5 Automakers That Made A Comeback And 3 That Failed

Car Culture / 14 Comments

Sometimes, the automotive industry is brutal.

Automakers come and go. For every Ford or Honda, several companies have gone under, never to be seen again.

However, some brands get revived if they make a big enough impact the first time around. Bringing back a brand that still exists in memory for its effect on the automotive industry or popular culture can be a strong move, but it's also risky.

Even with brand recognition from an earlier life, new cars must be executed perfectly to start the momentum needed to make a mark and pick up new customers. Some brands brought back from the dead are still in flux, like Fisker and DeLorean, so we're focussing on more definitive successes and failures.


Maybach: Success

Maybach came into existence as an automaker in 1909. When it existed as a standalone company, its founder Wilhelm Maybach had close ties to Daimler.

The company started making engines for aircraft, including Zeppelins and produced its first car in 1909. Alongside military and industrial engines, it produced some of the most opulent vehicles of the period. Then World War II happened, and Maybach built engines for Nazi tanks and troop carriers but didn't return as a carmaker afterward. It was renamed MTU Friedrichshafen and focussed on industrial engines only.

Then, in 1960, Daimler-Benz bought the brand and used it for opulent special editions of Mercedes models. However, things took a turn in the 2000s as Mercedes mishandled the brand, and sales plummeted. In 2012, Maybach was retired but made a quick comeback in the 2015 Mercedes-Maybach versions of the W222 generation S-Class.

Now, Mercedes-Maybach represents the most opulent of Mercedes models, as they should.


Saab: Fail

Saab Automobile first appeared as a brand in 1945 in Sweden as an offshoot of Saab (Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolag) AB, a military airplane production company.

The automotive company started with small, efficient cars that were well-engineered and leaned into Saab's aerodynamic understandings of the time. Saab's cars became known for that, and their engineering and technology showed off in features like wraparound windscreens, self-repairing bumpers, and body construction for safety. Its best-selling model was the Saab 900, which reached its peak popularity in the 1980s, with the turbocharged models being the most desired.

The brand's downfall started in 2007. General Motors acquired Saab in 2000, and its relationship ended with Saab heading into bankruptcy. The Chinese company BAIC bought Saab's intellectual property rights and production equipment but deals to sell the company kept falling apart.

After filing for bankruptcy, a Chinese consortium called National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) bought the tooling and Saab's factory. The first NEVS-backed Saab rolled off the production line in September 2012. The last rolled out in May of 2014 when NEVS financing deals collapsed. It was an ignominious end to a beloved brand.

Forward Vision Saab

Bugatti: Success

Industrial designer Ettore Bugatti founded Bugatti, the automaker, in 1909, and the cars were known for their engineering, style, and speed. Bugatti was an important and successful early player in Grand Prix racing. A Bugatti won the first Monaco Grand Prix and, at its 20th-century peak, won two Le Mans 24 hours of Le Mans.

In racing history, the 1924 Bugatti Type 35 is one of the most successful, and its cars were so good that Ettore Bugatti is quoted as describing Bentley models at the time as "the world's fastest lorries." Ettore's death in 1947 left the brand with no leader and built its last car of that era in the 1950s.

Revivals of Bugatti were attempted and failed until Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli bought the marque in 1987, which led to the extraordinary Bugatti EB110 supercar in 1991. It wasn't a good time to build expensive cars, and operations ceased in 1995.

In 1998, Bugatti was bought by Volkswagen Group, which had the money to do something special. A few concepts were displayed, then the quad-turbocharged 8-liter W16 Bugatti Veyron 16.4 went into production in 2005. The second model, the Bugatti Chiron, is the first production car to break the 300 mph barrier and became the fastest car in the world.

2017-2022 Bugatti Chiron Coupe Front View Bugatti Bugatti
2017-2022 Bugatti Chiron Coupe Front View

Borgward: Fail

The first car Carl F. W. Borgward designed was a small three-wheeled vehicle called the Blitzkarren (lightning cart), used by small businesses and the German postal service.

The automaker's most popular car was the long-lived Isabella, an affordable car with premium aspirations. Borgward also produced successful Formula 2 race cars and innovated passenger car features like air suspension and automatic transmissions. Unfortunately, Carl F. W. Borgward wasn't financially savvy and ignored professional advice, which led to bankruptcy in 1961 at the behest of creditors. After Borgward died in 1963, investigations by the newspaper Das Spiegel showed that the company's liquidation was premature.

In 2008, the Borgward name was revived by Carl's grandson, Christian Borgward, with the backing of BAIC. BAIC, if you remember, is the Chinese company that bought Saab's intellectual property and machining. The refreshed company started selling the BX7 SUV to the Chinese market in 2017, but it didn't catch on, and the company ground to a halt in 2022 when it filed for bankruptcy.


Lincoln: Success

Henry M. Leland founded two automakers that exist now, over 100 years later. Cadillac was sold to General Motors in 1909, and Lincoln was founded in 1917, financed by a contract to build V12 engines for World War I aircraft.

Its first car was the Lincoln Model L which played in the same luxury market as Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. It was a great car, but financial issues led to delays of up to a year in building the car for customers. By 1922, Lincoln was in trouble and facing bankruptcy. Henry Ford's son, Edsel, pushed his father to buy Lincoln. There was satisfaction in the purchase for Henry Ford, personally, as Lincoln's owners (as investors led by Leland) had ousted him from the Henry Ford Company, which had been repurposed to become Cadillac.

Lincoln's comeback was rocky as its management ground against Ford's, but Edsel Ford stepped in to take on a leadership role, and things started to build. Lincoln's factory was expanded, and its engines improved while its custom bodywork was brought up to date. Since then, Lincoln has consistently been Ford's luxury brand and outlived many of Ford's other sub-brands.

2022-2023 Lincoln Navigator Forward View Lincoln

Hummer: Success

So far, we can file Hummer's comeback as a success. The brand started with a civilian version of the military's Humvee sold by AM General and called the H1. It struck a deep chord with a specific demographic obsessed with size and power, a military fetish being optional.

AM General sold the brand to General Motors in 1999, and GM went on to produce the smaller H2 and H3, with sales declining as the vehicles shrunk. In 2009, GM was in huge trouble, facing bankruptcy and having to sell assets. A deal to sell Hummer to a Chinese brand fell through, and Hummer was shut down. The last vehicle rolled off the line on May 24, 2010.

The rumors of Hummer returning as an electric vehicle brand under GM started in 2019. However, the name came up as a vehicle model line under GMC. Like the Hummers before, it's enormous but available as a truck or an SUV, and instead of guzzling gas, it sucks up electricity at an alarming rate.

"We found it brash, imposing, excessive, and hilarious: everything a Hummer should be," our first review read.

2022 GMC Hummer Front View CarBuzz

Datsun: Fail

Datsun was a brand name that emerged from Nissan in 1931 for its cars. Datsun started building cheap cars but was interrupted by World War II, then a stint building vehicles for the Occupation forces before restarting its car production in 1947.

It went from building cars based on existing European designs to using its own designs and exporting to America in 1958. Shortly after, Nissan also started using the Nissan branding on some Datsun cars, like the legendary Patrol. Datsun, essentially, became the brand name Nissan used for exported vehicles as it put some distance between the association of Nissan's military manufacturing and its passenger cars - specifically in the US and barring the Patrol.

From there, the story of Datsun is a quagmire of inter-corporation politics. In the short version, Nissan decided to rebrand Datsun as Nissan in the early 1980s. The name change cost Nissan an astonishing amount of money, but the Datsun name was never forgotten.

In 2012, under CEO Carlos Ghosn, Nissan brought the Datsun name back as a low-cost brand for emerging markets. The idea was that name recognition would aid sales, but it didn't go well. Production in Indonesia and Russia ended in 2020. Then, in 2022, production ended in India, and that was the end of Datsun again.

Kahn Media

Alpine: Success

Alpine was founded in 1954 by a garage owner in France called Jean Redele, who was finding success in racing with his modified Renault 4CV.

He wasn't just bolting on go-faster goodies, though. Redele's modifications included new five-speed transmissions to replace the stock three-speed unit and aluminum bodywork. Demand for his prepared cars was high enough to start Alpine as a brand. Alpine's first car was based on the 4CV and called the Alpine A106. The most famous vehicle it made was the A110 Berlinette and its rallying efforts. Alpine was so successful in rallying it led to automakers developing their own specialty rally cars, leading to iconic cars like the Lancia Stratos.

Despite its success racing, Alpine was crunched hard by the 1973 oil crisis but quickly bailed out by Renault via a takeover. As well as dedicated race cars, Alpine developed and sold road-going sports cars and built special editions Renaults into the 1990s - including the insane mid-engined Clio V6 hot hatch.

However, Renault ditched the Alpine name in 1995.


In 2007, Renault announced it planned several new sports cars and would resurrect the Alpine for branding purposes. Following a concept car, Alpine debuted the new mid-engined A110 in 2017 to much acclaim from journalists and enthusiasts alike.

Alpine has continued to grow by absorbing the existing Renault Sport division and developing a racing arm called Alpine Racing. Alpine Racing got involved in prototype racing with partners. In 2013, Signatech-Alpine won the European Le Mans Series team championship in the LMP2 class, then went on to win World Endurance Championship (WEC) titles.

In 2021, Renault renamed its Formula 1 team as Alpine F1, and the Alpine Endurance Team debuted to focus on WEC racing.


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