The tide is turning for used cars in China. The market for new cars is intriguing – it’s the biggest in the world, with the broadest range of makes and models; the world’s most expensive new cars are Chinese, and so are the cheapest. But until recently, the idea of buying a used automobile has been met with general distaste; for years there’s been a stigma attached to buying used (not just in terms of cars, but everything), as China’s economy swells and its inhabitants don’t like to be reminded of the widespread poverty of the past. But in recent years, particularly fuelled by social media, the second-hand market has been booming among younger consumers.
“The tricky part of the build was the air suspension components, since they had to be totally custom made to suit the car”
How does this all relate to classic cars? China doesn’t have a heritage of classics in the way that we do; people wouldn’t buy a car because their grandad had one or because their racing heroes drove them like, for example, an English person might with a Jaguar or an American may with a Chevrolet. Couple this with the fact that the Chinese authorities’ aggressive strategies to stimulate economic growth extend to scrapping all cars when they reach a certain age, and you don’t find old cars on the roads over there like you do elsewhere. So how come Jeffery Li’s driving around in a B2 Passat? You may be familiar with the name, and indeed the car, as this is the adventurous team who drove from China all the way to Wörthersee this year, well over 10,000km in one hit. A frankly astonishing achievement. But how did he even get hold of the car in the first place? Well, while the B2 Passat went out of production in Europe in 1988, they kept knocking them out right up until 2013 in China – so while the car you see here is resplendent unmistakeable 1980s style, it was actually built in 2008. Technically it’s a Santana, as there was a bit of badge crossover between the variations in different markets: without wanting to get bogged down in the minutiae, European Passats were hatchbacks and estates; the four-door saloon version was badged as a Santana (until the 1985 facelift, anyway), but in China the Santana badge was used more broadly… so what we have here is a Chinese-market Santana estate, but it’s really a Passat so that’s what we’ll call it. Clear as mud? Super.
“I’ve always been a big fan of cars from the 1980s and ’90s,” Jeffery explains. “But since I live in China now, there aren’t too many choices for me to drive one legally, due to the policies and regulations – that’s the reason why I had to scrap my Mk2 Jetta. However, thanks to the Chinese automotive market we’re still able to find some B2 Passats in decent shape – so I thought ‘why not?’. This 2008 B2 with ’80s design satisfies the policies and regulations, and it’s cool and retro which is what I wanted!”
The wagon was found on a used car site, a newly blossoming phenomenon in the shifting Chinese consumer culture, and it had been owned by a fellow VW lover. With 70k kilometres on the clock, it had lived a relatively easy life – and it’s fair to say that at the time of purchase, Jeffery wasn’t planning to spin those odometer numbers around by such a massive percentage increase quite so rapidly.
“The condition of the car was decent,” he continues. “About 80% of the paint was original, and it only had a few rust spots here and there underneath, so I didn’t have to do too much work on restoration. I stripped it all down to a bare shell with couple of my friends, and it was repainted to freshen it up.” The colour he’s chosen here is a masterstroke: Jaguar Emerald Fire Green, the shade you’d find on XFRs and XKRs of the late-2000s. It ties neatly into the age of this particular Passat, updating the 1980s lines with a contemporary shade from the year it was assembled, and yet provides a vividity to the wagon’s angles that was never present in the Euro market back when they were being built in Lower Saxony. The metallic green is almost chameleonic, appearing bright sparkly green in sunlight but almost black when it’s in the shade.
“As for the parts we needed, we’re still able to find most of them brand new in China,” he says. “But we have to bear in mind the ‘Made in China’ element though – there’s no offence with that term here of course, but sometimes the quality isn’t as good as ‘Made in Germany’.” Nevertheless, Jeffery and his buddies were making strong inroads into getting the car good-as-new, so it was time to start making some changes. If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it properly.
Job one was to address the lows. Because that’s job one with pretty much any car, right? The ’08 B2 now wears BC V1 Series coilovers, along with a bespoke airbag setup. “The tricky part of the build was the air suspension components, since they had to be totally custom made to suit the car,” says Jeffery. “So I left it to Li, the owner of KGOAIR, and had him build it for me.”
With the bootylicious wagon sitting pretty, it was time to ill those arches – which had already been artfully flared in preparation for such things during the bodywork stage. The decision was made to build up a set of 15” BBS RS001 in staggered widths with Radinox lips; the fronts are 9.25” wide, with an extra half-inch out back. And hiding behind them, despite having just 95bhp or thereabouts to haul up, Jeffery erred on the side of caution for his epic road adventures by radically updating the brakes; a B4 Passat disc conversion out back, and full-fat 4-pot Wilwoods at the business end. You see, by this stage of the project, ideas about road-trippin’ were starting to swirl around with some degree of seriousness…
“In October last year, I was browsing some travel forums and I read an article about a Chinese couple from Shanghai who spent over a year driving their car to travel the Eurasian continent,” Jeffery recalls. “So I felt that I could do the same thing, as these people had proved that it’s feasible. I talked to Calven and Li at KGOAIR about the road trip, and we came up with an idea – wouldn’t it be cooler to drive my modiied Passat B2 to attend the Wörthersee Treffen?” And just like that, the kernel of the idea started to sprout; the Chinese authorities may not be too hot on people buying classic cars, but with a little ingenuity it’s perfectly possible to buy a modern-era version of one and drive it over to Europe. Of course, it’s quite a long way, and it’s not exactly the easiest thing to do as very few people have ever thought to try it… but Jeffery had two key weapons in his arsenal: firstly, he had a lovely set of Recaros in his Passat which would surely keep him comfortable over such incredible distances. And secondly – he just really wanted to do it. And what’s the point of living if you don’t act on these impulses? Our lives aren’t defined by the opportunities we pass up. Jeffery wanted to embark upon the trip of a lifetime, so that’s precisely what he did.
“I emigrated to Canada in 2000, and the ultimate plan is to export the Passat over there when it reaches fifteen years old, in line with Canadian import regulations, so that it doesn’t have to be scrapped in China,” he reasons. “That way I can pass it onto my son when he gets his driver’s licence – he’s only three now, but I’m planning ahead! So I figured it was important to make some memories in the car, to really make it mean something.”
Now, just take a moment and open up the maps app on your phone. Type in Shenzhen, then plot a route to Wörthersee. Depending which app you use, you may find that it can’t even be bothered to try to calculate one; it’s a hell of a journey, all the way across China and into Russia, through endless miles toward eastern Europe, across Belarus and Poland, right through the Czech Republic, and basically the full length of Austria. This is the sort of journey that requires hitherto unimaginable quantities of Percy Pigs and podcasts. “Way too many unexpected problems happened along the journey,” he says, with the steely gaze of a man who’s lived through a few things. “The most crushing one was when we first got into Russia and something had gone wrong with my visa. At that moment I thought the journey was finished before it had really started. Thanks to Calven, he was willing to do a solo trip to cross Russia with the car; we were separated and I took different transportation including an airplane, trains and buses to Latvia so I could meet him at the Russian border and get behind the wheel again! Not to mention that we had a cracked wheel in Russia, and Calven had to find a shop in Kazan to get it repaired. But after all of those endless miles, through all of those many countries, we managed to arrive at Velden am Wörthersee safely. It was very unreal, and just like a dream. Those unexpected problems didn’t stop us from living our dream though!”
You can imagine the sort of heroes’ welcome the guys received when they finally reached their destination, as the road trip was being chronicled on social media and there was a huge buzz around this plucky and tenacious team’s seemingly ludicrous adventure. The distances involved here are truly staggering, mind-boggling, taking a retro estate car across distances most people could barely imagine.
This is legendary stuff. And perhaps our favourite element of it all is how Jeffery’s cleverly sidestepped the will of the Chinese authorities – they mightn’t want old-school rides on the roads clogging up the country’s blossoming new car sales, but a little lateral thinking has demonstrated here that you don’t always have to do what you’re told. There’s always another way. And if you’re adventurous, it can be a really, really long way.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION: Stock 1.8-litre (95bhp), 5-speed manual
CHASSIS: 9.25×15” (front) and 9.75×15” (rear) BBS RS001 with Radinox lips, 185/45 Nankang NS tyres, BC V1 Series coilovers with KGOAIR custom bags, AccuAir E-Level management, Wilwood 4-pot front calipers with 285mm discs, B4 Passat rear disc conversion
EXTERIOR: Jaguar Emerald Fire Green paint, widened arches
INTERIOR: BBS steering wheel, Recaro LX seats retrimmed with Mk5 GTI tartan
THANKS: “We could never have got this journey done without all the help from the car enthusiast communities all over the world. We would love to thank AccuAir for providing such a reliable system, and Danny from AccuAir China for all the arrangements. Carmen and Jason from Superly Auto for the great hospitality in Velden, and also Cartown in Kazan for fixing the cracked wheel properly. Last but not least, those who offered to help us out whenever we had troubles and cheer us up along the trip, we love to thank you!”
That way I can pass it onto my son when he can drive – he’s only three now, but I’m planning ahead!