Once a showpiece of the mainland industry and an icon of national pride, the aristocratic Red Flag limousine is now fighting for its very survival. Imposing, luxurious and with flags always fluttering on front mudguards, Red Flags have been a household name on the mainland since the first model rolled out of the First Automobile Works (FAW) in Changchun, Jilin province, in 1958. Conceived at a time when Beijing was embargoed by the west and relations with the Soviet Union were deteriorating, the Red Flag was China's answer to the Mercedes-Benz or Rolls-Royce. It was both a gesture of defiance and an assurance to the public that China could modernise without foreign help. The CA72 was a striking sight - huge, black and built like a tank. The interior was fitted with varnished walnut, golden-threaded embroidery and carved ivory. Its first customer was no other than chairman Mao Zedong, who rode in it at the grand parade for the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic. Since then, Red Flags have been a inspirer of awe among mainland citizens. The limo became the designated vehicle for officials above the vice-governor level and for visiting foreign dignitaries such as former British prime minister Sir Edward Heath and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. How far and remote are these images today. Red Flags are more often driven as taxis than by ministers' chauffeurs nowadays. The original limo, of which only about 200 were made, ended production in 1984 on order of the State Council because of its high costs and fuel inefficiency. When the Red Flag resumed production in the mid 90s, it was no longer the stretch limo but cheap rip-off of foreign sedans. 'The original has its own Chinese characteristics like the lantern-shape rear lamps. It was a national pride because everyone believes it was designed and manufactured by our own engineer,' said Li Zhongmin, a car collector in Guangzhou. 'Today's no longer have those characteristics. They are just an inferior copy of foreign cars. It has lost its halo.' Facing stiff competition from foreign and domestic cars, the Red Flags are fighting for survival. Officially, they are still the flagship of FAW, which has invested substantially to revive the model. According to mainland media reports, FAW hopes to produce more than 200,000 Red Flag sedan cars by 2009. But to many car sales people and analysts that goal was simply unrealistic. In 2004, FAW sold about vehicles. Of those, the combined figure of the Red Flag and Mazda were only about 50,000, compared with 300,000 Volkswagen cars,130,000 Xiali (Charade) cars and 95,000 Toyota cars sold by the same company. As a symbol of national pride, the Red Flags are still the vehicle of choice for the authorities on solemn occasions. China's first space traveller Yang Liwei was conveyed triumphantly back to Beijing in a Red Flag limo after completing China's maiden manned space flight. For many Hong Kong people, the image of PLA soldiers holding a national flag while driving into Hong Kong in a Red Flag limo on the eve of the 1997 handover is just as unforgettable. It is undeniable that Red Flags have lost their aura of the 1960s and 70s. Even among government officials, it has become passe. According to official figures, in 2004 the government spent 15.4 billion yuan on new sedan cars. Only 228 million of that went to buy new Red Flag limos, comparing with 1.8 billion yuan spent on GM's Buick models. A dealer in Guangdong admitted the new Red Flags were no longer in vogue among customers. 'Red Flags are considered old-fashioned, costly and have no distinct characteristics,' he said 'Many younger generation people have little impression of the brand and some even consider it pretentious. It lacks the naivety like the QQ mini-car or the recognition of BMW or Benz.' Even many taxi drivers are now complaining maintenance problem and fuel efficiency. 'A Red Flag will burn 11 litres of petrol for every 100 kilometre. A Santana will need less than 10 litres and they can take cheaper petrol. Every month a Santana can save 500 to 600 yuan for us,' said a Shenzhen taxi driver. More alarmingly, during an exhibition in Hangzhou earlier this year, the FAW group unveiled a new model for its luxury car category - the C301. The FAW group has spent 1.02 billion yuan and four years on the new model, which is widely believed to be its flagship in future. People have long been calling it 'the Red Flag C301'. But when FAW unveiled the new car, gone was the red flag logo and the name. Instead, the new model was called 'Benteng'. No wonder many people believe this is the beginning of the end for the Red Flags.