Automobile enthusiasts around the world know brands like Studebaker, Plymouth and Packard, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any of these on the roads today. Former powerhouses in the American auto market – they have since become beloved by collectors, but lost to the general public.
These are only a selection of a much longer list of car brands that have not survived to see the present day. What accounts for the churn rate of these brands?
Bold Experiments, Boondoggles and Burnouts
Some car brands, like Tucker and Saturn, introduced new ideas that the market simply didn’t care for, didn’t perform as well as the competition, or were too ambitious for the industry climate.
Others, like Edsel and DeLorean, met swift ends as they hemorrhaged money far faster than their owners anticipated. Even more brands were simply folded into the ever-expanding portfolios of either Ford or General Motors, the two biggest auto conglomerates ever to rule the roads.
Bad Timing, or Worse Economy?
Car sales rise and fall with broader economic trends because they are tied into so many different variables: raw materials, production costs, labor costs, oil prices, and interest rates among others.
We can look at two time periods in which the combination of these conditions caused many of the brands on this list to fail.
Post-war Doldrums (1950-1958)
Based on the timeline above, we can see that 1950s were a terrible time for the smaller players in the auto industry. The explanation as to why so many brands declined over this decade has to do with the highly competitive, oligopolistic business practices of market leaders Ford and General Motors. Both of these market titans were locked in a battle to lower prices by taking advantage of economies of scale, while wooing customers who were feeling the economic pressures of a postwar recession.
Smaller volume manufacturers like Packard and Studebaker could not keep up, even when they attempted to merge. As a result, these and many other smaller brands were forced out, or absorbed into the portfolios of one of the “big two.”
Same Car, Different Name (1998-2008)
A similar stretch of declining sales plagued the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the trend of “badge engineering” caught up with manufacturers.
Rather than designing new models at high cost, conglomerates like GM simply engineered new brand “badges” and marketed the same basic models under a variety of names like Pontiac, Plymouth, Mercury, or Oldsmobile. The same tactic was later used to take mid-market designs, such as the Ford Fusion, and style them for a luxury audience as a new model – in this case, the Lincoln Mk. Z.
Badge engineering curbed the appeal of a number of American brands under the GM and Ford portfolios. The nail in many of their coffins was the major auto industry downturn in 2008. That year, GM restructured as it underwent Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
As a result, GM removed the majority of its badge engineered brands, including many of those listed above, from dealerships in the following years.