But local brands are now getting a leg up with a new government policy requiring officials to gradually replace their Audis and Volkswagens with local brands. China's government is reported to spend up to $16 billion annually on its fleet of roughly 5 million vehicles.
Red Flag's storied reputation could give it an edge over other local marques, said Klaus Paur, global head of automotive at market research company Ipsos.
"While other Chinese car makers are not really up to the challenge, Red Flag is probably the only domestic brand that may be accepted by Chinese officials as an alternative to international brands," Paur said. "If Hong Qi is able to succeed with officials, this may also have a positive impact for the private car market."
One of China's top three automakers, FAW produces vehicles from buses to SUVs, but the Red Flag has always been its flagship brand.
The Red Flag was hatched in a tossed-off comment by Chairman Mao. Arriving in a Russian limousine at a meeting of the Politburo in 1956, Mao questioned out loud when he would travel "in one of our own sedans." That led to a prototype in 1958. Production began in earnest in 1959.
For more than two decades, FAW churned out Red Flags in a variety of sizes and styles. In 1965 it introduced Mao's CA770, which featured a luxury interior and three rows of seating.
Production ended in 1981 under then-leader Deng Xiaoping's drive to reduce waste and revive the moribund economy through his policy of reform and opening.
In the years that followed, no less than three attempts were made to revive the brand through hook-ups with foreign brands, resulting in such combinations as the CA7465 C8, based on a second-generation Lincoln Town Car, as well as the rebranded Audi 100.
While such iterations haven't had the gravitas of the classic limos of Mao's era, the brand has managed to retain its mystique, said Liu, the car enthusiast.
"It's much more than just a type of automobile," Liu said. "For the citizens of China, there's really nothing that can replace it."
Louise Watt contributed to this report.
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