably the best times in Beijing ever. I would go bar hopping with friends & girlfriends, get back home at 5 in the morning, sleep a few hours, get up, jump in a taxi, and go to a toy market. Then I bought 1:18s until my head exploded, went back to bed, and slept my hangover away. My collection became a bit confused and unhinged. Besides Chinese dealer models, I started buying all sorts of fancy 1:18 cars, mostly in bright colors, from AutoArt, Kyosho, Bburago, and whatnot.

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The final leftover of my endless hangover: a Hotwheels Ferrari Enzo. Uncleaned but otherwise in fine shape.

Before I knew it I suddenly had a few hundred Ferrari’s and Subaru rally cars and Maybach limousines. When normal times returned somewhat, I dumped this secondary collection in a dark corner and left it there until I moved to Europe, and on a whim, I decided to take them with me instead of throwing them away. That was a good idea, as I soon learned these cars were quite valuable. I sold them all on eBay for thousands of $, an unexpected windfall, and invested the money in NIO stock because I thought it was cool to invest money that I had earned in China into a Chinese car company. Not a good idea & goodbye to that windfall. Well, they come and they go, right? The only car I didn’t manage to sell was a Hotweels Ferrari Enzo; nobody wanted it, so I dumped it in a corner again, until I took it out for a photo for this article. I think I’ll keep it.


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Nanjing-Fiat Siena sedan. Very nice model with the engine type indicated under the indicator. The wheels are pretty too. Nanjing-Fiat produced the Siena sedan, the Palio hatchback, and the Palio Weekend station wagon.

Auto shows, nah no thank you!

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Card games are part of my auto show crap collection: Huanghai, MG, and Chery Rely.

On media days of major auto shows, car makers would offer 1:18 models to journalists for free. Whenever they did, there would be a throng of media folks fighting it out in front of a tiny desk, trying to get their hands on a 1:18. I didn’t mind fighting, but I was at the show to work, and I didn’t want to drag around heavy car models in my sack. I never got any 1:18 from an auto show, just not my thing. I did get lots of other stuff, like branded playing cards, keychains, name card holders, and lighters. I still have most of that stuff too.  

Chinese Car Model Peculiarities

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Shanghai-Volkswagen Passat sedan. On the left a 1.8 20V and on the right a 3.0 V6 30V. The V6 model has a sunroof and fancier seats, otherwise, both models are the same.

When collecting dealer car models in China, one has to take into account the peculiarities of the Chinese car market. The market is divided by cars from the joint-ventures and by cars from local Chinese car makers. Some commission more models than others. Let’s start with the joint ventures. In my days in China, the top dealer-scale model commissioner was Dongfeng-PSA, which made cars under the Citroen and Peugeot brand names. The company commissioned dozens of scale models, mainly 1:43 and 1:18, of each car they produced, plus rally versions + police versions. Second came FAW-VW, followed closely by Shanghai-VW. They went quite far with the Passat, with a 1:18 model of the V6 version and a model of the 4-pot. I have them both. Some joint ventures commissioned commemorative models and race or rally versions.

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Dongfeng-Nissan Sunny in racing colors and standard colors. The joint venture did compete in the Chinese touring car championship at the time.

SAIC-GM was all right, especially with the Buick brand. Guangzhou-Honda did a lot of 1:32 in the early days, later they changed to 1:18. Changan-Ford was a mixed bag, they only had some nice dealer models, like a Focus rally car and a super sleek Ford Mondeo V6. Nanjing-Fiat didn’t make many real cars, but they commissioned a model of everyone. FAW-Mazda only had the Mazda 6 in 1:18 but in all 3 variants: sedan, hatchback, and wagon. On the other side of the scale is Brilliance-BMW, which didn’t commission a single dealer model, and the same goes for Beijing-Benz. Bah!

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Chery Fengyun in silver with gray interior. Note the wood-colored top of the steering wheel. That’s an eye for detail! The five-spoke wheels are a bit shinier than on the real car. Chery also made a limousine version of the Fengyun, but sadly they didn’t come with a model of that one.

Local Chinese brands are model-mad. They usually launched 1:18s of cars, concept cars, rally versions, facelift versions, commemorative variants, anything! And they had them in different colors too. I have, for example, the Hongqi CA7220 in 3 colors and the Chery Fengyun in 2 colors.

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Twins of a certain kind. The Hongqi HQ3 sedan on the left, it is based on the Toyota Crown Majesta on the right. Super high-quality models with beautifully made interiors and real meta-chrome bits.

Another interesting 1:18 category is Chinese cars that are based on foreign cars. That happens a lot in the joint-venture system. I have, for example, models of the Hongqi HQ3 and the FAW-Toyota Crown Majesta; the former is based on the latter. From the late 2000s, Chinese dealer models became ever more detailed, with leather seats that felt like leather, gear levers that could move, seats that moved and folded, a spare wheel in a separately openable compartment in the trunk, with service stickers in the engine compartment, you name it!


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One of the most detailed 1:18s that I have is the GAC Trumpchi Witstar concept car. It debuted at the 2013 Guangzhou Auto Show. I was at the show and discovered that the real concept car had a real fish pod with real goldfish on board. That was so brilliant. Anyway, the 1:18 model has the fish tank too, and the fish looks pretty real. So much to collect, so much choice. Some Chinese collectors that I had met focussed on one brand, Hongqi was the most popular, or on a certain kind of car, like luxury sedans. I should have done that too, but I didn’t.

The Internet

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FAW Tianjin Daihatsu Terios Dario. This is a 1:16. Huge and heavy with great details like the roof spoiler.

The first website that sold dealer models was the original Taobao. It is an enormous modern shopping site now, but in the beginning, it was more like a mix of eBay and Amazon, with millions of sellers offering second-hand things and super cheap stuff, mostly toys and stationery. But it didn’t work like on eBay. There you can put in a bid or you can buy. In China, you had to negotiate with the seller, in real-time, via an in-build chat function.

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Hainan-Mazda 323 sedan. A super detailed model for its time. Note the complicated wheels and the mud flaps.

Like on the markets, the advertised price was just the beginning, and negotiations could last hours because the seller would be chatting with other buyers at the same time. So while I had access to many more dealer models, buying them still took a lot of time. I would sit at my computer, late at night, cigarette in hand, beer on my desk, trying to convince a fellow in Jiangxi that he should sell me the bloody Changan-Mazda for 200 yuan. Later on, Taobao changed to a more professional website, with fixed prices. With the rise of Taobao and other similar websites, the toy markets started to die, and by the early 2010s, most were gone. Some, however, have survived until today, but that’s mostly wholesale only.

The Current State of My Collection

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Lifan 520 hatchback. Red with a black interior. Mudflaps again, and the wheels look great. There is a sedan version too, which I also have.

I just moved into a new home office with enough space to display my entire 1:18 collection on Ikea Billy bookshelves. And that is cool because the collection has always been on Billy. When I moved to Beijing, the city’s first Ikea had just opened, so Billy it was, the base model, in brown. When I moved to another place in Beijing it was Billy again, a fancy dark white version with glass doors. Finally, in my new home office, I got the king of Billy’s: 40 cm deep, bright white, with double glass doors. Some of the older cars are still covered with Beijing dust, and I like to keep it that way, but I cleaned the newer ones. The collection is still growing. I buy 1:18s on eBay and various Chinese auction sites. My wife sometimes asks me if I ever will have enough cars. She knows the answer, of course. I only have about 1% of all the Chinese dealer models that are available, so there is a lot left for me to get. And one day, I will have them all.


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Part of my collection today. The Billy is standard a 5-shelve unit. I added 3 more. A bit cramped, but I got a lot of cars.
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The collection like it was in my first place in Beijing in 2004. It is a mix of dealer models, other 1:18, tin toys, toys, and general weird stuff. Note the dark brown Billy bookshelves: 28 cm deep, no doors, old badly isolated house, so the famous Beijing Dust ate it all.

My first 1:18

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This was my first dealer model, so it deserves some extra photos. It is a 1:18 model of the Hongqi CA7220 sedan. The CA7220 was based on the Audi 100. I got this model in 2003, weeks after I arrived. It is a beautiful model, painted in wine red.

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It has a toy-like battery-powered function; there is a hidden button under the rear bumper. Press it, and the lights flash. Press the steering wheel and the horn honks. The batteries are in the trunk. The mechanism still works! Note the FAW logo on the wheel covers.


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A nicely detailed interior, with a manual gearbox and beige seats.

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The 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine is nicely done, with an air filter and various reservoirs. The ‘1’ logo is from First Auto Works (FAW), the owner of the Hongqi brand.

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The headrests of the rear bench look great! It has an ABS badge too, just like the Changan Star. This model was available in 3 colors: wine red, black, and blue, and there was a taxi version as well. I have since found the blue and black ones too, and they are great, but the wine-red car was my first, and will always be the most special of them all. Still looking for that taxi!


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