Darwin taught us that animals unable to adapt to changing environments are doomed to extinction. History shows that this principle applies as much to carmakers as it does to dinosaurs and the Dodo. Here’s a look at 10 auto companies that have gone the way of the Tyrannosaurus.
Founded in 1899, this luxury vehicle manufacturer ran strong all the way through WWII, during which it grew fat off government contracts. It began to falter right afterwards– just as the Big Three outdid its designers with styles that caught the public eye. Unable to compete, Packard threw in the towel in 1954.
This brand made a splash in the late 1980s– about the same time as Hyundai. Like Hyundai, it arrived as a low-cost alternative to increasingly expensive models from established firms. Unlike the Korean company, the builders of this infamous lemon were burdened by an arcane bureaucracy and an utter lack of quality control. Yugo crashed and burned in the US in 1992, as a victim of its own incompetence.
The tragic part of this carmaker’s downfall is that it built some really great cars during much of its lifespan, most notably the Rambler models in the 1950s and 60s. After George Romney left the helm in 1962, however, the company fell victim to mismanagement. Its remains were swallowed up by Chrysler in 1987.
The Hudson Hornet was a huge favorite among early NASCAR drivers. The company that built it, though, suffered declining sales in the 1950s until it was acquired by Nash in 1954. The nameplate hung on until 1957, but Hudson as an independent automaker was by that time only a memory.
A leading maker of steam-powered cars in the early days of automotive history, this company built some of the best vehicles of the era. But then Henry Ford gave it a fatal blow with his new gas-powered vehicle, and Stanley disappeared in a wisp of vapor, never to be seen again.
The brainchild of famed inventor Preston Tucker, this company’s reach exceeded its grasp. On paper it was an amazing machine, but the technology of the 1940s wasn’t up to the designer’s vision. After building just a few units, this company also faded into history.
This company’s problem was that it was ahead of its time. It was building compact, fuel-efficient vehicles way back in the 1940s– one even achieved an astounding 50 mpg. Problem was, the public at the time wanted size and power, not savings at the pump. So long, Crosley.
Studebaker started out in 1852 building horse-drawn carriages, but the company was an early adopter of the internal combustion engine. Headquartered in South Bend, Indiana, it faced two insurmountable obstacles. One was that its labor costs were unusually high, due to local conditions. The other was that the Big Three set the smaller automaker in their sights in the 1950s and 60s, forcing it to compete in the price arena, something it really couldn’t afford to do. Shrewd managers kept Studebaker alive until 1967, when it finally breathed its last.
As far as extinct companies go, DeLorean is somewhat unusual in that its cars are alive and well, even though the company that built them is long gone. The firm was founded in 1975 by former GM exec John DeLorean. During its turbulent seven-year life it turned out a single model, the DMC-12.
As most people know, the car made several appearances in the wildly popular Back to the Future film franchise. As for its founder, he struggled with legal issues stemming from the venture until his death in 2005.
In the mid-1990s, the remaining parts inventory was bought by Englishman Stephen Wynne, who launched the current incarnation of the DeLorean Motor Company, near Houston. Of the approximately 9,000 DMC-12s built, around 6,500 are still being driven. We should all do as well in our afterlife.
There’s an old marketing saying: “you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.” That’s apparently what GM had in mind when it launched Saturn in 1985, calling the venture “a different kind of car company.” The idea was that the Spring Hill, TN-based manufacturer would be a place where Japanese-style innovation and devotion to excellence would thrive.
The problem was, the much-vaunted new approach was paper-thin. Underneath the visionary exterior, business as usual reigned, including mismanagement and lack of a coherent vision. Saturn folded in 2009, ending what could have been something truly great.
I have to give the people who ran the Soviet Union an “A” for effort. They really tried to make their idea of a centrally planned economy work. They failed miserably, of course, as their oddly comical attempt at building an automobile proves. Its drawbacks included shoddy build quality and lawnmower-like performance. The Trabant went 0-60 in a blistering 21 seconds. Powered by a smoky, cranky two-stroke engine, owners had to add oil to the fuel at every fill-up.
Astonishingly, the little cars had an average lifespan of nearly 30 years. This is mostly due to the loving care showered on them by grateful owners, who waited years for the government-owned bureaucracy to deliver their vehicle. Somewhere, the spirit of Lenin is shaking its head, sadly. Do svidaniya, comrades.