The automobile has an outsized role in American mythology. Henry Ford and his assembly line. The 1950s, when everything from suburbanization to rock n’ roll was tied to private car ownership. The Big Three auto makers, the DeLorean in Back to the Future, Nascar: all cultural touchstones of a car-proud nation.
The US is hardly alone. Germany has the Autobahn and the design legacies of Audi andBMW . Italian luxury extends beyond high fashion to auto makers like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. South Korea has the mighty Hyundai Motor Group . In each case, cars are part of a broader national brand.
But what about other countries? What if a major economy had missed out on nearly a century of intense automobile production and mass consumption? How might a desire to catch up manifest itself?
If that country is China, you get the Shanghai Auto Museum: a snapshot of the contradictions of 21st-century China, the self-congratulatory and the self-abasing, the insecure and the brutally honest.
The institution, billed as 'The First Dedicated Auto Museum in China', lies on Shanghai’s outskirts in Anting New Town. The location alone suggests an urban planner’s attempt to foster a cultural appreciation of cars. The museum is two metro stops from the Shanghai Circuit, site of the annual Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, and one stop from the Shanghai Volkswagen factory. Next door is the Shanghai Automobile Exhibition Center, home of the biannual Shanghai Auto Show.
On display is a wide range of cars, with sexier specimens like the 1983 Ferrari Testarossa and 1966 Mustang GT mixed in alongside novelties like the 1998 Volkswagen Lupo, known for its record fuel economy. There are also a number of Chinese makes, including a 1959 Hongqi CA72 -- a black, boxy number -- and a 1983 Shanghai Santana, an early product of the joint venture between Volkswagen and China’s SAIC Motor.
China’s familiar nationalism becomes more apparent with the dual Chinese-English text adorning the exhibitions. A plaque labeled 'Dreams of Mobility' notes that after years when cars were “far away from common people”, domestic production of automobiles now means that “China has shown to the world her national dignity and greatness”. Its conclusion: “The national dream has [sic] deeply rooted in people’s eagerness for cars. Today, the eagerness have come to true [sic]. Cars have become an indispensable part in Chinese people’s life.”
Then there are quasi-philosophical attempts to explain concepts like consumerism. Beneath longtime General Motors chief Alfred P Sloan ’s famous quote, “A car for every purse and purpose,” another plaque asks, “Have you ever been attracted by the variety of cars while you stood on the roadside? Have you ever been proud of the character of your own car while you drove it? Could you possibly imagine what it would be like if some day all the cars in the world were the same color and shape?” The museum suggests these questions have a correct answer: “Pursuing individuality is our nature”.
Sometimes the museum verges on the surreal. At one point, visitors can relax on a couch while listening to musical selections ranging from “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China” -- a propaganda hit from the 1940s -- to ABBA ’s 'Dancing Queen'. A short film clip playing behind the display of a BMW Isetta 300 depicts a blond-haired couple setting up an Alpine picnic, their flirtatious German banter clouded by heavy Russian accents.
And yet moments of coherence exist. A timeline of global developments in the auto industry tells us that in 1995, when China’s population was 1.2 billion, the country had only 10 million automobiles. By 2006, it then explains, China was producing more than seven million autos of its own each year as the population rose to 1.3 billion. Such illustrations of China’s booming commercial power instill pride in Chinese and awe in foreigners.
Shanghai’s auto museum isn’t the best in the world. It isn’t on the average tourist itinerary. But its take on the automobile is unlikely to be found elsewhere, meshing the evolution of personal transportation with a nation’s pride, envy and healthy optimism. It also offers another aesthetic option to travelers bored by China’s more familiar temples and jade carvings. As the museum informs visitors, in mostly correct English: “The meaning of the antique car is far beyond itself. They are standing here, flashing the light of scientific technology and art to human dreams of eternal.”
Cameron White is a Princeton in Asia fellow at The Wall Street Journal Asia editorial page.