The sign at your local Jeep-Eagle dealership hasn't changed, yet, but the Eagle has gone beyond endangered to essentially extinct. The last Eagles to be built, two-door Talon hatchbacks, rolled off Mitsubishi's Normal, Illinois production line in February of 1998, though Mitsu continues to build basically the same car for itself as the Eclipse.

The first Eagles of recent times were built by American Motors in the Seventies, all-wheel-drive variants of AMC's compact Hornet (later Concord) sedan and wagon. Control of AMC was eventually acquired by the French automaker Renault, which supplied newer front-wheel-drive cars to supplement the ancient AMC lines; all the AMC cars except the Eagle were dumped after the 1983 model year. In 1987, the newly-resurrected Chrysler Corporation bought AMC, mostly to get its hands on AMC's Jeep line of sport-utility vehicles, sold the last of the old AMC Eagles as 1988 models, and applied the Eagle name to two Renault-based models built in Canada so that Jeep dealers would still have non-Jeeps to sell.

Shortly thereafter, Chrysler phased out the Frenchmobiles in favor of products built by Diamond-Star Motors, the Chrysler-Mitsubishi joint-venture plant in Normal, Illinois, and all subsequent Eagles except the Vision were twins of Mitsubishi (and, per the usual Chrysler practice, also Dodge and/or Plymouth) cars. By the middle Nineties, though, the public had apparently grown weary of corporate clone cars — General Motors, which had raised the technique to a not-so-high art, was suffering greatly for it — and Chrysler started thinking about maybe getting rid of one of its marques.

Or possibly even two of its marques. Besides the endangered Eagle, Chrysler also considered pulling the plug on the seventy-year-old Plymouth brand. This alarmed existing Chrysler-Plymouth dealers, who presumably would be left with no entry-level products if all they had to sell were Chryslers, so the Highland Park contingent decided to reposition Plymouth as the Cute Car Company, sticking the new boat logo on both low-priced clones and on impractical image vehicles like the imitation street rod now sold as the Plymouth Prowler. Meanwhile, the sport-utility boom had kept Jeep-Eagle dealers so busy selling Jeeps, they might never have noticed they weren't getting any more Eagles. The subcompact Summit was dropped after 1996, the Vision after 1997, and the 1998 Talons are the end of the line.

This isn't the first time that Chrysler has dumped a brand, either. During the Fifties, Chrysler operated three divisions while selling four or five marques: Chrysler, Dodge and DeSoto dealers also carried Plymouths, and for 1955 Chrysler spun off Imperial into a separate make, in the hopes of giving the luxury line a better shot at Cadillac and Lincoln customers. But while the top and bottom of the market were covered, by Imperial and Plymouth respectively, things were getting murky in between, and when recession struck in 1958, dropping sales to crisis levels — and, not incidentally, dealing a crippling blow to the newborn Edsel, introduced by Ford in late 1957 — rumors about the demise of DeSoto, arguably the weakest Chrysler brand, began to circulate, and when DeSoto and Plymouth were merged into a single division in 1960, the handwriting was on the wall. The 1961 DeSoto, which went out of production after only a couple of months, was the last.

Still, Volkswagen's New Beetle notwithstanding, the automobile business doesn't run on nostalgia. How long can General Motors, the home of generic cars, keep struggling Oldsmobile going? Only time — and your favorite Detroit rumormonger — will tell.

The Vent

#107
1 July 1998

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