SHANGHAI (Reuters) -- "The East is Red", says the Chinese revolutionary anthem, but try finding a red car in China.
For automakers designing and producing vehicles for the booming Chinese market -- the fastest growing in the world -- local tastes are critical, including the notion that red is reserved for special occasions such as weddings.
"Very seldom do you see a red vehicle in production," says Tom Wilson, strolling past the assembly line of General Motors' joint venture plant in Shanghai, where he is plant manager.
At least half of the Buick cars and vans coming off the line at the Shanghai GM plant are black, signifying prestige and wealth, while only one to two percent are red, Wilson said.
The only exception to the rule is Beijing's taxi fleet, the vast majority of which is red.
For years, except for the very wealthy who could afford expensive luxury imports, Chinese consumers had little choice in new cars.
The streets of Shanghai are crowded with Volkswagen Santanas, an older model not sold in Germany for about two decades, but manufactured and sold in China.
Now the Chinese car market is exploding. Sales in China recently overtook Germany to become the third-largest market in the world, and as competition grows, automakers are modifying their models to suit Chinese tastes, industry officials said.
That goes beyond the color red.
"You can see it in Shanghai, which might be the most modern city in the world. It is very clear that the Chinese consumer wants what is modern, and what is high-tech, and is not prepared to take hand-me-downs," Ford Chief Operating Officer Nick Scheele told reporters at the Tokyo Motor Show.
Ford announced plans this month to invest more than $1 billion to boost its China output seven-fold over the next few years.
Car designs that draw upon China's rich mythology will appeal to Chinese consumers, said James Shyr, GM China's director of design.
FLYING FISH ON WHEELS
A legendary Chinese fish that transforms into an enormous bird served as the inspiration for a concept car called the Kunpeng CAV, unveiled this year by the PATAC design studio in Shanghai.
Within a few years, PATAC -- a joint venture between GM and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation Group (SAIC), China's second-largest automaker -- expects to launch its first car with a body designed completely in China.
Feng shui concepts of symmetry mixed with traditional Chinese impressions of grace and power will influence future car designs from PATAC, Shyr said.
"Symmetry is important, aggressiveness is not the way to go," said Shyr, who designed cars for Japan's Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. before joining GM two years ago.
Unlike the U.S. market, where sport utility vehicles have become the number one seller, Chinese associate SUVs with the military trucks and farming vehicles that have dominated Chinese roads over the past 70 years, Shyr told Reuters.
Chinese prefer a traditional "three box" sedan shape for cars, not unlike the shape of the shoulder-carried palanquins in which the nobility travelled in previous centuries, Shyr said.
"I don't see a development like in the U.S. where SUVs dominate the market," said Thomas Hausch, executive director of international sales and marketing for the Chrysler group arm of DaimlerChrysler AG, which includes the Jeep SUVs which have been manufactured and sold in China since the early 1980s.
ROOM TO STRETCH
Despite China's "one-child policy" limiting population growth, extended families demand comfortable and roomy rear seats, Hausch said.
"The average Chinese family has one child. However family and friends play a big role for Chinese customers," he said.
Volkswagen's small Jetta cars are stretched about 10 centimeters (4 inches) to provide more interior space.
China's growing number of millionaires, who are often chauffeur-driven through the hectic streets of Beijing and Shanghai, also demand rear-seat amenities like dual DVD video players, sunshades and rear heat and air-conditioning controls.
Some rear-seat comforts come at the expense of those in the front. The Buick Regal made in Shanghai -- more luxurious than the Regal manufactured and sold in the United States -- also has electronic controls that let the rear-seat passenger adjust the front seat forward to provide more leg room.
"China has been poor for a long time," GM's Shyr said. "When people buy the car, they would like to show off, they want to be admired for their success and they want people to see the fruit of their success."