10 Legendary Carmakers That Disappeared
Recession, poor management, and tough competition forced them to foldby Ciprian Florea, on LISTEN 21:28
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world, automakers are shutting down car production and preparing for the oncoming recession. Governments are working on bills to help them but there are fears that some companies will go out of business. Mainly because it has happened before. The car industry was affected by several recessions over the last 100 years and each of them left a mark by sending important automakers into bankruptcy. Here’s a list of legendary companies that we lost.
Pontiac was founded in 1926 as a companion make for General Motors' more expensive line of Oakland automobiles. It was supposed to fill a gap below Oakland, but the brand became notably more popular by the 1930s.
While Oakland was discontinued in 1931, Pontiac lived on as one of GM’s most important divisions. The brand’s offerings were heavily based on GM’s existing products and they slotted above Chevrolet, but slightly below Oldsmobile and Buick in terms of features. Several nameplates became popular in the 1950s, including the Bonneville and the Star Chief. From the 1960s onwards, Pontiac was advertised as the performance division of General Motors, although the group continued to offer beefed-up Chevrolets during the muscle car era.
The 1960s and 1970s were particularly successful for the brand, which introduced its most iconic nameplates in that era. The Firebird, a variant of the Chevy Camaro, was launched against the popular Ford Mustang, while the full-size GTO took a big chunk of the market. The Tempest and the LeMans also arrived during those years. As GM shifted to smaller, FWD cars following the 1973 oil crisis, Pontiac moved toward building compact cars. But it also developed the Fiero sports car and even a van, the Trans Sport.
Pontiac produced its first SUV, the Aztek, in 2000 followed by the short-lived Torrent in 2006. By this time, the brand had reintroduced the GTO nameplate and revamped its lineup with models like the G5 and G6. However, the 2008 recession prompted GM to discontinue several brands, and even though Pontiac wasn’t supposed to be one of them, it was eventually sacrificed alongside Saturn and Hummer.
This is yet another brand owned by General Motors that folded somewhat recently.
Oldsmobile was established by Ransom E. Olds in 1897, 11 years before General Motors was founded by William C. Durant. Oldsmobile produced its first cars in 1902 and became the top-selling car company in the U.S. in 1903 and 1904.
The Oldsmobile Curved Dash is also considered the first mass-produced car made on an assembly line, an invention often credited incorrectly to Ford Motor Company, which was actually the first to produce on a moving assembly line. General Motors purchased Oldsmobile in 1908.
For most of its time under GM, Oldsmobile slotted above Chevrolet and Pontiac, beside Buick, but below Cadillac. It was also in charge with testing groundbreaking technologies and design. Its most notable product was the Rocket V-8 engine, the first with an overhead valve instead of the then-common flathead straight-eight layout. This engine debuted in the Oldsmobile 88, one of the company’s most iconic nameplates. The 1960s saw the introduction of several nameplates that became famous, such as the 442 muscle car, the Cutlass, Starfire, and Toronado.
While many brands struggled in the 1980s, Oldsmobile sales soared and reached an all-time high in 1985. The brand’s massive sales were backed by popular designs, positive reviews, and solid quality and reliability. But sales declined quickly in the 1990s and Oldsmobile was reduced to a "guinea pig" brand used to test the market with new technology and designs.
Large models from new import makes like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus contributed to Olds’ demise. In 2001, GM announced that it would discontinue the Oldsmobile brand. Production of the last Oldsmobiles ended in 2004. In its long history, Oldsmobile introduced 25 industry-first features, including the speedometer (1901), first standard windshield (1915), chrome plating (1926), first high-compression V-8 (1949), and first turbocharged car (1962). It also built the first mass-produced FWD car in America (1966), offered the first car with driver-side airbag (1974), and first heads-up display (1988). The color touchscreen interface with built in cellular phone in the 1990 Toronado was the predecessor to modern infotainment systems.
Much like Pontiac, Plymouth was created to fill a gap in the lineup. Established by Chrysler in 1928, Plymouth was created to compete in the low-priced market segment dominated by Ford and Chevrolet at the time.
The brand expanded rapidly in its first decades and became Chrysler’s high-volume seller until the late 1990s. Plymouth played a key role during the Great Depression, helping Chrysler survive during a decade that killed off numerous American brands.
Following a few years of declining sales in the early 1960s, Plymouth recovered with the introduction of the Valiant, Barracuda, and the new Fury. Plymouth also launched he GTX, the Road Runner, and the Duster, all of which rose to fame during the golden muscle car era.
In the early 1980s, following Chrysler’s big struggle with financial issues, the Plymouth Reliant arrived alongside the Dodge Aries to save the day. The brand also sold a rebadged version of the highly popular Dodge Caravan minivan starting 1984. Sadly, as Chrysler models continued to overlap in features and prices Plymouth had lost much of its identity by the early 1990s.
The group’s attempt to reposition the brand as an entry-level carmaker reduced Plymouth’s appeal even farther and sales continued to drop. One final attempt to save the brand was made with the Prowler, a hot-rod style sports car. It was supposed to be joined by the PT Cruiser, which had a similar front end, but this car was eventually sold as a Chrysler. The group announced in 1999 that Plymouth will be killed off and went on to declare it defunct in 2001. The iconic Barracuda nameplate is expected to return for the 2021 model year, but with a Dodge badge.
Similar to Oldsmobile, Mercury was created by Edsel Ford in 1938 to bridge the gap between Ford and Lincoln vehicles. The brand spent its entire existence as an entry-level premium company and most of its products were based on Ford vehicles.
Following a couple of decades with just a couple of models in its line, Mercury expanded dramatically in the 1950s, which saw the introduction of nameplates like the Monterey, Montclair, and Turnpike Cruiser.
In the 1960s, Mercury joined the muscle car wars with the Cougar, based on the Mustang, as well as beefed-up versions of the Monterey and Comet. In the early 1970s, Mercury started distancing itself from performance vehicles and imported the European-made Capri to sell in the United States. Mercury also introduced its own Ford Pinto, the Bobcat, in 1976.
Mercury started to produce more unique cars in the early 1990s and sales soared in 1993. Around this time Mercury also started producing minivans and SUVs, like the Villager Nautica and Mountaineer, respectively. However, sales began to drop toward the end of the 1990s and the lineup became slimmer.
The Grand Marquis, based on the iconic Ford Crown Victoria, became the brand’s most profitable car. The Cougar returned in an attempt to shift the image from luxury toward performance. With the Grand Marquis nearing the end of its lifecycle and with the redesigned Sable failing to meet expectations, Ford decided to close the company in 2010.
Founded in 1852 in Indiana, Studebaker originally built wagons and carriages. Automobile production began in 1902 with electric vehicles, while its first gasoline car appeared in 1904.
The company rose to fame following WWI, during which it benefited from enormous orders for transport wagons, artillery harnesses, saddles, and ambulances from the British government. Using profits from these sales, Studebaker developed new designs and technologies that went into production in the 1920s. The company launched a multitude of new cars in the late 1910s and 1920s, including the Special Six, Commander, President, and Dictator/Director.
Studebaker was hit pretty hard by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and entered receivership in March 1933. However, the company bounced back to profits by the end of the year and began working on a new car, the Champion. Launched in 1939, it doubled the company’s sales. Studebaker survived WWII by building trucks and carriers and returned to the market with the innovative Starlight model in 1947. Things went bleak again in the early 1950s due to the industry’s price war and Ford’s expansion, which ruined most independent automakers.
A merger with Packard, Hudson, and Nash failed due to centralization issues and Studebaker was losing money by 1954. Studebaker was eventually purchased by Packard, but the new corporation was nearly bankrupt by 1956. Studebaker rolled out the Hawk and Lark series, as well as the stunning Avanti, which offered unrivalled safety and exceptional high-speed performance, but none of them managed to save the brand from extinction. Studebaker close its plants one by one and the automobile division was shut down in 1967.
Founded by brothers James Ward and William Packard in 1899, Packard became one of America’s most important luxury carmakers in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the 1920s, Packard exported more cars than any other U.S. carmaker in the luxury market, and in 1930 sold almost twice as many abroad as any other marque priced over $2,000.
From 1924 to 1930, Packard was the top-selling luxury brand in the country. Unlike its rivals, Packard attempted to beat the Great Depression by building even more luxurious cars and introduced the Eight and the Twelve, two of its most recognizable models. In 1931, it pioneered Ride Control, a hydraulic shock absorber system that was adjustable from inside the car.
As the U.S. entered WWII, Packard shifted production to airplane engines. The company produced no fewer than 55,000 engines for the famous P-51 Mustang and came out of the war with a backlog order of a whopping $568 million. But even though it was in excellent condition at the end of the war, poor management kept Packard from producing new designs until 1951, while the competition produced new cars as early as 1948. The 1935 price war between Ford and GM left a deep mark on Packard, which also went on to buy Studebaker in order to form the U.S.’s fourth largest automobile company.
Things went downhill when Chrysler purchased Briggs, which supplied its bodies, in 1955. Chrysler immediately ceased supply to Packard and the company was forced to move production in a smaller plant in Detroit.
This caused several delays and quality problems and Packard lost market supremacy to Cadillac and Lincoln. The company also lost customers due to the fact that most Packards were now Studebakers underneath the shell. Production came to a halt in 1958 and the Studebaker-Packard Corporation pulled the brand from the market in 1959.
Tucker is the shortest-lived company from this list, having operated for only a couple of years. Preston Tucker's company build just one vehicle, the 48, also known as the Torpedo.
Tucker’s dream was to build an innovative vehicle with modern styling and enhanced safety features. He started working on the 48 during the war and began advertising the vehicle in 1947. Tucker borrowed some ideas from European carmakers like Tatra and Volkswagen, which offered rear-engined, rear-wheel drive vehicles in the 1930s.
Innovative features included a third directional headlamp located in the nose that would activate at steering angle to light the car’s path around corners. It also featured a roll-bar integrated into the roof and a perimeter frame for crash protection.
The windshield was designed to pop out in a collision, while the parking brake could be locked with a key to prevent theft. The glove box was moved from the dashboard in order to provide space for the "crash chamber," a padded area head of the passenger seat.
The engine and transmission were mounted on a separate subframe which was secured with only six bolts, as Tucker envisioned engines being quickly swapped in for service. Tucker also commissioned an innovated hemi engine with fuel injection and overhead valves, all industry firsts in 1948, but several issues with the prototype halted the build. The company eventually went with an air-cooled flat-six engine made by Air Cool Motors for the Bell 47 helicopter. Tucker made extensive modifications to the engine, including a conversion to water cooling and then bought the supplier for $1.8 million and cancelled its aircraft contracts.
The car was shown to the public in June 1947 and despite having some issues with the prototype, he did manage to raise close to $20 million in a stock issue.
Tucker also launched an Accessories program through which buyers that purchased accessories for the cars would have a spot on the dealer waiting list. That was a huge thing in 1947 when the demand for new cars was greater than the supply. This led to an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Attorney. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the negative publicity halted production of the car. Only 50 examples were built before the factory was closed and Tucker’s assets liquidated.
American Motors Corporation, commonly known as AMC, was established in 1954 by the merger of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and Hudson Motor Car Company. It was the largest corporate merger in the U.S. at the time and formed the fourth largest automaker after the Big Three. AMC continued to offer Nash and Hudson products in its years, but then dropped both marques and created the Rambler as a separate brand. This small sedan enabled AMC to compete in a niche where Ford, GM, and Chrysler had very little influence. AMC also survived through the 1970s by building small and affordable cars, but it also tackled the muscle car market with cars like the AMX and the Javelin.
A notable breakthrough came in the late 1970s when AMC purchased Kaiser Jeep’s vehicle operations, gaining access to a market where there wasn’t much competition from the Big Three. But even though the Jeep brand was doing well, AMC was losing millions with car production, so it entered a merger with French automaker Renault in 1978.
On top of building some Renault models in the U.S., AMC developed new Jeep products, like the iconic Cherokee and Wagoneer, but also launched the Eagle, considered one of the first crossover SUVs.
However, with fuel relatively cheap by 1985 and with consumers once again turning to larger and more powerful cars, AMC was once again losing money. AMC’s major stockholder, Renault, was also experiencing financial troubles in France, which resulted in closed facilities and mass layoffs. In 1986, Renault chairman Georges Besse was assassinated and the new management decided to halt the company’s investment in AMC.
The American corporation lost almost $100 million that year. In 1987, Chrysler purchased AMC, which became the Jeep-Eagle division. The Eagle name was eventually dropped, but Chrysler continues to own the Jeep division, now one of its most profitable brands.
The Hudson name goes back to 1909, when Joseph L. Hudson, a Detroit entrepreneur teamed up with other businessmen to produce an affordable automobile that would sell for less than $1,000.
One year later, Hudson was making headlines with more than 4,000 cars sold. The company grew fast, opened a new and bigger factory, and introduced a series of new models, most notably the Essex, Terraplane, and Eight by 1930. Like most U.S. carmakers, Hudson joined the war effort for WWII and built aircraft and ship parts, returning to car assembly in 1946 with a pickup truck. In 1948, Hudson introduced its famous "step-down" body design, with a placement of the passenger compartment lower inside the perimeter of the frame. This resulted into improved safety and enhanced passenger comfort.
The Hornet was the most iconic Hudson model to feature this design. Produced from 1950 to 1954, the Hornet was also the first car used in stock car racing. Overall, Hudson won 27 of the 34 NASCAR Grand National races in 1952, 22 wins of 37 races in 1953, and 17 out of 37 races in 1954.
But Hudson was also affected by the Ford-GM price war of 1953 and merged with Nash-Kelvinator in order to survive in 1954. The merger formed the American Motors Corporation. Production of Hudson models continued until 1957, when the final second-generation Hornet drove off the assembly line.
Launched in 1913 and folded in 1937, Duesenberg lasted only 24 years on the market. However, it left an incredible mark on the American auto industry, as it continues to enjoy a great legacy despite not being around for more than eight decades.
Founded by two self-taught German engineers in Minnesota, Duesenberg started off with engines and race cars. The first Duesenberg was driven at the Indy 500 in 1914 and it started winning races only six years later.
Duesenberg won the iconic event in 1922, 1924, 1925, and 1927 and at the same time built luxury cars for road use. The company debuted with the Model A in 1921 and developed a limited-edition Model X in 1926. The iconic Model J arrived in 1928, establishing Duesenberg as a solid competitor for European brands like Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, and Hispano-Suiza.
Although it was massively expensive, the Model J (including its SJ, SSJ, JN, and SJN variants), was also stylish, provided a luxurious interior, and was fitted with powerful, often supercharged engines. The 7.0-liter straight-eight engine generated up to 400 horsepower and enabled the J to hit top speeds in excess of 120 mph. The Model J quickly became one of the most popular luxury cars in the United States and Europe, as well as a status symbol.
Notable customers included Al Capone, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, the Duke of Windsor, and royal family members from Italy and Spain. Duesenberg folded in 1937, when the financial empire of its owner, E. L. Cord, collapsed. He owned two more automobile companies, Cord and Auburn, that were also discontinued in 1937. Duesenbergs are extremely valuable nowadays, with supercharged Model Js fetching millions of dollars at public auctions.
A long list of carmakers left behind
A complete list would go far beyond the 10 automakers listed above. Recessions, poor management, and rough competition forced hundreds of carmakers to go bust or merge with other companies. Famous names include Imperial, Auburn, Kaiser-Frazer, Stutz, Marmon, Nash, Dual Ghia, La Salle, Cord, and Edsel. There’s also Saturn, Talbot, DeLorean, Willys Overland, Isotta Fraschini, Hummer, DeSoto, and REO.