Times change, markets evolve and sometimes companies who rule the roost get a wheel stuck in a ditch and never recover.
Some of the brands who are no longer with us are gladly forgotten, while others left us wonderful memories of motoring days gone by. Join us as we look at some of the best cars built by automakers no longer around.
AMC Eagle (1980)
AMC’s most notable contribution to the automotive edition of Noah’s Arc is the Eagle. It was a family car on stilts which relied on serious four-wheel drive hardware and ample ground clearance to tackle tough trails and knee-deep snow. In many ways, the Eagle was the modern crossover’s predecessor. Have you noticed the rising popularity of SUV-coupes? AMC did it first with the Eagle SX/4, and it had two doors like a proper coupe should.
So what happened to AMC? The company was bought by France’s Renault in 1979, but AMC’s range of mostly smaller cars suffered as fuel became relatively cheaper during the ‘80s. Renault CEO Georges Besse - who championed the firm’s American presence - was murdered in 1986 by communist terrorists, and his successors lost interest and sold the firm to Chrysler in 1987, when the AMC badge came to an end.
Austin-Healey 3000 (1959)
When it made its debut in 1959, the Austin-Healey 3000 stood out with a 3.0-litre engine and front disc brakes. The big Healey was a force to be reckoned with in European rallying events, but convertible-hungry buyers in North American scooped up most of the production run. It was one of the greatest British sports cars of its era, and it was continuously updated throughout the 1960s.
So what happened to Austin-Healey? The deal between Austin and Healey ended in 1972 after 20 years. There have been talks of a revival since, including under BMW’s ownership of Austin successor company Rover, but nothing has appeared. The name itself is now owned by China’s SAIC.
Autobianchi A112 Abarth (1971)
When Volkswagen takes credit for pioneering the hot hatch, it overlooks the Autobianchi A112 Abarth. Admittedly, the A112 was easy to miss due to its Matchbox-like dimensions. It was introduced in September of 1971 (before anyone knew what a Golf was) as a hotter version of Autobianchi’s successful Mini-punching model. Early models used a 58hp four-cylinder engine, though power climbed to 70hp later in the production run.
So what happened to Autobianchi? The company was joint venture between bicycle-maker Bianchi, Pirelli, and Fiat. Fiat took full control in 1968, and then folder the operation into Lancia. The badge disappeared in 1995.
De Tomaso Pantera (1971)
Ferruccio Lamborghini went through the excruciatingly difficult process of developing an entire car from scratch to take down Ferrari. Alejandro De Tomaso took a simpler route: he designed a breathtakingly gorgeous car and bought a V8 from Ford to stuff behind the seats. America’s appetite for performance cars ensured a steady cash flow for De Tomaso in spite of the Pantera’s quality issues. Unreliability caused Elvis to shoot his Pantera on numerous occasions, presumably as a punishment. It’s not known if this helped. Ford stopped importing the car to the United States in 1975, but production carried on for other markets (including Europe) until 1992.
So what happened to De Tomaso? De Tomaso merged with Maserati in 1975 and that brand was always more prolific, but De Tomaso sales carried on in small numbers until 2004 when the firm died. The trademark was sold on, and a De Tomaso concept car appeared at the 2011 Geneva motor show, but nothing’s been heard since.
Facel Vega Excellence (1958)
The most luxurious French car you can buy today is about on par with a low-end BMW 5 Series – on a good day. It wasn’t always that way. Facel Vega (a brand favored by the world’s most image-conscious and self-adoring stars) built the Excellence to take the fight directly to Rolls-Royce. From its stately design with suicide rear doors to its hand-built interior, the Excellence easily lived up to its name. It served as the flagship for the brand, and for France’s entire automotive industry.
So what happened to Facel Vega? Competition from larger luxury-car rivals like Mercedes-Benz did the company no favours and it closed down in 1964.
Hudson Hornet (1951)
The Hudson Hornet dispels the myth that all American cars looked alike in the 1950s. Granted, it had big round headlights and enough chrome trim to seen from outer space, but the similarities with its peers stopped there. It boasted a long, sloping roof line that flowed into a pontoon-like rear end. Were it built today, it’d be classified as a four-door coupe in the same vein as the Mercedes-Benz CLS. It was fast, too; the Hornet dominated NASCAR racing in the early 1950s.
So what happened to Hudson? It merged with Nash-Kelvinator in 1954, to form American Motors (AMC). The Hudson badge survived until 1957.
Jensen Interceptor (1966)
The Jensen Interceptor provided buyers with an alternative to the archetypal British sports cars made by the likes of Triumph and MG. It catered to buyers who cared more about silky-smooth low-end torque than razor-sharp handling and low running costs. It died without a successor when Jensen collapsed under the burden of its financial troubles.
So what happened to Jensen? Jensen ceased operating in 1976. It was revived in 2001 with a new car, the S-V8, but promptly died again after just 20 were produced.
Matra Rancho (1977)
Matra likened the Rancho to cooking a last-minute meal using only leftovers. Starting with the VF2 van, engineers installed an 80hp 1.4-litre engine from the 1308 GT, brakes from the 1100 TI, and a four-speed manual transmission from the 1307. While the outdoorsy design suggested it could go anywhere, four-wheel drive was never offered for cost and packaging reasons. And in an odd twist of fate, its intended replacement morphed into the original Renault Espace.
So what happened to Matra? Matra in the automotive sphere became a contract manufacturer for Renault, but this work ceased in 2003, and some other assets were acquired by Pininfarina. The defence and aerospace part of Matra is now part of Airbus.
Mercury Cougar (1967)
Mercury launched the Cougar to fill the space between the Ford Mustang, which it shared its platform with, and the Ford Thunderbird. It became Mercury’s hero car by combining pony car performance with a larger dose of luxury. Later models attempted to recapture the spirit of the original, though they largely failed due to poor execution and performance best characterized as lackadaisical.
So what happened to Mercury? Ford announced the end of the brand in 2010, and its last car, a Grand Marquis, was built in January 2011.
Oldsmobile 4-4-2 (1964)
The 4-4-2 started life as a performance-oriented option package on the Oldsmobile Cutlass. It proved popular enough to earn a promotion to a full-fledged model line in 1968. Oldsmobile collaborated with American tuner Hurst to build an even faster 4-4-2 with a 390hp engine, upgraded brakes and a model-specific suspension. For a few years, the numbers 4-4-2 were synonymous with no-nonsense performance. The 1972 redesign demoted the nameplate to option package status.
So what happened to Oldsmobile? Oldsmobile increasingly found its cars lost among those of GM’s other brands, let alone those from other carmakers. GM shuttered the marque in 2004.
Panhard 24 BT/CT (1964)
Ordinary motorists knew Panhard for big, six-seater sedans; racers knew Panhard for ultra-light sports cars. The 24-series cars were an attempt at blending the company’s two identities. Offered with a short or a long wheelbase, the 24 brought Panhard’s unique breed of sportiness to motorists unwilling to commute in a stripped-down race car. The 24 BT was longer than the 24 CT to offer more space for occupants riding in the back. Both variants received an air-cooled flat-twin engine which, thanks to an impressively aerodynamic design, propelled the 24 to freeway speeds in a relative hurry.
So what happened to Panhard? The car side of Panhard was sold to Citroen in 1967, and the marque as a carmaker died. The name lives on as a maker of military vehicles, ultimately owned by Volvo Group, the Swedish truckmaker.
Pontiac Firebird (1967)
General Motors didn’t allow Pontiac to build a two-seater sports car out of fear it would compete directly against Chevrolet’s Corvette. Instead, Pontiac received permission to launch a sports car based on the same platform as the then-new Camaro. Affectionately called “Screaming Chicken,” the Firebird carried on alongside the Camaro for four generations until it was sent to the automotive slaughter house in 2002.
So what happened to Pontiac? The Firebird was joined by the rest of the Pontiac brand in 2010 as GM rationalised its brands after its near-death experience in the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
Plymouth Road Runner (1968)
Muscle cars progressively grew out of mainstream buyers’ reach as they became more powerful and more expensive. The Road Runner was a return to the basic, enthusiast-approved formula of stuffing an immensely powerful engine in the unsuspecting body of a run-of-the-mill car. The Road Runner exceeded Plymouth’s wildest expectations during its first year on the market. Clearly, the time was right for a more affordable muscle car.
So what happened to Plymouth? Chrysler’s Plymouth brand died in 2001, and its cars either discontinued or rebranded as Chryslers.
Plymouth Prowler (1997)
If there was ever an overgrown Hot Wheels car, it’s the Plymouth Prowler. A last-ditch effort to inject stamina into the brand, the Prowler was a modern take on the classic hot rods that roamed American roads in the 1950s. It looked like nothing else on the market at the time, though Volvo later toyed with the idea of building its own modern hot rod. It wasn’t a smash hit, and it certainly didn’t reanimate Plymouth, but it inspired a series of retro-styled American cars in the early 2000s.
Rover SD1 (1976)
One could argue Rover isn’t entirely dead; it reincarnated in China and adopted the name Roewe. The SD1 was the brand’s last attempt at building a true flagship model on its own, before it teamed up with Honda to share technology and costs. An avant-garde design and available V8 power positioned it firmly at the top of the Rover range, placing it in the same ring as executive sedans from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
So what happened to Rover? Rover became part of the Austin Rover group, and it marketed the Honda Accord-based Sterling make-and-model in the US in 1987-91. Rover was sold to BMW in 1994. Having sold off Land Rover to Ford in 2000, it sold what was now MG Rover to a management consortium for £10 (US$16). MG Rover went out of business in 2005. The Rover brand-name was sold by BMW to Ford for around £10 million (US$18 million) in 2006, which sold the marque along with Land Rover and Jaguar to India’s Tata Motors in 2008.
Saab 99 (1968)
The 99 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Saab’s history. The Swedish brand ditched the 92-inspired design of earlier cars in favor of a more contemporary look characterized by a wrap-around windshield, while a Triumph-sourced four-cylinder engine relegated the 96’s DKW-derived two-stroke engine to the history book once and for all. The 1978 Turbo remains the best-known evolution of the 99. It paved the way for every high-performance Saab from then on.
So what happened to Saab? All of Saab was acquired by GM in 2000. Saab was sold to Spyker in 2010, but ceased making cars in 2011. A Chinese firm called NEVS then bought Saab’s automotive assets, but it seems that the brand won’t be used on any vehicles; this is a complex and contentious area since the Saab name is still used by a military aircraft maker; cars and planes were under the same ownership until 1990.
Saab 900 Aero/SPG (1984)
With the 900 Aero (called SPG in North America), Saab wanted to prove its ability to run alongside its German competitors – and even beat them at their own game. Early examples built on the existing 900 Turbo with a 160hp turbo four, though power went up over the course of the 1980s. Three-spoke alloy wheels and plastic cladding on the bottom part of the body informed on-lookers they weren’t getting passed by a garden-variety 900. In hindsight, the plastic bits on the side could have inspired Mercedes-Benz as it updated the w201 and w124.
Simca 1000 Rallye (1970)
Abarth applied its magic to the Simca 1000, but it’s the three factory-built Rallye models that replaced Renaults and NSUs in the heart of enthusiasts seeking rear-biased driving thrills. Although it was aerodynamically-challenged, the 1000 was the ideal base for a high-performance sedan aimed at buyers on a budget. The first two editions of the Rallye were hot-rodded production cars, but the Rallye 3 was a full-blown street-legal race car released for homologation purposes. All three models are still widely used in hill climb events today.
So what happened to Simca? Simca was bought by Chrysler in 1970, and then PSA Peugeot-Citroen in 1979, and the badge died thereafter in favour of Talbot.
Studebaker Avanti (1962)
The Avanti was Studebaker’s last gasp before it vanished to the great junkyard in the sky. Developed in response to the Chevrolet Corvette, its Raymond Loewy-designed body was made out of fibreglass and dropped on a modified Lark chassis. Studebaker manufactured about 5,800 examples of the Avanti before it shut down for good, but five different entrepreneurs took turns building the car until 2006. So what happened to Studebaker?
Production at its main South Bend factory ceased in 1963, though operations continued at the company’s Canadian plant until 1966. The name is today owned by Federal-Mogul, an auto parts firm.
Tatra 613 (1974)
Like Porsche’s 911, the Tatra 613 retained its rear-engined configuration well after the layout went out of vogue. It shared this configuration with its predecessor, the 603, but its styling came to life on a blank sheet of paper. In an unlikely tie-up, Czechoslovakia-based Tatra enlisted the help of Vignale to forge a new design identity more in-tune with the times. It’s remembered as one of the most prestigious cars to come out of USSR-era Eastern Europe. You didn’t want to see it parked up in front of your house at two in the morning as it was a favourite of the KGB and of its Warsaw Pact counterpart organisations.
So what happened to Tatra? It stopped making cars in 1999, but carries on as small-scale truck maker, and as such is the second oldest vehicle producer in Europe after Peugeot, the Tatra company having been formed all the way back in 1850, when it produced horse-drawn carriages.
Talbot Samba Cabriolet (1982)
The Talbot Samba Cabriolet made Volkswagen’s Golf Cabriolet look like a Rolls-Royce. Based on one of the cheapest cars in Europe, it gave young, cash-strapped motorists a way to go topless without breaking the bank. It also attempted to provide the Talbot brand its own image by separating the Samba from the Peugeot 104 and the Citroen LNA it shared DNA with. Peugeot’s 205 CJ took the torch from the Samba Cabriolet after Talbot went six feet under.
So what happened to Talbot? When PSA Peugeot-Citroen bought Chrysler Europe in 1979, it used the Talbot badge on former Chrysler and Simca models. Use on cars continued until 1987, and on vans until 1994.
Vespa 400 (1957)
As an auto manufacturer, Vespa is dead. Known internationally for scooters, the Italian brand dipped its toes in the automotive pond when it introduced one of the smallest cars on the European market at a high-profile event in Monaco. The 400 competed in the same handkerchief-sized arena as the Goggomobil and the Fiat 500, which hit the market just a few months before its Vespa-badged rival. The 400 – an allusion to its 393cc engine – was manufactured in France. One and done, Vespa never built another car.
So what happened to Vespa? Nothing, in a word. It continues to make motor scooters; its parent company Piaggio sold 532,000 two-wheeled machines in 2016 using a variety of brands which also include Aprilia and Moto Guzzi.