Power and prestige are attributes of the dragon in Chinese folklore. So it's hardly surprising that, in this Year of the Dragon, producers of luxury cars have adopted the symbol to roll out special edition models for the China market.
Conventional wisdom suggests that many mainland customers buy elite foreign cars for their cachet and heritage; Western marques have no place selling China to the Chinese using stereotypical motifs. But the lure of the dragon appears to have proven irresistible among well-heeled mainland car collectors. With the inclusion of other obvious auspicious markers - a livery of lucky red, a dash of gold for wealth - the collections have been selling out even before the motors can be made, carmakers say.
Among the special editions is Aston Martin's Dragon88 collection, unveiled at the annual Beijing motor show in April. As with other limited edition cars, the modifications are purely cosmetic. A dragon motif is hand-stitched onto the headrests of 88 of the British marque's supercars, among them the DBS Volante, Virage coupe and V8 Vantage S coupe. Handmade objects of desire in their own right, the special China models also come with gold-plated Aston badges and other gold interior accents.
Within hours of the cars being unveiled, one was snapped up by an eager buyer, according to Matthew Bennett, Aston Martin's director for the Asia-Pacific region.
Bennett says Aston sees a natural association between the mythical dragon and its legendary cars.
'AML [Aston Martin Lagonda] saw a very close fit between the core values of our brand - power, beauty, soul - and the symbolism of the dragon in Chinese culture: strength, health and harmony,' he says.
'The rarity of the dragon also fits with the exclusive nature of the Aston Martin brand. All our car designs fuse outstanding power with pure elegance ... the dynamic abilities of our cars are made explicit through the muscular elegance of the bodywork.'
The 88 cars, being customised by the carmaker's personalisation service, Q by Aston Martin, also include a singular Ming Rapide. Q's take on the V12-powered four-door sedan involves a rich blue livery, plush leather interior in falcon grey and bronze with walnut veneer and seating embroidery inspired by Ming dynasty motifs, all unique to the one-off model.
The Rapide hints at the direction Aston is taking in the mainland market beyond the Year of the Dragon, especially as it plans to open 11 showrooms there this year.
'We understand that our Chinese customers favour bold and strong designs, but we are seeing a move to even more individualistic requirements - where our clients want a true one-of-a-kind,' Bennett says. 'There will only ever be one Ming Rapide - and this makes a statement, it's a truly special car for China.'
Future special editions for China, he says, 'will take inspiration from all aspects of Chinese culture and design. That is why our chief designer, Marek Reichman, goes to China at least once a year.'
For Ferrari, the dragon year also coincides with the 20th anniversary of its first sale on the mainland, which it is marking by producing a special edition 458 Italia. With 20 being made, the model comes in 'Marco Polo red' and features a golden dragon-horse running down the length of the bonnet. The dragon is set in a black background and bordered with bands of more gold.
Ferrari says inspiration for the livery comes from the mythical Chinese longma - dragon-horse - and symbolises 'the vigour and spirit' the creature represents.
The dragon motif also featured at the Beijing show on a concept design of a Wrangler, by Chrysler's Jeep division. The SUV, which sells in bigger numbers in China than in the US, has black body paint, black-tinted windows, with bronze-gold trims on the wheels and grille. A silvery-grey dragon slithers down one side, its head on the bonnet. There is still no word from Jeep on whether it will go into production as a special edition.
Rolls-Royce also linked the dragon to power and prestige, and rolled out 20 Phantom Dragon Edition models. These versions of the carmaker's flagship saloon are a more sober, maroon red than the Ferraris, touched off with a golden-yellow coach line and hand-painted dragons on the fenders.
The dragon is also embroidered in yellow on the headrests in the plush red leather interior. The company says it has sold them all, although it will not reveal how many are being made.
Not all carmakers are chasing the dragon theme, however. Bentley, which said recently that China had surpassed the US as its biggest market, is touting its prestige as a favourite car of royalty.
The British luxury car maker has teamed up with bespoke furniture maker Linley for a special China edition of its Continental Flying Spur. Chong Got, Bentley's executive director for China, says there were a number of reasons for steering clear of the scaly serpent in the design.
'First of all, many luxury and lifestyle brands have launched special editions for the Year of the Dragon. But we believe the dragon year is only unique to Chinese culture, and basically bears no resemblance to the values and heritage of these brands,' he says.
Linley, founded by David Armstrong-Jones, or Viscount Linley, son of the late Princess Margaret, fitted out the interior of the 10 Continentals with rosewood applied to the fascia, console, waist-rail and roof console, where chestnut or walnut would normally be used. The woodwork features skilled inlay work using the Linley helix motif that the company has used in the making of one of its furniture collections.
Chong says this level of customisation appeals to Chinese entrepreneurs, who are looking for a car that reflects their status.
Taking the royal connection farther, the luxury marque has also created a special edition of 60 Mulsanne Diamond Jubilee cars in honour of British Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne.
These cars, too, are being made only for the China market. Chong says their commemorative value and 'regal excellence' will be part of the appeal. The Mulsannes will bear the official insignia of the Gold State Coach, used for coronations and royal weddings, and be inscribed with the diamond jubilee legend.
'The Mulsanne Diamond Jubilee showcases the distinctive bloodline that Bentley shares with the [British] royal family, while reiterating the company's position at the pinnacle of the super luxury car segment,' Chong says.
The success of the dragon car editions, however, suggests that ancient Eastern culture and Western carmaking expertise can make a successful marriage. And there is little doubt that these cars will become covetable collectors' items.
The use of auspicious astrological creatures to sell cars isn't new. In 2010, when BMW celebrated the 25th anniversary of its sporty M3 model, the carmaker also rolled out a China-exclusive special edition M3 to mark the Year of the Tiger. With fiery orange body paint, black grille, wheels and rear spoiler, and a tiger's head embroidered on the headrests, the M3 Tiger also quickly sold out.
It begs the question, what can we expect when the dragon disappears in a puff of smoke to herald in the Year of the Snake? A special edition of Chrysler's stunning new V10 Viper, maybe. And in the Year of the Horse, what follows? Another opportunity for Ferrari, perhaps.