Remember the first-generation Volkswagen Golf? You may have fond memories of the mid-1970s hatchback, the one with the fold-along-the-dotted-lines body edges, golf-ball-shaped gear knob and quaint warning lights in the instrument panel.
In South Africa you can walk into a showroom today and buy a shiny new one - not a well kept secondhand car, but a brand-new Golf 1, on the same showroom floor as the latest Golf 4.
The first-generation Golf, or the Citi Golf as it has been known in South Africa for 16 years, is one of the country's crop of , cars whose life spans have been extended long after they have been put out to pasture elsewhere in the world. Others include the original Fiat Uno, the Mazda 323, the Nissan pickup and the Toyota Corolla, all designed in the mid-1980s.
South Africa is a living museum of motorized fossils that exist side by side with high-tech newcomers such as the Audi TT and Mercedes-Benz C class. They may be a little rough and noisy by modern standards, and there's not an airbag or antilock brake system among them. But low pricing and clever marketing make these vehicles zoom out of South African showrooms, in many cases outselling their modern and high-tech counterparts.
In South Africa, entry-level cars sell for $5,300 to $7,800. Motorists see a lot of sense in spending $5,376 for a 1100cc Fiat Uno instead of $6,660 on an 800cc Daewoo Matiz. South Africa's car buyers are as status-conscious as anyone, but it's all about price. The rand's value has plunged dramatically over the past decade, raising the cost of cars and components imported from Europe, Japan and the United States. These currency fluctuations have priced modern cars out of the reach of many South Africans. But automakers can offer low prices on old cars because of their high local parts content - all of the long-lifers are built in South Africa, among other places - and amortized tooling.
These cars reflect the fact that South Africans straddle the gap between industrialized and emerging markets. The old cars appeal to buyers who enjoy their low prices and fuel economy. And vehicles such as the Citi Golf are seen as fashionable and vibrant.
Extending the life of models for such a long time requires imaginative marketing. The best example is the reinvention of the first-generation Golf. When Volkswagen South Africa unveiled the second-generation Golf in 1984, it embarked on a bold plan to relaunch the previous version in a completely different way. The old steel bumpers were replaced with painted plastic ones, and the car was sprayed in bright, trendy colors. Volkswagen's advertising appealed to young first-time buyers, and city dwellers who were 'outgoing, fashion-conscious, fun-loving and unconventional.'
Most important was the price. At its launch, a 1.6-liter Citi Golf retailed for just two-thirds of the price of a second-generation Golf. The car's low price appealed to price-conscious motorists, while its trendy image hit it off with young-at-heart drivers. It was an instant success. In 1984, Volkswagen hoped to sell 270 Citi Golfs per month, but the company actually sold 400 units a month. Today, after numerous face-lifts and the introduction of fuel injection, the Citi Golf has become a cult car. The car's share of the South African market rose to 13.5 percent in 2000, up sharply from 1.5 percent in 1984.
'It's not just the price that makes the Citi Golf such a good seller,' said one Volkswagen dealer. Younger buyers think of the Citi Golf as a fashionable car with 'an element of nostalgia. Many young buyers of Citi Golfs have parents or older siblings who drove one. Most Citi Golf customers are under 25 and parent-financed, although I do have the odd pensioner buying one.'
Inspired by Volkswagen's success, rival automakers soon flooded the market with copies. When Ford Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp. introduced new versions of the Ford Escort and Mazda 323 in the early 1990s, they continued to sell the old versions of those cars. They imitated the Citi Golf's formula: low prices, revved-up styling and clever marketing. The cars, later renamed the Ford Tracer and the Mazda Midge, soared in sales. Numerous face-lifts and new packaging kept the cars fresh and relevant. Today the Midge and Tracer - which are built on the same platform - together are South Africa's fifth-best-selling car, with monthly sales averaging 1,800 units.
The success of these long-lifers prompted Nissan to introduce the Uno in 1990 under license from Fiat, despite that the little Italian hatchback already was 7 years old in Europe. While it never achieved the success of the Midge and Citi Golf, the Uno has been a steady performer over the last decade. To keep up with its rivals, Nissan frequently updated the car's styling, improved its transmission, added sound-deadening and adapted the engine for unleaded fuel. When Fiat recently established a South African operation, it took over the marketing and sales of the Uno, although Nissan still builds the car at its Pretoria plant.
In addition to South Africa, Morocco and India are the only other countries where the Uno still is in production. The car reached its highest market share in 1995 with 6.5 percent. But its market share dwindled to 1.9 percent after Fiat introduced the Palio, and the Uno's days may be numbered.
Toyota, South Africa's sales leader, responded to the trend with the Conquest, a five-door version of the Corolla. Developed specifically for South Africa, the car later was introduced to other markets. The Japanese automaker continued to market the Conquest alongside later-generation Corollas. In 1996, Toyota introduced the Tazz, a low-priced version of the Conquest. Though it featured a Spartan cockpit, a carburetor and a four-speed manual transmission, it became a top seller in its segment within months.
Today, the entry-level Tazz with a 1.3-liter engine is South Africa's best-selling model, surpassing even the Citi Golf and Mazda Midge.
To maintain its popularity, Toyota gave the car a five-speed transmission. And in October, Toyota gave it a face-lift and expanded the lineup to four models. The Tazz was a hit. By 1997, the Conquest and Tazz together grabbed 9.7 percent of total South African vehicle sales. That was a sharp increase from 1994, when the Conquest accounted for just 2.4 percent.
But the granddaddy of South Africa's is the Nissan 1400 bakkie, a name derived from a Afrikaan word for a small pickup. The truck, which is equipped with a 1.3-liter engine and carburetor, has been in production since 1972. South Africa is the only country where it still is produced. Known for its reliability, the bakkie is a favorite of farmers and small-business owners. Even the South African Automobile Association uses the Nissan in its emergency rescue service fleet.
Vehicles such as the Nissan 1400 and Citi Golf are allowed to exist because South Africa's crash-safety laws are less strict than Europe's. South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of fatal motor vehicle accidents, with nearly 10,000 people killed every year. But it's all about affordability, and these inexpensive vehicles continue to sell strongly against modern, better-equipped rivals such as the Ford Fiesta and Opel Corsa.
There are signs that the popularity of decades-old 'new' cars won't last indefinitely. After hitting a peak of 44 percent of sales in 1997, the entry-level vehicle segment fell to just over 35 percent of total sales in 2000. Sales of entry-level cars and trucks are expected to remain at this level for now.
There are several reasons for the recent decline. First, slightly higher disposable incomes over the past two years have seen consumers moving up to modern subcompacts such as the Fiat Palio, Ford Fiesta and Opel Corsa.
The used-car market also has eroded sales of new entry-level cars. Many people prefer to buy up-to-date used subcompacts with relatively few miles and still under factory warranty. Such vehicles typically are priced to compete with the likes of a new Uno. With extended warranties of up to three years, the risk of buying a used car is far less than it used to be.
But for South Africans who are determined to get a new car, the will retain their allure for some time. Cars are expensive in South Africa when one considers average incomes. A young office worker earns $260 to $390 per month after tax and deductions. The cheapest new car on the market costs about $130 per month with insurance. A young car buyer couldn't dream of paying $195 per month on a new Fiesta.
You can e-mail writer Denis Droppa at [email protected]