It is crucial to the American economy that Ford, General Motors and Chrysler weather the current economic storm. But, they would not be the first domestic carmakers to shrink, merge, or even go out of business in the 100-plus-year history of our love affair with the automobile.
There’s speculation Ford will let the Mercury brand die, leaving only Ford cars and trucks and Lincoln luxury models. It would not be the first time Ford killed a brand. Remember the Edsel? Named for the son of company founder Henry Ford, Edsel sedans and convertibles were born with great fanfare, with 1958 models. Three years later, sales were barely a blip, the Edsel name a laughing stock, and Ford threw in the towel. Would Ford be stronger without Mercury, as it was without Edsel?
GM let Oldsmobile die in 2004, and now there’s speculation Saturn or Pontiac — or both — could go, too, or, that Pontiac will be re-fashioned as a boutique brand that capitalizes on its proud muscle-car history. That would leave Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac, and GMC, certainly enough brands to offer something for every buyer.
As for Chrysler, when was the last time you saw a Plymouth? Or a DeSoto? Walter P. Chrysler introduced both brands in 1928. DeSoto honored the 16th century Spanish explorer who discovered the Mississippi River, and it remained a best-seller for its powerful V-8 engines and cutting-edge styling until 1960, when several years of production problems drove reliability off the cliff. Customers weren’t buying lemons named DeSoto. Plymouth died in 2001, part of the house-cleaning by Chrysler’s new Daimler owners, a merger marriage that didn’t last long.
It’s not just nameplates, but entire car companies that have shifted or disappeared. In 1908, the Overland touring cars that John Willys ordered weren’t delivered on time, so he went to the factory in Indianapolis to find out why, and bought the company. Thirty years later, Willys designed and manufactured the Jeep, which helped win World War II. Willys sold the company to Henry Kaiser, who also produced his own cars. Kaiser then sold Jeep to American Motors Corp, which spun off the military vehicle division so it could concentrate on producing consumer vehicles, like the AMC Pacer. The new AM General beefed up the tough Jeep into a “high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle”, better known as the Humvee, which helped win the Gulf War.
In 1999, GM bought the rights to market a civilian version of the Humvee, called the Hummer.