After the recent announcement that Chrysler would be going into bankruptcy, the discontinuation of the Pontiac line, and the imminent demise of GM’s Saturn, let’s take a look back at some other American car brands that have ceased to be.
What started in 1852 as a family owned blacksmith business would become the world’s largest wagon builder by the end of the 19th century. Successfully turning their wagon juggernaut into a horseless carriage enterprise, Studebaker would turn out unique and creative cars, including the bullet-nose Land Cruiser, until 1966 when the last car rolled off the line.
American Motors was originally created in a 1954 merger between Hudson (maker of the Hornet) and Nash-Kelvinator. The carmaker put out products under the Rambler and Rebel lines for a few years, but truly hit its stride in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with unforgettably badass cars like the Javelin, Gremlin, Pacer, and Eagle. Personally, I’ll never forget the 4WD Eagle wagon that our neighbors used for the carpool when I was seven. AMC was bought by Chrysler and ceased operation in 1988.
Makers of possibly the finest cars ever produced in America, Duesenberg was a casualty of the Great Depression. Even with celebrity owners like Clark Gable, Mae West, Phillip Wrigley (of chewing gum fame), and Howard Hughes, the top-of-the-line and top-priced autos simply couldn’t survive the world of bread lines New Deal austerity. They made their last production car in 1936. The few that survive today rarely change hands, and when they do, seven figures are typically at stake. There’s a reason why this car inspired the phrase “It’s a doozy!”
Powel Crosley, Jr. was either ahead of his time, totally out of his league, or just a bad carmaker. Starting in 1939, his attempts to create a cheap American competitor to Volkswagen were greeted with little enthusiasm. His finest moment came in 1950 with the Crosley Hotshot, a small, economical, but amazingly well-built sports car that took awards in international racing and sold for half the price of most of its competitors. It wasn’t enough to keep Crosley from ceasing operations in 1952. [Image courtesy of Flickr user Soggy Semolina.]
Started as the George N. Pierce Company in Buffalo, NY – makers of iceboxes, birdcages, and bicycles – Pierce-Arrow developed into one of the few carmakers that could actually challenge Duesenberg as American’s finest automaker. Like Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow found the market for its beautiful and frightfully expensive cars greatly diminished by the Depression. The assets of the company were sold off in 1938.
Earl “Madman” Muntz almost single-handedly created the stereotype of the crazy used-car salesman (“These prices are In-SAAAANE!). The successful Southern California car huckster, flush with cash, moved from selling cars to making cars in 1950. Muntz’s Midas-touch didn’t translate to the car-building business, however, and his operations ceased in 1954. Never one to slow down though, Muntz went on to make a fortune selling newfangled stereo cartridge tapes and big-screen TVs. [Image courtesy of Flickr user Simon Davison.]
Another used car salesman from Southern California, Errett Lobban Cord, took over the Auburn Automobile company in 1924. In 1929, he introduced a car line under his own name, and although his cars weren’t a great commercial success, the styling was second to none. The 1936 810 Sportsman two-seater convertible was, for my money, the best looking prewar car made in America. Unfortunately, by 1937 Cord had run his company into the ground, taking Auburn and Duesenberg (purchased in 1926) along with it.
The General Motors brand, introduced in 1989, was originally built to compete with small, economical foreign imports. It’s various models – Metro, Prizm, Storm, Spectrum – fared decently, but not well enough to stay a going concern. GM stopped production in 2004, which may have been about two to three years too early. With the huge gasoline price spike of 2006-2007, used Geo prices skyrocketed due to the cars’ rather incredible fuel economy and dependable reputation.
Stutz, another Depression-era casualty, was probably most famous for making the Bearcat. A veritable symbol of roaring ‘20s conspicuous consumption and carefree joie-de-vive, the Bearcat was not just a leisure vehicle, but also one solid automobile. Bearcats won various endurance races throughout the teens and ‘20s, including cross-country escapades. The car’s fame never seems to die, even inspiring a 1971 television Western called Bearcats!, in which the two heroes fight bad guys not from horses but from, you guessed it, Stutz Bearcats. Having neither the technological excitement of Knight Rider, nor the unbridled sensuality of Hardcastle and McCormick’s Daniel Hugh Kelly, Bearcats! was cancelled midway through its first season.
Of course, no discussion of bygone American automobiles would be complete without mentioning Preston Tucker. The clever, charming, erudite, indefatigable Tucker tried to take on the Big 3 and lost. Or at least that’s the Hollywood story, engagingly brought to life by Jeff Bridges in the 1988 film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. In reality, Tucker was probably a slightly less charming fellow, but still a great carmaker. The 1948 Tucker Torpedo, the only car Tucker ever built, was an incredibly stylish vehicle that actually performed better than it looked. With top speeds of up to 120 mph, an air-cooled rear engine and pioneering safety features, the car was way ahead of its time. Too bad only 50 were made.
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