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A salute to the dead US car brands

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  June 3, 2010 05:11 PM

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(Joel Benjamin for The Boston Globe)

No one’s laughing at the plight of another dying American car brand, except maybe in Korea. Just 20 years ago, Hyundai and Kia made the best punch lines in the automobile business. They were the modern-day Yugos that surely would be added to the century-long list of failed automakers.

Instead, Mercury – the sixth American nameplate in nine years – has joined that rank, General Motors is half-owned by the Treasury, Chrysler is tangled with the Italians, and the “Big Three” aren’t that big – or profitable – anymore. The Korean automakers, now carrying trunk loads of quality awards, are poised to become part of the top five largest automakers in the world. Automotive CEOs chuckling at the nascent Chinese auto industry should stop and get busy.

All of the marques on our list here, save for Hummer, were victims of badge swapping, an accounting tactic that stretched bottom lines by building several versions of the same car. A Buick was a Chevy, a Mercury was a Ford, and so on, and so on. It worked for decades, but now it’s a proven poison no automaker that wants to survive the next century will try.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

2010: Mercury

Best known during the muscle car age for its sultry Cougar, which sported retractable headlights behind an all-metal grill and rear turn signals that lit up in sequence, Mercury became the awkward middle child past the 1970s.

It was marketed as a semi-luxury brand, a half-step up from Ford but not quite a Lincoln. In the 1980s, Mercurys became known for their illuminated grill bars, which began with the groundbreaking Sable/Taurus in 1986, and later with the Topaz compact. But there was never any magic formula beyond charging a few thousand dollars extra for unique wheels and front fascias, especially when a loaded Ford could be had with the same equipment.

It’s not surprising, then, to see the Mariner, Mountaineer, Grand Marquis, and Sable exit the stage with less than 1 percent of US market share.


(GM)

2009: Hummer

No surprise here. As the environmental movement heated up and fuel economy laws tightened around the world, Hummer could hardly hold up its three-ton curb weights. Once a brand of freedom and adventure – stimulated by the military Humvee and Arnold Schwarzenegger – Hummer became a mockery of itself. Not even the Chinese wanted it after GM tried a sale.

After the H1 was discontinued, the monster H2 and its unpublished EPA figures chugged along even as SUV sales were tanking and gas prices skyrocketed. It looked flat-out ridiculous on the road, and some were famously (and stupidly) incinerated in protest.

But despite its rough ending, Hummer was the one brand GM managed to market correctly. It was what it was: a niche, extremely capable off-roader that looked like nothing else in GM’s portfolio, or anything else on the market.

(GM)

2009: Pontiac

Unlike most of the brands here, Pontiac’s demise was a genuine heartbreak among an actual community of fans. You wouldn’t have guessed it with underperformers like the 1990s-era Grand Am, the off-road wannabe Montana minivan, or the Aztek, considered by many to be the ugliest car ever made.

But Pontiacs of the last three years were relearning their performance mojo – one that single-handedly created the muscle car era in the 1960s with the famous GTO. The Solstice roadster was a refreshing, affordable design, a genuine competitor to the Mazda Miata. The G8, imported from GM’s Australian division, was a fantastic rendition on the classic V-8, rear-wheel-drive sports sedan. Had Pontiac survived with this focus on a few affordable sports cars, it would have done well.

Need evidence? There’s plenty of tuners selling Firebird body kits for the new Camaro.


(GM)

2009: Saturn

True, most of the Saturns in the last decade were no match for the imports the startup brand was made to compete against, but the last few years were a rebirth, with fresh (and highly underrated) models from GM’s European Opel/Vauxhall division.

The “different kind of car company” optimism that began in 1990 was real: the plastic, dent-resistant body panels, the no-haggle dealer pricing, and a big effort on customer service. It paid dividends during Saturn’s early years and was a model to all of General Motors, but management did to Saturn what it did to every one of its brands.

It became assimilated.

(Globe Photo, file)

2008: Isuzu

Isuzu is neither American nor is it gone for good. It still sells pickup trucks in every other market and has a decent stake in the US commercial truck segment. But it’s here because the Japanese company’s auto division relied almost entirely on GM to survive. Not a great plan.

Isuzu’s scant offerings when it pulled out of the US – the Ascender SUV and i-Series pickup – looked just like Chevys. Their only advantage was a longer powertrain warranty.

During the SUV heyday, Isuzu couldn’t build enough Rodeos and Troopers for the US market, but sales began to sour after Consumer Reports pictured a Trooper on two wheels on its front cover in 1996, deeming the vehicle unsafe to drive. Isuzu’s later product – especially the wild-looking VehiCROSS, which predated the crossover segment booming today – became ignored.

(GM)

2004: Oldsmobile

Maybe having the word “old” in the name wasn’t an easy sell. But Oldsmobile, an automotive pioneer with its “Curved Dash” of the early 1900s, had plenty of success.

Muscle car fans will remember the famous “4-4-2,” or the sleek and elegant Toronado coupe. In the modern era, the Aurora sedan was perhaps the most technologically advanced car GM had.

(Chrysler)

2001: Plymouth

Plymouth once had the luster of Richard Petty's NASCAR-winning powder blue Superbird, with a rear wing as high as a Back Bay brownstone. That was the 1970s. Zip to the 1990s, and the Voyager and Breeze won’t stir anyone’s memory.

The Prowler roadster was a hot-rod revival slated to fail at the start, because hot rods never roared on the street with V-6 engines and automatic transmissions. Plymouth’s success, like Mercury’s, started and finished in the muscle car era. Forget everything else.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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