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20 Defunct Legendary Car Companies and Their Best Models

Vukasin Herbez February 17, 2019

For decades the Big Three, General Motors, the Ford Motor Company, and the Fiat-Chrysler Corporation have dominated the American automobile industry. But ever since AMC closed its doors in 1987, no independent car makers have emerged. In the last couple of decades, the Big Three have battled recessions, new regulations, foreign competitors and painful recalls. But somehow, they managed to survive.

However, all three industry giants needed to kill some of their brands to survive. GM killed Hummer, Saturn, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac. Ford shut down Mercury, and Chrysler discontinued Eagle and Plymouth in the early 2000s. But all those companies are not the only American legendary brands to close their doors for good. In the last century or so of car manufacturing in the country, they have lost thousands of small and big car companies alike.

Most were victims of changing economic climates, market tastes or circumstances beyond their control. However, some were too good for the times or just too strange to succeed. Whatever the case, the American automotive landscape will miss those brands and their memorable cars. So, read on to learn all about 20 legendary car brands that are gone and their best models and legendary cars.

  1. Imperial

People often make a mistake when they call Imperials Chryslers because it was a separate brand in the Chrysler family. Imperial produced luxury cars from 1955 to 1975, and then briefly from 1981 to 1983. Despite not being as successful as Cadillac or Lincoln in terms of sales numbers, Imperial had an army of faithful buyers and decent sales results.

They based Imperial products on Chrysler products, using some of their components. But often the design was special, the interiors were luxurious and the trim levels were second to none. The best example of this is their model from 1968. This was the last year this brand featured a significantly different design than the rest of Chrysler`s lineup with unique interior styling and appointments.

In 1967, Imperial switched to unibody construction in a cost-cutting measure from Chrysler. This didn’t affect the comfort and it saved some money during production. But for 1968, Imperial was just slightly different with no major changes to its mechanics. Also, the 440 V8 engine came as standard and delivered 350 HP.

  1. Hudson

They established the Hudson Car Company in 1909. But it became defunct in 1954 when Hudson merged with Nash to create the American Motors Company. Although in some way, Hudson continued to live on in AMC, they produced the last cars under this name in 1954. Hudson as a company had a big legacy, especially in the post-war years when it was active in NASCAR.

In fact, Hudson produced the famous Hornet model, which many people consider to be one of the early muscle cars. In 1951, Hudson introduced the Hornet, a full-size sedan with an affordable price and a few interesting features. First was the sleek design with a sloping roofline that made Hornets look longer, wider and sportier.

The second was the all-new “step down” construction that merged the chassis and body in one structure. Best of all, it helped the Hornets achieve a lower center of gravity for better handling. The third important feature was the improved straight eight-cylinder engine with 308 CID and up to 170 HP on tap.

  1. Auburn

Auburn Automobile was a company in Auburn, Indiana in 1900. Soon, it grew to be one of the largest local car manufacturers. Auburn started as a mid-class offering. But in the mid-20s, under the supervision of Errett Lobban Cord, it became the premium manufacturer of elegant, stylish and fast cars. The first step was the introduction of the straight eight-cylinder engine, which, in those days were synonymous with luxury models.

Auburn’s finest model and the company’s swan song was the glorious Auburn 851 Speedster, which they introduced in 1935. The car had a 4.5-liter straight eight engine with an optional supercharger, delivering a fantastic performance by the day’s standards. Unfortunately, the market wasn’t impressed, so Auburn production ceased in 1937.

  1. Studebaker

Before its closure in 1967, Studebaker was the oldest American company with roots going back to 1852. Of course, in the beginning, Studebaker produced wagons for farmers and miners. Eventually, they started producing automobiles in 1902. Soon, Studebaker became one of the most prominent economy car builders in the U.S.

They offered a wide range of affordable and dependable models, so for decades, Studebaker was a stable company. However, after World War II with the changing economic climate, Studebakers sales started to slip. But just before they closed their doors for good, Studebaker presented the Avanti, a cool-looking personal luxury coupe. In the early ’60s, Studebaker management decided to invest in a luxury coupe to fight their poor sales.

They thought a new, fancy upscale model would attract customers and turn the attention of the public back to Studebaker. So, in 1962, they presented the sleek, modern-looking Avanti. The innovative design, construction, and technology were interesting, so the car received praise from the motoring press. The base version was not powerful, but soon Studebaker introduced the supercharged R2 option producing up to 289 HP.

  1. Kaiser-Frazer

The Kaiser Car Company was an economy manufacturer in Toledo, Ohio that produced inexpensive yet dependable cars for years. This manufacturer was in the market for a relatively short period of time, between 1947 and 1955. Their initial success was because Kaiser offered modern cars for the post-war market while the rest of the industry had outdated designs.

However, in the early ‘50s, they decided to produce a performance roadster. So, Kaiser contacted Howard “Dutch” Darrin, the designer who produced a stylish roadster body of fiberglass with one unusual feature: doors that slid to the fenders to open. The car debuted in 1954.

But its high price tag and modest power from its 90 HP engine were not what car buyers wanted. It was only when they installed an optional Cadillac engine that the Darrin get the performance it deserved. But, by then it was too late to revive the image of the model. So, they only made 435 of them, all of which are highly sought-after classics today.

  1. Stutz

The Stutz Motor Company was an American producer of high performance and premium cars in Indianapolis, Indiana. Harry C. Stutz founded the company in 1911. Since it was at the home of America’s motorsport tradition, the Stutz proved itself in races on the famous Indianapolis track.

The Stutz Bearcat, arguably the first American sports car, was born out of the company’s racing efforts. But it also helped earn them the reputation as a high performance, luxury brand. Stutz even raced in Europe, introducing advanced 32-valve cylinder heads for its engines, which were the first ones on the market.

With high-performance hardware and quality construction, Stutz cars won numerous races and broke speed records in the 1920s. Thanks to the Bearcat, Stutz established themselves as the producer of one of the fastest American cars ever made. However, it wasn’t enough to keep the company alive, so Stutz closed its doors in 1935.

  1. Marmon

The Marmon Motor Car Company was another renowned luxury manufacturer from Indianapolis, Indiana. Howard Carpenter Marmon established the brand in 1902. Soon, it became famous for its innovative V2, V4, V6 and later, V8 engines. Marmon cars were fast and powerful for their time, so the next logical step was to enter the races. So, in 1909 the Marmon Wasp racing car was the first car to win the famous Indianapolis 500 race.

And that was enough to give the company some valuable publicity. The company was famous for luxurious, fast sedans. But over the years, Marmon lost ground to its flashier, better-marketed counterparts. In its last attempt to win the market over, Marmon introduced a V16 engine to compete with Cadillac. But it just wasn’t enough, so they closed the company down in 1933.

  1. Nash Motors

Founded in 1916, Nash was one of the most interesting economy manufacturers in America. That was until it was merged with Hudson and they discontinued it in 1954. Nash cars were always known for their affordability, dependability, and innovation. Those Nash models will be remembered for featuring innovative ventilation system, seatbelts and interesting designs.

All the Nash cars were low priced economy models, but the company produced a genuine sports car in the early ‘50s with an interesting story behind it. The project started when the head of the Nash Car Company met Donald Healey on a cruise ship. He was a British engineer and car constructor. They decided to make a proper sports car, which America didn’t have at the moment.

The idea was to take the Nash Ambassador platform and a six-cylinder engine and cover it with an elegant roadster or coupe body of aluminum for a lower weight. They presented the first cars in 1951. Despite getting just 125 to 140 HP from its 3.2-liter straight six engine, the Nash Healey provided a respectable performance. Unfortunately, the Nash Healey was an extremely poor seller, which only helped seal the demise of the company.

  1. Dual Ghia

Not many people know about Dual Ghia, an exclusive American car company. Businessman Eugene Casaroll started Dual Ghia in 1956. Sadly, it became defunct just two years later in 1958. They were the producer of high powered, custom built convertibles with Chrysler platforms and 315 V8 engines.

But the selling point was the body and luxury appointments. Casaroll sent his chassis to Italy to be re-bodied by the famous Italian design house Ghia; hence, the name. The Dual Ghia appeared in 1956 and it was the most expensive American car at the moment. They only built 117 of them, selling them to A-list celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Richard Nixon, and many others.

  1. Tucker

To be perfectly honest, the Tucker Car Company never got the chance to fight its competitors. That was because they shut it down even before it could establish full-scale production of their revolutionary model, the Torpedo. They established the Tucker car company in the late ’40s. Soon, they presented a fully functioning prototype that made the rest of the cars from Detroit look terribly outdated.

The Tucker Torpedo featured numerous innovations like safety glass. Better yet, it had a central headlight that followed the movement of the steering wheel. Also, it had a roomy interior and engine in the back with lots of power and torque.

However, the Tucker Torpedo was so advanced, the Big Three, Chrysler, Ford, and GM, were afraid that it would cripple their market share. So, while Tucker prepared for full-scale production, the Big Three prepared to set them up with a lawsuit to stop production and sink the company.

  1. Continental

If you think Edsel is Ford’s only failed luxury attempt, think again. In the mid-50s, Ford decided to establish a separate brand they named the Continental Division. They wanted to produce new, luxury cars positioned above the Lincoln brand. The first and only car they build was the famed Continental Mark II, which they introduced in 1955.

Ford wanted to present a superb luxury coupe with the finest technology and comfort. They planned to market it as a separate brand. The idea sounded great, but the market response wasn’t. They shut down the Continental Division in just five years. That followed the disappointing sales of the Mark II coupe, even though it was one of the finest American cars they ever made.

  1. AMC

They established the American Motors Corporation in 1954 when Hudson and Nash merged to create a new corporation. From the start, AMC concentrated on the economy car field. So, for a few decades, this company was a tough competitor to the Big Three with numerous small, affordable models with good sales. In fact, they were quite common on the American roads. Constantly trying to invent something new to stay profitable and relevant on the market, AMC presented many memorable models.

They included the well-known AMC Gremlin, Hornet and Pacer. They also built the infamous muscle duo, the Javelin and AMX. However, most people consider the AMC Eagle to be their greatest hit. And that is because it was a well-engineered model that sparked the modern trends of the car industry. The Eagle was one of the first, if not the first crossover model in the world.

But it is only today that people can see how important and influential this car was. As expected, the Eagle was a relatively popular car, especially in areas with harsh climates and long winters. AMC even produced coupe, wagon, compact and convertible versions of the Eagle, all with AWD systems as standard. Unfortunately, AMC was losing money elsewhere and was forced out of the business in 1987, which meant the death of the Eagle, as well.

  1. Oldsmobile

Oldsmobile was one of the oldest car companies in the world. They founded this legendary brand in 1897 and discontinued it in 2004. Over the years, there were over 35 million cars they produced under the Oldsmobile name. And more than a dozen of their legendary nameplates are valuable classic cars today. The Oldsmobile brand was also famous for its inventions and new technologies.

In fact, Olds could rival Cadillac with some of their luxury models. The list of Oldsmobile’s greatest hits includes the first muscle car in form of the 1949 Rocket 88 and their bestselling Cutlass line, the first turbocharged car in the world. They also offered the 1962 Jetfire and the legendary Oldsmobile 442. However, the top pick is the gorgeous Oldsmobile Toronado. This was a big, powerful personal luxury coupe with a twist since it had front wheel drive.

In those days, only a few imports came with front-wheel drive, while all domestic cars, regardless of the class or engine, had rear wheel drive. However, Oldsmobile wanted to introduce something different, so they constructed the ingenious FWD system. Designers drew a fantastic looking shape with low roof and hidden headlights, while the power came from a big block 455 V8 with 385 HP.

  1. La Salle

General Motors presented La Salle in 1927. It was a luxury brand they established to fill the market gap between Cadillac and their more common brands like Buick or Oldsmobile. La Salle was under the control of Cadillac, so they developed it alongside. The concept was fairly successful, so the La Salle was a relatively popular model.

The big part of its appeal was the design and technology. Car buyers got a baseline Cadillac for less money, which appealed to a wider audience. However, by the end of the ‘40s, General Motors realized that having several brands covering the same market segment wasn’t practical, so they decided to kill the brand.

  1. Cord

Despite being involved with Duesenberg and Auburn, Errett Lobban Cord was a successful car salesman and businessman who had the dream of building cars under his own name. So, in 1929, he established a company he called Cord, introducing his first model, the L-29.

Cord’s philosophy behind his cars was simple: Offer advanced technology, powerful engines, and gorgeous designs. The L-29 had bodies the finest coachbuilding companies produced with one interesting feature, front wheel drive. In those days, the FWD layout was unheard of, so Cord was the only manufacturer in the world with this drivetrain.

But the most famous Cord was the fantastic 812, which featured Art Deco styling, front wheel drive and a powerful V8 engine. Unfortunately, despite being a favorite ride of the Hollywood elite, Cord was forced to close its doors in 1937.

  1. Plymouth

Starting in 1928 and ending in 2001, Plymouth is still quite common on American roads. This company started as an economy car brand for the newly founded Chrysler Corporation, which produced luxury models. However, they needed an affordable brand. During its production, the Plymouth became famous as dependable models with nice designs.

Apart from building countless family sedans and wagons, Plymouth was famous for its performance cars, especially during the ‘60s and muscle era. The Hemi Cuda, Roadrunners and GTXs were all the rage, but there was one misunderstood model that was their brave attempt to produce a factory hot rod.

In 1997 Plymouth presented the Prowler. It was a retro-futuristic roadster with a V6 engine and fantastic looks. A follow up to the Viper, the Prowler was the hit on the show circuit, so Chrysler wanted to capitalize on that. Despite having initial success, the car proved to be a failure. And that was mainly due to the fact that customers expected V8, not V6 power.

  1. Duesenberg

Despite being on the market for only 24 years, from 1913 to 1937, Duesenberg left an everlasting mark on the American and global automobile industry. In fact, this brand was so fantastic that even today, 80 years since it was gone, people still recognize the name and the legacy.

Affectionately called “Duesy,” Duesenberg was responsible for some of the greatest American-made cars of all times. The idea behind the brand was to offer luxury, bespoke cars with powerful engines and uncompromised performance. Back in the day, there were plenty of luxury brands, but none of them paid much attention to performance.

However, Duesenberg did, and the heart of most models were those fantastic straight eight engines, which they hand-built. And they were super-fast for the day. In fact, the SSJ models that featured supercharged engines delivered a whopping 320 HP.

  1. Edsel

The Edsel story is one of the biggest commercial failures in the car business, even by today’s industry standards. In the late ’50s, Ford launched the Edsel, an upscale brand they based on Ford and Mercury models they planned to compete with Oldsmobile and Buick.

But when they officially presented the car in 1959, people were puzzled. After promising sales in the first few months, the interest of buyers simply disappeared, so Ford struggled to sell the Edsel cars. In 1960, after just two years on the market, Ford killed Edsel. So, what was the problem with the Edsel?

Quite simply, it was the hype that was the problem. Ford invested so much money to present the Edsel as a fantastic new car with unrivaled features and power, that people were expecting something special. Instead, they got an upscale Ford with a funny design. So, when the market realized that, the demand disappeared.

  1. Pontiac

They founded Pontiac in 1926 as a part of GM’s Oakland Division. Pontiac was just the economy version of Chevrolet. For decades, Pontiac served as a boring part of the GM lineup. But, then in the late ‘50s, Pontiac started exploring the performance market with a series of powerful cars, bold designs and performance versions.

Suddenly, Pontiac was the hottest brand in GM’s portfolio and hit among car fans. And that is how the legendary GTO was born as the first proper muscle car. Best of all, it was Pontiac’s biggest hit by far.

Pontiac presented the GTO in 1964 and discontinued it in 1974. The GTO was a car that created the muscle car market and culture. But even though Pontiac is gone, the magic of the GTO and other Pontiac muscle car models will live on forever.

  1. Mercury

Established as Ford’s answer to Buick and Chrysler in 1938, Mercury was always about producing an upscale version of Ford products. Concentrating on the luxury market, Mercury was the link between economy Ford and upscale Lincoln products for decades. However, with the changing car market, Mercury was not profitable anymore. So, Ford made the decision to kill the brand in 2011.

Even though they always based those Mercury models on similar Fords, the company had the freedom to create its own cars with distinct flavors, much different than comparable Fords. Most people knew the Cougar or Cyclone models, but the Marauder was one of the last great Mercury models. In fact, it was a true four-door muscle car. Based on the boring Grand Marquis, which they never intended to be a performance car, Mercury turned it into one by installing a highly-tuned 4.6-liter V8 with 302 HP.

And then they added a revised suspension, gearbox and brakes. All those changes turned this sleepy and comfy sedan into a sharp muscle car. The black paint, one of three colors available, gave the Marauder its menacing looks and aggressive stance. And all that clearly differentiated it from its more sedate cousins.

These are the 20 defunct American car companies and their greatest hits. Do you remember any of these? Although some were failures, while others soared yet faded fast, they most certainly left their mark on the American automobile history books.

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