It is a fact of life that nothing lasts forever and this can be especially true when it comes to the manufacturers of consumer products. Trends come and go, the economy rises and falls, technology and safety standards march on, and it can be difficult for even the largest, oldest, or even the best-run companies to continue succeeding in the marketplace.
In the automobile industry, the oil crises of the 1970s and 80s and the Great Recession of the 2000s took their toll on the number of car brands in existence, as companies that had amassed numerous nameplates turned around and shed them like leaves in the fall wind. Whether it was called downsizing or streamlining or something else, the result was that these two events had a big hand in the demise of many carmakers. Even though some of these marques have threatened to make a comeback to passenger car production, none have succeeded as of yet.
The silver lining, if there is one, is that some of the deceased companies did make some very interesting, innovative, unique, and beautiful automobiles. It may be sad that the world will never see these nameplates on the back of a car ever again but we can, at least, admire what they once were and hopefully learn from the mistakes of the past.
20 Saturn Sky Redline
Saturn first started selling cars in 1990 offering unusual, dent-resistant plastic body panels and a haggle-free dealership experience. They became popular enough that, by 1996, demand outpaced supply. The brand was not profitable, however, as the $5-billion initial investment in Saturn coupled with the low profit margins of compact cars meant that they were losing $3,000 on every vehicle they sold. From this bleak situation, and two years from its ultimate demise, Saturn debuted the Sky roadster in 2007. A sharper-styled sister to Pontiac’s Solstice, the Redline version of the Sky featured a turbocharger attached to its 2.0-liter four to produce 86 more horsepower, for a total of 260. Unfortunately, both the Sky and the Solstice, and the brands that produced them, would be gone before the end of the decade.
19 Mercury Marauder
Many of the brands on this list perished as a result of the automotive industry crisis at the end of the 2000s, itself a by-product of the Great Recession of the same period. Mercury—like Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab—folded around the year 2010, with production ending officially in 2011 with the final Grand Marquis. The 2003 Marauder was Mercury’s revival of the high-performance nameplate first used in 1963 and was based on the Grand Marquis but with a more powerful engine and modified suspension. Poor sales ruined the Marauder in 2004 and the entire brand would follow soon after.
18 Tatra 700
A luxury car with an air-cooled V8 engine mounted in the rear almost sounds right from the company whose V570 model helped inspire the original Volkswagen Beetle. The 700 was produced in very low numbers between 1996 and 1999 (fewer than 100 total were built) and was the last passenger car made by the second oldest car company in the world. Produced in the Czech Republic shortly after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the 700 arrived amid new freedoms for Czech citizens, namely the ability to purchase cars from the West. Even with a body penned by famed designer Geoff Wardle, the 700 was not able to shake its Eastern Bloc image and the company abandoned passenger cars in 1999 to focus on heavy trucks.
17 Mosler MT900S
Designing and building a supercar is very likely high on the list of desires for any automotive enthusiast, given enough money. Put a powerful engine in the middle of a sleek, low body constructed of exotic materials, place a price tag on it equivalent to a decent house, and watch the millionaires come crawling seems to be the recipe. Wealthy economist Warren Mosler did just that with the Mosler MT900S, a smooth, sleek design created by Rod Trenne and powered by a Corvette engine. The “MT” stood for Mosler Trenne and the 900 was the target weight of the car, in kilograms, which wasn't quite met but was still very light for a 435hp automobile. Poor sales and a loss of enthusiasm by Mosler himself led the company to cease production and it is currently up for sale.
16 Pontiac G8 GXP
When auto enthusiasts in the US became more and more aware of cars from Japan (such as the Subaru WRX and Nissan Skyline GT-R), the manufacturers listened and began importing these models to the US and Canada. Similarly, the performance models from GM subsidiary Holden, in Australia, began to catch the eye of modern muscle car lovers and General Motors decided to bring the Holden Commodore across the Pacific as the Pontiac G8. The G8 GXP was the pinnacle of G8 performance, with a Corvette-sourced LS3 V8 pumping out 415 horsepower, more than any other production Pontiac. Alas, this BMW M-fighter would disappear with the demise of Pontiac in 2009, the last hurrah for the 80-year-old brand.
15 Prince Skyline GT
The legendary Nissan GT-R was preceded by the renowned Nissan Skyline GT-R but not many enthusiasts realize that the Skyline nameplate started life under a brand called Prince in 1957. Prince and Nissan merged in 1967 and the Skyline name eventually became a product of Nissan. The 1964 Prince Skyline GT was the Prince Motor Company’s foray into Japan’s new GT-II race series and consisted of a stretched Skyline chassis with a larger straight-six from the Prince Gloria luxury sedan. The cars placed second to sixth (beaten by a Porsche Carrera GTS) and the legend of the high-performance Skyline began.
14 Hummer H1
The Hummer H1 is really the product of two defunct brands, if you count the fact that AM General no longer makes civilian vehicles. The original and only “real” Hummer in the eyes of many, the H1 was based on the military M998 HMMWV High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee . Despite the Hummer’s reputation of being a mall-crawling suburban status symbol, the H1 possesses true off-road ability, matched by very few, if any, production vehicles of this size. Able to climb a 22-inch vertical wall and ford 30 inches of water, the H1 can go places usually reserved for modified rock crawlers. The Hummer brand, purchased from AM by General Motors in 1998, ceased production in 2010.
13 Dome Zero
The Dome Zero might not technically fit on this list, since it never entered production and Dome never materialized as a road car manufacturer. And, like Tatra and AM General, Dome still exists, although as a racing car constructor, not a producer of heavy trucks or military vehicles. But the Zero is just too cool not to be mentioned and the fact that the concept was conceptualized in 1978 makes it all the more remarkable. The extreme wedge shape produced a car that was lower than the Ford GT40, although the powerplant was a little underwhelming—at only 145 horsepower from a Nissan straight-six. Issues with road-legal certification and a lack of funds meant that the Zero would be mass-produced in numbers equal to its name.
12 Saab Viggen
The late 1990s saw the big three car makers of Germany battling it out for sports-sedan supremacy with the BMW M3, the Audi S4, and the Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG. Into this fray of six-cylinder, rear- or all-wheel-drive performance walked Swedish manufacturer Saab with their turbo-four and front-wheel-drive 9-3 Viggen. The only hatchback in the group and the least powerful, the Viggen was also the least expensive and the only one named after an actual fighter jet. A fighter pilot’s reflexes may have helped when driving the Viggen, as it exhibited the signature front-wheel-drive torque steer Saabs were famous for, although to fans, that just added to its charm.
11 Jensen Interceptor
The Jensen Interceptor has not only one of the greatest names in automotive history, it was also a fantastic looking design, having been penned in Italy and manufactured in England—plus, it featured Chrysler V8 engines. Available as a coupe-styled hatchback initially, and later a convertible, the Grand tourer put out more than 300 horsepower, but was held back somewhat by its nearly 4,000-pound weight. A development of the Interceptor, the Jensen FF, was the first production road car with all-wheel drive, preceding Subaru, Audi, and AMC Eagle for those honors. Production of the Interceptor ceased in 1976, after a ten-year run, and Jensen Motors was split and changed hands several times until vehicle production ended in 2001.
10 AMC Javelin
Camaro, Mustang, GTO, and Charger: these are the more familiar names of the late-60s muscle cars. The AMC Javelin of that same era was created in the same mold and intended to put AMC on the pony car map, with available V8 power in a rear-drive chassis originally designed for the Rambler sedan. The formula worked, with Roger Penske taking back-to-back SCCA Trans-Am titles with the Javelin in 1971 and 1972. By the mid-70s, however, pony cars were far less popular and slow sales along with new bumper regulations meant the end of the line for the Javelin. AMC, meanwhile, would be purchased first by Renault, then Chrysler (who coveted AMC's Jeep brand), and would ultimately be dissolved into the Jeep Eagle Corporation by 1990.
9 Triumph TR6
The origins of Triumph begin with two people from Germany selling bicycles in Coventry, England, in the 1880s. Fast-forward to the 1960s and the company was building cars alongside Rover and Jaguar. The venerable TR6 began production in 1968 and featured a powerful inline-six and fuel-injection for all markets except the USA. 15-inch wheels and independent suspension provided decent handling and a well-appointed interior and optional hardtop kept both drivers and passengers happy. Unfortunately, by the 1980s, Triumph was reduced to building re-badged Hondas and was eventually absorbed by the Rover Group. Today, BMW owns the rights to the Triumph brand, bringing the name back to its roots.
8 Plymouth Superbird
The Superbird may be the most recognizable car on this list, as well as the most valuable. Based on the Plymouth Road Runner and designed for NASCAR racing, the Superbird features an aerodynamic cowl attached to the nose and that famously tall wing on the rear. Built for one year only, somewhere between 1,900 and 2,800 were built and current values easily reach into six figures. While the Superbird was very short-lived, the Plymouth brand lasted for 73 years, originally created by Chrysler as a lower cost option to compete with Chevrolet. The brand was discontinued not long after the DaimlerChrysler merger.
7 Eagle Talon TSi AWD
The first-generation Eagle Talon TSi AWD arrived with 195 horsepower driving all four wheels back when the WRXs, Type Rs and Lancer Evolutions were simply pipe-dreams for drivers in the States. A product of the Diamond Star Motors (DSM) collaboration between Chrysler and Mitsubishi, the Talon was mechanically identical to the Plymouth Laser and Mitsubishi Eclipse and the second generation would be bumped up to 210 horsepower in 1995. The Eagle brand was created by Chrysler after their purchase of AMC in 1987, initially as a way to sell former AMC models. Eventually, Eagle became a badge-engineered brand of products very similar to other Chrysler offerings and the division was shuttered in 1998, when the last Eagle Talon was produced.
6 Daimler Double-Six
The story of the Jaguar with the brand name from Germany started when a company from the UK bought the rights to the Daimler name and engine patents from Gottlieb Daimler and a struggling Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in 1896, thus infusing DMG with the much-needed cash to survive and eventually become Mercedes-Benz. The Daimler Motor Company Ltd. of Coventry, England, continued to use the name and was bought first by BSA in 1910, then sold to Jaguar in 1960. Daimler became a top-end trim level of Jaguar models and this 1995 Double-Six was a variant of the Jaguar XJ12. The Daimler name was dropped from the Jaguar lineup in 2007 while under Ford management.
5 Oldsmobile 4-4-2
At the time of its demise, Oldsmobile was 107 years old, older than any other auto manufacturer in the US and third oldest in the world. Ransom Olds and his company were credited with the first mass-produced gasoline car, the development of the assembly line (before Ford), the first readily available automatic transmissions, the first turbocharged car, and the first modern front-wheel-drive car built in the US. The demise of this historic company would come in 2004. Like the AMC Javelin, the Oldsmobile 4-4-2 was a little less well-known than the Mustangs, Chargers, and Camaros of the Summer of 1969, but no less potent. The 1970 model could be had with 370 horsepower and a fiberglass hood with functional hood scoops.
4 Checker Marathon
Anyone who has ever seen a movie or TV show set in New York City in the 1970s or 80s will likely be familiar with the famous Checker cab. The cab that Robert De Niro drives in Taxi Driver is a Checker. The cab that Dustin Hoffman throws a man out of while dressed as a woman in Tootsie is a Checker. The cabs in the background in the garage in the TV show Taxi are Checkers. Produced in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Checker Marathon was produced for over 20 years with minimal changes. A modern version of the classic Checker cab was envisioned but never materialized and the company stopped vehicle production in 1982.
3 Triumph TR7
The wedge-shaped sports car with pop-up headlights was the dream automobile for many kids in the 1970s: the iconic Lamborghini Countach, the tiny Fiat X1/9, the crazy Lancia Stratos, the muscly Corvette Stingray, and this car, the Triumph TR7. It may have lacked the exotic mid-engined placement of the cars from Italy, and couldn't match the outright power of the US cars, but the TR7 was still attractive and, initially, sold well. A more powerful TR8 model was offered, replacing the 105-horsepower four-cylinder with a 135-horsepower V8. However, the TR7 and its derivatives were plagued with reliability problems, as well as a downturn in demand for sports cars, and it was to be the last true Triumph produced before the brand disappeared.
2 Pontiac Firebird
Who could forget the golden screaming chicken hood sticker adorning Burt Reynolds’ black 1977 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird? Not car collectors, apparently, which is why similar Firebirds sell for two to three times the price of comparable Camaros of the same vintage. The Firebird and the Camaro may have shared platforms and mechanicals throughout their lifetimes but the Firebird was always a little more bonkers, with more bulges, more vents, and more giant hood decals than the Chevrolet. Both models would go down in flames in 2002, but only the Camaro would be resurrected because Pontiac would also fall a few years later.
1 Iso Grifo
A designer from Italy, Giorgetto Giugiaro is well known for a wide range of beautiful automotive creations, from the first-generation VW Golf and Scirocco to the BMW M1 and the Delorean DMC-12. The Iso Grifo, while lesser known, may be one of the most stunning examples of his work. Manufactured between 1963 and 1974, the Grifo was a Grand Tourer with a Chevrolet or Ford V8 (depending on the model) up front driving the rear wheels, as any GT should emply. As a small manufacturer producing V8-powered cars, Iso would sadly not survive the oil crisis and the company folded in 1974.
Sources: Road and Track, Car and Driver, Nissan USA, and Motor Trend.