It’s always interesting to see the work well-known auto design houses have done for markets that most of our readers (by no means all, of course) get to see—it’s sort of like when you find out that some big American movie star has done a Japan-only commercial. In this case, the markets are China, Iran, Thailand, Malaysia, Russia, Sri Lanka, and a few others. The design firm is the famous Pininfarina. The car is the Hafei Lobo.
I wasn’t really aware of the Lobo until I saw a tweet featuring one the other day, and was immediately struck by the incredible bold geometric lighting design:
Sure, it’s kind of a dumpy little econobox, but at the same time there are some really interesting design ideas happening there and, as the tweet notes, one of the very few examples of base-of-the-A-pillar indicators I can think of!
I mean, there’s the 1998-2003 Fiat Multipla that included headlamps at roughly that position, but as far as indicators? The only other example I can think of are 1950s “ponton” Mercedes-Benzes:
But let’s get back to Hafei. The company started in China in 1950, mostly as a repair/assembly concern, but in the mid 1990s they began to build cars, starting with license-built Suzuki Carry kei vans. They continued with other license-built cars from Daewoo (that one may have been a knockoff) and Mitsubishi, but wanted to make more of an original splash, so they reached out to Pininfarina to come up with something special for the 2002 Beijing Auto show.
Pininfarina came up with two things for the show: a bold concept car and a clever little city car. What’s interesting is how certain design details from the concept found their way into the humble city car.
Look at the concept design, which was called the Menghuan. Note the headlamps, which are at the base of the A-pillars, and the bold, triangular taillights. The C-pillar is also interesting, broken into two angular fins flanking an all-glass bubble roof. It’s a striking-looking car!
Now check out the city car, which was called the Lobo, for, I guess, wolf? It’s got the same A-pillar lights (indicators here), the triangular taillights, a dramatically angled D-pillar, and triangular design motifs in the door handles, mirrors, and other detailing.
It’s a cool-looking city car, a car with a clear design theme that’s expressed throughout, and not some haphazard collection of common design vocabulary bits.
The production version kept remarkably close to the concept design, with the only major visible change being the pillars were now body-colored instead of blacked out, sort of a reversal from most modern cars, and likely a cost-cutting measure.
The cost-cutting makes sense, since this thing was dirt cheap when it was finally discontinued in China in 2011: the base model, with a 1.1-liter 68 horsepower engine was only about $5,140 in U.S. dollars, which is only about $6,108 in today’s money. Still dirt, dirt cheap.
Is this the cheapest Pininfarina-designed new car people could buy? I think it might be!
In other markets the car was known variously as the Brio, Naza Sutera, or the Micro Cars Micro Trend. Also, I was informed by a friend in China that the name Lubao (路宝), from which the “Lubo” name came, means “road treasure,” which kind of sounds like a euphemism for a pile of feces on the road.
I realize that to the standards of most of our readership, this is an underpowered little shitbox, but I’d implore you to look at it with more forgiving eyes. It’s an incredibly accessible little car, designed for economy and utility, yet it has a good bit of style to it, and that’s worthy of respect.
I keep coming back to this rear three-quarter view. That’s an eye-catching car there, in its own humble way, and I hope automakers see a lesson here: your cheap crap can be well-designed, too. I know America seems to have completely abandoned the very low end of the car market, but that doesn’t mean we all have to.