China On Four Wheels: In celebration of the bread van

Assistant Producer

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"Are you mad? Those vans won't go above 80kmph! And they break down after a few hundred miles. And you're planning to go how far?"

My mission to rent a bread van wasn't going smoothly.

The loaf-shaped car of the people is driven by millions throughout China - farmers and business people alike.

While not exactly nippy (we're talking about a one litre engine) it's cheap and reliable.

Justin Rowlatt gives the bread van a go at Ordos International Race Track in China

As the assistant producer on China On Four Wheels one of my tasks was to find the cars for our two road trips.

With bread vans so common I wasn't expecting it to be hard to find one for our presenter Justin Rowlatt.

Justin was to drive the bread van through the dusty back roads through the remote, poor west to explore life for those left behind by the boom.

In contrast our co-presenter Anita Rani was to drive a luxury Chinese-made Great Wall 4x4, or SUV on the high road through the industrialised east looking at how the economic boom was changing lives for China's 'haves'.

SUVs are the car of choice for status-conscious Chinese urbanites.

Great Wall is China's biggest manufacturer of SUVs. It started selling in the UK this year although it only made its first car 10 years ago.

But days into my search I had got nowhere.

Due to the bewildering idiosyncrasies of the Chinese bureaucracy we were obliged to find rental cars for our presenters: their temporary driving licences wouldn't allow them to drive privately owned cars.

So I was looking for Beijing rental companies stocking these cars and more importantly, willing to rent them to foreigners on a filming trip across a country the size of a continent.

Rental companies are new to China but they've grown rapidly. The biggest players have fleets of thousands - but they laughed at us.

"Why would you want a Chinese car? Why not a Buick or a Toyota? They're much better quality than the Chinese makes."

In a country where the car you drive is a badge of status, the majority of cars bought in China are foreign brands.

Anita Rani meets members of the China Supercar Club in Beijing

Just days before the filming was due to start we found a small SUV club on the outskirts of Beijing.

The club organises 'self-driving' tours, helping a new breed of Chinese holiday-makers to shun the coach tour for a more independent experience.

To our relief among their plethora of imported Jeeps and Mitsubishis was a Great Wall.

But the bread van? The search got more obscure and the response increasingly scornful.

"It's the car of the people", we pleaded. But not the car of status-conscious Beijingers it turns out.

Luckily we then found Xu Shiqiang, 'Boss Xu', who you'll see in episode one, and his company Dongfang.

Mr Xu agreed to buy a bread van for us, register it as a rental car, and then rent it back to us.

Convoluted and bureaucratic certainly, but a solution. After weeks of searching we breathed another sigh of relief.

And did the bread van make it around China? It's not the car of the people for nothing! Small, idiosyncratic and slightly tin-pot, our loaf-shaped van quietly got the job done.

Justin gets stuck in a traffic jam, China style

Across China we'd met people from all walks of life wanting big gas-guzzlers - flashy and foreign if possible - despite all this entails for China's already congested and polluted cities.

Of course we in the West aren't immune to the allure of showy cars - so it was a surprise then, and a salutary one, that Justin's bread van became the star of the show.

Jane McMullen is the assistant producer on China On Four Wheels.

China On Four Wheels is on Sunday, 9 September at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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