By: Jesse Adams
“Here lies Pontiac: Beloved cousin to Chevrolet. Dear friend of Burt Reynolds and David Hasselhoff. Shot through the heart by the US Federal Government. Born 1926. Died 2010.”
Of course that’s not actually an epitaph for the dead American car brand, but if Pontiac did have a tombstone in Detroit, Michigan that’s what it should say. Losing a car company is sad. It’s never nice when something dies. But how does it happen? How does a giant corporation like Pontiac, or even a small industry newbie like Fisker, just up and kick the bucket?
The history leading up to the passing of an automotive brand is normally a long and complex one, full of tedious legal-speak and complicated business dealings. But, just as most gravestone etchings do, we can simplify. Let’s bow our heads for a moment’s silence, and then read to find out what happened to these recently deceased carmakers.
The 1990s were do-or-die years for Korean car brands, and unlike Kia and Hyundai, Daewoo was never able to shake its reputation for poor quality budgetmobiles. From 1982 until 1996 all Daewoos were in fact based on General Motors models, but even after that much of its shoddy range was badge-engineered from various Toyotas, Hondas, Opels and Pontiacs. After taking full control of the troubled company in 2002, GM basically stole Daewoo’s best-selling model, the Matiz, re-badged it as a Chevy Spark, and killed the nameplate completely in 2011.
Technically speaking, Fisker isn’t dead. It’s just in a coma. This Californian brand was credited as being one of the first producers of plug-in hybrid cars, with its first and only model, the Karma, unveiled at the 2008 Detroit motor show. After series of delays and several postponed launch dates, Karma customers were finally delivered cars in 2011, but a year and many bad reviews later the Fisker factory closed shop with cashflow problems. The Chinese Wanxiang Group then bought the company in 2014, and plans to relaunch the brand under the name Karma Automotive sometime this year.
Originally designed and built in 1984 as a combat-ready military vehicle, the AM General M998 Humvee was later produced for civilian use and became known as the Hummer H1 in 1992. General Motors then snapped up the brand name in 1998 and continued building the super-sized H1 until 2006. Under GM’s reign, the Hummer brand also produced more leisure oriented H2 and H3 (built for RHD markets in Port Elizabeth) models, but the American giant’s near-bankruptcy in 2009 forced the closure of Hummer in 2010.
Originally created in 1938 to fill a pricing void between entry-level Fords and luxurious Lincolns, Mercury survived for 73 years - mostly with half-hearted attempts to disguise existing Ford models with new grilles and badges. Its most popular car, the Sable, which sold over 2-million units between 1985 and 2005, was a badge-engineered version of the much more popular Ford Taurus. When Ford announced plans to discontinue the name in 2010, Mercury represented only 1% of American car sales.
The Olds story is a particularly sad one, for had its owner GM not closed Oldsmobile’s doors in 2004, it would have been the fourth oldest (existing) car maker in history behind Daimler, Peugeot and Tatra. Founded in 1897 by Ransom E Olds, and then bought by General Motors in 1908, Oldsmobile was known for decades as the executive innovator, and often hosted new tech before any other car in GM’s huge family.
In the late 1980s through to its final years, Oldsmobile also fell prey to GM’s badge-engineering philosophy, which as with many other brands resulted in poor sales. The American public, for good reason, wasn’t keen to spend extra on an Olds when they could get an almost identical Chevy for less. Oldsmobile’s last new car, the Bravada, was a re-badged and more expensive version of the Chevy Blazer.
Yet another American car company which met its demise after its models became re-badged versions of others. Are you picking up a pattern here? Plymouth was started 1928 by the Chrysler Corporation which at the time needed a budget friendlier range than its expensive existing lineup. Its cheaper offerings played an integral role in Chrysler’s survival of the Great Depression in the 1930s, but by the late 70s almost all of its cars were badge-engineered versions of Dodge and Mitsubishi models.
In 2001, Plymouth’s final year, only the Neon was left under the brand name. The wildly-styled Prowler roadster, which was originally launched as a Plymouth in 1997 became a Chrysler model, along with the Voyager minivan in the same year.
Another casualty of GM’s 2009 near-bankruptcy, Pontiac was 84 years old when its last car, a G6 (same as Saab 9-3, Cadillac BLS and Chevy Malibu) rolled off the line in 2010. Named after a famous indian war chief, Pontiac was responsible for many American icons including the 49 to 58 Chieftain (known for its amber Indian head hood ornament), the Trans Am (Burt’s ride of choice in the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit), and the Firebird (a Trans Am version known as KITT was driven by the Hoff in the popular Knight Rider TV series).
An especially ugly Pontiac Aztec (pictured in the gallery above) also starred in the TV series Breaking Bad alongside high school teacher cum drug dealer, Walter White. Rumour has it that GM was instructed by the US government to ditch the Pontiac brand in return for a $60-billion bailout. The feds felt that General Motors’ many American market-specific brands should be culled down to only Chevy and Cadillac, but in the end it was also able to salvage GMC and Buick.
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