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At the end of April, Daimler’s Smart brand confirmed it will leave the American market after the 2019 model year.
It’s the latest name to appear on a growing list of companies that failed to gain a foothold in the United States. Some lacked an outstanding amount of knowledge about American buyers and offered the wrong products at the wrong time. Others took no account of reality, cut too many corners and were ultimately driven out by quality problems. Occasionally, automakers folded due to circumstances outside of their control.
We’re taking a look at some of the automakers that couldn’t crack the American market due to monstrous incompetence, a disinterest in their products or plain old bad luck:
PICTURE: Sterling 827SLi
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Simca correctly identified America’s growing appetite for small economy cars during the 1940s. It began selling cars there in 1948 but its marketing tactics were vague at best. The French automaker sent 331 cars to the United States in 1948 and only managed to find 45 buyers the following year.
Even in Europe, Simca struggled to forge itself an identity. It suffered from the same problem in America. It gradually phased out the big, V8-powered cars it sold during the 1950s and introduced the rear-engined 1000 (later called the 1118) in 1963 to lure motorists out of Volkswagen’s Beetle. When that didn’t work, it switched to front-wheel drive with the 1100, which became the 1204 when it went on sale in 1969.
Simca sold 7776 cars in the United States in 1969. That number dropped to 6035 and 2600, respectively, in 1970 and 1971. It abandoned the American market after 1971. While its cars weren’t bad by any conventional means of measurement, they weren't great and it had completely failed to make a name for itself as a purveyor of affordable, efficient economy cars. It let its rivals get ahead as it sank from sight.
Note: American-spec Simca 1118 pictured.
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Lancia’s cars began trickling into the United States during the 1950s, first through independent importers like Hoffman Motors and much later via Fiat’s in-house distribution channels. None of the company’s models achieved significant volume in the United States but they didn’t need to; they were quick, luxurious and priced accordingly. The brand consequently sold just 853 cars in America in 1959 and 675 units the following year.
Lancia teetered on the brink of extinction during the late 1960s. Ford nearly purchased it but it ultimately joined the growing Fiat empire. Re-launching Lancia with a catalog of new products took several years and the firm temporarily left the United States during the early 1970s. It returned in 1975 with two- and four-door variants of the Beta (pictured). On paper, the model offensive looked promising. In reality, it marked the beginning of bigger problems that ultimately forced Lancia out of America.
The major rust issues and the occasional mechanical quirks that plagued the Beta gave the company a horrid reputation. Offering a rust warranty didn’t do much to reassure buyers but it cost Lancia a substantial amount of money. Autocar spoke to a former factory mechanic in Salt Lake City, Utah, who told us Lancia and Fiat were purchasing cars out of junkyards because they were too rusty to be on the road but still covered by the manufacturer's warranty.
Lancia did not officially import cars in the United States in 1980, though its dealers had left-over 1979s to sell. It returned in 1981 and left for the third and final time in 1982.
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Netherlands-based DAF believed it could stand out from the crowded pack of automakers selling small cars in the United States by offering a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The 600 went on sale in 1959 with a base price of $1390 (about $12,000/£9000 in 2019), meaning it cost exactly a dollar per pound.
During the 1960s, DAF added features and horsepower in a bid to better align its cars with the expectations of American motorists. The CVT remained a key selling point in a time when most other small cars (including the Fiat 600 and the Volkswagen Beetle) offered, at best, a clumsy semi-automatic transmission. The firm even renamed the 750 model America in 1965.
While DAF sales increased in Europe around the turn of the 1970s, its American division struggled to find buyers for cars that increasingly felt underpowered and outdated. The last new DAF disembarked on American shores in 1973.
Note: DAF 66 Coupe pictured.
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While many European automakers sold cars in America through independent importers, Austin established an official distributor in New York City in late 1947. It had sold more than 13,000 examples of the A40 in the United States and in Canada by August of 1948, a figure which earned the model the enviable distinction of being one of the most popular European imports in North America. Its success didn't last.
Independent importers helped Austin sell cars in America during the early 1960s but it quickly became evident that finding buyers for bigger models was easier said than done. The Mini sold relatively well, however, and it was joined by the Moke in 1966. In 1968, the aptly-named America arrived in America to help Austin reach a wider audience. The firm sold 16,391 cars in the United States in 1969, a rounding error compared to the volume rivals like Volkswagen achieved during the late 1960s, and that figure dropped to 6550 in 1971.
Introduced in 1973, the hastily-designed Marina (pictured) sold as a Morris in the United Kingdom represented Austin’s last attempt at earning relevance in the United States. It was a competent car when it worked properly but it suffered from an alarmingly diverse selection of mechanical problems that sent owners running towards similarly-sized and -priced models made by Japanese brands. Austin left America in 1975.
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After WW2, Citroën’s eyeballs turned into dollar signs when it looked at the American market. Like many European automakers, it saw the United States as a land of boundless profits. It got off to a slow start; it sold 10 examples of the Traction Avant in 1949, 13 cars in 1950, and five in 1951.
The DS introduced on the American market in 1957 became modestly successful during the 1960s but Citroën suffered from an incomplete and incongruous line-up. The chasm that separated flat-twin-powered cars like the 2CV and the Ami 6 from the DS (pictured) was huge. It notably lacked a proper alternative to the Volkswagen Beetle.
Citroën planned to fill the void by introducing the GS, and it send a batch of American-spec cars with sealed-beam headlights to key dealers in the United States during the early 1970s, but it canceled its plans when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) banned companies from selling cars with an adjustable suspension. Officials knew Citroën’s smaller models were ill-suited to the American market and they quickly ruled out developing an all-steel suspension for the GS for cost and packaging reasons.
Citroën consequently left the United States in 1974 and, as of 2019, it hasn’t been back.
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Although it sold a small handful of cars in America before WW2, Renault’s product offensive began in earnest when a New York-based imported named John L. Green Operations started selling the 4CV in 1949. Renault took distribution into its own hands in 1959 and took steps to Americanize its cars. The company’s efforts paid off. It sold nearly 65,000 cars in the United States in 1958 including 57,000 examples of the Dauphine.For a while, Renault was the import brand to beat.
Dauphine sales fell with a thunder during the early 1960s due to quality concerns and a market recession that affected every automaker regardless of origin. Renault never fully recovered from the hit. The tie-up with American Motors Corporation (AMC) did more to damage the brand than to repair it. Renault finally threw in the towel when it sold its stake in AMC to Chrysler in 1987 and left the American market.
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Rover (1950-1971, 1980)
Rover’s P4 started arriving in America in 1950, shortly after it was introduced in England. It was positioned as a luxurious model on both sides of the Atlantic and Rover backed up this claim by making features likes leather upholstery, height-adjustable armrests and wood trim standard. Later additions to its line-up (including the 2000 and the 3500) boasted a similar equipment level but all were characterized by a haphazard build quality that manifested itself in the form of various quality problems. Rover left America for the first time after the 1971 model year.
Many wondered if Rover had taken leave of its senses when it returned to America with the V8-powered 3500 (pictured) for the 1980 model year. Pricing started at $15,900 (about $49,000/£37,600 in 2019) with a five-speed manual transmission but buyers could order an automatic transmission for $350 (about $1000/£760). That figured placed it between BMW's 3 and 5 Series models. Buyers weren't convinced so Rover left America for the second – but not the last – time after selling only 481 examples of the 3500 in 1980. Left-over models lingered on dealer lots for months.
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Peugeot waited longer than most of its rivals to distribute its cars in the United States. It began selling the 403 in 1958 and decision-makers argued the model was better-suited to the tastes of American motorists than other European cars, which were often excruciatingly small, painfully slow or both. 403s built for America even came standard with a sunroof. The model found 6867 buyers in 1958 and 15,787 the following year.
Peugeot was off to a good start; it seemed to have found its spot in an increasingly crowded market. Instead of locking horns with Volkswagen, it tried to move upmarket in the United States by focusing on bigger models like the 404, the 504 (pictured) and the 604. The only exception was the 304, which was briefly available during the 1970s.
This strategy back-fired when the aging 505 became its only car on the American market in the 1980s. The much more modern 405 arrived too late to save Peugeot’s American division. From a peak of about 20,000 cars in 1984, annual sales fell to 4200 in 1990 and 2223 during the first seven months of 1991, its last year in the United States.
PSA boss Carlos Tavares announced Peugeot will spearhead the group’s American comeback by 2023. Details – like which models Peugeot will bring with it – remain unconfirmed but Tavares stressed the firm wants to offer American buyers a full line-up of models.
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Ford leveraged its German division to fend off competition from European automakers like Alfa Romeo and BMW. Its marketing department thoughtfully argued buyers wouldn’t take a 3 Series competitor from Ford seriously so it created a sub-brand named Merkur. Its first model was the XR4Ti, which was a re-badged and slightly Americanized version of the Sierra XR4i sold in Europe. It was presented as a high-performance import with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine turbocharged to 175hp.
About 800 Lincoln-Mercury dealers bought a Merkur franchise by the time the XRT4i arrived in 1985. They sold 8974 cars in 1985 and 14,315 the following year, though sales dropped to 14,301 in 1987. Adding the bigger Scorpio (pictured) – which was closely related to the Ford Scorpio sold in Europe – to the line-up didn’t turn Merkur around and annual sales dropped to 2622 in 1990, the year it closed.
Poor marketing played a sizable role in Merkur’s collapse. On one hand, Lincoln-Mercury customers weren’t in the market for a sporty import; on the other hand, the buyers who wanted a BMW alternative often didn’t think of visiting a Lincoln-Mercury store to find one. While selling the XR4Ti alongside Ford's gigantic Country Squire would have been a questionable decision, putting it under the same roof as Lincoln's softly-suspended land yachts and Mercury's economy-oriented models was an even worse idea.
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An impressive roller coaster ride of failures and successes led serial entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin to Yugoslavia during the early 1980s. He formed Subaru of America in 1968 and beat the odds to turn it into a thriving business. He also lost most of the money he made from selling Subaru’s American division in a costly and unsuccessful attempt to form his own automaker during the 1970s. He envisioned the Yugo has his comeback.
With Henry Kissinger as a consultant, he orchestrated a plan to position the Yugo 45 as the cheapest car sold new in America. It went on sale in 1985 as a 1986 model with a base price of $3990 (about $9400/£7100 in 2019). Critics called it cheap, basic and generally shoddy but nearly 36,000 examples found a home in 1986. Sales peaked at 48,821 units the following year.
As the Yugo aged, owners discovered what made it so cheap. They called its build quality dauntingly experimental and complained about a thick portfolio of reliability problems. The firm that imported the Yugo filed for bankruptcy in 1989 so the model briefly left the American market but it triumphantly returned for the 1990 model year with a fuel-injected engine and a convertible variant.
Yugo sales never recovered and the brand left America in 1992. Its reputation was tattered, but the final nail in its coffin came when parent company Zastava announced the civil war in Yugoslavia made it impossible to regularly supply the American market with cars.
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While Suzuki-made cars were sold in the United States by Chevrolet during the 1980s, the Japanese firm didn’t enter the American market under its own name until it began selling the Samurai for the 1986 model year. Consumer Reports nearly killed the brand when it released a damning study that concluded the Samurai was prone to rolling over. Suzuki recovered and focused on small, affordable cars during most of the 1990s. This strategy stunted its growth as the segments it competed in gradually shrank.
Sales remained low and Suzuki’s line-up always stood out as a little bit off-beat. Rivals like Subaru used their outlier status to their advantage but Suzuki failed to exploit it and instead treated it like a hurdle on its path to becoming what it perceived as a normal automaker. In the 2000s, it tried moving upmarket by introducing bigger cars like the XL-7 (pictured), the Daewoo-based Verona and even a re-badged Nissan Frontier pickup named Equator. The Kizashi – an all-new car developed in-house – was its last attempt at achieving relevance.
Suzuki’s American division filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and closed shortly after. The firm hasn’t returned to America since but, as of 2019, it continues selling motorcycles, ATVs and boat engines.
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In the 1980s, large Japanese automakers like Nissan, Honda and Toyota were doing exceptionally well in the United States. Suzuki and Mitsubishi had given the market a shot after building cars for American automakers for years. Their success motivated Daihatsu to release the Charade on the American market for the 1988 model year. It later added the Rocky (pictured), a pocket-sized SUV, to its line-up. Neither caught on; American motorists bought 8,963 Daihatsu-badged cars in 1991, a 41% drop compared to 1990.
Daihatsu ended its American offensive in 1992. It cited disappointing sales and then-upcoming regulations that would have forced it to make huge investments to continue selling cars. And, interestingly, a name that sounded a little bit like a rival's delivered the final blow. Its American executives explained many motorists confused Daihatsu and Hyundai. Daihatsu’s reputation took a hit when Hyundai experienced serious quality problems. The relatively small firm couldn’t afford to launch large-scale advertising campaigns to increase and improve its image.
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Rover took advantage of its joint-venture with Honda to stage a return to the America market. The project gave Honda the Legend, which spearheaded the launch of its Acura brand in 1986, and Rover turned it into the 800 sold in Europe. In turn, that model became the Sterling 825 in the United States. The name Sterling was chosen because Rover had already crashed out of the American market twice.
The 825 (pictured) came with a 2.5-liter, 151hp V6 provided by Honda and a long list of upmarket equipment including cruise control, a six-speaker stereo, a power moonroof, and central locking. Pricing started at $19,000 in 1987 (about $42,500/£32,700 in 2019), the 825’s first year on the market. In comparison, the Acura Legend carried a base price of $19,898 (about $44,500/£34,200 in 2019) that same year.
Sales immediately headed in the wrong direction; Sterling sold 14,171 examples of the 825 in 1987 and 8901 the following year. It turned the 825 into the 827 by fitting it with a 2.7-liter V6 in 1989, the same year it expanded the line-up with a four-door hatchback (pictured at the start of this feature). Buyers still weren’t convinced due in part to the company’s murky image. Was it British? Was it Japanese? Annual sales dropped to 5907 in 1989 and 4015 in 1990, Sterling’s final year.
Acura fared much better. Boosted by strong demand for the smaller Integra, it sold 138,384 cars in the United States in 1990.
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Romania-based ARO hoped to sell up to 6000 examples of a 4x4 named Hunter in the United States in 1990, according to a 1989 Automotive News article. The first 25 cars arrived in Maine in early 1989. The company wasn’t a newcomer to North America, it sold cars in Canada during the 1970s, but the American market proved much more difficult to break into. 200 examples of the Hunter (known as the 24 in its home country) were blocked by customs officials at a port for reasons that remain obscure.
ARO’s importer managed to get a handful of examples released and installed a Ford-sourced 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine to facilitate the Herculean task of complying with American emissions regulations. Only about 30 cars were sold between 1990 and 1992; the rest sat engine-less in a port.
Cuban-born American businessman John Perez made several costly and unsuccessful attempts at relaunching ARO starting in 1998. At the time, the off-roader was presented as the cheapest 4x4 sold new in the United States. It was advertised for under $13,000 (about $20,200/£15,500 in 2019). He bragged about a 150-strong dealer network but his project never got off the ground.
Perez tried selling the 24 again in 2003, this time by sourcing it from Brazil, where it was made under license, and calling it Cross Lander. He once again enlisted dealers in preparation for the much-hyped launch and he went as far as purchasing the ARO factory in Romania for $180,000 (about $248,000/£190,000 in 2019) to ensure a steady supply of cars. And yet, the 24 never managed to reach American shores; some pin the blame solely on Perez while others claim corruption inside the Romanian factory contributed to the project’s downfall. Regardless, Cross Lander’s American arm and ARO both closed in 2006.
Note: Romanian-spec ARO 24 pictured.
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If you’ve kept up with Tesla news, Daewoo’s approach to gaining a foothold on the American market will sound familiar. In 1999, after presenting three cars at the New York auto show, the company launched a website that guided customers through the purchase experience and directed them to 15 company-owned stores located in nine states. Every member of the sales team was a full-time Daewoo employee but the company famously hired college students to advertise its cars on college campuses.
The Lanos, the Nubira (pictured) and the Leganza sold exclusively on value. While they were about okay when new, they became memorably unreliable as they aged. Owners complained about broken timing belts and steel wheels that gradually became oval. Daewoo left America in 2002 after selling 160,000 cars (and leaving its American dealers with about 18,000 unsold cars) but its presence lingered.
The eponymous chaebol that controlled Daewoo’s car-making division collapsed in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. General Motors purchased it in 2001 and folded it into GM Korea. From there, Daewoo found itself in a complicated latticework of tie-ups and acquisitions. Its Lacetti spawned Suzuki’s Reno and Foranza models while the Magnus became the Verona.
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Political instability in Yugoslavia played an influential role in ending the Yugo’s American career. Malcolm Bricklin wanted a do-over. In 2002, he announced he had signed a deal with Yugo manufacturer Zastava to resume imports. The Fiat-derived Yugo from the 1980s was still in production at the time, somewhat unsurprisingly, and Bricklin hoped to offer Americans a modestly updated version of it sold under the name ZMW. The fact that NATO almost completely decimated the Zastava factory when it bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 was seemingly a minor inconvenience.
Not one to shy away from ambition, Bricklin made bold plans to sell 60,000 ZMWs annually through an initial network of 12 distributors. He envisioned a full line-up including two- and four-door models, a convertible and even a pickup truck. The four variants would be made in Serbia, and they were closely related to the 1980s Yugo under the sheet metal, but they’d use relatively modern engines provided by Peugeot. Sales were scheduled to start in 2003 but Bricklin quickly delayed the launch until 2005.
In 2004, Bricklin announced he cancelled the ZMW project due, again, to political instability in the Balkans.
Note: Zastava Koral GTI pictured. The ZMWs would have borrowed styling cues from this model.
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In 2004, after canceling the Yugo's second coming, Malcolm Bricklin struck a deal with China-based Chery to distribute five then-new models in the United States. They would have been the first cars made by a Chinese brand available in America and value would have been their biggest selling point. Talking American motorists into a Chinese car – even one priced well below the competition – was a tall order but many believed Bricklin could pull it off. He had started importing Subaru 360s when Japanese cars suffered from their own image problems, after all.
He envisioned a new sales models; he wanted to turn dealerships into year-round auto shows with animations, fast-food vendors, oval test tracks, a daycare center and an outdoors movie screen. Bricklin created a distributor named Visionary Vehicles and began forming Chery’s American dealer network.
Visionary Vehicles expected to start importing Chery-made cars in 2008 at the latest and planned on selling 150,000 units annually. The project derailed in late 2006 when Bricklin discovered Chery officials secretly asked the staff he assembled in Detroit to make cars compliant with American norms to work on side projects, including launching the Qoros brand.
While the deal with Chery was off, he told members of the media he still planned to sell Chinese cars in the United States sooner or later. Chery simultaneously said it still planned to enter the American market. Neither party has kept its word as of 2019.
Note: Chery QQ6 pictured.
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India’s Mahindra first set its sights on the American market in the middle of the 2000s. It planned to start selling a turbodiesel-powered pickup truck in the United States in early 2009 but it delayed its entry several times and canned the project three years later after a costly court battle with distributor Global Vehicles. In a statement released in 2012, it blamed its decision not to enter the American market on “changes in the U.S. regulatory and market situation.”
Global Vehicles had recruited 347 dealers to spearhead Mahindra’s American offensive; each one paid a franchise fee. Many of them filed a class-action lawsuit against the Indian firm when they learned they wouldn’t get the truck. They accused the automaker of fraud, misrepresentation and conspiracy. In 2014, a judge ruled the dealers couldn’t file a class-action suit against Mahindra because they each had a different relationship with the brand. Some later filed individual lawsuits in a bid to recoup the franchise fees they paid.
As of 2019, Mahindra hasn't fulfilled its promise of selling efficient, bargain-priced pickup trucks in the United States. It sells the Roxor (pictured), a Jeep CJ-3-like off-roader classified as a UTV. It’s not street-legal and its speed is limited to 45mph.
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Daimler’s Smart division argued it couldn’t sell the original ForTwo released in 1998 in the United States because motorists were markedly more interested in large, truck-based SUVs than in fuel-sipping city cars. It later changed its mind and began importing the second-generation ForTwo in America during the 2008 model year. The timing certainly seemed right: fuel prices were sky-rocketing and car buyers were once again taking fuel efficiency very seriously.
The ForTwo’s American dream didn’t last long. While it made headlines shortly after its launch, its popularity began to wane as soon as fuel prices dropped and American consumers quickly pivoted back towards bigger cars. The third-generation ForTwo (pictured) released in 2014 fared even worse than its predecessor and Smart was decimated by its shift to electric vehicles in 2017.
About a third of Smart’s dealer network dropped the brand after it announced its EV-only plan. Disgruntled, they argued it was too sudden and too soon while pointing out that trying to sell an electric car with up to 63 miles of range for $23,900 defied logic. Buyers proved them right and ForTwo sales plummeted to 1276 units in 2018.
American sales will end after the 2019 model year. While the rest of the world will get a fourth-generation ForTwo developed jointly with (and built by) Geely in the early 2020s, we don’t expect the nameplate will return to the American market. Other, bigger Smart models might help the brand stage a comeback, though.
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GAC (2019 and beyond)
In 2017, Chinese state-run automaker Guangzhou Automobile Group (GAC) entered the race to gain a foothold on the American market when it announced plans to send cars manufactured by its Trumpchi brand across the Pacific by 2019. At the time, the company conceded it would need to rename the brand; Trumpchi sounds too much like Trump.
As of 2019, the on-going trade war between the United States and China has put GAC’s export plans on the back burner and the odds of seeing one of its cars in America before 2020 are slim. GAC officials are waiting for the economic conflict to end before putting the project back on track but they still want to reach America sooner or later.
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Lada tries Canada (1979-1998)
And finally, a bit of a wild card entry. While Russia's Lada never dared to tip-toe into the United States, it sold cars in Canada for decades by focusing purely on bottom end of the market. It began in 1979 with a Canadian-spec version of the 2107 sometimes called Signet and it later added the Niva off-roader to its catalog of models. Low pricing was key to Lada's success but cars made for the Canadian market were often much better equipped than equivalent models sold in Europe.
The Signet looked and felt like a dinosaur by the 1990s so Lada sent its Canadian division two- and four-door variants of the Samara. Its Canadian adventure ended in 1998 but reports claim the brand will return in the coming years to again compete on the bottom rung of the market.