Building a car is difficult. Building lots of cars that people want to give you money for is even harder. Since the dawn of the automobile, hundreds of automobile manufacturers have been founded, produced cars, and have gone bust. Some of those builders were absolutely brilliant while others had cars that were too “out there,” too far ahead of their time, or were just plain terrible; like the 1988 Pontiac LeMans, which is unlikely to ever be collectible.
Despite the reasons for failure, some manufacturers shone brightly, and their cars remain today as a legacy of style, innovation, and performance. Here are bygone builders that made some incredible cars.
Studebaker, as a company, can trace its origin back to 1852. Between 1852 and 1902, the company was far better known for its horse-drawn carriages, buggies, and wagons than anything related to early automobiles.
In 1902, the company produced its first car, an electric car, followed by its first gas-powered car in 1904. Made in South Bend, Indiana, Studebaker Automobiles were known for style, comfort, and excellent build quality. Some of the most sought after Studebaker cars for collecting are the Avanti, Golden Hawk, and the Speedster.
Packard Motor Car Company is world-famous for its luxury and ultra-luxury automobiles. Built in Detroit, the brand competed successfully with European manufacturers like Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. Founded in 1899, the company was highly-regarded for building cars that were luxurious and reliable. Packard also has a reputation for innovation and was the first automobile to use a V12 engine, have air conditioning, and pioneered the modern steering wheel.
Packards were American design and craftsmanship at their finest. In 1954, Packard merged with Studebaker to be able to remain competitive against Ford and GM. Unfortunately, it ended poorly for Packard and the final car was produced in 1959.
DeSoto was a brand founded and owned by Chrysler Corporation in 1928. Named after the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, the brand was meant to compete against Oldsmobile, Studebaker, and Hudson as a mid-priced brand.
DeSoto’s automobiles offered some unique features in its day. From 1934 to 1936, the company offered the Airflow, a streamlined coupe, and sedan that was decades ahead of its time in terms of automobile aerodynamics. DeSoto was also the first automobile company to offer electronic fuel injection (EFI) on its cars in 1958. The technology proved more efficient than mechanical fuel injection and paved the way for the electronically controlled vehicles we drive today.
The Edsel automobile company only lasted 3 short years, from 1956 to 1959. The Ford subsidiary was billed as the “car of the future” and promised to treat customers to an upscale, stylish lifestyle. Unfortunately, the cars didn’t live up to the hype, and when they debuted, they were seen as ugly and overpriced.
The company is named after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Ford. When the company shut down in 1960, it was the picture of corporate failure. It seems that Edsel is having the last laugh as the short production run and low volume of cars made makes them highly valuable on the collector market.
Duesenberg Motors Company was founded in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1913. Initially, the company built engines and race cars, which won at the Indianapolis 500 three-times. All of the cars were built by hand with an unimpeachable reputation for the highest build quality and luxury.
Duesenberg’s philosophy of car building had three parts, it had to be fast, it had to be big, and it needed to be luxurious. They were every bit the rival for Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, and Hispano-Suiza. Duesenbergs were regularly driven by the wealthy, the powerful and by Hollywood movie stars. The rarest and most valuable American car ever made is the 1935 Duesenberg SSJ. Only two were made, they had 400-horsepower and they were owned by Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.
Luxury automaker Pierce-Arrow can trace its origins all the way back to 1865 but didn’t produce its first car until 1901. By 1904 the company was firmly entrenched in building luxury, upscale cars for affluent clients, including U.S. Presidents. In 1909, President Taft ordered two Pierce-Arrows to be used for official state business, that made them the first “official” cars of the White House.
There’s no replacement for displacement, and the early Pierce-Arrows used either an 11.7-liter or 13.5-liter engine to effortlessly waft important people between destinations. The final car was the 1933 Silver Arrow, an impossibly stylish sedan of which only five were built.
It’s hard not to love funky, quirky, Swedish car manufacturer Saab – their unique and innovative take on automobiles advanced quite a few safety features and forward-looking technology. Their designs and cars will never be confused for anything else on the road.
Saab AB was founded in 1937 as an aviation and defense company, with the automobile portion of the company starting in 1945. The cars have always taken influence from the company’s airplanes, but Saab is more known for their unique choices of engines, including 2-stroke V4s, their early adoption of turbocharging in the 1970s. Sadly, Saab closed its doors in 2012.
Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A.
Iso Autoveicoli, also known as Iso Motors or more commonly as just “Iso,” was an Italian automaker that produced cars and motorcycles starting in 1953. Their sports and performance cars were powered by Chevrolet V8s, engineered by Bizzarrini, styled by Giugiaro, and built by Bertone. It doesn’t get much better than that!
The incredible Iso Grifo 7 litri of 1968 came equipped with the Chevrolet 427 Tri-Power V8 with 435-horsepower and a 186 mph top speed. Surprisingly, the most successful car Iso created was a microcar called the Isetta. Iso designed and developed the tiny bubble car and licensed the automobile to other manufacturers.
Iconic British sports car maker Austin-Healey was established in 1952 as a joint venture between Austin, a British Motor Company subsidiary, and Don Healey Motor Company. A year later, in 1953, the company produced its first sports car, the BN1 Austin-Healey 100.
Power came from a 90-horsepower four-cylinder engine and was good enough to push the svelte roadster to a top speed of 106 mph. Motorsport is where Austin-Healey sports cars really shine, and the marque has been successful all around the world and even holds a few land speed records at Bonneville. The “big” Healey, the 3000, is the most iconic sports car from Austin-Healey and is highly prized today as one of the great British sports cars.
LaSalle was a division of General Motors that was founded in 1927 to fill a market spot between top-of-the-line Cadillac and Buick. LaSalle cars were luxurious, comfortable and stylish but notably more affordable than their Cadillac counterparts. Like Cadillac, LaSalle is also named after a famous French explorer, and the early cars took styling cues from European automobiles as well.
LaSalle’s offerings were well-built, well-received, and gave GM a near-luxury vehicle to add to their portfolio. Perhaps LaSalle’s biggest claim to fame is that it was legendary automotive designer Harley Earl’s big break. He designed the very first LaSalle and went on to have a 30-year career at GM eventually overseeing all of the company’s design work.
Marcos Engineering Ltd
Marcos Engineering was founded in North Wales in 1958 by Jem Marsh and Frank Costin. The name Marcos comes from the first three letters of each of their last names. The first cars had chassis’ made with laminated marine plywood, gullwing doors, and were designed specifically for racing. The cars were lightweight, strong, fast, and were raced by future F1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart, Jackie Oliver, and Le Mans great Derek Bell.
Marcos remained a niche manufacturer up until 2007 with the cars proving fast and extremely competitive in sports car racing but never achieving the success on the road that allowed the company to remain profitable.
Nash Motors was founded in 1916 in Kenosha, Wisconsin with the idea of bringing innovative designs and technology to the low-cost automobile market. Nash would be a major pioneer in bringing unibody construction to low-cost vehicles, developing the modern heating and ventilation system, building compact cars and offering seat belts.
Nash as a standalone company lasted until 1954 when it merged with Hudson to create American Motors (AMC). One of the more famous creations from Nash was the Metropolitan car. It was an economy, sub-compact car debuting in 1953, a time when most American automakers believed in the “bigger is better” philosophy. The diminutive Metropolitan was built in Europe exclusively for the American market.
Spanish manufacturer Pegaso started building trucks, tractors and military vehicles in 1946 but branched out with the spectacular Z-102 sports car in 1951. Production ran from 1951 to 1958 with a total of 84 cars produced with many special variants.
The Z-102 was available with a number of engines with power ratings from 175-horsepower to 360-horsepower. In 1953, a Z-102 with a supercharged 2.8-liter engine broke the flying kilometer speed record, achieving an average 151-mph. That was good enough to make it the fastest production car in the world at the time. Pegaso, as a company, continued to build trucks, buses and military transporters until it’s demise in 1994.
The foundation of the Talbot-Lago vehicle company is long, convoluted and difficult follow, but that’s no matter. The era most associated with the company’s greatness starts when Antonio Lago takes over the Talbot automobile company in 1936. After exercising a buy-out option, Antonio Lago reorganizes Talbot to form Talbot-Lago, a vehicle company focusing on racing and ultra-luxury vehicles for some of the wealthiest clients in the world.
The vehicles would go on to race at Le Mans and all throughout Europe, developing a reputation similar to Bugatti, as well-built, hand-crafted luxury high-performance cars. The most famous car is undoubtedly the 1937 T-150-C SS.
There are few cars and few car manufacturers that have a story that can match Tucker’s. Preston Tucker started working on a completely new and innovative car in 1946. The idea was to revolutionize vehicle design, but the company and the man in charge, Preston Tucker, would get caught up in conspiracy theories, SEC investigations and endless debates by the press and public.
The car that was produced, the Tucker 48, was quite the automobile. Powered by a modified helicopter engine, the 5.4-liter flat six-cylinder engine produced 160-horsepower with a monster 372 pound-feet of torque. That engine sat in the back of the car making the 48 rear-engine and rear-wheel drive.
Triumph Motor Company
The origins of Triumph date back to 1885 when Siegfried Bettman began to import bicycles from Europe and selling them in London under the name “Triumph.” The first bicycle made by Triumph was produced in 1889, followed by their first motorcycle in 1902. It wasn’t until 1923 that the first Triumph car was sold, the 10/20.
Due to financial problems, the motorcycle side of the business was sold in 1936 and remains a completely separate company to this day. Triumph’s car business was revived after WWII and produced some of the best British roadsters and sports cars of their day. The TR2, TR3, Spitfire, TR6, TR7 are iconic British roadsters but were not enough to sustain the brand long term.
Willys-Overland, as a company, started in 1908 when John Willys purchased the Overland Automotive company. During the first two decades of the 20th century, Willys-Overland was the second-largest producer of cars in the U.S. after Ford. Willys’ first big hit came with the onset of WWII when they designed and created the Jeep.
The Willys Coupe, another hit, was a popular choice for drag racers and proved very successful in NHRA competition. Ultimately, Willys-Overland was sold to American Motors Corporation (AMC). AMC was purchased by Chrysler and the legendary Jeep that proved so successful for the company is still in production today.
Founded by Ransom E. Olds, Oldsmobile was a pioneering automotive company that developed the first mass-produced car and created the first automotive assembly line. Oldsmobile, as a stand-alone company, had only existed for 11 years when General Motors purchased it in 1908. Oldsmobile continued to innovate and was the first manufacturer to offer a fully automatic transmission in 1940. In 1962 they introduced the Turbo Jetfire engine, the first production turbocharged engine.
Some of the best known Oldsmobiles include the 442 muscle car, the Vista Cruiser station wagon, the Toronado and the Cutlass. Sadly, the brand lost its vision in the 1990s and early 2000s and was phased out by GM in 2004.
Stanley Motor Carriage Company
In 1897 the first steam-powered vehicle built by twins Francis Stanley and Freelan Stanley was created. In the next three years, they built and sold over 200 cars, making them the most successful U.S. automaker during that time. In 1902, the twins sold the rights to their early steam-powered cars to rival Locomobile who continued to produce vehicles up until 1922. That same year, Stanley Motor Carriage Company was officially founded.
Interesting fact: In 1906 a Stanley steam-powered car set the world record for fastest mile at 28.2 seconds at 127 mph. No other steam-powered car would break that record until 2009. Stanley Motors would go out of business in 1924 as gasoline-powered cars became far more efficient and easier to run.
We’ve all dreamed of having a flying car, but it was Moulton Taylor in 1949 that turned that dream into a reality. On the road, the Aerocar towed the detachable wings, tail, and propeller. It operated as a front-wheel-drive car and could hit 60 mph. In the air, the top speed was 110 mph with a range of 300 miles and a maximum altitude of 12,000 feet.
Aerocar International was unable to secure enough orders for their flying car to enter serious production and only six were ever built. All six are either in museums or private collections with most of them still able to fly.
B.S. Cunningham Company
All American components, race-track pedigree, and European inspired styling made B.S. Cunningham Company’s cars incredibly fast, well-built and lust-worthy. Founded by Briggs Cunnigham, a wealthy entrepreneur who raced sports cars and yachts, the goal was to create American-made sports cars that could take on the best of Europe both on the road and on the track.
The first cars produced by the company were dedicated race cars, the C2-R and C4-R, in 1951 and 1952. That was followed by the elegant C3, which was also a race car but adapted for street use. The final car, a C6-R racing car was made in 1955, and as the company produced so few cars, was unable to continue beyond 1955.
Styled to look like a Mercedes-Benz SSK and built on a Studebaker chassis, the Excalibur was a lightweight retro sports car that debuted in 1964. Famous industrial and automotive designer Brooks Stevens, at the time working for Studebaker, designed the car but financial troubles at Studebaker meant that a supply of engines and running gear would have to come from somewhere else.
A deal was struck with GM to use the Corvette’s 327 cubic-inch V8 with 300-horsepower. Given that the car weighed only 2100-pounds, the Excalibur was plenty fast. All of the 3,500 cars built were made in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the retro-inspired machine stayed in production until 1986, when the company failed.
The sub-brand of Toyota, Scion was initially conceived to attract a younger generation of car buyer. The brand put a focus on styling, inexpensive and unique cars, and heavily relied on guerrilla and viral marketing tactics. A fitting name for the company, as the word Scion means: “a descendant of a notable family.”
The youth-brand first launched in 2003 with the xA and xB. That was followed by the tC, the xD and eventually the excellent FR-S sports car. The cars shared engines, transmissions, and chassis with much of the Toyota brand, and were largely based on either the Yaris or Corolla. The brand was absorbed back into Toyota in 2016.
In 1955, bicycle and motorcycle manufacturer Bianchi teamed up with tire company Pirelli and automaker Fiat to form Autobianchi. The company exclusively built small, sub-compact cars and was a testbed for Fiat to explore new designs, and concepts like fiberglass bodies and front-wheel drive.
The A112, which was introduced in 1969, remains the most famous car produced by Autobianchi. Production ran until 1986 and the small hatchback was prized for good handling, and in Abarth performance trim, made an excellent rally and hill climb racer. The success of the A112 Abarth led to a one-make championship in which many famous Italian rally drivers cut their teeth.
Created in 1938 by Edsel Ford, the Mercury brand was a division of Ford Motor Company designed to slot between the Ford and Lincoln lines of cars. It was intended to be an entry-level luxury/premium brand similar to Buick or Oldsmobile.
Arguably the best car Mercury ever produced was the 1949 Series 9CM. A classic sleek coupe or sedan, it became a favorite and icon of hot-rodding. It’s also notable for being the car that James Dean’s character drives in Rebel Without A Cause. The Cougar and Marauder were also great cars produced by Mercury, but brand identity problems during the 2000s caused Ford to discontinue Mercury in 2010.
French auto manufacturer Panhard began in 1887 and was one of the very first automakers in the world. The company, then known as Panhard et Levassor, was a pioneer of auto design and set many of the standards in cars that are still in use today.
Panhard was the first car to offer a clutch pedal to operate the gearbox and standardized the front-mounted engine with rear-wheel drive layout. The Panhard Rod, a common rear suspension linkage was invented by the company. The link is still used today on modern vehicles and in NASCAR stock cars, which call them trackbars.
Plymouth was introduced in 1928 by Chrysler as a low-cost vehicle brand. The 1960s and 1970s were the golden age for Plymouth as they played a big roll in the muscle car scene, in drag racing and stock car racing with models like the GTX, Barracuda, Road Runner, Fury, Duster, and the ludicrously awesome Super Bird.
Plymouth tried to regain its former glory in the late 1990s with the Plymouth Prowler but came up short as the car had the looks but not the performance of the retro hot-rods that inspired its design. The brand was officially discontinued in 2001.
Saturn, a “different kind of car company,” as their slogan says, was founded in 1985 by a group of former GM executives. The idea was to create a completely new way of building and selling cars, with a focus on small sedans and coupes. Despite being a subsidiary of GM, the company was largely separate.
In 1990 the first Saturn vehicle, an SL2 was produced. Futuristically styled with plastic body panels to absorb impacts, Saturn’s first cars garnered many positive reviews and looked to be a legitimate competitor to Honda and Toyota. However, GM continually diluted the brand with badge-engineering and Saturn went bust in 2010.
Often the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and that was the case for Dual-Ghia as the company was founded in 1956 but only lasted until 1958. Dual-Motors and Carrozzeria Ghia teamed up to build a luxury sports car with Dodge’s chassis and V8 motor with bodywork crafted in Italy by Ghia.
These were cars for the stylish, the well-heeled and for celebrities. Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnaz, Dean Martin, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson all owned one. In total, 117 cars were produced, 60 of which are believed to still exist and still ooze ’60s style from every angle.
Checker Motors Corporation
Checker Motors Corporation is famous for the iconic yellow taxis that ruled the streets of New York City. Loosely founded in 1922, the company was a combination of Commonwealth Motors and Markin Automobile Body. The company slowly acquired Checker Taxi as well during the 1920s.
The iconic yellow cab, the Checker A series, was first introduced in 1959. The styling remained virtually unchanged until it went out of production in 1982. A range of engines was fitted during the production run with the final cars getting GM V8s. Checker also produced consumer vehicles, styled identically to the taxis, and commercial vehicles. In 2010, the company went out of business after several years of struggling to make a profit.
American Motors Corporation
American Motors Corporation (AMC) was formed through the merger of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and Hudson Motor Car Company in 1954. An inability to compete with the Big-Three and problems with French owner Renault saw Chrysler buy AMC in 1987. The company was absorbed into Chrysler, but its legacy and vehicles remain relevant to this day.
AMC created some great cars in its day, the AMX, Javelin, and Rebel were fantastic muscle cars, the Pacer was made famous by Wayne’s World, the Jeep CJ (Wrangler), Cherokee and Grand Cherokee have become icons in the off-road world.
Hummer is the brand of tough, off-road, go-anywhere trucks that AM General started selling in 1992. The trucks were essentially civilian versions of the military HMMWV or Humvee. In 1998, GM purchased the brand and marketed the civilian version of the Humvee as the H1.It had all of the military vehicle’s extraordinary off-road capabilities but with a much more civilized interior.
Hummer followed up with the H2, the H2T, the H3, and the H3T. Those models were highly based on GM trucks. When GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, they had hoped to sell the Hummer brand, but there were no takers and the brand was discontinued in 2010.
Rover first launched as a bicycle manufacturer in England in 1878. In 1904, the company branched out to make cars and continued until 2005 when the brand was discontinued. Prior to being sold to Leyland Motors in 1967, Rover had a reputation for building high-quality and high-performance vehicles. In 1948 they introduced the world to the Land Rover.
A capable and tough truck that quickly became a byword for off-road ability. The Land Rover Range Rover was introduced in 1970, and the rest, as they say, is history. Rover also found success with the SD1 sedan. Styled to look like a four-door version of the Ferrari Daytona, it would also find success on the race track in Group A touring car racing.
Delorean Motor Company
There are few cars and car companies that have a dramatic and tumultuous story like DeLorean Motor Company. Founded by famous engineer and auto exec John DeLorean in 1975, the car, the company, and the man would all be caught up in a saga involving the SEC, the FBI, the British Government, and possible substance trafficking.
The vehicle that was produced by the company, the DMC DeLorean, was a stainless steel-bodied coupe with gullwing doors and mid-engine layout. Power came from a woefully inadequate PRV V6 with a staggeringly low 130-horsepower. The company went bust in 1982 but the film Back To The Future, in 1985, reignited interest in the unique car and company.
Warren Mosler, an economist, hedge fund founder, engineer and aspirational politician started building high-performance sports cars in 1985. At the time, the company was named Consulier Industries and their first car, the Consulier GTP, was a light-weight, incredibly fast mid-engine sports car that went on to dominate IMSA road racing for six years.
Consulier Industries was rebranded as Mosler Automotive in 1993. The company built a follow-up the GTP called the Mosler Intruder, powered by a Corvette LT1 V8. The Raptor came in 1997 but it was the MT900 that debuted in 2001 that was the real showstopper. Mosler sadly went defunct in 2013, but their cars are still being raced successfully around the world to this day.
Is it a car for the water or a boat for the road? Either way, the Amphicar is capable of handling both land and sea. Designed by Hans Tripel and built in West Germany by the Quandt Group, production of the amphibious car or road-going boat started in 1960 and made its public debut at the New York Auto Show in 1961.
Officially named the Amphicar Model 770, it was famously said that it was “not a very good car and not a very good boat, but it does just fine. We like to think of it as the fastest car on water and the fastest boat on the road.” Powered by a Triumph four-cylinder engine, the Amphicar stayed in production until 1965 with the last of the cars being sold in 1968.
Ascari Cars Ltd.
British sports car manufacturer Ascari was founded by Dutch entrepreneur Klaas Zwart in 1995. Zwart had been racing sports cars for many years and decided to try his hand at making them. The first car, the Ecosse, was designed with the help of Noble Automotive, but it was the KZ1 that came in 2003 that caught everyone’s attention.
Named after famous Italian racing driver Alberto Ascari, the cars produced were mid-engine, extremely fast, very loud and focused on race track performance. Ascari Cars regularly took part in sports car racing, endurance racing and even competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Sadly, the company went bust in 2010 and the factory where the cars were built is now occupied by the American F1 team, Haas.
In the late 1980s, Ferrari dealer Claudio Zampolli and record producer Gorgio Moroder came together to build a bespoke supercar designed by legendary stylist Marcello Gandini. The design is similar to the Lamborghini Diablo, which Gandini also designed, but featured a truly epic 6.0-liter V16 engine. Seventeen cars were produced before the company shut down in Italy and moved to Los Angeles, California.
The amazing engine was a true V16 with a single-cylinder block that used four-cylinder heads based on the Lamborghini Urraco flat-plane V8. The engine produced 450+ horsepower and could power the V16T to a top speed of 204 mph.
Post WWII, sports car and Grand Prix racing were dominated by Italian manufacturers and teams. This was the era of Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari and Turin based Cisitalia. Founded by Piero Dusio in 1946, Cisitalia began producing racing cars for Grand Prix racing. The D46 proved successful and eventually led to a collaboration with Porsche.
The GT cars are what Cisitalia is most known for. Often described as “rolling scupltures,” Cisitalia’s cars combined Italian style, performance, and comfort to rival anything else on the road at the time. While Ferrari was finding its footing, Cisitalia was already the master. The company went bankrupt in 1963 and its cars remain highly sought after today.
Pontiac, as a brand, was introduced in 1926 by General Motors. Originally, it was intended to be budget-friendly and partner to the also defunct Oakland brand. Pontiac’s name comes from the famous Ottawa chief who resisted British occupation of Michigan and fought a war against the fort in Detroit. The city of Pontiac, Michigan, where Pontiac automobiles were made, is also named after the chief.
In the 1960s, Pontiac ditched the bargain-builder reputation and reinvented itself as a performance-orientated car company. No question, the most famous car produced was the GTO. Other notable cars were the Firebird, Trans-Am, Fiero and the infamous Aztek.