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© De Soto
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© Patrick Ernzen/RM Sotheby’s
America’s lost car makers
More than 150 car manufacturers operated in the United States in 1921.
Mergers, takeovers and bankruptcy filings gradually reduced the number of companies present in America in the 1930s; many did not survive the Great Depression.
The Second World War shook up the industry again, and a round of consolidation in the ’50s turned survival of the fittest into survival of the biggest.
Join us as we remember 20 of the American automotive marques that didn’t make it.
1. Oldsmobile (1897-2004)
Ransom Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897 and wasted no time in laying out its future plans.
The project derailed when a fire destroyed its factory (including its prototypes, tools and blueprints) in 1901. Workers managed to save one car, and they used it to rebuild the company.
General Motors purchased Olds in 1908 and renamed it Oldsmobile in 1942. It focused on innovation during the 1960s, notably by releasing a turbocharged engine called the Turbo Rocket and a front-wheel-drive model called Toronado (pictured), and its sales were enviably high during the 1970s and the ’80s. At its peak, Oldsmobile was the third-best-selling brand in the United States, behind Chevrolet and Ford.
Badge-engineering and a series of uninspiring cars diluted Oldsmobile’s image during the 1990s. General Motors closed what was then America’s oldest car manufacturer in 2004.
2. Packard (1899-1958)
James Ward Packard founded the car maker that bears his name after running into problems with a model made by Winton and believing he could do better.
His brother William helped him build the first Packard, the Model A, in the family’s candle-making shop. Packard quickly earned a reputation for making well-engineered vehicles and it moved from Ohio to Detroit as demand for its cars increased.
Shifting upmarket initially paid off; Packard competed with Rolls-Royce during the 1920s and ’30s. It also bucked the industry trend of making annual sheet-metal changes. While this strategy was sound on paper, it gave the company a range of cars that looked outdated compared to the competition.
It launched a far-reaching overhaul in the early 1950s that brought models like the Clipper (pictured), but the spending spree put it on shaky financial footing and it ended up merging with Studebaker in 1954.
Crucially, Packard improved its range but not its image. Sales continued to fall, and it closed in July 1958. Its factory on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan, is one of the world’s largest industrial ruins.
3. Marmon (1902-1933)
Marmon began building cars in 1902, though it traced its roots to a manufacturer of flour-grinding mill equipment established in the 1850s. It started small, building a mere seven automobiles in 1904, but demand for its cars ballooned in the 1910s as it made a name for itself on and off the race track.
Its Wasp won the inaugural edition of the Indianapolis 500 held in 1911 and its Model 34 drove across the United States in six days in 1916, beating the previous record (which was set in a V8-powered Cadillac) by 41 hours.
Marmon specialised in making big, expensive cars with large engines during the 1920s. It showed a stunning amount of foresight when it launched a smaller, more affordable car named Little Marmon and an even cheaper car called Roosevelt in the late 1920s, before the Great Depression.
Marmon renewed its focus on the upper echelons of the market with the 16-cylinder-powered Sixteen (pictured) presented at the 1930 edition of the Chicago motor show, but it ran out of money and closed in 1933.
4. Studebaker (1902-1966)
Studebaker entered the automotive industry after decades making horse-drawn carriages. Launched in 1902, its first model was little more than a carriage fitted with an electric motor and a heavy battery.
It began making petrol-powered cars in 1904 and it gradually released different engines and body styles during the 1900s. At the end of the 1910s, it stood proud as one of America’s largest car makers.
Mismanagement during the Great Depression drove Studebaker into bankruptcy, but it was saved and its profits ballooned thanks in part to defence contracts secured during WW2. Competing with far bigger companies, like Ford and General Motors, was difficult and Studebaker’s accounts again fell into the red in the early ’50s. It merged with Packard in 1954 in a bid to turn the situation around.
Ironically, the last cars launched by Studebaker were among its best. The 1959 Lark (pictured) and the Raymond Loewy-designed Avanti were stunning.
Both amounted to too little, too late. Studebaker closed its factory in South Bend, Indiana, in 1963, and it exited the car-making industry in 1966 when it shuttered its second factory in Hamilton, Canada.
5. Hudson (1910-1954)
Hudson was built on solid foundations: it was founded by former Olds Motor Vehicle employees with funding from the extra-deep pockets of Joseph L Hudson, the man who owned the Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit.
Called Model 20, its first car was stylish, relatively affordable and reasonably well equipped. Hudson sold around 4000 cars during its first full year as a car manufacturer.
When the promise of value no longer lured buyers into showrooms, Hudson turned to design. It inaugurated a design language called Step Down in 1948 that created cars like the Super and the Commodore which were low, wide and extremely aerodynamic. Some, like the Hornet (pictured) successfully raced in NASCAR events during the early 1950s, but Hudson ran into the same issue as many of America’s small marques: it couldn’t keep up with General Motors and Ford.
It merged with Nash to form American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1954.
6. Stutz (1911-1939)
Harry Stutz designed a transmission that could be mounted over a car’s rear axle in the late 1900s, and he formed a company called Stutz Auto Parts to manufacture his invention in 1910. The following year, he built his first car, entered it into the inaugural Indianapolis 500, and finished in 11th place.
He gradually expanded his company’s range of models during the 1910s and he continued to put a big focus on racing; his successful team was known as the White Squadron.
The firm shifted its focus towards luxury and style during the 1920s, notably by releasing models like the Model M (pictured), but the Great Depression delivered a blow that it never recovered from. Stutz sales collapsed in the early 1930s. It stopped building cars in 1935 (some historians claim a few were made in 1936) – it closed in 1939.
7. Willys (1915-1955)
Car dealer John North Willys purchased Indiana-based Overland in 1907 and renamed it Willys-Overland in 1909. He didn’t put his name on a car until 1915, when the Willys-Knight made its debut. Financial issues forced Willys out and Walter B Chrysler, the former president of Buick and the future founder of Chrysler, took over at the request of Chase bank. Willys later retook control of the company he created.
He left again in 1929 and the Great Depression took a huge toll on the firm, forcing it into receivership in 1933. It managed to survive long enough to land a lucrative contract to build thousands of Jeeps during WW2. It transformed the war-proven MB (pictured) into the CJ-2A, the first civilian Jeep.
Willys made a half-hearted return to the passenger car segment when it released the Aero in 1952 but sales in the United States were low – the Jeep range was considerably more popular – and production ended in 1955. The model nonetheless lived on in Brazil until 1971.
8. Nash (1916-1954)
Nash is also rooted in an ambitious takeover. Charles Nash stepped down from his position as General Motors president in 1916 and purchased the Thomas B Jeffery Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that same year. His name began appearing on the company’s cars in 1918.
Nash operated as one of the dozens of car makers in the United States until the early 1950s, when it noticed that American cars had grown almost exponentially and that buyers who wanted a small car needed to buy something foreign.
It commissioned Pininfarina to design a small, stylish car and asked Austin to provide an engine and production capacity. Introduced in 1954, the Metropolitan (pictured) is widely credited as America’s first sub-compact car. Nash merged with Hudson to form American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1954.
9. Duesenberg (1916-1937)
Brothers August and Frederick Duesenberg formed the company they gave their name to in 1913 to build engines for race cars and boats.
Their engines were extremely successful, and a group of New York-based investors helped them launch the Duesenberg Motors Corporation in 1916. Its first car, the Model A, was presented in 1920, though delays pushed back its launch to the 1922 model year.
Auburn president Errett Lobban Cord bought Duesenberg in 1926 and asked the brothers to create what he reportedly described as a supercar. Celebrated as one of the most prestigious vehicles on the planet, the Model J (pictured) arrived on the eve of the Great Depression as a massive, lavishly appointed car with a powerful straight-eight engine.
Demand picked up in the early 1930s, Duesenberg even released a supercharged evolution of the Model J, but the company closed after Cord sold his car-building empire in 1937 and exited the industry. The numerous attempts to revive Duesenberg have been unsuccessful.
10. Pontiac (1926-2010)
General Motors founded Pontiac in 1926 as a sub-brand of Oakland, another one of its divisions. It quickly became clear that Oakland was too far gone to save, but Pontiac had a success story to tell.
It outsold the brand it was created to prop up. Executives closed Oakland in 1932 and focused on Pontiac.
Pontiac emerged as one of America’s most-loved performance brands in the 1960s; its GTO (pictured) was arguably the first true American muscle car. Like sister company Oldsmobile, it lost its way in the General Motors maze during the 1990s and never fully recovered. It was closed in 2010.
11. De Soto (1928-1960)
Chrysler founded De Soto in 1928 to reach a more mainstream part of the market. Called the Model K (pictured), the first De Soto was the right car at the right time; 81,065 units were sold during its first 12 months on the market, a record that stood for decades.
While its future looked bright, its range often overlapped with the one offered by sister company Dodge and it began to suffer from a lack of image.
De Soto’s updates mirrored the rest of the Chrysler portfolio’s, meaning the Firedome V8 engine with hemispherical combustion chambers arrived in 1952 and the Forward Look design language was introduced in 1955.
Sales fell by over 60% in 1958 (a recession was partly to blame) and Chrysler announced the brand’s demise in 1960, about a month after it introduced its 1961 models.
12. Plymouth (1928-2001)
Chrysler created Plymouth in 1928, the same year it formed De Soto, to take the fight directly to Chevrolet and Ford. Plymouth’s cars were smaller and cheaper than Chrysler’s. They consequently helped the group survive the Great Depression and they became hugely popular in the 1930s.
The millionth Plymouth was built in August 1934; it was purchased by the same man who bought the first one.
Plymouth’s greatest hits came in the 1960s, when cars like the ‘Cuda (pictured) and the Road Runner performed well on the dragstrip and in the sales charts. Badge-engineering in the 1980s and ’90s dented the company’s image, and even the Hot Wheels-esque Prowler couldn’t turn it around.
Chrysler designed the PT Cruiser to breathe new life into the Plymouth brand. It chose to keep the retro-styled hatchback to itself relatively late in the development cycle and it closed Plymouth in 2001.
13. Cord (1929-1937)
Errett Lobban Cord created the company that bears his name to fill a gap in his growing car-building empire. He positioned Cord between Auburn and Duesenberg, and he decided its claim-to-fame would be innovation.
Called L-29, the first series-produced Cord model used a powerful straight-eight engine that spun the front wheels, a rare and highly innovative configuration in the late 1920s.
Innovation was not the order of the day in 1929, and the stock market crash sent Cord whirling into dire financial straits. It closed for the first time on the last day of 1931, but it somewhat unexpectedly reappeared in 1936 with a new front-wheel-drive model named 810 (pictured). What few mentioned at the time was that the 810, with its distinctive-looking front end and its lavish interior, was designed as a Duesenberg. It was allegedly assigned to the dormant Cord brand about 15 weeks before its unveiling.
Cord launched an updated version of the car named the 812 in 1937, and it made a supercharger available at an extra cost, but it closed in 1937 when its founder left the automotive industry.
14. Mercury (1938-2011)
Ford created Mercury to fill the gap between its cars, which were aimed at the heart of the American market, and the ones made by Lincoln, which were fit for a president. Mercury’s cars were often related to Ford’s under the sheet metal, but a brand-specific design differentiated them. Models like the Cougar, the Meteor and the Comet (pictured) were a common part of the American landscape in the ’60s.
As is often the case, an over-reliance on badge-engineering began eroding Mercury’s image during the 1980s, and this process picked up speed in the 1990s. Little more than a brand-specific grille and nameplate set apart a Mountaineer from an Explorer, for example.
Mercury entered the 2000s on shaky footing, and Ford chose to close the division rather than build it back up. It made its last car in 2011.
15. Crosley (1939-1952)
Ohio-born industrialist Powel Crosley Jnr dabbled in a little bit of everything. His company was the world’s largest radio manufacturer during the early 1920s and it logically waded into broadcasting a little later. He made appliances (including refrigerators) and he owned Cincinnati’s baseball team, among other ventures.
He added car manufacturer to his résumé when he introduced the first Crosley in 1939, but reliability issues marred its career and car production screeched to a halt during WW2.
Crosley returned to making cars at the end of the war. It notably experimented with a four-cylinder engine called COBRA (an acronym that stood for copper-brazed) made with sheet metal. Its line-up included saloons, estates, a sports car named Hot Shot (pictured), and even a Jeep-like off-roader called Farm-O-Road.
It offered buyers a lot for the money, but bang-for-the-buck wasn’t a high priority in the post-war years, when motorists wanted chrome and new features. Crosley stopped making cars in 1952.
16. Tucker (1946-1950)
Preston Tucker saw an opportunity to reinvent the American car in the aftermath of WW2.
Working with a team of skilled designers and engineers, he created a big saloon with a rear-mounted engine (an unusual configuration at the time) and an array of features that sounded like they were beamed from the future. The specifications sheet included a directional headlight in the middle of the front end, a padded dashboard, a roll bar integrated into the roof and shatterproof glass.
Tucker sold accessories like seat covers and a radio before he started building cars in a bid to raise money. This caught the attention of the American government, which charged some of the company’s top executives with several counts of fraud. The jury found the defendants not guilty in January 1950, but the bad publicity ended Tucker’s promising run after it built merely 51 cars.
17. American Motors Corporation (1954-1987)
Nash and Hudson knew they needed volume to compete against Ford and General Motors. They formed American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1954 through what was then the largest corporate merger in American history. Both names disappeared in 1957, though some of their respective designs lived on.
AMC was late to the horsepower war that brewed in the United States in the 1960s, but it wasn’t sleeping at the wheel. While many buyers wanted a fast car, it also identified a growing interest in leisure vehicles so it purchased Jeep from Kaiser in 1970. Unusual models like the Gremlin and the Pacer helped it stand out in the ’70s, though whether that was for the best depends on who you ask. One of its greatest hits was the Eagle (pictured), which laid the groundwork for the modern crossover in 1979.
Financial issues began unravelling AMC in the late 1970s. It turned to Volkswagen when it needed a small engine to power the Gremlin, and Renault started investing in the firm in 1978. In exchange, AMC distributed cars like the 5 (quickly renamed Le Car) through its dealer network, and it built the 9 and the 11 (called Alliance and Encore, respectively) in Kenosha. Jeep models were sold through Renault stores in Europe, too. In hindsight, AMC and Renault had both spread themselves too thin at the wrong time.
Renault sold its stake in AMC to Chrysler in 1987 and left America; it hasn’t been back since. Chrysler had little interest in AMC’s ageing range; it closed the company, but it kept Jeep and the Kenosha plant.
18. Imperial (1954-1983)
Chrysler promoted the Imperial nameplate to a standalone brand in 1954. Imperial was celebrated as the group’s crown jewel; it built the biggest, most luxurious and most expensive cars in the portfolio. It was given the freedom and the funds to experiment with new ideas during the 1950s and ’60s.
At 235.3 inches long, the 1973 Imperial LeBaron (pictured) was the longest series-produced car released in the United States after WW2. Its timing was unfortunate: the oil embargo sent buyers running towards small, relatively fuel-efficient cars.
Sales plummeted, and Chrysler closed Imperial in 1975. It unsuccessfully resurrected the name on an upmarket J-Body-based model made from 1980 to 1983.
19. Edsel (1957-1959)
Ford announced the launch of the Edsel brand in 1957 to fill the space that separated Mercury from Lincoln.
Its line-up in 1958 included the Ranger, the Pacer, the Corsair (pictured) and the Citation. All were characterised by a distinctive front-end design, and on paper they slotted perfectly between models made by Mercury and Lincoln. Ford expected Edsel would sell around 200,000 cars annually.
It fell well short of this goal. Only 63,110 cars were sold during the 1958 model year, a number largely attributed to the company’s complete lack of image. Some buyers didn’t know Edsel existed. Others had no idea what an Edsel was or who made it. Many couldn’t identify its position in the Ford portfolio.
Sales dropped to 44,891 units during the 1959 model year. Ford closed Edsel in November 1959.
20. Merkur (1985-1990)
In the 1980s, as the popularity of German cars skyrocketed in the United States, Ford thought it had exactly what it took to compete against BMW and Audi: its German division.
It plucked the Sierra XR4i from its European range, made a few America-specific changes, and sold it through its Lincoln-Mercury network under the Merkur brand.
Annual sales peaked at 14,315 units in 1986, and the bigger Scorpio (which was related to the Ford Scorpio) wasn’t able to turn the situation around. Sales ended in 1990.