It’s unlikely that there was ever a time when anyone ever thought that new cars weren’t outrageously expensive, but if you’re looking to go electric the situation seems worse now than ever. The average price of a new EV is about $66,000, which seems like a large amount of equivalent pizza and beer. Sure, EVs will be aimed at luxury buyers until prices go down, but what about the rest of us?
There have always been attempts to offer an alternative to buyers that simply don’t want to buy a used car. One of the most famous would be the Zastava Yugo, imported by Malcolm Bricklin starting in 1985 and sold for $3,990 (only about $11,300 today!) when the cost of the average new car was about $9,800 (about $28,000 today, which makes sense.)
How could he sell them so cheaply? Certainly, the labor rates in Yugoslavia were lower than in other parts of the world, but what other factors were involved in getting the car itself to market so inexpensively?
source: Yugo via Pinterest
One reason is that Zastava, like car manufacturers in many Eastern Bloc or less wealthy nations, didn’t start with a blank sheet of paper for this car. Many firms in these countries actually produced cars with tooling from models often discontinued by large manufacturers in industrially developed countries. The Yugo was really a modified Fiat 128, which debuted in 1969.
A lot of European automakers offered their plans and designs to Eastern countries to build under license. Russia built the Lada 1300/Riva from the Fiat 124 sedan.
Romania offered the Dacia, which was a Renault 12, and they offered it forever.
Iran made the Pakyan long after the UK had discontinued the Hillman Hunter on which it was based (and long after Hillman ceased to exist.)
China sold a version of the second-generation VW Jetta up until 2013.
Today, you can apparently STILL buy a brand new Peugeot 405 in Egypt, essentially the same one that the French firm introduced in 1987. Iran also still had it in production fairly recently.
Not only were these cars affordable to local buyers, but many were sold in Western Europe (or even Canada) to people that wanted a brand-new-with-warranty car and just didn’t care if it was that latest and greatest thing. Besides, they were often getting a mid-sized sedan for the price of a new dinky hatchback from a Western company. And in many of these markets, they didn’t (or don’t) have the same emissions and safety standards we’re used to, and that allows these much older designs to stay in production forever.
One reason companies used to do this design recycling is because of the time and money spent on the development of a new car; it was well beyond the capabilities of some of these nations to start from scratch. One could argue that with today’s CAD capabilities and global resources, these companies could just develop a car on their own, but creating a durable, quality, reliable car in a reasonable amount of time is another story. Indian firm Tata made their own Nano sub-$2,000 car in the 2000s, and it was a failure. Heck, even world-beating Tesla had to start with the Lotus Elise for its first car.
Truth be told, I think that even today if a nation without much history in making ready-for-prime-time cars grabbed the tooling of a discontinued model from a larger manufacturer they’d be able to jump ahead much faster. If they’re looking at making an EV drivetrain, that’s where they should be spending their development time and not on, say, a suspension system or leak-free doors.
Chinese and Indian manufacturers are, of course, not going to go down this time-tested path. Tata currently has a series of small EVs now which apparently aren’t ready to be sold here that look sort of like the nondescript unbranded cars you’ll see on a banner in a bank promoting loan rates:
They’ve also got concepts on the table which, depending on the source, they say will possibly be ready “by 2025” or “before 2027.” Whatever the date is, we can assume that this mission creep means they’ll be dated-looking by launch time and they possibly hit showrooms in North America that do not yet exist:
My prediction? As Mr. T said in Rocky III: “PAIN!” You know they’ll experience the typical teething problems and recalls, possibly becoming a punchline to a joke before they get off the ground.
What if a firm like Tata did the old-school trick and find a car to rehash? I am not saying to electrify a two-generation-old Altima or something equally soul-crushing (if it’s Tata, you might think they’d dredge up the Freelander). You would hope they could find something that didn’t look too dated, or be of a design that kind of transcends time stamping (the Mercedes G Wagen is a good example). What about a car that never got a fair shake when new, or was even ahead of its time? Like those canceled TV shows that people appreciate years later?
After a lot of looking, I might have just the car. The Honda Element, which for a time, was among the very best at what it did.
When considering the rear-hinge-door equipped EV BMW i3, I’ve heard one friend say, “It’s kind of like my old Honda Element but doesn’t seem as useful…I never should have sold my Element.”
Or another person I know: “I sold my Element when I moved to the city… now I need a car and don’t see anything I like as much.”
(Editor’s note: Yeah, I’ve talked to several former Element owners over the years who truly miss theirs and never found a real replacement. This is a whole thing. -PG)
The Element was truly an underrated design. The almost non-styling of the appearance means that isn’t mired by Altezza taillight-like trends of yesterday. This thing always looked like it was penned by a product designer and not a car guy, and that might be why it never found the audience that it should have.
With a hose-down the floor and seats you configure into a bed, this multi-purpose vehicle with a puppy dog-faced was essentially the do-everything machine that the Pontiac Aztec was supposed to be but wasn’t. Also, even though it’s rare to find a bad Honda, this one ranks as one of the most reliable and durable.
Friends, meet the Tata Rave:
Here’s a Honda Element reborn as an EV. Odd as it might seem, this thing seems to work even better as an electric car than it did as a gas-powered vehicle.
Not only does the Element have decent ground clearance, but underneath there are large hollow areas that were used for the gas tank and exhaust system, leaving vast space for batteries (even the spare tire well if you wanted to). Front or front-and-rear motors would be an option. Plus, the tall shape means that you’re not losing anything to the low-mounted EV components.
source: Honda via Element Owners Club
If you look closely, you’ll see that I didn’t touch any of the steel parts. I simply added a clean-looking nose with a typical-for-an-EV wraparound light bar, combined with sunken separate headlights to keep the sad-hound look of the original Honda. I also blacked out the B pillars which some Element fans might object to. This example is tricked out with fog lights and alloys but certainly, the base car would have good old steelies.
In the back, I’ve added a wraparound taillight and blanked off the bottoms of the original light clusters (again, zero sheet metal mods.) I’m generally against trying to update old cars with contemporary detailing, but here I’m mainly stripping off much of the 2000s trim and just cleaning up the shape so it seems to work.
Inside, everything is essentially stock with the exception of adding a screen to replace the gauges in front of the driver, combined with a smaller screen in the old ‘double DIN’ radio opening like you can get online for $300:
The original engine compartment is filled with a fiberglass tray for a monstrous frunk:
source: Prestige Motors
What would it cost? We know that the Tata Nano famously cost around the equivalent of $2,500 U.S. The current EVs available in India that are equal to proper crossovers appear to start at around $17,000. However, we know that cost will drop significantly with increased quantities; I think that a sub-$20,000 MSRP would be quite possible. Ultimately, they’ll eventually be able to do drivetrains for the same cost if not less than ICE components.
One last thing- can we talk Tata Rave camping?
So, would Honda care about someone making a car it dropped over 10 years ago? It’s unlikely; we’ve neither seen nor heard of plans for a new one. Besides, it’s not like Honda is going to be doing this out of the kindness of its heart; it’ll charge handily for the tooling and likely get a spiff off of each one sold without having to lift a finger.
I mean, if it worked well, Honda could be into the idea so much that it tries to offload tooling for more late, lamented rides we all loved to turn into EVs. Which cars would you like to see? My Honda picks: the no-bullshit simple-box 2005 Odyssey minivan or a 2004 Acura TL, the “Japanese E39.”
Could this modern-day Lada idea work? I seriously doubt anyone will try it, but I’m still convinced that re-using old car tooling with some updates remains a great idea. And it has endless potential in the EV age.
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