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On the edge of disaster, these cars gave their companies a second chance.

Automotive Saviors

Making cars is hard, so the saying goes. And for the vast majority of history’s carmakers, those challenges proved too much, and they went under. Yet, for a select few automotive companies a mixture of hard work, inspiration, and good fortune conspired to pull them back from the brink of collapse. These are the stories behind the cars that saved their companies.

BMW 700

1960 BMW 700 - lanemotormuseum.org
1960 BMW 700 - lanemotormuseum.org

The post-WWII years were rough for BMW and as the 1950s drew on, things didn’t improve. Cars like the 501 and the Isetta failed to inspire the buying public. The 507 was a full-throated attempt to revive the brand, but given its high production costs, the car had the effect of actually further dragging down BMW’s financials. The BMW 700 arrived just in time, in 1959, to save BMW (who at the time was in talks to be acquired by Mercedes!). The 700 featured a monocoque chassis and a rear-mounted 697cc flat-twin engine, curtesy of BMW’s motorcycle division. The economical car was a hit. In all, the BMW 700 sold over 180,000 units during its six-year production run.

Volkswagen Golf Mk I

1974 Volkswagen Golf Mk I - media.vw.com
1974 Volkswagen Golf Mk I - media.vw.com

By the early ‘70s, Volkswagen had been resting on its laurels, the Beetle, for decades. In fact, every thing VW made at the time was based directly on Beetle architecture, from the Type 2 bus to the Karmann Ghia to the 1600 TL wagon. To break out of their sales doldrums, Volkswagen worked with Audi to design the Passat. Out of this project grew an even more propitious car, the Golf Mk I. With the Golf, designers (including the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro) and engineers broke with tradition of the Beetle. Gone were the rear-engine, flat-four designs. In their place, a new front-mounted straight-four with front-wheel drive. The Golf not only saved Volkswagen financially, but the car inspired generations of practical, fun, and economical hatchbacks to come. Read more about the VW Golf here.

1949 Ford Custom

1949 Ford Custom convertible - corporate.ford.com
1949 Ford Custom convertible - corporate.ford.com

The post-war years weren’t just hard on German carmakers, US firms were struggling too with converting back from making tanks and airplane engines. Ford found itself in a particularly rough spot. Henry Ford II had just taken the reigns from his grandfather in 1945, at just 28 years old. By ’47 Henry Ford had passed away. Vehicle design and production had been largely nascent for a decade and Ford was in dire need of something new. Henry Ford II oversaw development and production of the radically new 1949 Ford. The car would be the first new design out of Detroit since before the war. The 1949 Ford featured a new streamlined design that would inform automotive design for the next decade. The car was a huge commercial success, with over 1.1 million units sold, and helped return Ford to prominence.

Chrysler K-Cars

Chrysler K Car - All Cars on youtube.com
Chrysler K Car - All Cars on youtube.com

The 1970s were a commercial low point for Chrysler. Quality issues and poor sales dogged the company taking it to the financial brink. That’s when Lee Iacocca, former Ford president, was brought in to help right the ship. Not only did Iacocca secure a $1-billion-dollar federal bailout for Chrysler, but he also spearheaded the new K-body platform to replace the flagging F-body. In came new, streamlined production processes and with them new vehicles like the Dodge Aries, Chrysler Le Baron, and Plymouth Reliant. Quality improved and sales followed suit. With the K-car, Iacocca returned Chrysler to profitability (allowing them to pay back those government loans as well).

Mercedes-Benz W194 and 300 SL

Mercedes-Benz 300SL - netcarshow.com
Mercedes-Benz 300SL - netcarshow.com

BMW wasn’t the only automaker having a rough time in post-war German, either. Mercedes’ factories had been bombed and the remaining pre-war designs the company had were being rapidly outmoded. On the verge of bankruptcy itself, Mercedes needed a creative shot in the arm. It came in the form of the W194 racecar, the brainchild of chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut. The W194, with its lightweight and streamlined aluminum body and powerful 3.0L straight-six, was wildly successful on the track. Racking up wins at the Carrera Panamerican and Le Mans. Max Hoffman, US importer of premium European sports cars, saw the success of the W194 and felt there was a market for a street version. With his prodding, Mercedes-Benz developed the 300 SL. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, with its radical gullwing doors, was both beautiful and potent. In the year of its debut, the 300 SL was the fastest production car in the world. The car was a major hit, with many celebrity owners including Paul Newman and Sofia Lauren. You can read more about the 300 SL here.

Lamborghini Gallardo

2003 Lamborghini Gallardo - netcarshow.com
2003 Lamborghini Gallardo - netcarshow.com

Following the departure of Ferruccio Lamborghini, the brand that bares his name had become something of a corporate hot potato passing from Chrysler to Malayan and Indonesian investment groups before finally landing at Audi. Despite iconic cars like the Diablo, Lamborghini was struggling financially in the 1990s and by the dawn of the new millennium, the company needed a fresh path forward. It came in 2003 in the form of the Gallardo, a new entry-level Lambo. For an exclusive supercar company, Gallardo’s first year sales of 933 units was a major coup. In all, just over 14,000 Gallardos were built. Making it, for a time, the brand’s best-selling model ever (before being surpassed by the Huracan).

Aston Martin DB7

1994 Aston Martin DB7 - netcarshow.com
1994 Aston Martin DB7 - netcarshow.com

Aston Martin struggled through much of the 1980s with legendary cars but without the profits to go with them. An acquisition by Ford in 1987 gave Aston Martin the chance for a reset. The company’s new tact was to build a new entry-level GT car. With a design by Ian McCallum and a platform borrowed from the Jaguar XJS (Jaguar being also under Ford at the time), the Aston Martin DB7 debuted in 1994 to wide acclaim. Though the DB7 started out with a basic straight-six, it would get a proper 5.7L V12 by 1999. The DB7 would go on to sell over 7,000 units, more than all other Aston Martin models combined.

Porsche Boxter and Cayenne

2001 Porsche Boxster - netcarshow.com
2001 Porsche Boxster - netcarshow.com

By the late 1980s, Porsche’s lineup was beginning to stagnate. The 911 remained the company’s halo car, but it was showing its age. More affordable options like the 928 and 968 weren’t selling as they had, either. The solution was the Boxster, a mid-engine roadster than would share much with its big brother 911. As part of the Boxster project, Porsche brought in ex-Toyota engineers to help streamline their processes and bring down the company’s notoriously high production costs. Indeed, production time was reduced from 120 hours per car to approximately 70 hours while production errors were reduced by over 50 percent.

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2003 Porsche Cayenne - netcarshow.com
2003 Porsche Cayenne - netcarshow.com

While the Boxster sharing parts with the 911 was good from a production perspective, it was not without controversy. The new flat-six engine would, for the first time, be water-cooled rather than air-cooled, which purists took as a sacrilege. The Boxster’s headlights would also be shared with the 911. For their part, 911 owners weren’t hot on these “fried egg” headlights echoing the cheaper Porsche. Even so, the Boxster was a smashing success for Porsche and the company smartly took its profits and reinvested in a new project, the Cayenne. The new SUV was an even bigger departure than front- or rear-engine cars. Still, Porsche had their fingers to the automotive winds and the Cayenne prove an even bigger success than the Boxster and remains the brand’s best-selling model today.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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