Rust in peace
Among car companies, Alfa Romeo reminds me of an aging movie actress. It has seen better days, but thanks to a memorable name and an illustrious past, it still gets plenty of attention. The Italian maker of sporting cars reported sales of less than 100,000 worldwide last year, but Alfa’s every move — such as its oft-delayed return to the U.S. market — gets reported with feverish enthusiasm. In the latest Alfa drama, the automaker is reported to be talking intensively about a linkup with Audi. Despite denials from both sides, a deal makes some sense. Audi parent company Volkswagen is a compulsive acquirer of famous automotive names, and Fiat, Alfa’s owner, needs the cash. Asked at the Geneva auto show in March whether VW was still interested in Alfa Romeo, boss Martin Winterkorn simply replied: “Alfa Romeo is a great brand.”
The 21st century has been tough on auto brands, both young and old. Toyota’s Scion brand, launched in 2002, seems to be undergoing an identity crisis. Reuters reports executives are weighing repositioning it as a line of premium small cars. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz, which dates its history to the 19th century, finds its self-styled “the best or nothing” brand under assault from up-and-coming Audi.
Maintaining a strong brand requires constant investment. That’s particularly important in autos, where the opportunities to economize are ever-present — and often fatal. For evidence, here are 10 once-familiar automotive brands that have become casualties since the turn of this century:
Suzuki has ranked in the top 10 of the world’s automakers, but its image as a preeminent motorcycle maker never translated into small cars. It struggled for years with a skimpy product line and an under-developed dealer network. Since peaking in 2007, Suzuki sales had fallen by 75%, and its small scale combined with the strong yen made its future prospects bleak. After a big push behind the mid-size Kizashi sedan flopped, its U.S. distributor filed for bankruptcy in November, and such distinctive models as the Samurai, Sidekick, and Swift disappeared into automotive history.
Mercedes’s belated and borderline cynical attempt to compete with new ultra-luxury all-new cars by Rolls Royce and Bentley began in 2002 and finally crashed last year. Based on a stretched S-class platform but significantly gaudier, Maybachs always seemed most suitable for ferrying Middle East oil sheiks. Owners were encouraged to ride in the rear — the better to enjoy airline-style reclining seats, vibrating cushions, and beverage coolers — and leave the driving to someone else. It didn’t help that the Maybach name chosen by Mercedes was familiar only to a few automotive historians. It’s estimated a mere 38 Maybachs were sold in the U.S. in 2011 and another 50 in 2012 as the brand closed down.
Edsel Ford’s 1937 effort to crack General Motor’s dominance of the upper-middle car market was finally euthanized by CEO Alan Mulally two years ago. The immediate cause of death was Mulally’s One Ford strategy, but Mercury had foundered for years due to a lack of investment in unique products and Ford’s (F) inability to define the brand in a way that could connect it with more affluent, more mature customers. Its demise meant the end of the Grand Marquis, flagship car of the AARP, and it hurtled Lincoln-Mercury dealers into forced marriages with more volume-oriented Ford outlets.
Enthusiasts everywhere mourned the protracted death throes of Saab, representing half of the world’s Swedish car brands, which expired after a 62-year run. GM (GM), which had completed its purchase of Saab in 2000, starved it of new models before selling it to boutique automaker Spyker Cars in 2010. Sales sank below 32,000 as Spyker, short of money, struggled to build cars due to parts shortages. Production of the stalwart 9-3 and 9-5 ceased entirely in 2011. When GM blocked a deal to sell the automaker to a Chinese company, Saab went into bankruptcy, and its assets were purchased by a Swedish electric car maker in 2012.
First marketed in 1992 as a civilian version of the military’s Humvee, the Hummer fell into GM’s hands six years later. It was an ill-timed venture by the General into niche marketing for which it was ill-suited. The H2 and H3 duly appeared on GM truck platforms, but the cartoonish design, limited utility, and clownishness of its owners hindered its growth. Rising gasoline prices drove the final nail into Hummer’s thick hide, and GM’s government minders had no trouble deciding in 2009 that it would not become one of the post-bankruptcy company’s core brands. Attempts to sell Hummer to a Chinese buyer proved unavailing, and its last monster truck was built in 2010.
Of all the brands that have disappeared, Pontiac is one of the most sorely missed. With a history stretching back to 1926, it had built a well-established identity as a maker of performance cars at popular prices, like the memorable GTO. As recently as 1988, Pontiac was the third-most-popular domestic car brand in America. But after the demise of the Fiero in the early 1990s, the Pontiac name became mostly associated with badge-engineered GM platforms of little distinction or desire. Younger buyers moved over to import brands and left Pontiac with older owners in a steadily shrinking market for high-horsepower domestic cars. Production ended in 2010 at GM’s Orion, Mich. plant when a G6 forlornly made its way down the assembly line.
Roger Smith’s “different kind of car company” went through several different brand concepts, fell victim to jealous internal competitors, and absorbed billions of dollars in GM’s treasure before ending its brief life. In retrospect, it was a mash-up from start to finish. Saturn began life in 1990 as an experiment in low-cost, high-quality U.S. manufacturing and ended by importing German-made Opels at high euro-denominated prices. A last-minute scheme by Renault-Nissan to take over production of the cars and for superdealer Roger Penske to distribute them collapsed, and Saturn went into the history books as a business school case study in overreaching.
Isuzu entered the U.S. market in 1981 with a mini-pickup named P’up, added the Rodeo and Trooper utility vehicles, and rode the SUV boom to a sales peak in 1996. But poor quality and lack of market smarts, along with some bizarre product decisions (The two-door VehiCROSS built on a truck chassis could only be described as “aggressively clumsy”) made its success short-lived. Isuzu first exited passenger cars and then, model-by-model, SUVs and pickups. Its last two vehicles sold in the U.S. were built by GM, and when GM decided not to make them any longer, it was R.I.P. for Isuzu in the U.S.
Founded by Ransom E. Olds in 1897, Oldsmobile enjoyed its salad years in the late middle of the 20th century, when GM controlled half the U.S. market, and Olds occupied the middle of the GM line, between Pontiac and Buick. The Olds Cutlass became the nation’s best-selling car in 1976 and remained so into the 1980s. But GM’s market share was shrinking, foreign competition was growing, and Olds’ individuality disappeared in GM’s consolidation of operations — most notoriously when Chevy engines surprisingly turned up in some Olds models. Winding down Olds and buying out its dealers proved so expensive that GM was discouraged from closing out any more brands until its bankruptcy.
Plymouth arose from the ashes of the old Maxwell car company in 1928 and enjoyed its greatest success in the 1940s and 1950s as a low-priced competitor to Chevrolet and Ford. The increasingly precarious finances of its Chrysler parent, however, doomed the brand to barely disguised versions of corporate designs, beginning in the late 1970s. As more resources were devoted to higher-margin Dodge and Chrysler lines, the line of Plymouth models shriveled to a handful (Neon, Voyager, Breeze) before the by-then DaimlerChrysler pulled the plug.