History often repeats, but sometimes it does something crazy.
Current best estimates are that the auto sales industry alone is worth around $300 billion. That's a large pie to slice up, but every major automaker wants as much as possible, so competition is fierce. Often larger automakers create sub-brands to fill gaps or enter new markets. And once in a while a whole new entity is created and makes an impact before it goes away again. These are some of those brands that have come and gone. Some met their end after a long and productive history while some arrived with a bang before meeting an early demise.
Scion was born as a brand in 2003 as a division of Toyota and squarely aimed to appeal to younger customers. It was also designed to change the car-buying experience with a single trim level and non-negotiable base prices. Essentially, the Scion brand delivered inexpensive, stylish, and distinctive compact vehicles. The problem is that marketing to youth is tough in the car market as young people don't generally have the kind of money or credit to buy a new car, even if it is relatively inexpensive.
In 2007, the median age of a Scion customer was 39 years old, which is low compared to Toyota's 59-year-old average. However, that meant the brand wasn't hitting its demographics. The best-selling car for the brand was the tC compact car, and it sold 418,235 units during Scion's 13-year run. Its second best-selling vehicle was the Scion xB, which was a surprise hit in America. However, it wasn't young people buying it. The xB was popular with senior car buyers due to its low price point, practical shape, and useful interior.
The Hummer H1 came to market as the civilian version of the Humvee military transport. It was big, brash, and powered by a 5.7 petrol engine or a variety of 6.5-liter diesel engines. It arrived in 1992 as a result of campaigning from then soon-to-be California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger after he fell in love with the military version during Operation Desert Storm. Like the Toyota Prius, it became a political statement, but both vehicles were on opposing sides of the fence.
The Prius arrived in 1997 and is still with us, while the H1 ended up on the wrong side of history. The H1 became the poster boy for American excess and arrogance, but Hummer tried to move forward with the smaller H2 and H3 models. However, a small Hummer is still big and thirsty, and there wasn't enough appetite to keep the brand afloat. With rising gas prices, the risk-versus-reward ratio just wasn't there for enough customers.
Ultimately, General Motors, who owned the Hummer brand, tried to sell it to a Chinese company as part of a bankruptcy settlement. It would have saved around 3,000 jobs for a while, but Chinese regulators understood that the gas-guzzling image of the Hummer brand is what doomed it. Hummer went defunct in 2010, but the name is, at the time of writing, being resurrected by GMC for a line of electric vehicles.
Through a history spanning from 1945 to 2012, Saab was renowned for its engineering excellence in the premium bracket of the market. It was also stereotyped as the preferred cars of the intellectual and sophisticated elite. Ultimately, Saab never escaped its niche market to move the kind of volume it would need to stay afloat by itself. It was sold to GM in 2000, who eventually sold the company on to the Dutch automaker Spyker. Unfortunately Spyker couldn't do much with it, and Saab's ultimate demise came when a Chinese consortium was blocked from buying the company after GM opposed the transfer of technology and production rights moving to a Chinese company. With no other buyer in sight, that left Saab dead in the water.
In 2012, a new Swedish company called National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) bought the bankrupt estate and managed to get the Saab 9-3 back into production in 2013. However, NEVS lost the licensing rights to use the Saab automotive name due to the parent company still using the name for its other divisions.
In the 1930s, Ford created the Mercury brand to fill the pricing gap between the Ford-badged cars and the premium Lincoln brand. Mercury competed with automakers of the time like DeSoto, Hudson, and Studebaker, but outlasted most of them. It hit its peak in the 1950s, entering the decade as the sixth-most popular brand in the US. However, the depression at the end of the fifties hurt brands like Mercury, forcing an entry into the compact car segment. In the 1970s, it focused less on sports cars and more on luxury, but land yachts like the Grand Marquis with 7.5-liter V8s drove head-on into the fuel crisis.
It was the 1980s when the decline really started, though. The Mercury line was modernized, and the 1990s started to look promising with high sales of the Mercury Villager minivan in 1993. However, as brands like Acura and Lexus started gaining traction in the US, the company saw a dip. As Mercury entered the 2000s, it wanted to attract younger buyers to its brand, which then included the return of the Mercury Marauder name to compete with Chevrolet's Impala SS. However, ventures into advertising to attract women buyers and improving nameplate recognition failed. In 2010, Ford announced the end of the Mercury in order to focus on the Ford and Lincoln brands. In its dying year, Mercury had just a single percent share of overall sales in America and moved just 93,000 vehicles.
The Saturn brand for GM was an ambitious project. It was launched as a "different kind of car company" in 1990 with its own unique models built at the brand's assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and "no haggle" prices. It was a private, employee-owned company that had its own dealer network and aimed to compete with Japanese vehicles that were dominating the compact market. It was a promising brand that opened its account with decent sales figures, but not quite the success that was expected. Those sales also ate into GM's existing customer base and ate into the development budgets of other GM divisions.
Saturn kept pushing, though, and even expanded into Japan. However, its initial launch was just in time for the early 1990s recession. Its entry into the Japanese market started just as the real estate and stock market bubble was beginning to pop in the country. Ultimately, though, it was too ambitious of a project, managing to both overreach and cannibalize sales of other GM division vehicles. In 2004, Saturn's operations were integrated into GM, and in 2008, GM decided it would either sell, consolidate, or close down Saturn along with Pontiac, Hummer, and Saab so it could concentrate on its core brands: Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC.
It looked like Saturn would be sold to the Penske Automotive Group in 2009, but the sale fell through, and GM announced the end of Saturn in 2010.
One of the most short-lived brands in automotive history is the UK's Rover Group's attempt at cracking the US with Sterling Motor Cars. It lasted from 1987 to 1991 and consisted of one model, a rebadged Rover 800 series in various trim levels. The Rover 800 was developed with Honda and a close relative to Honda's Legend model but with a sportier feel. The Stirling 825 was the first trim released in the US and initially it sold well.
Unfortunately it didn't have Honda's quality. Instead, it had all the hallmarks of 1980s British build quality and reliability, down to the Lucas electronics components and a reputation for body and frame corrosion. Build quality improved year over year, but it was too late. Rover started to lose money, compounded by the currency exchange rate drifting out of the British company's favor. The Sterling name was retired, and Rover removed itself from the US market in 1991.
Olds Motor Vehicle Company was formed in 1897 by Ransom Eli Olds, and the cars were officially called "Olds automobiles. The Oldsmobile name came as a colloquialism and was nationally popularized by a song called "In My Merry Oldsmobile," just before General Motors bought the company in 1908. While later thought of as a stodgy brand, Oldsmobile is responsible for several major advancements in technology. It pioneered the first mass-produced car, and was the first manufacturer to offer its customers a fully automatic transmission, a speedometer, and automatic choke, automatic headlight dimming and a head-up display. It gave us the first production car to use a microprocessor to run the engine controls. It was also the first American car company to export its vehicles and gave the world the revolutionary high-compression, overhead-valve V8 engine, the Rocket.
Oldsmobile rode high in the 1970s and 1980s, with sales peaking in '85. Unfortunately, with the double-whammy of Japanese import brands like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus invading its market and being tightly sandwiched between other GM divisions, Oldsmobile started to lose market share quickly in the '90s. That became a lack of profit, and in December of 2000, GM announced Oldsmobile would be shutting down. The disappointment didn't come through a lack of trying as Oldsmobile vehicles were received well by critics at the time, including the Oldsmobile Bravada SUV, launched two days before the announcement. The final car off the production line was the Alero compact car in April of 2004.
Even shorter than Rover's sojourn in the US was Ford's disastrous attempt to expand its presence in the mid-price market with an addition to the Lincoln-Mercury Division in 1958. What went wrong is still a debated subject among scholars and industry experts. The finger is often pointed at the vehicle's catastrophe in styling, but it went far deeper than that and has become a lesson in commercial failure.
In reality, it's a mixture of the awkward name, the aesthetic design, Ford's marketing suits fundamental misunderstanding of American consumers, awkward controls for the overly-complex transmission, reliability in general, market confusion (Edsel ultimately competed with Mercury in price), and internal politics. Compounding everything was the recession of 1957, which shrank the mid-price and premium markets. The Edsel brand was conceived in 1956, born in 1958 with the Ranger and Pacer models, and was quietly put down in 1959 after a loss of $250 million spent on development, manufacturing, and marketing. That's around $3 billion dollars in 2021 money.
The story of Pontiac is a tale of rags to riches and back again. In 1925, it started out as a brand in the GM hierarchy above Chevrolet, next to the now-forgotten Oakland brand, but below Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac. Pontiac outgrew Oakland quickly and replaced it to become a division of its own. For decades, Pontiac sold nicely and knew its place, then the 1960s happened.
John DeLorean pushed the Y-body platform that gave a near 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution. The most successful of the first Y-body cars was the Tempest, and in 1963 it could be, along with the LeMans, ordered with GM's 326 V8 engine. It sold well. DeLorean became Pontiac's chief engineer while Pete Estes became general manager and the aim dream Pontiac to become a performance car maker became stronger. The engines got bigger. The GTO was released in 1963, and Pontiac was became known for its bold and powerful muscle cars. By the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, high insurance costs, federal emissions and safety regulations started to crush the performance car market. That was the beginning of Pontiac's decline, and in 1976, the downsizing started in earnest.
Pontiac kept at it through the 1990s, but an updated Firebird and Pontiac's first and only minivan didn't help. The 2000s didn't start well with the release of the badly received Pontiac Aztec, but it looked promising for a while with a win for Pontiac in its final season of NASCAR and a new GTO coming to market. The Pontiac G8 also arrived, heralded as Pontiac's most powerful car yet competing strongly as a driver's car with BMW's M5 at a much lower price.
However, in 2008 GM was in trouble, and Hummer, Saab, and Saturn were on their way out as the company sought a bailout from Congress. GM was less keen to get rid of Pontiac but ultimately appeased Congress by dropping Pontiac to keep the GMC line of trucks alongside Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Buick. The Pontiac brand became defunct in 2010, but GM opted not to sell it and then keep the trademark registered and active.
To many Australians and New Zealanders, Holden was an iconic homegrown brand that went toe-to-toe with Ford and often won. Originally, Holden started out as a saddle maker in South Australia in 1856, but the family owners transitioned into building cars in 1908. General Motors bought the company in 1931, and with heavy investment, Holden dominated the car market during the 1950s. In the 1960s, it started putting V8 engines in cars, and one of its most famous nameplates, the Monaro, was born. Holden's bread and butter were reliable and affordable cars, but muscular sedans were celebrated the most. The Commodore launch in 1978, was a best seller and had muscular sports car chops in the more expensive and sportier trim levels. The 2006 VE generation was brought to the US and sold as the Chevrolet Lumina, Chevrolet Omega, and Pontiac G8.
In the 2000s, Holden started losing ground. Not to Ford, though. It was Toyota that was eating its market share partly due to Holden rebadging cars from other GM divisions around the world. On top of that, the strong Australian dollar was hurting export profits, and workers had to be laid off. Things were going downhill, and by 2012 it was bad enough the Australian government stepped in a tossed Holden a $270 million lifeline.
That became a stop-gap, though, and Holden failed to get more funding and lost more workers. Holden looked to Opel in Europe for models to use, then, after losing its manufacturing capability, suffered the ignominy of becoming a badge-engineering brand and importing its cars from various GM subsidiaries worldwide. In February of 2020, GM announced that Holden would be retired as a brand in 2021 and would completely leave Australian and New Zealand markets.
We couldn't finish this list without mentioning DeLorean, the ill-fated brainchild of John DeLorean, the man that pushed Pontiac to success in the 1960s. DeLorean was a flamboyant man with a flamboyant lifestyle, and he wanted to build his dream car. The company was founded in 1975 and was funded by everything from a Bank of America loan to private investment from The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. DeLorean then used incentives from governments and economic organizations, most famously from the British government who wanted to create jobs in turbulent Northern Ireland where the factory was built.
It was, ultimately, money that was the spectacular downfall of DeLorean. The car was ambitious, to say the least, and DeLorean and his team knew that the money machine had to keep rolling to get enough cars off the line to start getting some of it back. Unfortunately, the British government had already thrown in $100 million, and Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party had taken power. It was now a government that didn't believe government should be funding a private business.
DeLorean got its first cars off the line in 1981 without the powerful engine planned but with quality-control issues that got the DMC-12 a lot of bad press. It looked different, but wasn't as ground-breaking of a car as promised, despite the gullwing doors. The money problems grew and grew, and the company decided it should go public. The proposal would have enriched John DeLorean and left the British government high and dry. Thatcher was angry and cut further investment off, effectively killing the automaker by sending the Belfast plant into receivership. At that point, 9,000 DMC-12s had been built, and around 6,000 of them were sold.
DeLorean told executives that money was on the way and the company could be saved, but what came next blew everyone away. Soon after John DeLorean was arrested in a videotaped sting by the FBI. According to the FBI, he had agreed to sell 220 pounds of cocaine to the tune of $24 million. A week later, DeLorean filed for bankruptcy. The DeLorean car had gone into production in 1981 and ended in 1982.
Ultimately, John DeLorean was acquitted of all charges from the sting, but he was delivered into bankruptcy while going through the following mill of trials for embezzlement and fraud.