It’s tempting for car-makers to branch out of the automotive industry.
For some, it’s a way to invest the profits from car-building into more lucrative areas. For others, it’s a way to stay afloat when an economic downturn whacks the new car market. Join us as we look at some of the random and unlikely sectors car companies have ventured into:
PICTURE: 1946 NW5 diesel locomotive, built by General Motors
Starting in 2012, BMW’s North American division spent over a year designing a bobsled for the US Olympic team. It leveraged its expertise in composite materials to develop a light two-person sled made out of carbon fibre. Its experience in aerodynamics also came into play as stylists penned a brand-new sled design.
Equipped with the ultimate sledding machine, the American bobsledding team finished third at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It was the team’s first podium finish since 1952.
Fiat’s daily newspaper
Fiat purchased Turin-based Italian newspaper La Stampain 1926. Under Fiat ownership, La Stampa grew from a regional newspaper to one of the largest daily publications in Italy. Interestingly, it ran afoul of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 1978 after publishing a series of satirical articles about him. He threated to strike back at Fiat, not La Stampa, by putting it on a boycott list if the paper didn’t fire its editor. La Stampa stood its ground and Gaddafi didn’t keep his promise of black-listing the auto-maker.
In 2014, Fiat and the powerful Perrone family lumped La Stampa and ll Secolo XIX into a new company named Italiana Editrice. Fiat's successor company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles finally sold its ownership interest in La Stampa in 2017.
Ford’s industrial town
Henry Ford established an entire town in Brazil in a bid to secure rubber for car parts. Named Fordlândia, the project began in 1926 as a planned community with American-style houses buried deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The town was split up into distinct areas for the Brazilian workers and the American managers and it even included a hotel for visiting guests.
Tree and men were both prone to disease and the project was a magnificent failure. Ford deserted the town in 1934. He abandoned a second town in 1945 when he realized it was easier to make synthetic rubber than to harvest natural rubber in South America. Today, about 3,000 people live in Fordlândia.
Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz’s mapping service
Rivals BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz set aside their differences when they jointly purchased the HERE mapping service from Nokia in 2015. Each partner holds an equal stake in the company, which was formerly called Navteq.
Mercedes parent company Daimler explained the purchase ensures car-makers can mold a mapping service for their future self-driving cars without having to play by rules set by Apple or Google.
GM's Electronic Data Systems
General Motors (GM) continued its expansion outside of the automotive industry in 1984 when it purchased Ross Perot’s computer giant Electronics Data Systems (EDS). Executives presented the investment as a surefire way to make GM’s computer systems leaner by leveraging EDS’ IT expertise. In turn, the changes implemented would help the car-maker better compete against its Japanese rivals at home and abroad.
EDS revenues boomed shortly after the sale but the relationship turned sour. It became evident the two companies couldn’t work hand-in-hand. GM spun off EDS in 1996 and Hewlett Packard acquired the company in 2008.
GM's Hughes Electronics Corporation
General Motors outbid Boeing and arch rival Ford in 1985 to purchase Hughes Aircraft from the complex estate of the deceased eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. The company later merged with Delco Electronics to become GM Hughes Electronics, and the Hughes aerospace knowhow allowed GM to become the first car company to offer a production version of a heads-up-display, in the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
The newly-minted firm made car parts, commercial satellites and missiles, among other items. The company entered millions of American households when it launched a digital television service named DirecTV in 1994. As its profits fell, the American car-maker progressively divested most parts of the business in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, and DirecTV is now part of AT&T.
Ford’s sidewinder missiles
In 1951, Ford Aerospace secured a US Navy contract for the engineering and manufacturing of parts required to build the AIM-9 Sidewinder series of air-to-air missiles. The American firm initially produced the guidance and control sections of the weapon while helping with logistics. The AIM-9 missile was widely used during the Vietnam War and dozens of countries still employ its various evolutions.
Ford sold the business in 1990 and it’s now part of Lockheed Martin.
Honda’s many divisions make a long list of products including cars, motorcycles, airplanes, lawn mowers, snow blowers and water pumps. The Japanese giant also developed a human-like robot named Asimo that walks, runs, jumps and interacts with mere mortals. It even recognizes its name and shakes hands.
Asimo regularly makes public appearances in Japan and abroad. When it’s not traveling, it’s often displayed at Honda’s headquarters in central Tokyo.
Hyundai can sell you a Santa Fe or build a train capable of taking you and hundreds of other passengers to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The company’s Rotem division designs and manufactures light rail vehicles, high-speed trains, diesel-electric locomotives and subway cars.
The South Korean firm also makes tools, machines for assembly lines, artillery, aircraft parts and robots, among other products.
Ford’s savings accounts
Ford wants to help you save for the new Ranger you’ve been lusting after. In England, its Ford Credit division obtained the banking license required to offer savings products like a flexible cash individual savings account, and currently offers a reasonably competitive annual interest rate of 1.42%.
Ford Credit manages billions of pounds annually, according to its official website. Renault’s RCI Banque arm offers similar services in Europe as well.
Mitsubishi’s many many things
Mitsubishi’s car-building arm shares its name and logo with numerous other entities. The group’s areas of expertise include mining, building cruise ships, selling real estate,making electronic toll collection systems, designing high-speed trains, refining oil, and banking.
Having built the fearsome Zero fighter during World War 2, it now builds Japanese versions of the F-15,F-16 (pictured) and F-35 fighters under license from US aerospace groups Boeing and Lockheed Martin. There’s a good chance it made the air-con unit that keeps the office you used to go to cool, too.
Peugeot began making high-wheeler bicycles in 1882. By the end of the 1880s its catalog included tricycles and regular bicycles with equal-sized wheels. Peugeot’s car- and bicycle-building division split into separate entities in 1926.
The brand still exists today as part of the Cycleurope group, which also designs and manufactures Bianchi, Puch and Gitane bicycles.
Jaguar and Land Rover live under the same roof as the Indian Hotels Company. Owned by Tata, the group entered the world of luxury hotels in 1903 when it opened a five-star property in Mumbai named Taj Mahal Palace (pictured). It’s grown to become one of the largest hotel groups in Asia.
Tata’s activities don’t end where cars and hotels meet. It runs over 100 companies present in a dizzying array of segments. Tata notably provides computer systems support, makes coffee and Tetley Tea, supplies life insurance and transports passengers on an airline named Vistara. You could buy a plane ticket over the phone, get insurance for the trip, board a plane and buy a coffee in-flight without leaving Tata’s sphere of influence.
Peugeot’s salt, pepper and coffee grinders
Peugeot sold its first coffee grinder in 1840 and it branched out into the pepper grinder business in 1874. Named Model Z, its first pepper grinder was originally made out of porcelain. The basic design is still in production today though it’s more commonly made of wood.
Named Poivrières Salières Production (PSP) Peugeot, the grinder part of the business is not operationally linked to Peugeot’s car-making division; cars and grinders aren’t designed in the same studio or built under the same roof. However, the Peugeot family that owns 14 percent of Groupe PSA also holds a 90 percent stake in PSP.
Tonino Lamborghini’s coffee
Ferruccio Lamborghini sold his eponymous business in 1974 and retired to hunt and make wine. The auto-maker ultimately joined the Volkswagen Group and none of its founder’s children work for the company. However, Ferruccio’s son continues to use the name and the logo on a line of luxury goods that touts Italian design.
The ToninoLamborghini script shows up on sunglasses, watches, ties and wallets, among other items. The brand also makes two types of coffee (pictured), chocolate, vodka and energy drinks.
Tesla’s home batteries
The battery technology that keeps Tesla’s Model S and Model X moving can also power a house during an outage. Named Powerwall, the device is a maintenance-free lithium-ion battery pack that draws electricity from the city’s power grid or from solar panels. Tesla promises a fully-charged Powerwall can keep an average-sized house juiced up for about a week. Not sure where to get a solar panel? Tesla makes and sell those, too.
Peugeot power tools
Peugeot made its first hand tools in 1810, well before there was an automotive industry for it to leap into. The company continues to sell tools today including drills, drill bits, saws, grinding machines and vice grips. The Peugeot family sold the rights to the tool-making business in 2012 to a French company named MPO.
By Toyota’s own account, it “builds 21st century comfort and luxury houses in Japan.” The Japanese auto-maker began dabbling in the housing market in 1975. Today, it offers three different types of pre-fabricated houses that take as little as 45 days to build and come with a 60-year warranty.
Yes, it's General Motors again, this time in the train business. By 1930 GM CEO Alfred P Sloan was convinced his conglomerate approach to making cars could be applied to the wider transport world, and that year purchased Cleveland’s Electro-Motive Company (EMC). GM correctly guessed that American railroads would move to diesel power away from steam leading to demand for new engines, and also saw synergy for that power-source with its cars.
EMC eventually became America’s largest producer of diesel locomotives alongside archrival General Electric, though beneficial cooperation with GM’s car arm was elusive in the event. It exported all over the world, including to the UK as in this example, a EMD 710 12-cylinder diesel engine, that output 3000 hp. GM sold EMC in 2005 to a private equity group; in 2010 it in turn sold EMC to construction equipment giant Caterpillar.
Truth is we could do a whole story about the random stuff made by GM over the years. Other things include the M-18 Hellcat tank and the DUKW amphibious amphibious truck during WW2, and a major appliance division that produced refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens, trash compactors, and washing machines until it sold off this arm in 1979, the remnants today being part of Electrolux. GM also built the world's first mechanical heart. Phew.
Citroën’s V-shaped gears
André Citroën’s first company specialized in making gears with V-shaped teeth. They were quieter than straight-cut gears and they were much stronger, though they needed to be machined with utmost precision. Patents in hand, Citroën started companies in Russia and in France that provided V-shapedgears to a long list of clients, including Škoda.
He founded the car company that bears his name in 1919. The double chevron logo its vehicles still wear today directly references Citroën’s start as an international gear-maker.
In 1990 Toyota saw an opportunity to apply its automotive expertise to the marine sector, and today offers a range of craft for the well-heeled. Its most powerful, the Ponam 35 (pictured), is propelled by two 4.5-liter V8 diesel engines more commonly found in the Land Cruiser SUV. They deliver a combined 740bhp of power and a top speed of around 30 knots (35mph), and is 11.95m long (39 feet). They sell for around US$800,000 each, and can carry 12 people.
Unlike Toyota’s land-based vehicles, this particular Toyota club is an exclusive one – the company only builds 15 or so of these boats a year, though the company also makes slightly smaller and cheaper vessels.
Citroën built a small personal helicopter as a last-ditch attempt to cash in on its Comotor fiasco; Comotor was a joint venture with Germany's NSU to make rotary engines. Named RE-2, the company's first and only helicopter used an evolution of the ill-fated GS Birotor's Wankel engine equipped with larger rotors and a fuel injection system designed in-house.
Early on, Citroën removed the prototype's doors in case something went wrong and the test pilots had to jump out mid-flight. No one had to use the parachute, but the RE-2 failed to obtain flight certification because its engine overheated high in the rev range. Development continued at a snail's pace until new owners Peugeot ordered Citroën to immediately end the project and focus on more lucrative ventures, like finally concocting a replacement for the 2CV. The prototype flew for a total of 38 hours.
Honda's private jets
Honda’s global reach extends well beyond cars. The Japanese company also makes snow blowers, ATVs, motorcycles and even planes. Officially named HA-420, the HondaJet takes the form of a small aircraft intended as a private plane for travellers in the 1%-and-above bracket. It offers space for up to six passengers and two crew members. We’d say it’s the first Honda with wings, but we’re afraid the Civic Type R will protest with a rev of its turbo four.
You can pick one up new for around US$5 million (£3.8 million), which as private jets go is something of a bargain.
And finally... Volkswagen’s most popular product has no wheels and no engine. For decades, the company has manufactured pork sausages and uses them to make currywurst, a popular type of fast food in Germany. It distributes its currywurst to workers in some of its factories, in brand-owned restaurants and at events like classic car shows. They’re even sold at some grocery stores in Wolfsburg, the company’s home town, along with ketchup also made in Volkswagen’s kitchens.
The sausages carry their own part number, like a fuel filler flap - it’s 199-398-500-A for next time you’re down at the dealership - and they’re very popular. In 2015, Volkswagen made 7.2 million sausages against 5.8 million VW-branded cars. We had a snoop around the factory in 2018 (pictured).