Negotiating the acres of flashing, neon aisles in the Dong Xuan Center in Berlin on Thursday afternoon, it’s quickly apparent how accustomed we have become to lookalike goods. Here, in hangar upon hangar of Asian goods, among imitation leather massage chairs and wholesale kebab shop signs, you will find a half-decent Jordan VI copy for 20 euros, YEEZY-lookalike “SPRT-353s,” BENCHI watches and a handheld POP gaming device.
Each item cleverly walks just the right side of the copyright line, offering cash-strapped customers the opportunity to rock the latest products, as long as no one gets too close.
If you dig a little deeper in Europe and beyond you will find counterfeit and copied clothing and sneakers that are so close to the originals that there are Instagram accounts such as @fake_education dedicated to documenting the minuscule differences.
But what if I said you can buy a fully-functioning counterfeit car? Back in the office, I’m on the website of Zotye, a Chinese company that has only been in business since 2003, and I’m looking for a copycat ride. The firm may well pride itself on “[adhering] to the principle of humble integrity” but big cheeses over at Stuttgart sports car manufacturer Porsche may well call them out on that claim.
The Zotye SR9 in metallic blue on the site is the company’s latest model. While it may not be a counterfeit – it is legally on sale in dealerships in China right now – it is also a dead ringer for a Porsche Macan. No similar design cues here, no derivative styling – take off the badge and most people would think the SR9 is a Porsche at first and second glance. In fact, even the Zotye badge is in Porsche-esque script. There’s also one in oligarch trophy wife bubblegum pink too, if you fancy.
The dimensions are almost exact – Zotye SR9: 4744/1929/1647, and wheelbase is 2850; Macan: 4681/1923/1624, and wheelbase is 2807 – and inside it is a near-perfect replica of the Porsche with the same switches, center console and steering wheel.
In fact, the only numbers that are vastly different are the price: one site reported a fully kitted-out SR9 being offered for 100,000 yuan ($14,500), compared to 558,000 yuan ($80,977) for a starter Macan. Unlike that snide pair of Beats headphones you bought for 10 bucks that make Kendrick sound like someone tapping a kettle, the SR9 is also reassuringly well equipped (and probably won’t fall apart if you put it on your head).
It features a 2.0-liter turbocharged Mitsubishi engine, with 190hp and 184lb ft of torque, and a choice of either standard five-speed manual or optional six-speed dual clutch transmission. You even get an LCD dash, along with a host of other goodies.
If you want something a little more conventional, the company also sells the SR7 – an Audi Q3 lookalike – and the squint-and-it’s-a-Volkswagen Tiguan T600, with LED daytime lights, independent suspension, airbags all round, keyless entry, reversing radar, touch screen GPS, and what looks like a Seat badge back-to-front on the nose.
China’s burgeoning auto market has been referencing established brands for a few years now, but arguably the SR9 is the first to get so close. This furious gap filling is down to the explosion in demand: a total of 28 million new cars were sold in China in 2016, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), and this is expected to reach 35 million new cars annually by 2025.
This year’s Shanghai Motor Show took the culture to the next level, placing carbon copy cars within meters of the vehicles they were almost perfectly replicating. The Land Wind on display is a car so close visually to the Land Rover Evoque – down to its nose lettering – the firm is reportedly in the process of being sued by Land Rover. Porsche reportedly threatened legal action when the new Zotye was first revealed as a concept in 2014, but hasn’t yet officially sued for copyright infringement.
Elsewhere there was the electric Porsche Cayman clone named Eagle, with a Ferrari F12 nose grafted on; the JAC A6 that referenced the Audi A6 even down to its name; the BYD S7 that appeared to be a knockoff of the Lexus RX; the Brilliance V5, which was a BMW X1 with a Skoda Roomster front; and finally the Zotye E200, which looked like a facelifted Smart ForTwo.
The practice of replicating cars is in many ways an extension of the culture of counterfeiting products, predominantly consumer electronics, otherwise known as Shanzhai. The word loosely translates to a mountain village that is the home of bandits, much like Robin Hood, and invokes the same righteous approach to taking from the rich to give to the poor.
Add to this a healthy dose of Chinese culture that refers to copying as a great honor, rather than a cheeky rip-off, and you have a booming business. According to research by Gartner, 150 million Shanzhai mobile phones were sold in 2007, more than one tenth of the global sales. By 2010, it is reported that Shanzhai phones had jumped to 20 percent of the global 2G mobile phone market.
It is difficult to say whether China has less stigma over lookalike goods or is simply more advanced in what it copies – remember a lot of people by cheap versions of Converse and Vans in the West – but in this environment the SR9 is thriving. One dealer in Beijing, reports Forbes, said he was selling one a day, and the car was a lesson in competitive pricing for German manufacturers. So what can the big car makers do about it?
Not as much as you might think, says professor David Wall, who specializes in intellectual property crime at Leeds University and is the author of more than a dozen books. “I agree that a number of these ‘copycats’ seem to go that bit further in terms of look and feel, however, despite the obvious initial similarities there seem to be a large number of differences between the original and look alike that probably mean it is unlikely that a purchaser would be confused into thinking that they are buying the original. While these copies may be seen to infringe design values, they rarely infringe the trademarks, though they do admittedly carefully play with them; just look at the writing of Land Wind in the style of Land Rover,” he says.
“There is not an international copyright law that is enforceable in these cases. There are provisions under the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, to which China is a signatory. Underlying all this, China does seems to fall behind many Western countries in terms of the strength of its IP law regime – there is not a strength of culture of IP as we would understand it in the West. This may relate to China’s apparently longstanding culture of copying – which may be something to do with the historical respect for the work of a master and not deviating from it.”
The concept of selling a car based on a brand, built up over decades, which attracts both buyers and admirers with the prestige it carries, doesn’t seem to be as important in China. With so many companies popping up – last year it was estimated that at least 20 new car companies were formed in just 18 months – the onus for a lot of consumers is competitively priced products that, in the words of an Apple fanboy circa 2010, “just work.”
Wall says there is probably more of a “moral issue” with copied cars in countries outside of China. “This really relates to whether the public sees it as right or wrong. I suspect that a lot of the condemnation about copycat cars is to do with political issues rather than anything else.”
Chantelle Znideric is an award-winning personal stylist based in London. She says that whether it is clothes or cars, the rise of social media has created a generation of people who often care a little too much as to what people think of them.
“The prominence of fashion bloggers and influencers, as well as visual social networks such a Instagram and Pinterest, are a constant reminder of the importance of designer goods to feel part of ‘the club.’ If someone can’t afford high end products, counterfeit and copied goods – which are often hard to tell apart – are a highly attractive option for people to feel good about themselves but also to enhance their sense of self importance.”
Chantelle also points to the fact the high street brands in Europe are also influenced by higher end labels as well as designers and can quickly turnaround samples in order to sell fast fashion to cash in.
On how much harm copied goods do to big manufacturers, both Wells and Znideric agree – not very much.
“More people are seen with their products and therefore their brand and products get in front of more people, driving up brand awareness and worth in the eye of the consumer,” says Znideric.
Wall adds: “[On the influx of fake Burberry scarfs in the nineties] I think that Burberry not only got through it but it is stronger today.”
Charlie Abrahams, senior vice president of worldwide sales at Mark Monitor, a company that provides advanced technology and expertise that protects the revenues and reputations of the world’s leading brands – including major car manufacturers and fashion retailers – is more cautionary.
“Only successful brands get counterfeited or copied but I think the rights owners find it egregious more than flattering. The problem here is that counterfeiting negatively impacts a brand, especially when something goes wrong. For example, fakes don’t use the same high quality of materials or craftsmanship so the result is a poor quality product. If the consumer is under the impression the item is genuine, they are left with a bad perception of the brand, which impacts on customer trust and ultimately the bottom line.”
He points out that copying is design right infringement; it is not counterfeit unless it purports to be the real product.
So what if you decide you don’t care about what the brands and other consumers think? You’re probably thinking about popping to Shanghai and bringing your own $15,000 Zotye SR9 Porsche clone back to the USA, right? Except it’s not quite that simple.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection warns imported cars are subject to safety standards under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which covers everything from bumper standards to emission standards. “Therefore, it is unlikely that a vehicle obtained abroad meets all relevant standards,” it states.
Maybe it’s better to keep saving for the real thing then.
- Words: Ollie Stallwood
- Lead Image: Zotye