We Recreate Surreal, Illegal Test Drive With China's Richest Man

One of my favorite stories I've ever written involved an impromptu test drive through the Detroit Auto Show with a leader who was soon to become the richest man in China. Four shows later we recreated the drive.

A young reporter enjoying his first Detroit Auto Show. A young Chinese automaker going to the show for the first time. We were a perfect match. The 2008 auto show saw a bevy of Chinese automakers show up to announce they were coming to the American market. Established companies like Geely, Cherry and Great Wall. And then there was BYD, an automaker who was more famous for making batteries.

Illustration for article titled We Recreate Surreal, Illegal Test Drive With Chinas Richest Man

Fate sent me to the BYD press conference that cold January day, but an idea sent me back to the stand when the press conference was long over. I'd seen BYD's Chaunfu Wang drive the car forward three feet as a demonstration of the car's ability to work (as opposed to the still concept Volt). I wanted him to do that with me in the car.

Hilariously, by the time the message got to Chairman Wang it had turned into more than a three-foot drive. It turned into a full trip around the floor of the Detroit Auto Show:

All of a sudden the car starts moving down the hall and towards the Michelin design gallery. While this is happening the contingent of BYD executives that aren't snapping pictures realize that they need to move people out of the way lest they be hit by the chairman. The translator coolly explains the merits of this clearly workable prototype as the chairman calmly drives around as though he's navigating a quiet boulevard in Shenzhen.

I'm now completely taken with my good luck at getting a real test drive from the Chairman, looking back at the BYD booth now 100 feet away. I was convinced that this was the end of the trip and the car would be backed up to the booth. And then the car sped up to about 10 mph, which is an uncomfortable speed in the middle of a convention center.

There was only one obstacle in the way: a press conference.

It was the highlight of the show for me and something people still mention when the show rolls around. It got me my first mention in the New York Times, put me on a national radio show, and otherwise helped launch my career in news features.


BYD, for their part, are doing fairly well themselves. After the show they took on a huge investment from Warren Buffett and sold a million of the F3 cars (mostly non-hybrids) in the Chinese market. They're also the only Chinese automaker still at the show and recently turned ten cars over to the Los Angeles Housing Authority (HACLA) for testing.

Ever the good sports, BYD's North American President Michael Austin (standing in for The Chairman) and BYD spokesman Paul Lin agreed to recreate the drive in the basement of Cobo, which has now been turned into a test track — a sign of how far ahead of the times we were back then.

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What a great memory for you, Matt. You are so lucky.

I guess this Michael Austin is not the Mike Austin who answered questions here yesterday?