Import Veteran Plans to Bring Chinese-Made Hydrogen Cars to U.S.

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006

The Chinese are coming.

They are bringing luxury cars to America. They also have ambitious plans to bring hydrogen-powered cars to the world.

Two separate announcements last week highlighted the developments.

Malcolm Bricklin, the man who brought Subaru and Yugo automobiles to the United States and who now heads the aptly named Visionary Vehicles in New York, revealed his partnership with a major East Coast dealership chain to begin U.S. distribution of cars manufactured by China's Chery Automobile Co. in late 2007.

The first models, mid-size luxury sedans priced in the manner of economy cars, will be sold in Arlington, through a retail network set up by Rothrock Motor Sales of Allentown, Pa.

The dealership chain, operated by the father-and-son team of David and Bruce Rothrock, owns stores in Pennsylvania's Lehigh and Delaware valleys. But the Rothrocks are in an expansionist mode. In addition to setting up shop in Northern Virginia, they also are moving into the Florida communities of Palm Beach, Orlando and Winter Park. And they are expanding out West by establishing retail outlets in San Gabriel Valley, Calif.

The aggressively entrepreneurial Rothrocks are Bricklin's kind of people -- "precisely the type of partners we are looking for at Visionary Vehicles," Bricklin said in prepared remarks. As shareholders in Visionary Vehicles, the Rothrocks will play a major role in the company's product offering and pricing decisions, Bricklin said.

Over the past three years, Bricklin has been pursuing a plan to establish a U.S. Chery Automobile distribution network made up of 250 dealers, each contributing $1 million or more to join. Visionary's goal with the Chery car, made in Wuhu, China, is based on a classic Bricklin formula: Import a precedent-setting automobile at a low price, hype it to the max and generate enough sales to create a new market segment or, at least, establish a new brand.

That strategy worked well for Bricklin in 1968 when he began selling the Japanese-made Subaru 360 subcompact car through a network of 20 U.S. dealers. It did not work as well a few years later with his importing Italy's Fiat X-9. Nor did it stand him in good stead in 1985 with his ill-fated importing of the Yugoslavian Yugo.

With the Chinese, Bricklin has something he did not have with the Italians or Yugoslavs -- the commitment of the government of the People's Republic of China to turn its burgeoning automotive industry into a global success.

That commitment was demonstrated in another automotive development in China last week that could profoundly change the nature of the automobile as we have come to know, love and loathe it. Ballard Power Systems, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, signed a memorandum of understanding with Shanghai Fuel Cell Vehicle Powertrain Co. to supply up to 20 fuel-cell stacks and related equipment to be installed in a demonstration fleet of 100 fuel-cell vehicles owned by the Shanghai Municipal Government.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces energy through a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. It is regarded as a clean, efficient energy system that relies on renewable resources.

The Shanghai government hopes to have its 100 fuel-cell cars operating by the end of 2007. Those models mark the first phase of the plan to put 1,000 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on Shanghai's roads by 2010 and to have 10,000 operating by 2012.

That kind of aggressiveness in the development and deployment of hydrogen fuel-cell cars and trucks could make China a world leader in hydrogen fuel-cell technology, Ballard officials said.

"We believe China could be a key market driving the commercialization of automotive fuel-cell technology, and, as such, we are very pleased to announce this next step in our ongoing activities in China," said Noordin Nanji, Ballard's vice president for marketing.

Bottom line: The Chinese dragon is revving its engines. American, European, South Korean and Japanese car companies that have seen tough competition in recent years haven't seen anything yet.


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