In the middle 1920s, General Motors decided that five brands — bottom to top, Chevrolet, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac — weren't enough to cover the automotive market, and decreed a nine-brand hierarchy. No new divisions would be created: instead, the top four divisions would add "companion makes" to fill in the perceived gaps. Cadillac would build the slightly-less-prestigious LaSalle; the space between Olds and Buick would be filled by Olds' Viking and Buick's Marquette; and Oakland would go downmarket with Pontiac.

This scheme was fraught with fail. Marquette lasted only a year (1930); Viking had a two-year run (1929-30), though a handful of leftovers were sent out the back door as '31s; the last LaSalles appeared in 1940. The only one of the new brands that really succeeded was Pontiac — but every Pontiac that sold came right out of Oakland's market, and GM admitted as much by euthanizing Oakland in 1931. And so GM was back to five car brands, a scheme that would continue for the next fifty years.

Over at Chrysler, the phrase "over at Chrysler" was only just starting to get traction; the first Chrysler appeared in 1924, a product of Maxwell, and eventually Maxwell as a brand would be discontinued, its remaining model rebadged as the low-line Chrysler. Whether Walter P. Chrysler thought himself the new Alfred P. Sloan is unclear — he had at one time actually worked for Sloan in GM's Buick division — but Mr. Chrysler definitely followed the Sloan approach to branding as used at GM: to cover the low end of the market, Chrysler brought forth Plymouth, the smaller Chrysler cars became DeSotos, and Chrysler's company bought out the Dodge Brothers, all before 1930. The company continued to tinker with the formula: by 1936, the hierarchy, bottom to top, was Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler. Changes would come in the 1950s: Chrysler's top-line Imperial would be spun off into a separate make for 1955, to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln, and the gap between Dodge and DeSoto shrank to imperceptibility, then to nonexistence, with the last few DeSotos appearing as 1961 models.

In 1939, Ford — specifically Edsel Ford, son of Henry — brought forth Mercury, which was slotted somewhere between workaday Fords and luxe Lincolns. That slot would move several times over the years, sometimes closer to Ford, sometimes closer to Lincoln. And everything crashed in the middle 1950s, when Lincoln's Continental line was moved to a separate division and declared a separate make, building some of the finest cars of the decade and losing money on every last one of them.

By 1957, the Continental experiment had already wound down, at considerable expense to Dearborn, but the worst was yet to come. In 1956, the Edsel Division was created, to produce a line of cars that would split the difference between Ford and Lincoln-Mercury; in fact, the '58 Edsel line consisted of two models based on that year's Ford and two pricier models from L-M. Halfway into the 1958 model year, L-M and Edsel were consolidated into a single division, once it became obvious that Edsel was going to flop, and Edsel was quietly put to sleep after a brief run of 1960 models.

One factor in Edsel's demise — apart from its utter lack of reliability and its chrome-plated vulva pretending to be a grille — was a suddenly-shrinking market: 1958 auto sales dropped 31 percent from 1957 because of a worldwide recession. Nor was Edsel the only victim. American Motors, formed from a merger of Hudson and Nash in 1954, dropped both those brands after 1957 and pinned its hopes for the future almost entirely on the compact Rambler line. Also in 1954, Packard had merged with Studebaker; the '57 Packards were thinly-disguised Studebakers, and the '58s were the last ones entirely. By 1965, when Studebaker fled to Canada, the US auto industry was down to four and a half players: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Rambler/AMC, and, working an extremely narrow niche, Kaiser-Jeep.

It was of course inconceivable that the vestigial remains of Willys-Overland and Kaiser-Frazer would eventually upend the industry, but it did: that narrow niche, whence came the "sport-utility vehicle," would eventually become the tail that wagged the automotive dog. K-J had been building CJs ("Civilian Jeep") since the 1940s, and had introduced a full-lux SUV in 1963 under the name "Wagoneer." Jeep didn't have the market to itself, exactly: International Harvester introduced the Scout, a CJ competitor, in 1961, and Ford came up with the Bronco in 1966. A few of Toyota's Land Cruisers found their way to the States, as did a handful of British Land-Rovers. Still, we're talking a fairly small market, which would remain so for a couple of decades.

And then, the deluge. American Motors, which had bought Kaiser-Jeep in 1970, suffered greatly in the Seventies, and somehow turned its desperation into a couple of actual automotive icons: an all-wheel drive car, the AMC Eagle, in 1980, and the original Jeep Cherokee, in 1984. The Eagle, despite its low-suds AMC trappings, was a remarkable piece of engineering, and it was years before anyone came close to duplicating its capabilities. And the Cherokee brought most of the goodness of the long-running Wagoneer to a lower price point: its boxy shape and go-anywhere attitude made the traditional station wagon seem, well, traditional. A Wagoneer was spun off the Cherokee platform — the original Wagoneer, still selling, was rebranded as "Grand" — and the SUV boom was off and running. Chrysler, which hadn't been much of a factor in this particular market, bought AMC, 49 percent of which had then been owned by the French automaker Renault, in 1987, specifically to get its hands on Jeep.

If the SUV became a monster to some, it's perfectly obvious who played the role of Dr. Frankenstein: the federal government, whose Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules declared SUVs to be trucks, which, being "work vehicles," counted separately from cars and were not expected to meet the car standards. CAFE was a stupid idea to begin with, and recent changes to the law haven't made it any less stupid, but then stupid ideas are what government does best. It's the same level of stupidity that informs the government's bailouts — and subsequent "managed" bankruptcies — of GM and Chrysler in 2009. Not that the government actually caused the failures, except to the extent that they kept piling on regulations; what happened here was a failure to make competitive products. Chevrolet's compact Cavalier was fairly mediocre for 1982; by the time it was finally replaced — in 2005 (!) — it was seriously outdated. (In the same time frame, Toyota did five major updates to the Corolla.)

The Cavalier might have been forgiven if it had been reliable, but it was just about average for GM vehicles in this period, which means below average overall. And while Washington continues to spew environmental nonsense as it tightens its grip on the industry, Joe and Susan Sixpack are unimpressed: if they're going to be forced to buy automotive appliances, those appliances had damned well better be just this side of bulletproof, and nothing in the "restructuring" plans gives anyone any reason to think that's going to happen.

Which is why we can expect more fail. As Mickey Kaus says, "[O]nly one of the Big Three U.S. car manufacturers has made dramatic progress catching up to Japan on the bulletproof front — and it's not Chrysler or GM. It's the one that hasn't gone broke."

Ford isn't out of the woods by any means. But for now, it's the only one that can see the forest despite the persistent presence of trees. And the disappearance of car brands, a process that was already in full swing eighty years ago, continues before our very eyes.

The Vent

#632
  8 June 2009

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