Those Were the Days!

Author: Joachim Geiger

Nov 30, 2022

Fancy a journey back in time and across oceans? In automotive terms, the United States of America, Japan, and South Korea were quasi-isolated worlds – with brands that have, in many cases, long since ceased to exist.

The car country of North America is a veritable treasure trove of vanished car brands. In their long history, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler in particular collected many venerable and legendary brands and sent them back into oblivion. Not just enthusiasts have long known about automobiles from Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Imperial, DeSoto, and Plymouth. But what actually became of these brands?
Take Chrysler, for example: The carmaker had to discontinue its prestige brand Imperial for lack of demand as early as 1975, even though later Chrysler models in the top version used the name once again. More or less due to a lack of quality, DeSoto was absorbed in 1960 into the Plymouth brand, which in turn left the market in 2001 under the aegis of DaimlerChrysler. American Motors Corporation (AMC) also wrote its own chapter in the US automobile industry’s turbulent history. Founded in 1954, the company did not play in the same leagues as the Big Three from Detroit – Ford, GM, and Chrysler. However, AMC landed a coup in 1970 when it succeeded in taking over manufacturer Kaiser Jeep – the former Willys Motor Company. Over the next few years, Jeep developed into a veritable cash cow, creating desirability in the industry. In 1987, Chrysler finally stepped in, bought AMC, integrated Jeep into its own portfolio and discontinued the AMC brand.
In Europe, generations dreamed of road cruisers and muscle cars
Europeans hardly noticed these and other upheavals of those years, however. Generations of car fans cultivated their own dreams of the US automotive market. These dreams often involved powerful road cruisers and muscle cars with exuberant power from big-block V8s – which have always been regarded as tried-and-true proof of the originality of American cars. The equivalents on the real market were stately coupés of the ilk of an Oldsmobile Toronado, which in the early 1970s boasted a 7.5-liter V8 with 385 horsepower. Playing in the same league was the Pontiac Firebird, which would become one of the brand’s most successful models by the time production ended in 2002, and which even starred in the popular television series Knight Rider. KITT, or more precisely the Knight Industries Two Thousand – in real life a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, built in 1982 – was, by today’s standards, an “autonomous” robot car that served the fantasies of technological progress with features like rocket propulsion and emergency braking system. The fact that the German trade press often complained about the spongy chassis and comparatively poor brakes of these American “land yachts” was unlikely to bother anyone in real life: Dreaming about such big cars was fine, but actually parking one in your garage – seriously?
US carmakers have long had an ambivalent relationship with Europe
Anyone who nevertheless wanted to take on the adventure of an import had to have staying power and active support from a committed car dealer. For many decades, US carmakers had an ambivalent relationship with the markets of the old continent. Some ventured the big leap across the pond and either stayed for at least a little while or quickly disappeared from the scene altogether. In this respect, Ford and GM subsidiary Opel stand out: Both produced in Germany and were not even perceived as American brands by customers because they ultimately built German cars. For Chrysler, on the other hand, the involvement with French manufacturer Simca at the end of the 1950s and with English car brands Hillman, Sunbeam, Singer, and Humber in the 1960s was a mere interlude. In 1978, economic problems forced the company to sell its European activities to Peugeot.
The Oldsmobile brand, on the other hand, never officially set foot on the European continent. Models such as the Pontiac Firebird were exported only in homeopathic doses of a few hundred units per year. However, by the turn of the millennium, GM could stop bothering with further sales strategies for its renowned brands altogether. In the difficult years before and after the 2009 bankruptcy, the red pencil ruled the brand portfolio: After Oldsmobile in 2004, it was Pontiac’s turn in 2009 to retire from active company history. The Australian brand Holden – in the portfolio since 1931 and known for its V6 and V8 engines in the 1960s and 1970s – was discontinued in 2021.
Europe is also a tough market for South Korean and Japanese brands
With Chevrolet, GM made a new attempt in the direction of Europe in 2005. The Daewoo brand, which had been closely associated with GM for some time, played a key role. Even in the mid-1990s, the South Koreans had their sights set on the European market with vehicles largely derived from the Opel Kadett series. After insolvency in 2002 and the takeover by GM, the cars were rebranded as Chevrolet in 2005, while the Daewoo name was put on hold. Then came the virtual end for Chevrolet in Europe in 2015. GM discontinued sales, which had never been very profitable. Today, you can only order the Camaro and Corvette models through regular channels.
Japanese car manufacturer Daihatsu did not have it easy, either. The thoroughly innovative company – part of Toyota since 1998 – had opened a European branch in Brussels at the end of the 1970s in order to roll up the market with small and economical cars. However, competing with the Citroën 2CV, Renault R4, and Fiat 126 was not enough to achieve a breakthrough in the long term. They discontinued new car sales in Europe in 2013. Nissan also faced a shipwreck with its Datsun brand, although this was partly self-inflicted. The Japanese launched their German business in 1973 with the mid-range Datsun Cherry model, which was later followed by models such as the 120Y and Laurel. The Datsun Z sports car, which was enormously successful in America, also made its way to dealers. However, only a very small number of units were produced, because Nissan’s priorities were focused on other markets at the time. In 1981, Nissan discontinued the Datsun brand for its European business. This was not so much due to lack of interest on the side of customers, but because the brand had long been controversial within the company itself. By contrast, about a quarter of a century later, the company’s ambitions ran much higher with luxury brand Infiniti. Nissan wanted to compete on an equal footing with top dogs such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW. It relied on attractive models such as the Infiniti FX50, the Infiniti G, and the Infiniti EX. However, sales in Europe remained negligible. In Germany, for example, Infiniti only found around 7,000 buyers within a decade. In 2020, the Japanese finally ended sales in Western Europe.