Have you ever heard of the Karma Revero? If you fit into the same vague demogaphic advertising bucket as I do—mid-forties, acceptable credit, a personal record of buying hugely expensive cars for no defensible reason—chances are you’ve seen some fairly competent promotional content for it on Instagram, Facebook, or in the banner ads that flank this and other sites. The Karma Revero is a revamped version of the discontinued Fisker Karma, a sleek and distinctive four-door hybrid sedan built in California.
You could argue that the Karma deserved to stay buried, not least because the curb weight of nearly 5500 pounds blunts any hopes the series-hybrid drivetrain has of providing effective motivation. You could also suggest that designer Henrik Fisker's styling here lacks the restraint and grace shown in his work for Aston Martin and BMW, perhaps for the same reason that Prince sold the most records when he didn't wield umopposed creative control. In this case, however, I'm less worried about the merits of the particular product than I am about the merits of the business case. Let's talk about that.
More specifically, let’s talk about the apparently contagious insanity involved in resurrecting dead cars for future production. I say “apparently contagious” because it’s been happening on and off for the past 40 years. Every so often, someone will make a big deal about taking an old design and putting it back into production. Nine times out of 10, the car wasn’t that popular in the first place—but we are always assured that it was just due to a few easily fixable problems, and that the revised model will set the world on fire.
What usually happens, though, is the revised model sets its backers' bank accounts on fire, and they burn down to ashes. Don’t take my word for it. I’ll show you some examples.
We can start with the AC 3000ME, shown above. Most of you remember AC Cars as the British chassis supplier behind Carroll Shelby's 289 and 427 Cobras. The company struggled along for a few decades after the Shelby contract ended, and the 3000ME was a big part of that. When it debuted at the London Motor Show in 1973, it was very futuristic. Unfortunately it took until 1979 to deliver the first customer orders. Just 71 cars were built before AC called time on the operation in 1984.
You would think that nobody would have any interest in what was at the time an eleven-year-old flop, but you’d be wrong. Somebody built a whole new factory in Scotland to start making them again. Thirty units were sold over the course of a year and a half, at which point the new firm went into bankruptcy.
Next up, we have the Qvale Mangusta, above, which was actually resurrected three separate times by three separate firms. Developed by Alejandro de Tomaso, the impresario who brought us the De Tomaso Pantera in 1971, the Mangusta design was sold to Kjell Qvale, who at the time was the North American importer for Maserati. He brought the 1996-era Mangusta show car into production in late 1999. It was generally well-received, despite being very expensive and sharing both its engine and instrument panel with the much cheaper 1996 Mustang Cobra.
Unfortunately, the sales never reached expectations, and Qvale shut production down in 2001. For reasons that nobody seems to understand, somebody thought this Mustang-engined Italian exotic would make the perfect new product for the flagging British carmaker MG. Yes, the one that built the MGB. The design was sold to MG in 2001 and the MG Xpower SV was introduced for 2003, looking remarkably different from the Mangusta. It cost about $100,000 for the fastest model, which was not that fast. About 82 cars were built before MG gave up.
In July 2008, the design of the Mangusta/Xpower was purchased from bankrupt MG by a fellow who said he was going to build a new batch at an even higher price. At this point, the car was every bit of 12 years old and as expensive as, say, a Porsche 911 Turbo. Nobody is quite sure how many cars were made, but the founder of the new company was arrested for stealing one of them from a customer. I guess he really liked the car.
Compared to the Mangusta story, the Kia Elan seems like a rather normal situation. Some of you will recall that Lotus built a rather controversial front-wheel-drive Elan roadster from 1989 to 1992 and then again in a short run during 1995. It was a pretty neat car for its day, and it was reputed to be the best-handling FWD car ever built at the time. Once Lotus got going with the Elise and Exige, however, the company was happy to forget all about its shovel-nosed roadster.
Which somehow led to Kia purchasing the rights to the Elan design and building their own version, called the Kia Elan, for three years. The primary differences were a Kia engine and new Kia taillights. We never got a chance to buy them in the United States, which was a shame. Nor is there a lot of information available on how well the car sold, but it seems safe to say that it wasn’t a major success.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the Rayton-Fissore Magnum. The product of a small Italian coachbuilder, this European-market machine was basically a small SUV built on an IVECO truck chassis. Early models had two-liter Fiat engines and were fairly basic affairs, going on sale in 1985.
Fortunately or unfortunately, that was around the time that Land Rover brought the Range Rover to the USA and created a whole new market for luxury SUVs. Somebody got the idea that the Magnum would make for a great cut-rate Italian Range Rover. The awkward-looking product was called the LaForza and it arrived sometime in late 1988 with a 5.0-liter Mustang engine and an American-sourced 4WD system. It cost about 30 percent more than a Range Rover.
You’d expect such a vehicle to be dead on arrival in the States, and you’d be mostly correct. The importer went out of business almost immediately. That's when things get even weirder. Dave Hops, who had a profitable business installing Ford V8s into Miatas at the time, got a chance to buy 50 unfinished LaForzas, which he completed and began selling. He them switched to importing new LaForzas, selling them with supercharged 5.0 Ford V8 engines installed by his shop.
We could let the story end there, except for the fact that in 2001, there was yet another LaForza revival. Remember, the vehicle was every bit of 17 years old at this point. This newest LaForza used a 6.0-liter General Motors V8 and a bunch of GM drivetrain parts. Supposedly a few were sold at $89,000, which seems awfully improbable. If you ever see a LaForza built in this millennium and sporting a GM 6.0, please let us know.
If the Karma Revero manages to buck the trend set by all of the above vehicles and become a marketplace success, it will be a genuine landmark in automotive history. I’m not holding out much hope. The pace of change in the automotive game is too fast for the Revero, which is already a decade old under the skin, to make a splash. The best thing you can say for it is that you won’t see yourself coming and going. For the asking price of $130,000 you could arguably accomplish the same thing in considerably more style by restoring a 1970s “fuselage” Chrysler New Yorker to showroom condition complete with a 392 Hemi.
The real question is: Why does anyone resurrect a dead car? I think it has a lot to do with hard-wired into the human brain. We all have a natural inclination to think we could do something better than someone else. If I had a dollar for every one of my fellow guitarists who's told me they could have played better than Jimmy Page on the original Led Zeppelin recordings, I’d have nearly as much money as Jimmy Page. Yet the fact remains that Page is a legend and my friends are in casino cover bands.
Furthermore, while the difficulties of designing and developing a new car are known to pretty much every enthusiast, the idea of simply fixing an existing product seems much more reasonable. We’ve all bench-raced with our friends like this: If only GM had made the 1988 Fiero in 1984, if only the first-generation Infintiti M45 had a little more wheelbase, if only the vicious TVR Sagaris had been reliable. It’s not that big a step from armchair-quarterbacking someone else’s design to liquidating your family fortune so you can step into the huddle yourself.
Yet it always seems to fail, because all of those dreamers neglect to consider just how quickly the wheel of automotive design and engineering turns. The Revero might be based on a car that debuted in 2011, but its design and engineering come from years before that. The Karma Revero hopes to compete with cars that weren't even in the concept stage when it first debuted. If you’re a Civilization or Master of Orion video-game player, you’ll recognize this as “falling behind on your tech stack.” It gets you killed in games, and it’s deadly to your product in the real world.
Which isn’t to say that you can’t make big bucks selling old cars—you just have to pick and choose your battles. Come back next week and we’ll talk about the designs that are old enough to drive themselves—or even to vote.