7 Cars That Saved Their Brands From Ruin

Car Culture / Comments

Without these machines, these brands might not have survived.

America has close to fifty automaking brands that have come and gone since the invention of the car. The UK has gained and lost just about sixty automakers, Italy has seen around 12 brands come and go, Germany approximately 20 brands, and France close to 26. Those numbers underscore how tough it is to build and then maintain an automotive brand over time, but the stories of former household names like Pontiac, DeLorean, Saab, or MG go over the point like a neon pink highlighter pen. Some brands have had a rougher time than others staying relevant and making the sales they need to stay afloat or grow, but many of the automotive brands with a decent history have had a single car they needed to save them from being consigned to the lists of also-rans. These are some of those heroes.

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1. Bentley Continental GT

Bentley has a long and complicated history. Up until the late 1990s, a lot of its problem was a lack of separation from Rolls-Royce that suggested it was a lesser brand. By the time Volkswagen bought Bentley in 1998, it was in bad shape. The Crewe factory had around 1,500 workers, and production and sales figures each year were around 1,000 units.

Immediately, Volkswagen invested a reported $2 billion into reviving Bentley, and the first new car designed and built under Volkswagen's new stewardship was the twin-turbo 6.0-liter W12 engined 2003 Continental GT. It was the first Bentley built using mass production manufacturing techniques, but the quality wasn't lowered. If anything, the Continental was better built as well as being quicker to assemble. However, demand was so high that the Crewe factory's ceiling of 9,500 vehicles per year couldn't handle the new demand for Bentley cars. The four-door version, the Flying Spur, had to be built in Germany next to Volkswagen's ill-fated Pheaton. Now, the Continental GT is in its third generation, and Bentley is a luxury marque that's as in-demand as it ever has been.

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2. Volvo XC90

The XC90 has saved Volvo twice. The first time was under Ford's ownership in 2002. Volvo's automotive group only had sedans and station wagons on its roster, and the Volvo Group decided it should concentrate on its commercial vehicles. Sedans and wagons were falling out of favor, and Ford knew Volvo needed to go upmarket and make SUVs. Straight out of the gate, the XC90 claimed the North American Car of the Year award, Motor Trend magazine's 2003 Sport/Utility of the Year, and Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame decided it was so practical for having children that he owned one.

Volvo was expelled from Ford's ownership in 2010 and purchased by Geely. The Chinese automotive giant effectively gave Volvo a ton of money and told the designers and engineers to go do what they do best. The result was a new platform, new Drive-E powertrains (including hybrid), upscale and refreshing interiors, and new infotainment, and the XC90 was the first fruit borne. It has gone on to sell well in Europe, Asia, and North America, bring in profit at last, and solidify Volvo as a premium brand worth considering next to the German stalwarts.

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3. Ford Taurus

Even the behemoth that is Ford has nearly come unstuck. The most punishing time for Ford was in the late 1970s when it was faced with financial disaster. Ford hadn't moved much to deal with the energy crisis, the styling was outdated, and reliability was a problem. Compounding the issues was the onslaught of small, efficient, and reliable Japanese cars making the American automotive industry look bad in general. Ford needed to revolutionize how it designed and built cars. Ford gambled around $3 billion in 1980 on a project to build a car that married a new team approach between departments to a leveling up of its manufacturing technology. The approach was known as "Directed Autonomy" and broke down the walls between design and engineering. They came up with the Taurus by getting designers and engineers working together, then collaborating with the manufacturing line to make sure it was the best car they could sell. It brought Ford up to date in everything from interior design to aerodynamics and became a blockbuster vehicle when it reached showrooms in 1986. If it hadn't sold well, make no mistake, Ford would have gone bankrupt.


4. Porsche Boxster

The Cayenne is often credited with saving Porsche, and it did. However, Porsche wouldn't have reached that point in time and had the funding to create an SUV without the Boxster. In the early 1990s, the German sports car maker was on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1993 Porsche sold only 14,000 cars and only 3,000 of those in the US. One of the biggest issues Porsche had was its bloated production process, which led to higher costs passed on to customers. The suits in Stuttgart started looking at the Mazda MX-5 and the idea of introducing a less expensive entry-level model alongside the 911 and brought in former Toyota engineers to help implement a Japanese style "just in time" production process. Porsche gave its new roadster the perfect twist, though, and made it mid-engined. At the same time, the new production processes quickly reduced build time per unit from 120 hours to 72 and reduced the number of manufacturing errors per car by fifty percent.

It was a hit, and gave Porsche the funds needed to launch more models and broaden its appeal massively in the years that followed. Who knows what the Boxster's electric future may hold.


5. Aston Martin DB7

In the 1990s, Aston Martin was lost and ill-defined as a brand. It had a history of stunning design and a list of icons but needed a new one if it was to make it into the next century. Two factors saved Aston Martin from becoming a luxury sports car company left to rot: Ford Motor Company and the design partnership of Ian Callum and Keith Helfet. The DB7 was originally supposed to be the successor to Jaguar's XJS model, but Ford didn't want the high development costs of a new Aston Martin model, and Walter Hayes, Aston's CEO, saw the design and approached Jaguar. Based on the Jaguar XJS platform using Jaguar's supercharged six-cylinder engine, Callum redesigned the car to look like an Aston and intended to be the new entry-level model under the V8 Virage. Ultimately, it was a Jaguar platform with items pulled from Ford, Mazda, and Citroën to complete the design. It was also a work of genius from Callum and instantly made the Virage look vulgar and dated while being a lot more affordable. The DB7 was an instant hit and re-asserted Aston Martin as a brand with style and performance to match.

Aston Martin
Aston Martin

6. Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen could easily have become a has-been company in the 1970s. It had been coasting on the success of the Beetle for decades, but the air-cooled people's car was looking dated, and the flood of modern subcompact cars in the 1960s had hurt the brand. Bankruptcy was a looming threat, so Volkswagen put its head together with Audi and came up with the Passat. That may have been enough to keep afloat for a while, but the new front-wheel-drive platform and inline-four engine for the Golf MKI ensured success. It was an immediate hit with its practicality, reliability, and legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro style. Volkswagen followed up with the GTI and ensured that the Golf would hit even greater heights by defining the hot hatch segment still being fought over today.


7. Nissan Rogue Sport

As the year 2000 loomed, Nissan was in trouble. Production plants were only required for half the amount of units they could push out. The automaker needed to build a car that people wanted and cut costs. Nissan's then-new boss, Carlos Ghosn, is an international fugitive from justice now, but Nissan was $20 billion in the hole, and he got the company out of it. He started by closing five factories and auctioning off prized assets, two things that didn't go down well in Japan, then unleashed the Nissan Qashqai onto the market. Known as the Rogue Sport in the US, it went up against the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 with particular success in Europe, where it was designed and built. It was a huge success and put Nissan back on the map and led to more SUVs and crossovers.

In 2017, Ghosn was arrested for under-reporting his salary and gross misuse of company assets. He was also charged with misappropriation of Nissan funds, then escaped Japan in a box for transporting musical instruments. That might be rather nefarious, but Ghosn's contribution to Nissan, and the creation of the Rogue Sport/Qashqai have proved invaluable.

Rear Angle View Nissan
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