Automotive history is replete with companies large and small that failed to stand the test of time. We take a peek at the history of defunct car companies.
It may be trite, but the saying that “making cars is hard” became a truism for a reason. Making cars is hard. Between the invention of the automobile by Karl Benz in 1886 and today, hundreds of companies have tried their hand at making cars. And like any capitalist venture, the Darwinian struggle for profits in the automotive industry lead to the demise of those many companies.
Similar to the tech boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, the early twentieth century saw a massive proliferation of start up car manufacturers hoping to make it big. And like the Netscapes and Commodores of the computing history, many car companies, like Baker Motor Vehicles, didn’t survive those early years. While not quite analogous to the monopolizing giants of Microsoft and Apple, other car companies, like Rolls-Royce and Dodge for instance, succeeded in becoming industry titans.
We decided to share with our readers the brief histories of a few well known and once beloved nameplates. And though many defunct car companies have fascinating histories, these are a few of our favorites.
DeSoto was founded as a division of Chrysler in 1928 by Walter Chrysler. The company’s name is taken from Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto. Back in the 1920, it was actually a cool thing to name your car after one of the conquerors of the Incan Empire, today not so much. DeSoto was positioned as a mid-level brand along side the likes of the Mercury and Oldsmobile. Its most noteworthy model was the Air Stream that debuted in 1935. The 1942 DeSoto convertible was the first mass-produced American car to feature pop up headlights.
By the late 1950s, the DeSoto brand was suffering thanks to increased competition, with sales slumping a full 60% in 1958. Edsel, another mid-level brand from Ford, sold 60,000 units that same year. By 1960, Chrysler pulled the plug on DeSoto with the final 3,000 orders filled out with whatever parts could be had from around Chrysler’s part bins.
One of the great American luxury car brands, Packard was founded in 1899 by William Doud Packard and George Lewis Weiss. During the early twentieth century, Packard rivaled Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz as one of the premier luxury car companies of its day, exporting to over 60 countries. Packard was the top-selling luxury mark from 1924 to 1930. In 1930, the Japanese royal family reportedly owned ten Packards. Like many car companies, Packard shifted their production during WWII to aircraft and boat engines.
Following the war, Packard made a fateful, and eventually fatal, decision to move the company down market, trading its luxury cachet for the prospect of greater sales. Packard merged with Studebaker in 1954. An additional merger with American Motor Corporation (which we’ll get to later on) fell through. In another blow to the company, it turned out Studebaker had, intentionally or not, misrepresented its books during the merger, greatly exaggerating its profits.
As was the case with DeSoto, the late-1950s was a very competitive time in the auto industry that proved challenging for Packard. The combination of lost luster and the likes of Cadillac nipping at their heels meant Packard’s days were numbered. Credit lines dried up and by 1962 Studebaker-Packard dropped the luxury nameplate.
The history of Willys begins in 1908 when John Willys bought the Overland Automotive Division of the Standard Wheel Company. The company gained the more familiar name of Willys-Overland Motor Company in 1912. Willys-Overland struggled through those early years going through bankruptcy in 1932. It would emerge from receivership in 1936 redubbed Willys-Overland Motors.
Fortunes for the small company improved when, at the height of WWII they won a contract to produce a light, four-wheel drive, “general purpose” vehicle for the US Army. Willys-Overland was one of just two companies to meet the strict 49-day prototype deadline along with American Bantam. Though the winning design was Bantam’s, the company was not in a position to actually fulfill orders and Willys-Overland, along with Ford, were chosen to produce the first “jeeps” the Willys MB. Willys-Overland produced over 300,00 of the 700,000 total jeeps produced for the war effort.
Following the war Willys-Overland adapted the jeep design for civilian purposes with the CJ, targeting farmers, ranchers, and others in search of a rugged, no-nonsense utility vehicle. Through the late 1940s and early 50s they adapted the design to produce station wagons and trucks.
In 1953, Kaiser Motors bought Willys-Overland, thus creating the Willys Motors Company. A decade later the two companies folded together to form Kaiser-Jeep in 1963 and would eventually sell out Jeep to AMC in 1970.
Speaking of AMC, American Motor Corporation was founded in 1954 as the result of a merger between Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motor Car Company. The ultimate goal had been to then merge with the newly created pairing of Studebaker and Packard. But following the death of company president George W. Mason, the firm’s former vice and new president George Romney nixed the deal with Packard.
Another of Romney’s moves was to ditch the Nash and Hudson names in favor of the new brands Rambler and Metropolitan. The most notable models to come out of this period are the Rambler Rebel and the Rambler American.
A shift toward larger cars in 1966 lead to turmoil for the company, substantial losses and the retirement of CEO Roy Abernathy followed. Once the dust had settled, new CEO Roy Chapin Jr. (son of Hudson founder Roy Chapin) pivoted the now defunct car company into the newly emerging pony/muscle car market. The AMC Javelin and AMC AMX both debuted in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, AMC bought Jeep from Kaiser.
The Oil Crises of the 1970s lead to a major shift in automotive production toward smaller, more efficient vehicles. AMC met this demand with compact models like the Hornet, Gremlin, and Pacer. In the late 70s AMC began producing all-wheel drive cars like the AMC Eagle, going all-in on AWD in 1983 (long before Subaru made it cool).
During this same period, in 1980, AMC went into partnership with French automotive manufacturer Renault. In 1985, AMC would then partner with Chrysler to produce cars for their Dodge and Plymouth divisions. Renault sold it’s 47% stake in AMC to Chrysler in 1987, leading to AMC morphing into the Jeep-Eagle division of Chrysler. The final AMC badged car would be the AMC Eagle Sports Wagon model year 1988.
The buyout of AMC proved very advantageous for Chrysler gaining both the Jeep brand and a lot of AMC’s best and brightest engineers and executives. For more on AMC and the Javelin in particular, click here.
The story of the iconic Back to the Future DeLorean begins with John DeLorean, automotive engineer, visionary, and jet-setting, celeb-schmoozing, wild-child of the 1980s. DeLorean began his career working for the likes of Chrysler, Packard, and AMC. So impressed was GM with the young hotshot engineer they offered him a position at any of their five divisions. He chose a position at Pontiac as assistant to chief engineer Pete Estes.
At Pontiac, DeLorean further burnished his reputation with his work on the Pontiac GTO which landed him a job as the head of the division in 1965. In 1969, he became head of the Chrysler division.
But ever the non-conformist, DeLorean had his sights set still higher, and in 1975 struck out on his own to found the DeLorean Motor Company. The company would only produce one car, the DMC-12. Though DeLorean never achieved the same level of success on his own that he had at GM, he did provide automotive history with a heck of a story.
The next chapter for DeLorean was to get his vision of the DMC-12, a gull-winged, stainless steel, midengined sports car*, from the drawing board and into production. In an effort to find the most favorable government subsidies and tax incentives, DeLorean landed on Northern Ireland to base his production.
At the time in the late 1970s and early 80s, Northern Ireland was suffering through economic stagnation and severe sectarian strife (the contesting between British loyalists and Irish separatists) know today as “The Troubles.” The British government hoped that the economic boon from the production of DeLorean’s DMC-12 would help quell the unrest. The bet wouldn’t work out for Northern Ireland or DeLorean.
The company struggled with production and financial problems. Quality was poor and credit was scarce. So, when John DeLorean got a call from a former neighbor offering a business opportunity in December of 1982, he flew to California to see if he could salvage his dream. James Hoffman’s offer was for DeLorean to help smuggle millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine (it was the early 80s after all). DeLorean accepted the offer and the FBI swooped in. It turned out Hoffman was a federal informant.
DeLorean’s arrest was the final straw for the already teetering DeLorean Motor Company, which filed for bankruptcy that same month, December 1982.
The DMC-12 however, went on to be immortalized as the time machine in Back to the Future film franchise which premiered in 1985. Today the DMC-12 has a unique cult following, with many devotees modding their cars to emulate Doc Brown’s. A resurrected version of the company, complete with legal naming rights, has resurfaced and plans to begin production of replica DMC-12s sometime this year. Read more about it here.