Monday, April 5, 2010
The American Brands that Didn't Make It
Missing in Action: Pontiac, Saturn Latest in Long Line of Dearly Departed Nameplates
Our April, 2010 cover stories (2011 Regal First Drive, 2010 LaCrosse vs Lexus ES Comparison) pondered the reinvention of Buick, a once-iconic American brand, in the aftermath of the most tumultuous year in Motor Trend's 60-year history; a year during which both GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and which marked the end of the road for Pontiac, Saturn, and possibly Hummer. Back when Motor Trend was launched in September 1949, there were 10 major U.S. automakers building and selling cars and light trucks under 21 different brand names. Sixty years later, we have three automakers -- two of which are still in intensive care -- building and selling 11 brands. And during those six tumultuous decades of mergers and bankruptcies, another 11 automotive brands have come and gone. Among those that didn't make it: Allstate, AMC, Checker, Crosley, DeSoto, Eagle, Edsel, Frazer, Henry J, Hudson, International, Kaiser, Merkur, Metropolitan, Nash, Oldsmobile, Packard, Plymouth, Rambler, Studebaker, and Willys.
Plenty has been written about the recent sacrificial offerings on the altar of market consolidation, so let's don our 20/20-hindsight goggles and take a look at the highs, the lows, and the critical missteps that brought about the demise of some of these once proud American brands.
Founded: August 9, 1945
RIP: June 1955
1954 Kaiser Darrin
COULD IT HAVE BEEN SAVED? Kaiser and Frazer brands shared most everything and made their debut with fresh, new postwar designs boasting sleek, no-fender-bulge styling. The company beat Corvette to market (by a month) with the first volume-production fiberglass two-seat sports car (the Kaiser Darrin), and the Kaiser Traveler/Frazer Vagabond models were the first American hatchbacks and included fold-down rear seats and tent attachments for outdoorsy types. The company offered four-door convertible models and was early to market with a low-cost four-cylinder economy car (the Henry J), which was also marketed through Sears stores as the Allstate. McCulloch superchargers gave existing six-cylinder engines V-8 power, saving development costs. But as the Korean conflict dampened the economy, sales slowed and debts mounted. Kaiser purchased Willys for its lucrative Jeep business, which may indeed have saved the company, but not the brand. All Kaiser and Willys passenger-car production ended in 1955.
THE BEST: 1954 Kaiser Darrin
Doors that disappear into the front fenders and Dutch Darrin styling proved too little, too late.
THE WORST: 1951 Henry J
Econocar cost-cutting deleted the glovebox, armrests, sunvisors, and trunklid (access was through the fold-down seat), but without economies of scale, it struggled to undercut a full-size Chevy 150.
1954 Hudson Hornet
Founded: February 20, 1909
RIP: June 25, 1957
WHY IT FAILED: One particularly bad gamble -- the compact Jet -- rendered Hudson dependent on a merger with Nash-Kelvinator to survive. The popular full-size Hornet needed a restyle and a V-8, but the company couldn't afford both. Instead, it bet on a car to compete with the segment-defining compact Nash Rambler. Its $12 million budget ballooned to $16M, and after two years and 35,367 Jet sales, Hudson had lost $10 million. Not surprisingly, the merger with Nash killed Hudson's Rambler-competing budget-buster.
THE BEST: 1951-54 Hudson Hornet
Hudson's innovative "step-down" styling placed the footwells inside rather than atop the perimeter frame, improving safety and lowering the center of gravity. Its lightweight, strong body and high-torque Twin-H Power I-6s made Hornets the cars to beat in NASCAR.
1954 Hudson Jet
THE WORST: 1953-54 Hudson Jet
A textbook case of "design by committee," management and dealer meddling with Frank Spring's original design resulted in a mess nobody wanted to buy, and costly outsourcing of the compact unibody priced it out of competition.
Muntz Road Jet
COULD IT EVER HAVE WORKED? The 1949 Kurtis Sport Car adorned our very first cover, and we proclaimed it "America's one and only sports car." Penned by preeminent race-car designer Frank Kurtis to beat Jaguar's XK120, this low-slung roadster, powered by an Edelbrock flathead Ford V-8, reportedly hit 142.5 mph at Bonneville in 1949. The first prototypes were fiberglass, then aluminum was used to reduce weight. All were produced in the Los Angeles facility where Kurtis-Kraft Indy racers were built. After building 17 (or 36, records are sketchy), Kurtis sold the rights to flamboyant SoCal used-car personality Earl "Madman" Muntz, who renamed it the Muntz Road Jet and eventually stretched the wheelbase 13 inches to fit a rear seat. To cut costs, he later switched to steel bodywork, moved production to Evanston, Illinois, and hatched a deal to get Lincoln V-8s. But after four years and perhaps 198 (or 455) Road Jets, the realities of handbuilt low-volume production that resulted in an estimated $1000/car loss drove Muntz out of the car-building business.
THE CAR: Kurtis sold kits or turn-key cars, while Muntz Road Jet coupes or convertibles came fully assembled.
1979 International Scout III Prototype
Founded: July 28, 1902 (February, 1907 First Light Truck)
RIP: October 21, 1980
WHY IT FAILED: International's farm-equipment business grew steadily, and by the mid-20th century it was a full-line manufacturer of agricultural implements, as well as full-size pickup and sport/utility trucks. In 1961, it added the Jeep CJ-fighting Scout. Sales were strong, but profit margins grew thinner and thinner as an increasingly unwieldy corporate structure kept adding new business lines. A well-intentioned policy of promotion from within also tended to stifle management creativity and technical innovation. A new CEO in 1979 increased profitability by consolidating, but angered union management, leading to a six-month strike that effectively forced the sale of the ag businesses (and the IH nomenclature) to Teneco. Attempts to sell the Scout line to a Texas concern failed, and it was shuttered as the renamed Navistar International concentrated on medium- and heavy-duty truck, bus, and engine manufacture.
THE BEST: 1957 IHC Travelette Utility Pickup
In its 50th truck-building year, International invented the six-passenger four-door "crew cab" pickup. Modern smooth-side styling was also available.
THE WORST: 1979 Scout III Prototype
If this was what we had to look forward to, perhaps killing the brand was for the best.
1963 Studebaker Avanti
Founded: February 16, 1852
RIP: March 16, 1966
WHY IT FAILED: Studebaker first blazed a trail through the bankruptcy courts in 1933 after a legal snarl over a mid-Depression takeover attempt of White Trucks was blocked by minority shareholders. The company convinced Congress it was worth more alive than liquidated, so the law was amended to allow the company to devise a reorganization plan. The plan worked and the company emerged from the 1930s healthy. After WWII, Studebaker was reluctant to invest in new facilities and equipment, and management proved inept at predicting market preferences, often being caught short of popular models and overstocked on unpopular ones. Poor preproduction engineering of the outsourced (Loewy) designs caused quality problems too. After car production ended, Studebaker's other diversified holdings were sold repeatedly and its parts-supply business now exists inside Federal-Mogul Corporation.
1908 Studebaker Carriage
THE BEST: 1963-64 Studebaker Avanti
So fresh and clean was Raymond Loewy's design that various intrepid entrepreneurs managed to keep the basic shape in production for decades to come.
THE WORST: 1908 Carriage
One horsepower, horrible wind noise, limited range, noxious emissions. Studebaker was once the world's largest vehicle manufacturer and continued to build carriages through 1919.
1937 Packard 12
Founded: July 3, 1899
RIP: July 13, 1958
WHY IT FAILED: Packard Motor Car Company's fiscal health was robust in the 1950s, but as supply caught up with postwar demand, Big Three economies of scale allowed them to outcompete the American independents, prompting a wave of sometimes ill-advised mergers-like Packard's purchase of Studebaker. The deal was done without the due diligence that should have exposed Studebaker's shaky financial state. Studebaker's woes placed such a drain on Packard's resources that it couldn't invest in its own products sufficiently, and Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial left Packard in their dust.
THE BEST: 1937 Packard 12
Throughout the Depression, Packard remained a leader in the prestige class, and the silent, swift V-12 senior model established a benchmark; 1937 brought independent front suspension and hydraulic brakes to the class, bringing record sales to the Twelve.
THE WORST: 1958 Packard
Stylist Duncan McRae did what he could to Packardify a Studebaker President, but the carp-mouthed, bug-eyed disaster marked a sad end to a proud brand.
1934 DeSoto Airflow
Founded: August 4, 1928
RIP: November 30, 1960
WHY IT FAILED: The recession of 1958 hit the mid-price-vehicle segment particularly hard, and that probably set the first of DeSoto's dominoes to falling. A postwar push to foster stand-alone Plymouth dealerships also caused many Plymouth-DeSoto dealers to drop the brand, weakening its sales channel. By 1960, the compact market was heating up, but DeSoto didn't have a dog in that fight. As the Forward Look decade drew to a close, marketing studies indicated stronger demand for an entry-level Chrysler than a DeSoto at the same price, so Chrysler -- having spun Imperial off as a separate brand in 1955 -- was encouraged to move downmarket. Hence, the 1961Newport (and the upmarket 1962 Dodge 880) replaced DeSoto. After months of rumors and just 47 days following the '61 model launch, DeSoto was pronounced dead.
THE BEST (AND WORST): 1934-36 DeSoto Airflow
This car established the state of the automaking art in its day, and the price of the shorter DeSoto undercut its Chrysler sibling by $350. Safety-cage construction, laminated glass, and futuristic streamlined styling make the Airflow the icon it is today. As DeSoto's only offering in 1934, the radical styling and unfounded rumors that the car was unsafe hobbled sales and nearly crippled the brand.
1969 AMC AMX
Founded: July 29, 1916
RIP: December 15, 1987 (Final AMC Eagle Produced)
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: This company's history is largely that of a scrappy can-do underdog that mostly prevailed against enormous odds. Faced with Korean-conflict steel shortages, the new-for-1950 compact Nash Rambler was introduced as a convertible and loaded with features to maximize profits. AMC forged international collaborations way before the rest of the industry did. The AWD Eagle wagon blazed the crossover trail. Yes, in hindsight, Roy Abernethy's decisions to kill the Rambler brand and add platforms to take on the Big Three were ill-advised, as were the innovative Pacer and radical Matador coupe platforms, which never paid off and starved the popular models of needed investment. But AMC's nimble corporate structure and spirit of innovation live on at Chrysler, which purchased AMC/Jeep from Renault in 1987. Without AMC and leaders like Francois Castaing, the popular LH cars (LHS, Intrepid, et al.) would never have happened.
THE BEST: 1968-70 AMC AMX
AMC's two-seat musclecar delivered on the genre's light-body big-block promise, achieving 106 speed records and undercutting similar Big Three entries on price.
1972 AMC Gremlin X
THE WORST: 1970-78 AMC Gremlin
Billed as the first American-built subcompact, this Hornet-trunkectomy was overweight for the class, but sales were strong. Close second: the '83 AMC/Renault Alliance that we honored as Car of the Year. Mea culpa.
THEY ALSO SERVED…
Avanti II 1965-1989 Continuation first on Studebaker, then GM chassis; 3292 built.
Checker 1922-1982 Civilian models offered since 1960; Big-three parts supplier until liquidation in June 2009.
Citicar 1974-1975 Angular two-seat electric urban commuter cars; 1801 built.
Clenet 1975-1987 Mercedes SS-inspired neoclassic, most on Lincoln-Mercury chassis; 480 built.
Crofton 1959-1961 Continuation of Crosley FarmOroad mini-Jeep concept; 200 built.
Crosley 1939-1952 Ultralight compacts launched with a stamped-steel engine block.
Cunningham 1953-1953 Racer Briggs built 18 C-3 Continental coupes and nine cabrios.
Darrin 1955-1958 Continuation of the Kaiser Darrin fiberglass roadster; 50 built.
Dual-Ghia 1955-1958 Italian bodywork, Dodge running gear, final assembly in Detroit;
Excalibur 1965-1989 Mercedes SS-inspired neoclassics, first on Studebaker frames; 3166 built.
King Midget 1946-1970 Lawnmower-engined street-legal roadster killed by safety/smog regs; 5000 built.
Mohs 1967-1979 Naugahyde-covered SafariKar and the rear-entry Ostentatienne Opera Sedan; 100 built.
Playboy 1947-1951 Diminutive three-seat folding-steel top convertible; 97 built.
Powell 1954-1956 Unique pickup and SUV bodies on junkyard-reconditioned 1941 Plymouth chassis, with new-car warranties; 1300 built.
Stutz 1971-1987 Virgil Exner design on Pontiac Grand Prix running gear; 500-600 built.
Vector 1989-1990 A few supercars, many prototypes. New WX8 model allegedly under development.
Hold your breath! Woodill 1952-1958 Glaspar body claims to be America's first fiberglass car; 300 produced, some as kits.
Posted by Palmer at 3:10 PM