Car Brands: Here We Go Again

Author: Achim Geiger

Dec 14, 2022

Sometimes a vanished car brand reemerges from obscurity. This often involves a company that wants to use the historic brand’s good name. But a return to the brand’s history harbors risks.

Vehicle manufacturers must sometimes take a step back in time to open a path to the future. For example, if a start-up wants to launch a new electric car, the project’s brand label is at least as important as design and performance. After all, it can boost a vehicle’s success enormously if the car sports the right brand name. But how do you take on a name without stealing it? And why not breathe new life into a brand that has already disappeared? In the automobile industry, reaching into brand history is a tried and true approach. “Acquiring brand rights is easier than building a new brand. This offers automobile manufacturers the chance to create trust and a recognition effect with customers,” knows classic car expert Andreas Lahne, who coordinates the activities of DEKRA Classic Services.
Since its rebirth, the traditional MG brand drives electrically
A brand with in-built appeal can be valuable seed capital. On the other hand, a good brand name alone offers no guarantee that customers will receive the product well. If that were the case, Borgward brand cars would still be in dealerships today, promising their buyers German craftsmanship and engineering. But the opposite happened: Under the direction of Chinese truck manufacturer Foton, the 2015 relaunch of the “Wirtschaftswunder” brand failed completely in April 2022. According to reports, there were differences and competence problems between the German and Chinese management. Quality deficiencies and different technological concepts reportedly played a role.
Compared to Borgward, the MG brand is faring much better after the MG Rover Group, the last European owner, left the market in 2005. Car manufacturer Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) has carefully been initiating the brand’s renaissance since 2007: Design and product development remained in the hands of the development department in Birmingham, UK. In addition, the vehicles were initially launched only in China and the United Kingdom. Since 2020, MG Motor has been taking off on the European mainland. The focus lies on electric drives. The portfolio includes several SUV models, a station wagon, and the brand-new hatchback MG4 Electric. The rebirth of the tradition-steeped brand seems to be succeeding: In the public perception, MG is still regarded as a British manufacturer, even if the car now comes from Chinese production. People cite advanced and sophisticated technology and modern design as typical brand values.
The De Tomaso P72 hypercar ties in with legendary role models
Ideally, a new product should tie in with the tradition associated with the brand name. So which brand name would be right for a hypercar with gullwing doors and sweeping lines, powered by a five-liter supercharged V8 with around 700 hp? The name De Tomaso could be a perfect fit – after all, race car driver Alejandro de Tomaso launched exclusive sports cars such as the Mangusta and Pantera with his company, founded in 1959. After De Tomaso’s death in 2003, the company went through an eventful brand history until Chinese investor Ideal Team Venture secured the naming rights in 2015. It makes sense that the hypercar should follow in the footsteps of its role models. The first models of the De Tomaso P72 are currently being assembled in a factory at the Nürburgring – with the number 72 indicating that only 72 units of the model will be produced in the series.
Courts could decide the renaissance of the Hispano Suiza brand
The Hispano Suiza brand could also be in for a remarkable renaissance. After World War I, La Hispano-Suiza Fábrica de Automóviles S.A. built vehicles that were considered the epitome of performance, luxury, and sportiness. However, by the end of the 1930s, the brand had disappeared. The candidates for the new edition are two super sports cars guaranteed to give you goosebumps: The Hispano Suiza Maguari HS1 GTC presents itself with a 5.5-liter V10 engine with 1,200 hp, while the Hispano Suiza Carmen relies on an electric drive model with a system output of over 1,000 hp. The two cars are not only based on different vehicle concepts, but also made by different manufacturers. For the Maguari HS1 GTC it is Hispano Suiza Automobilmanufaktur AG, based in Switzerland. The Carmen is built by Hispano Suiza Cars, S.L. in Barcelona, which is run by the great-grandson of the original company founder. It is obvious that both projects see themselves as a continuation of the traditional brand – and want to build business success based on its historic reputation. Both parties have therefore been in a legal battle over a possible infringement of trademark rights for years.
The European Union Intellectual Property Office safeguards trademark rights
The fact that Hispano Suiza’s best days were many decades ago has only secondary relevance in this case’s overall legal consideration: “Even a no longer registered trademark can enjoy a certain degree of legal protection if its historic reputation continues to be known to the public,” explains Thorsten Klinger, a lawyer specializing in trademark and competition law at the commercial law firm Hogan Lovells International LLP in Hamburg. The European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), which resides in Alicante, Spain, came to an important decision in this matter in September 2022: “The EUIPO has declared the logo of Hispano Suiza Automobilmanufaktur AG, which was designed in imitation of the old Hispano Suiza logo, to be invalid as a so-called Union figurative mark. In addition, opposition proceedings are underway against a “Hispano Suiza” logo trademark, which is also registered at Union level and also covers cars, but no decision has been made on this yet,” reports trademark expert Thorsten Klinger.
Is cult brand DeLorean coming back to the future?
The 80s brand DeLorean could also be taking center stage in a trademark law thriller soon. The DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) is known for its DMC-12 gullwing, which became famous in the science fiction trilogy “Back to the Future”. After building around 8,600 units, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1984. This was later followed by a bitter dispute over the trademark rights. In 2014, John DeLorean’s widow took the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC), newly founded in Texas nine years earlier, to court for misusing trademarks and images of the original DMC. The lawsuit ended a year later with a settlement that gave DMC the rights to use the DeLorean Motor Company name, trademarks, and logo. Now the Texans are putting their capital to good use: In May 2022, DMC unveiled the DeLorean Alpha5 EV – an elegant coupe with gullwing doors as a reinterpretation of the DMC-12. But a new player entered the game in October 2022: DNG Motors. The company was founded by Kat DeLorean, daughter of the brand’s founder. The abbreviation DNG stands for DeLorean Next Generation and thus for the claim to continue John DeLorean’s legacy. In September 2023, the company plans to unveil an electric sports car under the name DNG JZD as a further development of the iconic DMC-12. Whether the revival will be able to go ahead without a legal tug of war remains to be seen.