Thursday, April 7, 2016

Where Have They Gone?

Society and enterprises have changed a lot since I was a young lad. It seems to be a strange dichotomy between reduced choices and increased variety. When I was a kid, the local vegetable section in the stores just had regular choices such as lettuce, tomatoes, apples, oranges, and onions. Now there are exotic fruits and vegetables from all corners of the globe.

Yet, also, when I was a boy, there were a dozen grocery stores to choose from in our little town. Three super markets, several large stores, and many small corner markets including one across from the swimming pool and one next to the Jr. High.

Now they’ve all merged, consolidated, nationalized, and “mom and pop” are gone. I remember when you went to the service station and the attendant not only pumped your gas, but he (wasn’t usually a she) would check your oil, wash your windshield, and pump up your tires. They could give you a lube or repair a flat, and most other mechanical work could be done right there.

Now you don’t even go inside to pay when you pump your own gas. And inside … now we know where the corner grocery store went. Restaurants are now fast food or big chains, although local restaurants seem to thrive too. We do eat out a lot more as a nation.

Technology is full of merging and combinations. In the early days of motorcycles and cars there were many, many choices. Now it has narrowed down significantly. There may be more models and options for the family sedan, but from a lot fewer companies, although there is a big increase in foreign models.

And that’s what I want to talk about. What happened to all those models and brands I grew up with in the 50s and 60s? Where did they all go? Even with the influx of non-American-made cars, it seems there are fewer dealerships than there once were.

The Fifties

The 1950s were pivotal for the American automobile industry. The post-World War II era brought a wide range of new technologies to the automobile consumer, and a host of problems for the independent automobile manufacturers. The industry was maturing in an era of rapid technological change; mass production and the benefits from economies of scale led to innovative designs and greater profits, but stiff competition between the automakers. By the end of the decade, the industry had reshaped itself into the Big Three and AMC, and the age of small independent automakers was over, as most of them either consolidated or went out of business.

The Big Three: the three largest auto makers. Just like today, they were/are General Motors and the Ford and Chrysler companies.

Even among the Big Three there has been reductions. Many marquis available in the fifties and sixties have been phased out, and I don’t just mean the Edsel. Going back to the beginning, at least 100 automobile companies had begun operations in Detroit by the first decade of the 20th century, but by the 1920s, the decade that gave rise to the Big Three, Ford was the largest.

In the 20's, together, the Big Three accounted for 70 percent of American auto sales. Their combined market share grew over the following decades, declining only slightly after World War II, but the Big Three soon came to dominate the industry, claiming 94 percent of all automobile sales for the US in 1955, 1956 and 1959. The industry grew at a pace never before seen, and the broader industry soon employed one-sixth of the entire American workforce. Detroit was on top.

Smaller Companies

In 1954, the smaller American Motors Corporation (AMC) was formed when Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator Corporation in a deal worth almost $200 million, the largest corporate merger in U.S. history at that time. Other mergers with smaller independent manufacturers followed. Although AMC was moderately successful it was never sufficiently large to challenge any of the Big Three, and was eventually bought by Chrysler in 1987.

Studebaker had enjoyed earlier success and was the first independent automaker to produce a V8 engine. The company's peak year was 1950. Studebaker struggled during the first half of the decade. The cars had styling ahead of their time but were overpriced when compared to the offerings of the Big Three. Low sales and financial difficulties led to a merger with Packard in 1954, itself in financial trouble. The new company, Studebaker-Packard Corporation, retired the Packard name in July 1958, but continued marketing automobiles under the Studebaker name until 1966.

Other American brands sold in the fifties, but no longer in existence through merger or outright collapse include: Kaiser (’50–’55), Henry J (’51–’54), Willys (’52–’55), and Frazer (’50–’51). AMC included the brands Nash, Rambler, and Hudson and added the foreign Renault brand later. They also sold cars under the AMC logo including the Eagle, Gremlin, Spirit, Javelin, etc.

Willys was a brand name used by Willys-Overland Motors, best known for its design and production of military Jeeps. In 1953, Kaiser Motors purchased Willys-Overland and changed the company's name to Willys Motor Company. The company changed its name in 1963 to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation; the Willys name disappeared thereafter.

Kaiser-Jeep was sold to American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1970 when Kaiser Industries decided to leave the automobile business. After the sale, AMC used engines it had developed for its other cars in Jeep models to improve performance and standardize production and servicing.

Renault purchased a major stake in AMC in 1979 and took over operation of the company, producing the CJ series Jeep until 1986. Chrysler purchased AMC in 1987.

While these were familiar brands of cars to me growing up, I’m more focused on the number of marquis at the Big Three. All of these corporations have moved to increase business efficiency, and that has led to many brands closing down.

Of course the other great story of American automobile business is globalization and imports and exports. Starting mainly with the Volkswagen “bug,” foreign imports started appearing in quantity in the US in the last half of the last century. In addition, American manufacturers expanded overseas with exports and mergers. This will also play a part in the paring down of American car brands.


We will start with Chrysler, and focus on the US brands that were offered in the 50s. These include Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, DeSoto, and Imperial. These are the five models I associate with Chrysler corporaton. Of the Big Three, this is the longest and most tortuous story to tell.

Chrysler and Dodge are still alive and reasonably well, but DeSoto died off in the 60s. The DeSoto (sometimes De Soto) manufactured and marketed from 1928 to the 1961 model year. The DeSoto marque was officially dropped November 30, 1960, with over two million vehicles built since 1928. Who can forget the theme song from the Groucho Marx show, You Bet Your Life: “It’s delightful, it’s delovely, it’s DeSoto"?

Despite being a successful mid-priced line for Chrysler for most of its life, DeSoto's failure was due to a combination of corporate mistakes and external factors beyond Chrysler's control. The Chrysler brand was essentially moved from a luxury automobile producer to a mid-priced automaker when Chrysler itself launched the separate Imperial brand in 1954 for the 1955 model year. And the mid-priced market segment was already filled with brands of the other Big-Three rivals: Ford, and GM, plus Chrysler's own model, the Newport.

Most DeSoto models were merged into the new Chrysler Newport in 1961. It met its doom because it was eaten alive at both ends by Dodge — positioned below it in price — and Chrysler, positioned above it as yet another mid-priced offering.

Then there’s Plymouth. After Dodge met with such success with new models in the 60s and 70s such as the Dodge Van and the Mini-Van, Plymouth dealers lobbied to add those designs to their product set. But it wasn’t enough.

Most Plymouth models, especially those offered from the 1970s onward, such as the Valiant, Volaré, Acclaim, Laser, Neon, and Breeze, were badge-engineered versions of Dodge or Mitsubishi models. By the 1990s, Plymouth had lost much of its identity, as its models continued to overlap in features and prices with Dodges and Eagles (Jeep).

In an attempt to fix this, Chrysler tried repositioning Plymouth to its traditional spot as the automaker's entry-level brand. Part of this marketing strategy included giving Plymouth its own new sailboat logo and advertisements that focused solely on value. However, this only further narrowed Plymouth's product offerings and buyer appeal, and sales continued to fall.

After discontinuing the Eagle brand in 1998, Chrysler was planning to expand the Plymouth line with a number of unique models before the corporation's merger with Daimler-Benz AG. The first model was the Plymouth Prowler, a hot rod styled sports car. The PT Cruiser was to have been the second. Both models had similar front-end styling, suggesting Chrysler intended a retro styling theme for the Plymouth brand. At the time of Daimler's takeover of Chrysler, Plymouth had no models besides the Prowler not also offered in similar version by Dodge. This so-called "badge engineering" was common among all the Big Three. Producing versions of a particular car under various brands. The only change was the badge or company logo.

In Canada, the Plymouth name was defunct at the end of the 1999 model year. Consequently, DaimlerChrysler decided to drop the make after a limited run of 2001 models. This was announced on November 3, 1999. The last new model sold under the Plymouth marque was the second-generation Neon for 2000. The Plymouth, first introduced in 1928 as Chrysler Corporation's first entry in the low-priced field, failed to make it into the 21st century.

The Chrysler Imperial, introduced in 1926, was Chrysler's top of the line vehicle for much of its history. Models were produced with the Chrysler name until 1954, and again from 1990 to 1993. The company positioned the cars as a prestige marque to rival Cadillac, Lincoln, and Packard.

The Chrysler Imperial was discontinued after the 1993 model year along with the similar New Yorkers. They were replaced by the new LH platform sedans. While the New Yorker name continued on for three more years, 1993 would be the last year for Imperial. The Chrysler LHS, a full-size luxury four-door sedan, replaced the Imperial as Chrysler's flagship model for 1994.

The smallest of the Big Three, Chrysler has had a troubled existence. In 1998, Chrysler and its subsidiaries entered into a partnership dubbed a "merger of equals" with German-based Daimler-Benz AG, creating the combined entity DaimlerChrysler AG.

On May 14, 2007, DaimlerChrysler announced the sale of 80.1% of Chrysler Group to American private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, L.P., thereafter known as Chrysler LLC, although Daimler (renamed as Daimler AG) continued to hold a 19.9% stake.

Following the 2007 economic collapse, the sale of substantially all of Chrysler's assets to "New Chrysler,” organized as Chrysler Group LLC was completed on June 10, 2009. The federal government provided support for the deal with $8 billion in financing.

On July 21, 2011, Fiat bought the Chrysler shares held by the United States Treasury. With the purchase, Chrysler once again became foreign owned; however, this time Chrysler was the luxury division.

On 16 December 2014, Chrysler Group LLC announced a name change to FCA US LLC. Currently the models sold in the US are Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and the RAM truck line.


Ford has recently been number two in the Big Three, and it can be said they often try harder. They were the only Big Three company that didn’t seek government assistance in the recent financial downturn.

Back in the fifties their brands include Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln. A new model, named after Henry Ford's son, Edsel Ford, made its debut as a separate car division on September 4, 1957, for the 1958 model year. The front grill was said by critics to look like "an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon." It ended up being a marketing blunder that not only cost Ford almost $250 million, but also turned the word "Edsel" into an enduring metaphor for failure. The car sold poorly and production for the final 1960 model year had ceased by November 1959.

In 1956, Ford tried to revive the Continental brand as a standalone line of ultra luxury automobiles, but abandoned the attempt after the 1957 model year, by which time around 3000 Mark II cars had been built. The Continental thereafter became a successful car model under Ford's Lincoln brand. Ford also acquired Jaguar and Aston Martin.

Mercury was created in 1938 to fill the price gap between the Ford and Lincoln vehicle lines. On June 2, 2010, Ford announced the closure of the Mercury line by the end of 2010 after a 72 year run. In terms of sales, Mercury represented only 1 percent of North America's automobile market compared to the 16 percent share of Ford. Another victim of badge engineering, it didn't attract the customers it had in the 50s when it was positioned above the basic Ford car.

This was probably a wise decision by Ford Motor Company. Eliminating the Mercury brand freed production facilities to produce more Ford Fusions. Ford wants to challenge the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry for the title of second-best or best-selling car in America with the Fusion. It needs this extra production capacity to produce Blue Oval-badged sedans, not more Mercury Milans.

Ford Motor Company has stated that additional Lincoln models will be introduced to help replace any shortfall from the discontinued Mercury brand. The Ford and Lincoln brands are now all that remains in the line-up, along with Ford Trucks and, in response to the Cadillac pickup truck (who would of thunk it), the Lincoln trucks and SUVs.

General Motors

Finally, turning to the top American motor company and the largest automobile company in the world, General Motors. In the fifties GM sold five brands: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac (plus Chevy and GM trucks). Since they were not around back then, I won't even mention that flash in the pan, Saturn (b. 1985, d. 2010). Saturn barely was old enough to drink alcohol before it expired.

At the time, Oldsmobile was the oldest surviving American automobile marque, and one of the oldest in the world, after Daimler, Peugeot, and Tatra. Though it was closed in 2004, it still remains an active trademark of the General Motors Corporation. One wonders how things would be different if GM had invested the money they put into establishing the Saturn brand into their existing automobiles. Could Oldsmobile have been saved with more investment in the product line?

Pontiac production ended in 2009, although, again, the trademark is retained by GM. (Saab and Hummer also died during the troubled times at GM.) It turns out that GM killed Pontiac on government orders, according to former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. That was surprising since Pontiac was well on the way to reinventing itself as a niche brand focused on rear wheel drive cars.

Some experts predict that GM may soon end the Buick line too, although that brand does very well in China and may be kept just for that reason. For much of its existence in the North American market, Buick has been marketed as a premium automobile brand, selling luxury vehicles positioned above GM's mainstream brands, such as Chevrolet, while below the flagship luxury Cadillac division.

Face it. What was the difference between a Chevy and a Pontiac? How was an Oldsmobile any different than a Buick. They were definitely redundant brands. Remember the outcry when the higher priced models were found to have Chevy engines?

The surviving Buick line retains the distinction of being the oldest active American automotive marque; the original Buick Motor Company was a cornerstone of the establishment of General Motors in 1908.

The fate of the rest

These disappeared brands from the Big Three: DeSoto, Plymouth, Imperial, Mercury, Continental, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile join Packard, Nash, Rambler, Hudson, Kaiser, Studebaker, AMC, Henry J, Willys, and Frazer. They join the Duesenberg and the Stanley, the Checker and the Hupmobile, the International Harvester and the Lasalle, the Mercer and the Overland, the Pope-Waverley and the REO, the Stutz and the Haines, and so many more.

Such are the facts of my history. Gone are many of the cars of my youth. Replaced by Toyota and Honda, by Volkswagen and Audi, by Mercedes and BMW, by Mazda and Subaru, by Nissan and Suzuki, by Hyundai and Kia, by Volvo (Ford!) and Saab (GM). The only thing constant is change!

It’s delightful, it’s delovely, it’s … gone.

Who will follow? Can VW recover from their latest kerfuffle? Will the Austin Martin survive for another Bond movie? Can Europe compete with the far East? Will China enter the world-wide market? What about the Corvette and the Mustang? How will the SUV, cum Crossover change things. Will Detroit ever recover? I don’t mean the Detroit automotive business … I mean DETROIT the city. Will these departed brands become legends told around the campfire of the time of the great V-8s and before the hybrids and Teslas (assuming that brand survives)? Only time will tell.

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