“In Asia, in general, the culture does not define copying as something bad or unethical,” said then Chairman of DaimlerChrysler, Dieter Zetsche in 2007. (1)
Unfortunately, automobiles are no exception to the consensus that once a brand name or model is popular enough, it’s entirely acceptable to rearrange the parts just enough to dodge the legal ramifications that can result from cannibalizing an existing product. The trick is to make sure the “new” car still resembles the original closely enough to feed off the original’s popularity. That way, the parasitic company is spared the burden of having to compete on a level playing field with the competition.
In 2007, BMW filed a suit to prohibit sale of the CEO, produced by Chinese carmaker Shuanghuan Automobile. It didn’t appear that Shuanghuan even made much of an effort to cover its tracks; their emblem is quite obviously a variation of the classic BMW badge (see new videos). What made the CEO a true threat to sales of the X5 is that Shuanghuan pawned the CEO off for a base price of $35,483 while a luxury X5 could break the bank at nearly $126,040.
That same year, DaimlerChrysler also took legal action against Shuanghuan in an attempt to halt sales of the Noble, a Chinese version of Daimler’s Smart car. While the Chinese copy cars aroused some negative attention during the time period, it didn’t sway their further production.
“Naturally, our cars are inspired by European carmakers,” said Karl Schlössl, a German who is the chief executive of China Automobile. “But we reject the charge that they are copies.” (1)
Back in 2004, Toyota sued Laibao for producing a vehicle called the SRV. Guess which Honda model it wasn’t based on. And yet, nearly half a decade later, Chinese carmakers are still legally mimicking popular car models and selling them for cheap: In 2004 the Honda CR-V went for $40,000 while the Laibo SRV could be bought for $12,000.
Of course, the knockoffs lower prices aren’t entirely indicative of lower labor costs. It’s well known that Chinese cars are notorious for their lowered standards. Quality costs money. Recently, Cheery, China’s biggest automaker was forced to recall its best selling model, the Amulet, when it compressed like an accordion during a standard front-end crash test. Type “Chinese crash test” into YouTube for a good cross section of the carnage.
This is the caliber of vehicle that is digging into the pockets of legitimate carmakers. Regardless of whatever legalities allow the knockoffs to skirt design copyright, it’s simply unethical to let second rate companies claw their way to prominence on the backs of car manufacturers that have spent the better part of a century establishing the brand names that we now know to be staples of the automotive world through honest sales.
Desirable cars, domestic or not earned their reputation. There’s plenty for respectable carmakers to worry about at this point in their history without being forced to sacrifice more of their already dwindling business to leeches too impotent to design a car worth copying of their own.