Happy Halloween! Today’s the day for children to add themselves to the obesity epidemic and for grown-ups to get into costume and add to the debauchery. If you are too old for candy and too busy fixing your car for sex, then it is time for some campfire stories. And in the spirit of today’s dark afterlife theme, let us talk about defunct and zombie car brands.
Since Halloween is about death and summoning the devil, maybe some car brands are better off being dead and staying dead. Though we aren’t going to go over all the world’s defunct car manufacturers here. Not when there are 500 from the UK alone and many more in the US. God no, the universe will end soon enough and I have plans.
Luckily, for relevancy sake, the internet is full of longing and sentimentality for a handful of defunct car brands. So, let’s zoom in on those few names that get namedropped in every “X company shouldn’t have died” or “Bring back brand Y!” comment that is floating around the internet.
Keep those jumper cables away and let’s get the obvious out of the way. There is no chance of resuscitating Holden. General Motors’ Australian brand died with the discontinuation of the Australian-developed rear-drive Commodore.
I’m under no illusion that the final Aussie Commodore, the VFII, was a sales deadweight. Hobbled by unnecessarily big thirsty engines, the VF-series was no match for the smaller and more fuel-efficient Toyota Camry.
Sales of the Commodore reflect that reality as it has been declining since 2002. What’s more, in each of those years, it made up less of Holden’s total sales even as the company itself was sinking in sales.
With such numbers, the Commodore had turned from an Australian staple into a niche product. General Motors’ bigwigs weren’t going to keep a whole plant running just to keep it in production. In 2017, the Elizabeth plant was shuttered, and the business shifted towards rebadging imports.
With the plant closed, expenses should have been slashed, and its imported models should have galvanised Holden’s product range. Sadly, it did quite the opposite. From 2007 to 2017, Holden sales declined 61.6 per cent. After the plant’s closure, Holden sales dropped 67.3 per cent in 2018 alone.
Despite giving Australians a European-developed Commodore that was a true Camry challenger, Holden got the finger. Sales of the Commodore went from 23,000 in 2017 to just 9000 in 2018.
The VFII wasn’t another product. It was a flagship, the last vestige of Australia’s national pride in the global car industry. And when the bottom line demanded its head, Australia felt betrayed. As a result, Holden’s gentle slide into that good night became a death spiral.
Sadly, bringing back the original Commodore formula wouldn’t give Holden a second chance either. Nobody really cares for big rear-drive sedans nowadays. Furthermore, with the wounds of General Motors’ shock betrayal still raw, it is unlikely that things will go back to the way it once was.
Sweden is a very odd country. Sitting on the edge of the world and populated by a modest society that prefers understatement, the Nordic nation has an esoteric allure.
Though, unlike your shoddy Ikea cabinet and its bland meatballs, the country is a vibrant engineering powerhouse. It is home to famous names, such as bearing manufacturer SKF, safety-obsessed Volvo, and military aircraft manufacturer Saab.
Speaking of Saab. Every car enthusiast seems to pine for the return of Saab Automobile, another victim of General Motors’ mismanagement. Weird, as people that own Saabs aren’t what many would describe as your regular car enthusiast. There is no motorsports heritage or striking cars to get hot under the collar for.
Yes, Saab did make some tough and well-engineered cars that can take on Sweden’s harsh climate and hazardous roads. Its focus on safety was one of the reasons how its cars became the choice of white-collared folk.
Like Sweden, it is said that Saab owners are attracted to its esoteric qualities. Though I’m not certain if the cockpit light off switch was one of them. A German psychologist even studied Saab owners and discovered that they have displayed the “highest level of psychological involvement” with their cars. Apparently, the article describes it as “more than 10 times the passion of the average Volkswagen driver”. Trust the Germans to quantify feelings.
Unfortunately, feelings aren’t going to put food on one’s table. For all the love a small legion of fans has in their hearts, it won’t make for a stuffed wallet. Especially when Saab’s unique selling point of over-engineering for safety is already owned by fellow Swedish carmaker Volvo.
Currently, there might not be a place for Saab. Reviving the carmaker will just launch it into the same space Volvo is occupying. Adding to that, the world has yet to prove that it has room for two remarkably similar Swedish car brands.
Absent from the sport of rallying since 1991. Lancia is still regarded as one of the greatest names in punting a car through a field at obscene speeds. And being the creator of two of the most beautiful rally cars ever, the Stratos and the Fulvia coupe.
Sadly, since then Lancia has been a shadow of its former self. Currently, the nine-year-old third-generation Ypsilon is its only model. Sold in a few countries, the mediocre hatchback is all that is left of the Lancia name.
Its current woes can be traced back to its saviour, Fiat. The Italian automotive giant acquired Lancia in 1969 and funded a renaissance with the Stratos and Beta family. As Fiat continued to grow, acquiring its fellow Italian car brands like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati, endemic problems began whittling away its customer base.
By 2002, Fiat’s European market share had slid to eight per cent, from a high of 14 per cent at the end of the 1980s. A certain Sergio Marchionne was parachuted in shortly thereafter to rescue the company.
Marchionne focused his attention on fixing Fiat’s finances, but in doing so, seemed to have lost Lancia’s helm. The famed name that gave the world the mad Quattro-slaying 037, was now listless. Instead, left to rebadge and posh-up Fiat and Chrysler cars.
Though Marchionne is no longer steering the giant that is FCA, nobody seems to have any idea what to do with Lancia. Fiat itself is meandering around and pinning all its hopes on the 500. With Alfa Romeo representing in BMW/Mercedes-Benz’s end of town and Maserati challenging Porsche’s. There isn’t a place for Lancia to exist. And with PSA set to merge with FCA, it looks likely that there won’t be.
That is unless FCA decides that rallying equates to off-roading and produces an Italian version of its Jeep brand. Knowing how traditionalists would take that move, perhaps death before dishonour is the most prudent move.
While we are on about FCA, it isn’t surprising to find Chrysler landing a spot on this ignominious list. Unlike many of these entries, Chrysler is one of the largest car makers in the world. The big ‘C’ in FCA, one of America’s ‘Big Three’. And like the rest of the car brands in this list, it deserves to be put out of its misery.
Strangely, for such a giant company with a long history of changing the car industry, there doesn’t seem to be much sentimentality in the Chrysler name. Part of it might have to do with Chrysler creating various cars – particularly the affordable ones – that Americans needed, but not desired.
Truth is, all of Chrysler’s most desirable nameplates are in its many car brands. Nearly every Chrysler creation that stirs the spirit and loins is either a Ram, Dodge, or a Jeep. Notable Chrysler creations of recent memory would be the genre-creating Voyager and eccentric PT Cruiser.
Currently, the only models to wear the Chrysler name is the ageing 300C and the Pacifica MPV. Both models aren’t exactly standing out in the public sphere. The 300C itself is outshone by its Dodge relative, the Charger. As for the Pacifica, it is only famous for being used as a platform for Google’s Waymo to develop its autonomous driving tech.
As it is with Lancia, with FCA caught up in the PSA merger, it would seem unlikely that we would see the Chrysler name being worn on anything interesting or significant. One also has to wonder if a mainstream brand like Chrysler has the emotional capital to ensure a successful return? Possibly not as our next entry demonstrates.
Is there anything more British than Morris Garages? The brand that gave Britain and the world many iconic sports cars. Even today, the MG name still has a touch of colonial charm and romanticism. Though by most objective measures their sports cars were an ownership nightmare that embodied the British car making industry’s shortcomings.
In light of that, the Nanjing Automobile Group’s move to buy up the MG name and its assets in 2006 is perplexing. By the early-2000s the MG Rover Group was an incorrigible mess with nothing much to offer to the automotive world.
Many believe that Nanjing Automobile Group wanted MG Rover’s Longbridge plant. However, a few years later more than half of the original factory was sold off and demolished. The Chinese company didn’t utilise the MG name either, as it merged with Shanghai Automotive International, SAIC, in 2007.
The newly formed MG Motor would resume production of the TF roadster in 2007. It would only be another five years before the brand would launch its first new model, the MG 6. Unfortunately, its intial sedan and hatchback models didn’t garner much success.
It wasn’t until MG started focusing on SUVs that it started getting a foothold in markets outside China. However, the divide between the company’s image as a maker of affordable SUVs and its past as a sports car maker isn’t the main reason why it is on this list.
Besides a familiar name, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for maintaining the brand. If you don’t have any tweed in your wardrobe, the MG name likely holds no emotional value to you. And for most of the world, tweed doesn’t exist outside counterfeit Burberry articles. It is likely that the world’s majority either don’t know what MG is or knows to steer clear of it.
Nevertheless, the MG Motor name is on an upswing. Considering how it is attracting newcomers with no disposition to its past, it looks like SAIC’s long-drawn rebirth of the brand might turn fortuitous. Albeit a very different one.