Today’s lesson is all about orphans. For more than a century people and companies have manufactured automobiles. More often than not those enterprises have failed. Some, such as the Lexington (photo 1), were doomed to fail simply because there were too many cars and too few potential buyers. The fact that so many enterprising people in the earliest days of the industry thought that they could “cash in” on this amazing, new-fangled technology led to most failing within a couple of years.

Some other early manufacturers did manage to stick around, at least for a while, and are still remembered today. Cars by the likes of Marmon (photo 2) and Stutz (photo 3) were able to make a name for themselves, primarily through racing. A Marmon won the very first 500 mile race at Indianapolis while the Stutz entered their very first car in the Indy race and came in a surprising 11th. Though both subsequently developed reputations as very fine, dependable cars, both faced similar fates. Each was under-financed and then devastated by the Great Depression. The 1930s saw an end to a vast number of smaller car companies.

A few firms made it through the Depression through proper funding or clever business plans. Some of those flourished turning their factories to work on the military machines needed for World War II. Companies such as the upscale Packard (photo 3) and Studebaker (photo 4) managed to survive the Depression and to also manufacture products for the military. Packard, in particular, was making very powerful engines for boats and airplanes.

But then after the war, the Big Three, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, all of whom had gotten quite fat on the government dime, realized that having a lot of smaller “independent” cars around was hurting their market share. They were able to lower the prices on their cars. They were producing more of them than the indies and therefore could do so more efficiently. They lowered their prices, forcing those smaller companies to try to compete. Of course they couldn’t.

Many people think that the years following the war, those fabulous fifties, were all wine, roses and prosperity but there were times when the country hit some economic recessions. Those, along with some poor business decisions and what the Big Three were doing out of Detroit really hurt the remaining independents. In order to try to survive, Packard and Studebaker “merged” but it was too little too late.

Another pair of independents who merged and made a better go of it were the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company. Nash had been around since 1916 and for a while prior to the Depression was one of the largest car companies in the country. Those down years of the ‘30s led them to merge with the Kelvinator Appliance Company and then they switched their focus to making smaller, economy cars (photo 5).

Hudson was even older, starting in 1909. They, too, were successful early on and even had plants operating in Europe. Their success spread beyond their own branded cars as, like Chrysler, Ford and GM, they created multiple lines, the Essex and the Terraplane, to expand into different market sectors (photos 6 and 7). Still, Hudson made their name primarily on performance and some of their biggest successes came from racing in the young NASCAR circuit and then selling those winning cars to power hungry buyers (photo 8).

Of course Hudson began to suffer the same fate as Nash. Both began looking for other independents with whom to merge in hopes of being better able to compete. Both looked at both Packard and Studebaker but those two both decided against it. So Nash and Hudson merged and for a while, at least, despite being under funded throughout, managed to survive.

Now, what does all of this have to do with orphans? Well loosely defined an orphan car marque is one that was under a still existing firm but is now out of business. Companies like Stutz and Marmon and Studebaker and Packard were never under the control of one of the existing companies and so they don’t fit the category. The Nash and Hudson merged firm though, might.

Those two came together in 1954 to form the American Motors Corporation. AMC took the best of both brands, particularly the small Rambler (see photo 5 again) and filled a niche market that was really only being addressed by foreign imports. Rebadged the Rambler American it did a good business and helped them to develop other small cars, such as the Metropolitan (Photo 9) which was sold separately by both Nash and Hudson. This was common for the company in the beginning as the AMC name had no recognition. By combining development for each line it saved them a great deal of money. Eventually the Nash and Hudson nameplates were phased out though the Rambler brand continued on for a number of years until its demise in 1969, making it, in a sense, a true orphan.

AMC continued to do fairly well with its smaller cars such as the Gremlin (Photo 10) and the Pacer. They also ventured into the muscle car area with such cars as the AMX (Photo 11) and the Matador. But despite getting good reviews for some of their cars and having some innovative advertising, they just couldn’t compete. They had the oldest factory in the business (equipment wise) and growing debt. They turned to France and Renault to help bail them out in 1980. Despite their hugely successful Jeep line and the introduction of the popular Eagle cars, by 1985 they were still bleeding out and it was Lee Iacocca who came to the rescue. His plan was for Chrysler to buy up the AMC assets and almost immediately shut down the entire line of cars; except, that is, for Jeep and Eagle.

So technically, if you bend the definition enough, AMC really is an orphan line. And so, too, is Eagle which, while being innovative and probably the very first crossover ever made, was dropped by Chrysler in the late 1990s. Jeep, however, continues to thrive.

American Motors and Eagle weren’t the first orphans created by Chrysler. Far from it. The first casualty was the DeSoto (Photo 12) which was founded in 1929. It was designed to compete against mid-range cars such as Buick, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Studebaker, Hudson, and Willys. It managed to hold its own but coming out of World War II it failed to pick up where it had left off and by 1961 Chrysler had pulled the plug.

Technically the next orphan would be Imperial which, up until 1955, had been an upscale trim for Chrysler cars. It was pitted against the likes of Lincoln, Cadillac and Packard and allowed design guru Virgil Exner to do some of his most memorable work (Photo 13). By 1983 the Imperial line had run its course and Chrysler shut it down, bringing the name back in 1990 as, once again, an upscale trim for existing cars. The small tragedy of Imperial is that both then and today, most people never saw it as anything other than a top of the line Chrysler.

Perhaps the most tragic orphan for Chrysler was the Plymouth. Plymouth made its debut in 1928 as a low priced companion of the newly minted Chrysler line. Early on they had difficulty keeping up with Chevy and Ford but by the end of the 1930s (Photo 14) they were producing over 400,000 per year. By the mid to late 1950s (Photo 15) they were producing over 726,000 cars.

The make continued to thrive through the muscle car era (Photo 16) but like all US manufacturers, stiffer regulations and growing competition from foreign imports began to impact the bottom line. By the 1980s most Plymouths were simply rebadged Dodges and, yes, Mitsubishis. By 1999 the writing was on the wall and 2001 saw the last Plymouth roll off of the showroom floor.

Like the Imperial, the Continental marque began its life as an upscale trim in Ford’s Lincoln division. In 1956 Continental (Photo 17) was given its own line where it sat above the Lincoln as Ford’s prestige model. The cars were expensive and by 1958 Continentals were ordered to share body styles with Lincoln and following the 1959 model year they were once again rolled into the Lincoln marque.

The most famous, perhaps, of all orphans was a grand experiment by Ford which went terribly wrong. The Edsel (Photo 18), it was hoped, would fill the gap in Ford’s lines between entry level (Ford) and luxury (Lincoln/Continental). Named for Henry Ford’s son, the Edsel was the outgrowth of the fact that in 1956 the Ford Motor Company went public, meaning that the family no longer owned 100 percent of the operation.

They wanted to make a big splash and so they introduced the Edsel for 1957. Reviews were tepid and sales were even worse. By 1959 Ford announced that they would cancel the Edsel line. Reportedly they lost about one quarter of a billion dollars on this folly.

Ford’s saddest orphan is by far Mercury. Mercury was one of the firm’s mainstay lines for over five decades. So popular was this marque for so long that it even inspired songs. It was started in 1938 in order to fill in the price points between the entry level Fords and the high end Lincolns (Photo 19). Starting a brand new car line during the depression was a bit of a risk but Mercury weathered that storm and did the same for World War II. In 1946 it brought out its first post-war car (Photo 20) and had been moved into the Lincoln division, now called Lincoln-Mercury.

Mercury suffered in the 1950s, though. When the Ford Folly, known as the Edsel, was marketing with huge fanfare and hoopla its price point crossed that of Mercury. No one was exactly sure why Ford did this but even though the Edsel was a huge failure it still bit into Mercury’s piece of the car buying pie. It was even proposed near the end of the decade to eliminate not only Edsel, which of course happened, but also Mercury and even Lincoln and keep only the Ford line. Luckily both Lincoln and Mercury managed reprieves and kept their badges rolling.

Through the 1960s Mercury cars began to be based very closely to those of Ford. For example, the Ford Torino (Photo 21) had a near twin in the Mercury Montego (Photo 22). Obviously this helped keep development and tooling costs down but tended to cause people to wonder why essentially compete against yourself. But that was becoming the trend as the other manufacturers were doing the same thing.

This practice continued and some could say it not only pinched sales but also played a part in Mercury’s image. The line, once seen as something of a performance badge had a reputation that was growing old. By the early 2000s young people were staying away in droves. Ford plugged onward for that first decade of the new century but by 2010 more than a quarter of a million fewer Mercurys were sold than in 2000. The marque was shuttered in 2011.

By far the company with the most orphans is General Motors. If you think about the history of the firm it is fairly logical that this would happen. Buick’s owner, William Durant, founded GM in 1908 as a holding company. His plan was to buy up other companies so that he could have offerings for everyone’s automotive taste. He not only bought other companies but he founded some, such as Chevrolet, to fill in the various niches. Some marques, such as Marquette, came and went in order to fill specific voids. The name first ran from 1909-1911 and then again from 1929-1930. Viking, which lasted from 1929-1931 was another.

One of the first companies Durant acquired was Oakland (Photo 23). A fairly successful company, Oakland was slotted to fit into the price point between Chevy and Oldsmobile. It did so pretty well but soon all of the other GM makes were seeing that price gap grow. A new “companion” company was started, sort of a “baby” Oakland. It was called Pontiac. But as the Great Depression set in the need for intermediate price points was seen as a luxury GM, nor any of the others, could really afford. As Pontiac had been outpacing its sister line, it was decided in 1931 that Oakland would be discontinued.

Just as Pontiac was created to fill its price gap, so too did Cadillac design a companion line to slot just beneath them and above Buick. It was called LaSalle (Photo 24). From its creation in 1927 and through the depression until 1940, LaSalle was a true luxury automobile that, in many ways, rivaled Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard and others. As the depression deepened in the mid-1930s, LaSalles began to more emulate Oldsmobile than Cadillac in hopes of keeping costs in check. From 1933 to its demise in 1941, LaSalle regularly outsold Cadillac. But when the decision came that one of them had to go, GM stuck with the name everyone associate with a luxury, high end car, Cadillac.

Ransom E. Olds founded his namesake company, Oldsmobile, in 1897. He left the company in 1904 to start another namesake marque, REO (and yes trivia buffs, REO made a car called the Speedwagon). Oldsmobile survived the departure of their founder and even thrived (Photo 25). In 1908 it became one of Durant’s first acquisitions and it was seen, as stated above, to fill the price point between the entry level Chevy and the upper mid-range Buick.

In this price point, Olds thrived through the first half of the 20th century. Solid cars (Photo 26) and innovations such as the first true automatic transmission made them a very popular step up for many families. As the 1960s crept in they became more than just family cars. As the muscle and performance era overtook the nation, Oldsmobile was right in step with the times (Photo 27). Their success continued and grew through the next two decades. By 1985 they were selling over one million cars per year.

But in the 1990s it call came crashing down. Along with some questionable new introductions and the advent of the Japanese “luxury” lines such as Acura, Infiniti and Lexus put a damper on Oldsmobile sales. By the end of 2000 GM had given up on the oldest surviving car brand in America and Oldsmobile was shut down in 2004.

As had been their practice from near the beginning, GM continued to introduce new makes to fill what they saw as a hole in their line-up even into the 1980s. In 1989 they created a sub-division of Chevy featuring small cars and SUVs in an attempt to combat the onslaught of foreign cars biting into the American market. While the GEO was meant to go head to head with some of the Japanese cars, the business plan actually saw GM working in conjunction with three different Japanese car makers: Toyota, Isuzu, and Suzuki. While Geo wasn’t a failure it wasn’t the success that GM had hoped, either. Still, the brand hung around until 1997 in the states and 2000 up in Canada.

It was their other recent addition that caused the biggest stir. Announced in 1985, Saturn was originally planned to be a new car within one of their existing brands. But the powers that be decided to take the bold step of making it its own marque. Saturn was billed as a “new type of car company” and saw their first cars roll out for the 1991 model year. Sales numbers were encouraging but didn’t quite hit the peak they had hoped. This problem was amplified when you take into account that everything about the Saturn cars was new. GM wasn’t relying on parts or tooling from any of their other lines. That meant initial launch of the badge was incredibly expensive.

In fact, GM as a hole was losing money through the early part of the 21st century. They tried to sell Saturn but failed to find a viable buyer and it, along with some other GM lines would be shut down so they could focus on what they called their “core” group of four brands (Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC). That meant Saturn and the fairly new huge SUV brand, Hummer, which had been started in 1992 and acquired by GM in 1998 but had since seen the market for monster machines fade, were shut down.

Perhaps the saddest announced closing from GM during this same time was the Pontiac. Remember, Pontiac was begun in 1926 to supplement the Oakland line. It had become so popular that it was seen as one of the GM’s mainstay badges. Through the Great Depression and following World War II through the 1950s, Pontiac was seen as a solid family car (Photo 28). Sales reflected that.

Then came the muscle and performance era of the 1960s and the then head of Pontiac, John DeLorean (yes, the same one who tried to create his own car line years later) broke all of the rules laid down by GM and turned Pontiac into a performance line (Photo 29). During that era Pontiac was one of the top performance sellers. Government regulations and gas shortages caused the muscle era to end and while Pontiac still sold well (nearly 900,000 cars in 1989), they, too were a casualty of GM’s downsizing.

In all a great number of very fine automobile brands have become orphans over the years. What is encouraging, though, is to see more and more of these cars showing up at shows and cruise-ins all over the Tri-State and around the country. Owners groups for these makes exist and are strong. Anyone considering getting into the old car hobby may want to take a look and perhaps adopt an orphan.

It’s good to get out and go to various car events and see a lot of these orphans being proudly owned and displayed.

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