Last week I talked about the puzzling phenomenon of people attempting to resurrect dead cars, no matter how recently they were interred. I think I made a pretty open-and-shut case on the matter—but the alert reader will no doubt have noticed that I cherrypicked my examples. I showed you sports cars, exotic cars, and high-end specialty vehicles. Just as importantly, I focused on first-world marketplaces like the United States and the United Kingdom (and in the case of the Kia Elan, South Korea).
In other words, I cheated. In truth, it is perfectly possible to make money selling new versions of old cars. It happens all the time, and it’s been happening for decades. The trick is to match the product to the market. It also helps to be the car’s original manufacturer, or a close corporate cousin thereof.
Volkswagen is famous for giving its platforms a second act, usually by selling them in countries where the government has enacted fairly onerous requirements for local production and/or partnership with regional business. The most famous example is the Mexico-produced Type 1 Beetle. VW set up Beetle production in Mexico in 1967, at a time when the car was already going out of favor in Germany. In the 36 years that followed, the Mexico-market Beetle tailed the innovations of modern automotive science at a respectful distance, adding a catalytic converter in 1991 and fuel injection in 1993.
Unfortunately for the Beetle, the explosion of Mexican manufacturing after NAFTA gave customers there a wide variety of more modern options. Beetle production concluded in 2004 on a final wave of nostalgic reissues (shown at the top of this page) that traded the poverty-spec trim of 1990s models for appointments closely reminiscent of the fully-equipped American-market cars of the late '60s.
Our Canadian readers probably remember the VW “City Golf” and “City Jetta” of 2008; they were Mexican-built versions of the fourth-generation Golf and Jetta from 1997, resurrected for low-cost consumption a few borders north. They didn’t hang around too long in Canada, but they remained in Mexican production through the 2015 model year, having managed to outlive their fifth- and sixth-generation successors by a few years.
If building a 1997 Jetta in 2015 seems outrageous, we should place it in context: VW’s South African operation built and sold a version of the first-generation Golf from 1984 all the way until 2009, using production equipment originally installed in VW's Westmoreland, Pennsylvania plant in 1978 when the model was brand-new.
There's more. The 1982 Passat (Quantum to us here in the United States) was produced in China from 1983 until 2012; during that run, the share of parts made in China grew from just six percent to more than 90. It received no fewer than three facelifts along the way to keep it in vague visual harmony with the rest of the Volkswagen line. At one point, you could walk into a VW dealer and buy a 1980s-style "Santana," a 2005-redesign “Santana Vista,” or the contemporary Passat. By and large, Chinese buyers preferred the older cars to the new one. Meanwhile, the same car was being built in Brazil and Mexico wearing completely different fascias.
VW hasn’t been the only company to play this game. The last Pontiac to bear the LeMans name was a Korean-built version of a long-in-the-tooth Opel Kadett hatchback, sold from 1988 to 1993. Nissan continued to build the 1992 Sentra in Mexico until 2017, mostly because taxi operators bought them as replacements for their VW Beetle taxis. Toyota is still building the 1984-era Land Cruiser for African and South American markets that shun the complexity, size and weight of the current model.
The willingness of automakers to keep popular models alive outside the United States tends to get American enthusiasts a bit upset. Why can’t Toyota keep making the old Land Cruiser for our Moab maniacs? Why can’t VW flood the streets of San Francisco with low-cost first-generation Rabbits? Come to think of it, why hasn’t Porsche capitalized on the insane resale value of its aircooled cars by simply putting the 993 back into production?
It's easy enough to put the blame on government regulations. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-tested a US-market 2016 Nissan Versa against a Mexico-built 2015 Nissan Tsuru (the continuation of the 1992 Sentra mentioned above). The result makes it plain why it's no longer legal to sell the 25-year-old Sentra in this country. And compared to a 1982 VW Quantum, or a 1955 Beetle, that early-'90s Nissan is a paragon of passive safety. And let's not get started on the difficulty of getting ancient engines to comply with modern environmental requirements.
It’s probably fair to say that many of the Internet people who complain about not being able to buy a new old Beetle or 911 or Sentra SE-R wouldn’t be willing to put their money where their mouths are. Right up until the very end of Mexican Bug production, it was possible to have a brand-new air-cooled Beetle imported to the US by a company called BeetleMex, which used vintage floorpans (and VINs) to put a veneer of legality on them. The price was about what you’d pay for a new base-model Jetta; there were relatively few takers. It’s all well and good to admire the purity of older automobiles, but when it comes time to spend real money on a daily driver, most people prove to be surprisingly unsentimental. Don’t forget that underneath every $400,000 Porsche reimagined by Singer, there's a 964 that, at one time, somebody couldn't wait to trade in on a new water-cooled 911.
Given all of the above, I’m afraid that “zombie” cars will continue to thrive only in the small markets, the protected markets, and places where the strongest and simplest vehicles survive. Still, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t tell you about my personal favorite zombie rebranding. It was originally a Japanese car, engineered by Mazda. It hit the Japanese market in 1986 as the Ford Festiva, was licensed as the Kia Pride in South Korea, sold in Australia and Europe as the Mazda 121, and exported to the US and Canada as the Ford Festiva beginning in 1987. In 1994, it was replaced by the second-generation Festiva, sold here as the Aspire. Meanwhile, the original phone-booth Festiva continued to roll off assembly lines in Egypt and Iran.
In 2008, the Iranian firm SAIPA introduced a new body style: A two-door truck that was sort of a Festiva El Camino. As far as I can tell, , 22 years after the first Festivas rolled off the assembly line in Japan. You might say that the Festiva El Camino is the ultimate zombie car. Once you’ve survived war, violent insurrection, civil unrest, street rioting, and fundamentalist rule, who cares about a little thing like obsolescence? In other words, when you have character like that, who needs (a re-designed version of the Fisker) karma?