Every once in a while, a car brand, for one reason or another, will fail. One year they might be at the height of production and popularity and the next they could be in a downward spiral. Below are 14 defunct car brands and an explanation as to why they failed. It might seem like some brands were doing very well – but read below for more stories about what happened next.
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A family of German descent, the Studebakers, were originally blacksmiths who started a carriage and wagon business. They marketed their first automobile in 1912 and built a reputation for providing a reliable, quality product. Despite managerial trouble, they managed to survive the Great Depression and produced innovative car designs throughout the 1940s that would influence other producers for decades. Price wars between GM and Ford nearly destroyed Studebaker in 1953. They managed to prolong their life by 13 years at Packard’s expense in a disastrous merger.
Originally independent, Oldsmobile was purchased by GM in 1908. Its “Rocket V8” engine and reputation for speed made it a famously powerful and adventurous brand throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. By the 1990s, Oldsmobile had fallen behind and its performance image was fading – rebadging slowly toppled the giant.
Packard was conceived as a luxury model – it cost over 4 times as much as a comparative Oldsmobile. This luxury image would prove vital to sustaining the brand, even through the Great Depression. Only when they began introducing mid-priced vehicles did they run into problems – they simply were unable to compete with the “Big Three” in a mid-priced market. Price wars among the big auto corporations and a dangerous merger with Studebaker drove the independent manufacturer into the ground.
Like many brand names on this list, Pontiac was introduced as a cheaper alternative to a more expensive luxury car. Pioneering leadership in the late 1950s, among them John DeLorean, made the Pontiac into a fast-racing, exciting, muscle and road car. Fuel shortages and safety concerns curbed this image in the 1970s and 80s, resulting in a slow decline until GM’s 2008 Chapter 11 reorganization.
DeSoto was created by Chrysler as a mid-priced model, but was doomed to failure almost immediately. Chrysler’s purchase of Dodge happened not long after DeSoto’s founding, and DeSoto found itself competing with its own sister in the mid-priced market. In an effort to boost Dodge sales, Chrysler attempted to remake DeSoto as an upper-mid-priced car in 1933. Repeated mismanagement by Chrysler and the 1958 recession would eventually put DeSoto to bed.
Chrysler introduced Plymouth as a low-cost alternative to its other cars. Its high-flying and futuristic design kept the brand strong in the 1950s and 60s, but “badge-engineering,” or slapping the Plymouth label on other Chrysler products, destroyed this identity in the 1990s. The Chrysler Prowler and PT Cruiser were planned as Plymouths – a way to recapture an old, original spirit – but Plymouth was shuttered before their release.
Mercury was a mid-priced car at its introduction, designed to be an affordable medium between the cheaper Ford models and the luxury Lincoln line. As sales slumped in the mid-1940s, Lincoln and Mercury merged. The faithful Marquis and Grand Marquis models were exceptionally popular from the 1960s to the 2000s, but Mercury’s aging and narrowing demographic eventually lead to its demise.
After WWII, American consumers were clamoring for new car designs – but the Big Three had yet to introduce any. Preston Tucker believed he could fill the void with his Tucker 48 Sedan – a new car packed full of futuristic safety innovations. A prototype made a disastrous premier in 1947 – it was loud, boiled coolant, required external power to start, and couldn’t back up. Much more successful debuts were made with later prototypes. To fund the car, Tucker sold accessories and spots on a waiting list to eager consumers. This later resulted in an SEC investigation and trial. All charges were dropped and Tucker was found innocent – but the damage was done, and under a heavy burden of debt the Tucker Corporation folded.
Automotive executive Joseph Frazer and industrialist Henry Kaiser came together as partners for this short-lived but influential automobile manufacturer. While the Big Three were selling pre-war models after WWII, Kaiser-Frazer was the first group to introduce a totally new car. They did well until 1951, when Kaiser and Frazer split over differing opinions on how to sell their cars. Kaiser Motors would continue, though – eventually buying Willys-Overland, creators of the Jeep, and bringing the Jeep to a new audience after being bought, themselves, by the American Motors Corporation.
American Motors Corporation (AMC) (1954-1988)
AMC was founded as a result of a merger between Hudson Motor Company and Nash-Kelvinator Corporation. It was the largest corporate merger in U.S. history at the time. In the late 1950s, they began focusing on compact, fuel-efficient cars – a bold and unique decision that would pay dividends in the 1960s. AMC’s Jeeps would keep the company afloat through the 1970s, as the rest of its line aged ungracefully. Chrysler would eventually pick up the pieces in the 1980s as a way to grab the profitable Jeep line.
Ford promoted the Edsel as the perfect car, created after endless hours of market research – a “YOU car,” that all Americans would love and want. Unfortunately, when the car was unveiled on “E Day,” September 4, 1957, it was met with a lukewarm welcome. Everything from its name to its design and performance were found to be tacky and unattractive. Worse – it wound up being priced as a luxury car despite attempts to compete in the mid-priced market. In 2017 dollars, Ford lost $2.9 billion on the Edsel adventure.
John DeLorean is best known for designing the striking GTO, among other cars, and for being the youngest GM executive in history. Using seed capital from Hollywood stars and the British government, DeLorean built a manufacturing plant in Northern Ireland to produce the DMC-12. Initial vehicles suffered from poor quality control and testing, and the features, cost, and design of the car met with mixed enthusiasm in the States. Struggling to break even, DeLorean was caught in an FBI sting and accused of being a drug trafficker in 1982. He was later acquitted of all charges – but the trial ruined his reputation. The cars gained a cult following, and a new DeLorean Motor Company opened in 2016, promising to build new DMC-12 models in the future.
When Saturn was founded in Spring Hill, Tennessee, it was called “a new kind of car company.” It was a private, employee-owned company that operated separately from GM and enjoyed much more freedom than GM’s other divisions. Its cars sold well, but not well enough. Other divisions were also resentful of Saturn’s unique status. In 2004, the unique arrangement Saturn had enjoyed was dissolved. This was probably the end for them – in 2010, as GM was closing divisions left and right, Saturn found itself on the cutting room floor.
Initial prototypes of the military Humvee were delivered to the U.S. military by AM General in 1982. The first contract for their production was worth $1.2 billion. AM General supposedly had plans already to develop a civilian version of the vehicle – it’s rumored that they were encouraged to do so by Arnold Schwarzenegger. GM purchased the line from AM General in 1999 and began building and distributing them worldwide. However, amid concerns over fuel economy and safety, and in the face of several failed sale deals, Hummer was shut down.