It may sound obvious, but running an automaker is no small undertaking. Designing, engineering, building, selling, and servicing cars takes thousands of people and millions of dollars to do, often across entire countries, or across the world. It’s a huge logistical operation, and one that could potentially affect millions of people depending on how popular a model is. So it makes it that much stranger when an automaker — especially a once popular one — shuts its doors and fades away.
Several automakers have closed their doors suddenly without warning
The past 15 years have been full of these: Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Mercury, and Plymouth are just a few to name. But thousands of automakers have tried their hand at cracking the American market and failed. Some publicly collapsed, like Duesenberg, Tucker, DeLorean, Edsel, Studebaker-Packard, DeLorean, and AMC, but many just shut their doors one day and that was it.
And that’s what we’re focusing on today. Avoiding the well-known failures and trying not to go too obscure, there are 10 automakers that were once big (or tried to break big) in America and have since been lost to history.
It isn’t a name that even most gearheads could recall today, but from 1927 to to 1940, LaSalle was one of the most prestigious automakers in America. Slotting above Buick and just below Cadillac, LaSalles were in an exciting and enviable position in the GM lineup. They were built to the same standards as Cadillacs, but they were generally a little smaller and used as a test bed for future GM styling trends. Despite outselling Cadillac from 1933 to 1940, GM decided to discontinue the brand.
LaSalle had its fair share of powerful fans, and for the next 40 years, there was a consistent push within GM to revive the brand. Several Motorama concepts, like the 1963 Buick Riviera and the 1975 Cadillac Seville, were all seriously considered as possible LaSalle revivals.
Nash is little known outside collector circles today, but from 1916 to 1957, it was one of the most innovative automakers in the world. In 1939, it introduced the “Weather Eye,” a heating and ventilation system that became the template for every modern HVAC system since (Weather Eye remained in production into the 1980s). In 1941, it introduced the 600, the first unibody model built in America. Today, virtually every car uses the same construction methods. In 1950, it introduced the Rambler, the first American-built car sold as a compact. It was also offered seat belts in its cars that year, another first. And it launched the Nash-Healey in 1951, a Pininfarina-designed sports car that predated the Corvette by two years.
But in 1954, the Kenosha, Wisconsin-based automaker merged with Hudson to form American Motors Corporation, becoming America’s fourth-largest automaker. By 1957, all Nash models were renamed Ramblers. In 1988, AMC disappeared after it was bought by Chrysler.
3. De Soto
At a time when upper mid-market cars were big business, De Soto served as Chrysler’s Mercury/Oldsmobile competitor. When it was launched in 1929, it set a record as the best-selling first-year model ever, a record that ironically stood until 1960, the brand’s penultimate year. In between, De Soto offered bold, luxurious cars that slotted above Plymouth and Dodge, but below Chrysler and Imperial. Unfortunately, brand mismanagement and a changing segment doomed the brand, and it was discontinued in a messy company reorganization in late 1960. Oddly enough, Chrysler continued to sell trucks badged as De Sotos in Europe, Australia, South America, and the Middle East until 1978.
Fun fact: In 1942, the De Soto was the first American car to have pop-up headlights.
On paper, Merkur really could have worked. While Detroit was trying to beat back the Germans from overtaking the American luxury market (spoiler: It didn’t work), Ford felt that it could beat them at their own game by importing some of its own high-end European models. The XR4Ti (Ford Sierra XR4i in Europe) was a Mustang-sized BMW 3 Series fighter introduced in 1985, and the five-door Scorpio sedan (née Ford Scorpio) was a Mercedes E-Class competitor that bowed in 1988. But high prices, a lack of brand prestige, and internal distrust from the Lincoln-Mercury dealers who had to sell them doomed Merkur. Despite fielding two genuinely good cars, Ford axed the brand in 1989.
For years, Daihatsu was one of Japan’s largest automakers. By the late ’80s, with American demand for Japanese cars increasing year after year, the company felt it was time to jump in. It launched in 1987 with the Charade, a subcompact hatchback, and followed up with the Rocky, a Suzuki Samurai-fighting subcompact 4×4 in 1988. But relatively high prices, a lack of dealership network and parts availability, and a relatively small market for its compact models spelled the end for the brand. By 1992, it quietly left the American market. In 2016, Daihatsu was bought outright by Toyota.
The British auto industry was in shambles in the 1980s, but the historic Rover brand felt that it could do two things to bring it back from the brink: partner with a more successful brand, and crack the American market. In 1986, it launched the 800-Series, a luxury sedan based on the Honda Legend. Then in 1987, it launched in America as the Sterling 800 — which unfortunately launched at the same time as the Acura Legend.
From the start, the poorly-built Sterling was no match for the nearly-identical Acura. The 800 had a more luxurious interior and actually handled a little better, but reliability and fit-and-finish were generally terrible, and it was more expensive. American luxury buyers didn’t bite, and Sterling disappeared in 1992 after five years and fewer than 40,000 sales.
In 1972, General Motors partnered with Japanese automaker Isuzu to build the LUV, a compact pickup truck. By the 1980s, Isuzu became a strong-selling brand in its own right thanks to the rugged Trooper SUV, compact I-Mark, and handsome, Guigario-designed Impulse sports car, among others. The automaker even crossed over into popular culture with its famous Joe Isuzu ad campaign.
But it had a rough time in the 1990s. Most of its cars were sold through GM wearing Geo badges, Honda partnered with it to build an SUV, and by the end of the decade, the majority of its models were rebadged Chevys or Hondas. Its two final models, the Vehicross and Axiom were boldly innovative, but they did little to reverse the fortunes of the brand. Isuzu ended passenger vehicle production in 2009, and today, it manufactures commercial trucks.
Believe it or not, there’s a Nash connection with Eagle: It was launched by Chrysler to sell the refugees from the AMC deal. Eagle’s first car was the final-year AMC Eagle (which was equipped with the Weather Eye HVAC system, no less), becoming … the Eagle Eagle. It also sold the Renault-based Medallion and the Premier, an AMC/Renault-developed premium sedan designed to take on the likes of Acura and Audi. But once those models faded, Eagle largely became a repository for badge-engineered cars from Mitsubishi and the Chrysler LH-Based Eagle Vision. By 1999, Eagle had disappeared for good.
South Korean automaker Daewoo broke into the American market in the late ’80s with the compact Pontiac LeMans. In 1998, it returned under its own name with a trio of Guigario-designed small cars: the Lanos, Leganza, and Nubira. But the brand rollout was a sprawling, disorganized mess, and by 2002, the company was bought by GM as it sat mired in bankruptcy. It did leave one parting gift to the world — the truly awful Chevrolet Aveo.
Suzuki had been successful for decades in Europe and Asia. But despite strong motorcycle and ATV sales, its cars didn’t arrive in America until 1985, when Chevy began selling the Cultus as the Sprint. By the end of the decade, Suzuki was selling the Swift (a near-identical cousin of the Geo Metro) and the subcompact Samurai 4×4. It built a number of compact cars and SUVs for the next two decades, but had a rocky 2000s. Despite selling over 100,000 cars in 2006 and releasing a legitimately good compact sedan, the Kizashi, the global financial crisis doomed the brand in America. It disappeared in 2014, and today, there’s barely a trace of it left.