Variety is the spice of life, especially when we’re talking about Pontiac GTOs, AMC Pacers, Saab 900s, and Checker Marathons. Car brands come and go; it’s a sad fact of corporate life. What was hot one day is yesterday’s news the next.
1986 AMC Eagle — the world’s first crossover! | Fiat-Chrysler
Over the years, some companies and brands have risen above others, even if their financial good fortune eventually ran out of gas. We’ve picked 10 car brands that left us too soon, either due to bad timing, bizarre marketing, or an undeserved lack of interest from the general public.
So, kick back and let us take you for a tour of the car brands we’d love to jumpstart again.
Let’s kick things off with the company that gave us the Pacer, the Gremlin, and the Hornet. Then again, you might think we’ve lost our minds after listing that triumvirate of automotive punch-lines. The fact of the matter is American Motors Corporation did a whole lot with a shoe-string budget. While the Pacer seems silly now, at the time the proportions and visibility were innovative. It was also supposed to have a Wankel rotary engine, though the idea was shelved at the last second. Look at the skyrocketing prices of AMC’s muscle cars – like the AMX, Rebel Machine, and Javelin – and you’ll see America’s underdog auto giant is finally starting to gain respect. And did we forget to mention the AMC Eagle sedan and wagon? A jacked-up suspension, all-wheel-drive, and emphasis on utility; sound like a crossover to you? Too bad it came out about one decade ahead of the mid-1990s SUV craze.
This one hurts because Pontiac truly deserved better. With General Motors on the ropes during the Great Recession, the company needed to slash costs and lose brands. Pontiac, a highly-respected marque that traced its roots back to the late 1920s (it was originally a spinoff from GM’s Oakland brand), eventually got the heave-ho, too. That’s sour grapes, especially for a brand that gave us cars like the Trans Am, GTO, Grand Prix, and toward the end, the mighty 415 horsepower G8 GXP sedan. OK, the Aztek was a swing and a miss. But GM’s “excitement division” didn’t deserve to get the chop.
Let’s do this simply to give poor Lincoln a little breathing room. Snuggled between run-of-the-mill Fords and range-topping Lincolns, Mercury cars were a luxury alternative that let you still afford rent. The original Cougar makes Mustangs look gaudy – yes, it does – and the 1986 Sable family sedan still woos with its fancy light-up front grille (ooo, purty!). What Mercury did was allow Ford to fuss around with sticking a mildly fancier nameplate on what was, essentially, a more expensive Ford. That’s OK when you’re talking mid-range product, but not so cool when you’re trying to pull one over on luxury car buyers.
If you’ve ever driven one, you’ll think we’re crazy. Checkers aren’t the most dynamic devices on the road, not by a mile. Then again, if you’ve been a passenger in one, this is the best idea ever. The cabin of a Checker is absolutely cavernous. Checker Marathons are the car equivalent of a snaggle-toothed English bulldog: You either think it’s adorable, or just about the ugliest thing on earth. The early models were motivated by a fantastic inline-six built by Continental Motors, until Checker began using more pedestrian Chevy V8s by the mid-1960s. Toward the end, Kalamazoo-based Checker was running on borrowed time and the build quality suffered. But you can’t hold that against what many still regard as the King of Cabs. This one named “Janie” was the last Checker to remain in service, retiring in 1999. It was sold by Bonhams this year for $7,700.
Suzuki was always a little outside the norm when it came to Japanese automakers. While the Japanese auto giant is still going strong globally, its U.S. operations faded away back in 2012. Here in the States, Suzuki often collaborated with other companies – particularly GM – to develop and sell economical cars and SUVs. Some were charming, like the Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick cute-ute duo. Others, like the Samurai mini-off-roader, liked to tip over (as per Consumer Reports). The biggest shame is that Suzuki saved one of its best models for last. The Kizashi sedan is widely regarded as a better Jetta than the one Volkswagen was building at the time. Handsome and with very solid driving manners, the Kizashi should have been the car to save Suzuki in the U.S. It wasn’t, and it didn’t.
Much like Suzuki, the Daihatsu brand is more of a case of “what if.” You might not remember, but Daihatsu made a half-hearted stab at cracking the U.S. market with the Rocky, a pint-sized SUV, and the forgettable Charade economy car. Yes, it’s not a good sign when the car you’re selling is called “Charade.” By the early-1990s, Daihatsu was gone. Except now, as part of the Toyota corporate empire, the brand has so much more to offer. Type “Daihatsu kei car” into Google, and be prepared for a range of cars that make Legos look aerodynamic. Built for Japan’s narrow roads and with tiny engines of only 660-cc capacity, Daihatsu’s microcars are small, boxy, and totally endearing. If you’ve ever tried to find street parking in Manhattan, these strange (and short) machines make total sense.
Another victim of GM’s near meltdown, the Saab brand came to a messy conclusion when it was sold piece-meal in 2010. GM’s 20-year relationship with Saab never quite gelled, to put it mildly. Badge engineered models didn’t sway the faithful who held the 9000, 900, and classic 99 models in such high regard. Whereas Volvo always seemed so serious, the best Saabs liked to have some fun. The early adoption of turbocharging and front-wheel-drive kept the company on the front-line of car tech. The classic 900 and 9000 models were also renowned for their vast trunks – not a bad thing, considering Saab’s ski-loving clientele. We still hold out hope that Saab stages a comeback.
Here’s a “duesie” of a choice! The name says it all, as does the fact the term “it’s a duesie” was inspired by none other than Duesenberg’s range of eye-wateringly expensive cars. Always built to a customer’s whim, buying a Duesenberg was like ordering a fitted suit and customizing a house, all at the same time. The brand’s glory years occurred during one of the nation’s darkest hours, unfortunately. With the Great Depression gutting the U.S. economy in the early-1930s, Duesenberg had a range of cars that would have made Jay Gatsby blush. Yet, considering there are people lining up to buy multi-million-dollar Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bugattis, and others (of far more dubious taste), it’s amazing no one has resurrected this grand brand and aimed it, once again, at the automotive stratosphere. The old ones already are; this one, a 1931 Model J Tourster by Derham, sold at RM Sotheby’s Monterey auction this year for $1,320,000.
Chrysler’s budget brand often played a starring role in the company’s lineup. The 1960s were the glory years for Plymouth, thanks to insane muscle machines like the Road Runner (the horn really did go “meep meep!” when you pressed it), the Cuda, and GTX. Yet even when it wasn’t building tire-smoking, Hemi-powered monsters, Plymouth served as a solid starting point for entry to the Chrysler Corporation’s product portfolio. Who doesn’t remember Voyager minivans roaming almost every suburban street in the ’80s and ’90s? In the end, Plymouths were all but indistinguishable from Dodge and Chrysler products, and the brand disappeared with a whimper back in 2001.
Citroen is still going strong, but the fabled French brand hasn’t been available in the U.S. since the 1970s. Outside the realm of exotic cars, you’re not going to find a more faithful fan-base than what you get with Citroen owners. Can you blame them? The DS sedan still looks futuristic more than 60 years after it was launched. And the 2CV – originally designed to be as cheap as possible, and capable of transporting a basket of eggs over a rutted field without breaking them – is automotive minimalism at its finest. Citroen has always lived up to its avant garde image, even if the maintenance bills can leave you muttering a few colorful French swearwords. With all the obsession over mega powerful German luxury cars, we’d love to see Citroen run counter to everyone else (something the brand does best) and entice us with calming luxury in a stunning body-shell.