Home Cars Wheels of Fortune: These Car Models Turned Around Failing Automakers

Wheels of Fortune: These Car Models Turned Around Failing Automakers

Vukasin Herbez July 28, 2023

The worldwide auto industry has always been highly competitive. Only the smartest and most successful companies managed to survive the challenges that have left many other companies forgotten in the sands of time. But the truth is that even the best car companies have endured economic turmoil. In fact, some of the biggest automakers had periods in which they were dangerously close to closing their doors if not for a few important models.

Where many failed, the victors continued. Despite their troubles, these companies presented the right cars at the right time and emerge as winners. Find out the car models that saved even the biggest car companies from doom right here.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL

Our list starts with arguably the most spectacular way of getting out of bankruptcy. After Germany’s defeat in WW2, Mercedes-Benz was in a complete financial and infrastructural disaster. Their factories were gone and the company could only rely on pre-war models that were quickly made obsolete by the competition (via Telegraph).

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Luckily for Mercedes-Benz, Rudolf Uhlenhaut was a daredevil who loved taking risks. He developed the W194 for the 1952 Sportscar racing season. That car was constructed of lightweight aluminum and had a 3.0L straight-six engine. The result was the iconic W198 300SL, a perfect blend of beauty and performance that proved to be an instant hit among US customers. The Gullwing coupé was introduced at the 1954 New York Auto Show and produced from 1955-1957. The equally impressive roadster was available from 1957-1963. A total of 3,258 examples left the factory, effectively saving Mercedes-Benz and allowing them to re-enter the flourishing American market with the rest of their lineup.

BMW 2002
Photo Credit: BMW

BMW Neue Klasse

Just like Mercedes-Benz, BMW was in terrible financial standing after World War II. The company had its facilities destroyed. They relied heavily on the BMW 502, a luxurious limousine that struggled to find customers in the post-war era. Similar to Mercedes-Benz, the Bavarian company had a plan to conquer the American market with big V8-powered GT coupés and convertibles. But with no strong racing heritage at the moment, the 503 and 507 caused more harm than good, leaving BMW with even bigger debts (via BMW).

Photo Credit: BMW Group

Introduced in 1966, this nimble two-door sedan offered unmatched handling and lively performance at an affordable price. The model became a market hit in Europe and the United States. At first, it started its life as a 1.6L-powered car. But with the addition of a two-liter engine, the 2002 became the quintessential enthusiast’s car and the basis for the upcoming 3 Series, the most popular BMW model today. Sales of the 02 Series enabled BMW to expand its lineup to more exclusive E3 and E9 sedans and coupes, and it also rebranded the company thanks to numerous wins in rallies and circuit races throughout Europe.

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

Buick Regal

Unfortunately, the 2000s were only good for some long-lasting American brands. Oldsmobile, Mercury, Plymouth, and Pontiac disappeared and Buick was also on the brink of extinction. But instead of ceasing production, General Motors choose a different path for the struggling brand. Hungry for new cars, the Chinese market got Buick. The best-selling model was the Regal. In honesty, the Regal was nothing more than just a rebadged Opel Insignia, a European mid-size sedan (via Autoblog).

Photo Credit: GM

But with Buick badges and the power of advertising, the Regal worked well in the Chinese market, where it sold more than 100,000 copies in 2014 and 2015. With the fifth generation Regal, General Motors attracted new customers, especially younger buyers, and a majority of them had yet to have a prior GM history.

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Dodge Omni

After the wild and carefree 1960s, the oil crisis and ecological regulations hit the North American auto market hard, leaving Detroit-based manufacturers in utter chaos. The previous decade was all about unleashing monster amounts of horsepower. However, the 1970s commanded a completely different approfor for the companies to survive. As the smallest of the Big Three, Chrysler probably had it the worst because it had the fewest resources for developing a car to tackle the new challenges on the market (via Old Car Memories).

Photo Credit: Dodge

In the emerging economy car segment, Ford had the Pinto, Chevrolet had the Vega, and Chrysler came up with Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon. It was a small front-wheel drive subcompact that turned out to be the best American answer to the flood of affordable, high-quality Japanese imports. The Omni sold hundreds of thousands of examples in its first years of production, helping Chrysler survive troublesome times. Chrysler sold almost a million examples from 1977 to 1990.

Photo Credit: Jaguar

JaguarBeforer to TATA Motors’ buyout of Jaguar from Ford, the famous British brand was so stuck in nostalgia and retro design that all its cars looked like modern interpretations of their most iconic 1960s silhouette. Even though it was their most stylish car, the XK had E-Type’s visual DNA all over it, not to mention the XJ limousine, which still heavily relied on the same silhouette from the late ’60s (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: Jaguar

So when the XF was finally introduced as a spiritual successor to the S-Type, it was clear that the new owner was up to something good. Finally, there was a modern Jaguar on the market. The car kick-started a new chapter for the British auto manufacturer. If that important step hadn’t happened, Jaguar just didn’t have the weapon to battle intense competition from BMW and Lexus in particular. But with the XF and its subsequent models, Jaguar returned to the global market in style, repositioning itself as the brand that knows how to mix performance, elegance, and luxury in the most balanced fashion.

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Aston Martin DB7

During the 1970s and ’80s, Aston Martin produced some wonderful machinery. Yet they needed more for the company to stay afloat. Even though it helped Aston Martin survive a couple of years longer, the fantastic Lagonda sedan couldn’t keep the company profitable, so Ford took it over in 1988. After years of development, the DB7 saw the light of day in 1994 (via Telegraph).

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Thanks to the wonders of part sharing and mass production in favor of traditional coachbuilding, the DB7 brought much-needed profits for the company. But it all changed when the DB7 got V12 power in 1999 with the introduction of the DB7 V12 Vantage. It was the ultimate version of this car with 420 bhp and a truly sublime performance. But the most important thing is that the DB7 sold in over 7,000 examples, which was more than all the previous DB cars. Great sales numbers also paved the way for the glorious DB9 to arrive. Today, Aston Martin is doing better than ever. If it weren’t for the DB7, their current success wouldn’t have been possible.

Photo Credit: Streetside Classics

Porsche Boxster

Over the course of automotive history, Porsche had several tumultuous periods, one of which occurred in the early 1990s. Faced with the fact that the classic 911 wasn’t bringing in enough money due to rapidly declining sales numbers and high manufacturing costs, the company had to come up with a new car to attract a new wave of customers who wanted something other than the aging 911 (via Road and Track).

Photo Credit: Motor 1

The first-generation Boxster was launched in 1996, offering a characteristic yet slightly altered Porsche experience for a fraction of the price. As a result, the company soon found new customers all around the world. The success of the Boxster not only saved Porsche but also enabled the company to develop new models such as the Cayman and Cayenne. They were able to do this while keeping the legendary 911 still running as the quintessential Porsche. After the recovery, Porsche is living its best years with record sales figures and it was all thanks to the first-generation Boxster.

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Peugeot 205

When French giant Peugeot took over Citroen in 1975, forming the PSA Group and the European division of Chrysler in 1978, it initially seemed like a good idea. But it soon put the company into financial trouble. One part of the solution was the French state which granted a considerable sum of money. They also set forth a series of import restrictions for Japanese cars, while the other was of an engineering nature. In 1983, Peugeot launched the 205 supermini. It was a high-quality, spacious, and charming three-door or five-door compact. As one of the best market offerings in the class, the 205 soon conquered Europe, reimagining the Peugeot brand in just a few years (via Media Stellantis).

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Once conservative, the Peugeot became youthful and hip almost overnight. Numerous special edition versions of the 205 helped nurture the newly acquired image. In the years before the 205, Peugeot had some rally experience. And luckily for the company, its great financial situation coincided with the Group B years in rallying. Peugeot was able to develop the 205 T16, an iconic Group B car that made people love the ordinary 205 even more. Thanks to the 205, Peugeot gained massive profits. But more importantly, it established itself as the maker of high-quality compact cars, which is by far the most lucrative market segment in Europe.

Photo Credit: Dodge

Dodge Aries

Even though the Omni helped Dodge survive the first big oil crisis, the second one came in 1979. Honestly, the Aries, or Plymouth Reliant as it’s also known, wasn’t developed exclusively thanks to Chrysler’s engineers. To be able to finance the development of the new K-Platform, Chrysler asked for a massive loan for $1.5 billion. Thanks to Lee Iacocca, who was Chrysler’s chairman at the time, the Carter administration granted the loan, and development was successfully finished (via Curb Side Classics).

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The Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant were introduced in 1981. The cars weren’t much more than downsized mid-size cars that a Mitsubishi engine could also power. But in a struggling economy, these cars were exactly what Chrysler needed to stay afloat. Both cars sold more than 150,000 copies in their first year of production. During their nine-year production, they sold more than a million units sold. This was an impressive number, especially with the state of the industry and taking into consideration Japanese competition. Despite their flaws, the Aries and Reliant were exactly the right cars at the right moment. The car saved Chrysler from canceling operations at the dawn of the ’80s.

Photo Credit: Edmunds

Lamborghini Gallardo

What do Chrysler and Lamborghini have in common? Well, Lamborghini was owned by the Chrysler Corporation from 1987 to 1994 when Malaysian investment group Mycom Setdco and Indonesian group V’Power Corporation acquired the company. At the time, Lamborghini had catastrophic sales numbers and the company eventually went to Volkswagen Group, which put them under the Audi wing. That turned out to be just the right decision because the Germans finally knew what to do to save the legendary Italian brand (via Road and Track).

Lamborghini Gallardo
Photo Credit: Lamborghini

Apart from continuing to develop the flagship Murcielago, Audi found a way to make the company profitable while maintaining its appeal. The savior came in the form of the Gallardo, a V10-powered coupé and roadster launched in 2003. This fantastic compact Lamborghini was precisely what the company needed, and 933 units were sold in the first year alone when there was just the coupe available. In 2013, the Gallardo was replaced by the Huracan. With 14,022 sold examples in 10 years, the Gallardo is by far the best-selling Lamborghini of all time. Apart from being the best non-flagship car the company has ever created. It will go down in history as the car that actually saved the company from collapse.

Photo Credit: Ford

Ford Taurus

The early ’80s were a bad time for American manufacturers. Sales were at an all-time low, and recession hit the industry. Fuel went up again, and foreign companies took a significant share of the market. American carmakers were still recovering from the challenging 1970s (via Ford Authority).

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The Ford Motor Company was in financial trouble, experiencing slow sales across its lineup. The only solution was to invest in a fresh new model to show the world what Ford could do. The development started in the early 1980s, and in 1985, Ford introduced the Taurus. It was an all-new, midsized sedan with front-wheel drive and a selection of new engines. This was a big step forward for Ford and the American car industry since the Taurus looked and felt like a premium import model. They gave it a sleek aerodynamic design and great driving characteristics. Sales went through the roof and Ford scored a big hit with the buyers. The Taurus became one of the most influential American cars of the 1980s, saving Ford from inevitable financial failure.

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Porsche 944

This list already featured one small Porsche that singlehandedly saved the company. However, the 944 was the original savior from the early ’80s. Porsche was always a top name in the sports car world. For a long time, they were just the manufacturer of the 911. During the ’70s changing economic climate, Porsche introduced the smaller, more affordable 924 (via Your Radio).

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So, in late 1982, Porsche introduced the 944. With a bigger 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 170 HP, the 944 had decent performance. As a result, it reached a whole new group of Porsche buyers. Porsche introduced many upgraded, more powerful versions during its nine-year run. One was the Turbo, or S2, which transformed the small 944 into a serious driving machine. So while the 928 and 911 were losing money for the company, the smaller 944 earned enough to keep Porsche alive during the ’80s and the early ’90s.

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Volkswagen Golf Mk1

Volkswagen became one of the car industry’s giants after World War II. However, their primary challenge was transforming from a single-model manufacturer into the modern company it is today. The company produced many of its variants since its main product was the popular Volkswagen Beetle. They included the T1 and T2 vans, the Karmann Ghia coupe, and the 1600 TL sedan or wagon. Despite the different appearances, all those cars were the humble VW Beetle underneath their bodies (via Auto Evolution).

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By the end of the 1960s, Volkswagen realized it would soon be in financial jeopardy. This was because they knew the market would eventually stop buying the Beetle in all its variants. They feared the Volkswagen company would have nothing to offer. So, in the early 1970s when sales started dropping, Volkswagen invested in a new line of models led by the Golf Mk1. This was a completely new concept for them. It featured a new front-wheel-drive platform and a straight-four engine. The new Golf had nothing in common with the old Beetle. In fact, Volkswagen gambled everything they had. Fortunately, the risk paid off, and Volkswagen is now one of the biggest car companies in the world.

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AMC Gremlin

AMC introduced the Gremlin on April 1, 1970, so many people considered it a joke. The Gremlin was a subcompact model with small dimensions and diminutive power. It also came at an affordable price, attracting the youth market. Until then, no American automotive manufacturer had tried such a thing. However, AMC had to do it since it was on the verge of bankruptcy as the sole independent carmaker in America at the time (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

Car fans have always known AMC for their inexpensive, economy cars. While Detroit’s Big Three were busy building full-size machinery, AMC produced compact vehicles. However, by the end of the ’60s, GM, Ford, and Chrysler had also entered the compact car field. This caused AMC to start losing ground. So the answer was to go to the next level with the subcompact model. The market well received the Gremlin since it was a cool, affordable car for the free-thinking early 1970s. It sold in high enough quantities to keep AMC stable for the rest of the decaEven thoughthat it saved AMC from going bust in the ’70s, it couldn’t protect it from closing in the mid-’80s.

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Jaguar XK120

After World War, II the British car industry was in ruins and in desperate need of a good export product. As a luxury car company, Jaguar was particularly affected and needed to sell in America. But what was a better way to do it than to make a fantastic sports car and draw attention from US customers (via Hagerty)?

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Called the XK 120, this was one of Jaguar’s quintessential sports cars and one of the fastest models of the decade. It was introduced in 1948 with a powerful straight-six engine, a sleek, streamlined body, and a top speed of 120 mph. The rest was history and Jaguar not only sold well but also inspired the production of the E Type. Even though it wasn’t cheap, Jaguar sold over 40.000 cars in 11 years. The 120 brought much-needed financial stability to this brand.

Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Caravan

Chrysler Corporation was in big trouble in the late 70s and early ’80s. Its enormous losses, poor sales, and lack of new models pushed the company nearly to the point of no return. When famous ex-Ford executive Lee Iacocca came to Chrysler in the late ’70s, almost everyone thought that there wasn’t anything he could do to save the fallen giant. However, Iacocca proved them wrong and returned Chrysler to the top position in the industry in just a few short years (via Hagerty).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

His primary weapon was a new line of minivan models under the Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth names. The first model was Chrysler Town & Country, which was the right car for the times and basically the world’s first mass-produced minivan. The model established the minivan class and became the first Chrysler sales hit in decades. It was a perfect car for suburban America, replacing big, thirsty station wagons and preceding the SUV craze of today. The Town & Country proved influential and revolutionary and has stayed in production until today.

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