I think it’s well understood that what generally qualifies as the best sort of automotive design are ideas that are new, novel, and break some new ground, always moving forward, always advancing. That’s all great, but when it comes to stuff people just like, the rules are pretty different. For example, if I had a bee sting for every time I’ve heard someone say they want a vintage-looking car with a modern drivetrain, I’d have died a painful death many times over. Chinese carmaker Songsan seems to get this, and is even building cars that seem to have come from alternate histories, like a four-door Corvette C1 sedan.
Songsan started in the mid-’90s as a Beijing-area car club, later moving to building and selling custom motorcycles and vintage cars. In 2019 they made a deal with Chinese car-making powerhouse BYD to provide powertrains and manufacture cars that they design, a bit like what I imagine Japanese small-scale nostalgic-looking carmaker Mitsuoka’s relationship with Nissan is, though I don’t think Nissan does their manufacturing. The point is, this small ex-car club is partnered with a real, high-volume manufacturing company, and Songsan cars actually get built.
The first product of the BYD-Songsan alliance was the Songsan SS Dolphin, a very obvious re-make of a 1958-1962 Corvette C1:
The SS Dolphin’s proportions aren’t exactly the same, and there’s no question it’s an unashamed copy. It’s not original, but it’s fun.
The Dolphin uses a hybrid BYD powertrain that appears to be at the heart of all Songsan’s cars: a 1.5-liter turbo inline four with an electric motor that give a very respectable combined 320 horsepower, connected to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic and with a 16 kWh battery for the electric motor.
It’s a modern hybrid that looks like a C1 Corvette! It’s not for everybody, but I bet that everybody it is for loves the shit out of it.
It’s not cheap—about $93,000 in U.S. dollars, but what drivable C1 is cheap?
Songsan isn’t content with just copies of cars, though—this is where it gets really fun. They’re starting to play a sort of “what if” game, imagining cars from alternate histories that never actually happened.
For example, leaked patent images—provided to us by our pals over at CarNewsChina—show images of a four-door SS Dolphin sedan that looks like what a hypothetical alternate-reality Chevrolet may have designed if GM decided that the Corvette really needed a four-door family car option:
Note those lines on the roof—is this some kind of four-panel removable targa-type roof situation going on there? Because that would be fantastic.
A hybrid, four-door C1-looking car isn’t really as sophisticated or erudite as, say, a Polestar or a Tesla or an Audi or Volvo, but tell me that whoever pulls up in one of these isn’t having a fantastic time, making life choices because they simply feel great, and not over-analyzing anything. It’s appealing!
Songsan makes another bit of sort-of alternate history using this BYD drivetrain, something that looks like what would have happened if Volkswagen decided to improve the Type 2 Microbus’ rear load capacity by moving to a front engine/front drive design, and pulling a hood from the front of the box:
Look! It even has a pop top! And check out that plush, conversion-van-style interior:
Again, it’s not for everyone, but I suspect there’s plenty of people who need minivans who would be absolutely thrilled to have something this fun and exuberant instead of some slate gray Honda Odyssey or Nissan Quest or whatever. Honestly, something like this is what people want from VW’s long, long awaited upcoming MEB-platform ID Buzz, but this is already here, and selling.
This video gives some good views of how long the hood is, making it very clear that nobody would mistake this for an actual Microbus—but the inspiration is undeniable:
I should warn you that the video does contain this terrifying shot of a mannequin in one of the cars, looking like a very dead person:
Yikes. Mannequins are never a good idea when showing cars.
Again, plenty of people just want cars that make them happy, and don’t give a rat’s rectum if the design is silly or overly nostalgic—fun is fun.
That video also shows a genuinely original Songsan design, the Songsan GT, a four door sports car with scissor doors up front:
Clearly they’re capable of original designs, but it’s also clear they seem happiest making their very nostalgia-inspired cars. Like this one, the Songsan Monterey, which looks a lot like an old ‘58 or so Buick Roadmaster:
The Monterey has the right look from the outside, and underneath it’s those same BYD hybrid mechanicals.
Some of the interior design shows a bit of a cavalier attitude, from just sticking in a few rectangular LCD screens to the clear lack of an airbag, to that Rolls-Royce umbrella shoved into that little umbrella cubby—did they just grab a Rolls umbrella and shove it in there, because, fuck it, why develop a new umbrella? Maybe!
I have conflicted views about the ethics of so blatantly cribbing designs that aren’t yours, that’s true. But, the cars that are just inspired, even heavily, by a given design but changed substantially—I think I’m fine with that.
And, more importantly, I’m all for cars being fun things that just make you happy, free from burdens of status-signaling or any joyless bullshit like that. It’s easy to not care if people think you’re tacky when you’re just having too good a time to give a shit.