It was only fifteen years ago that there were at least nine brands of cars that there aren’t anymore. Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Mercury, Plymouth, Saab and Hummer. Under each of these banners, whole lines of cars – and trucks and SUVs – were sold.
None of the above are sold anymore.
Why did this great culling occur? Probably for some of the same reasons another is probably about to happen.
There was a financial crash in ’07 that led to a secondary crash – in car-buying. The Big Three – which by then had lost about a third of their total market share vs. what it had been in the ’90s – went bankrupt, having too many cars that cost too much to make and market to a declining market. Then they went hat in hand to the federal government, which put its hands in the American taxpayer’s pockets, to mulct the funds used to “bail out” the failing Bigs, especially GM.
As part of the subsequent reorganization, brands that had once been “full-line” divisions – the term means what it sounds like means; i.e., each sold a full line of models within the brand, in effect operating as an entire car company, in and of itself – were simply cancelled outright.
What’s interesting about that – because it’s also predictive – is that all of the cancelled brands were duplicative. By the time of the crash, brands like Olds and Pontiac were selling full-lines of the same line being sold by other GM brands, such as Chevrolet and Buick. They had, in effect, become re-branding divisions or marketing arms of the same things being sold (and marketed) under the rubric of GM’s other brands. One good example of this being the re-branding of the Chevrolet Camaro as the Pontiac Firebird, which it was in name (brand) only – being functionally a Camaro as much as the actual Camaro.
The brands that aren’t around anymore weren’t always rebranding agencies for other brands’ vehicles. Pontiac and Olds, for example, once-upon-a time engineered their own engines, which were different from the engines engineered by Chevy and Buick and Cadillac – which did the same as regards their engines. There were some shared things – such as basic underlying frames (e.g., the Camaro and Firebird were both “F” cars) but there were enough real differences to make a difference.
To continue with the Camaro-Firebird analogy, the Pontiac had bigger displacement/lower-revving V8s that were esteemed for their more prodigious torque while the Chevy offered smaller but higher-revving “small block” V8s that found favor with those who preferred the operating characteristics, feel and sound of that layout over the other.
There were a lot of other differences, too – such as the Pontiac being known for a softer rather than firmer ride. These were all noticeable, functional differences that transcended the merely cosmetic.
It gave buyers a reason to buy a Pontiac rather than a Chevy (as well as the reverse). It also fostered a healthy in-house rivalry between the engineering departments of these respective GM divisions, which – at the time – were, in a very real sense, independent car companies and not just marketing arms of the same company.
This led to each brand striving to improve its offerings relative to the other – resulting in both becoming better as well as different.
What will become of today’s remaining brands when all of them are selling the same electric cars, differently branded? When the only differences are superficialities – such as color and size? How many different ways can you sell the same basic thing? When there are no longer different engines – and no transmissions (electric cars are generally direct-drive cars; the motor turns the wheel without needing the intermediation of a transmission) and the only real differences are the prices – and the badges – why would buyers care for one over another vs. four or five others, just like it?
Is there any more market demand for an electric BMW that is fundamentally the same as an electric Audi – which is essentially the same as an electric Lexus – than there was for a Pontiac Firebird that was fundamentally the same as a Chevy Camaro or a Plymouth Neon that was indistinguishable from a Dodge-badged version of the same thing?
Badge-engineering can be indulged – for a time – when there is enough money being made re-selling the same things. Olds and Pontiac and Plymouth survived for decades after their beating hearts – their engineering arms – had been ripped out of them and the embalmed carcasses kept around in the manner of a well-embalmed dearly departed.
But it cannot be indulged when the money for the undertaker begins to trickle to nil – as happened the last time. All of a sudden, it becomes unsupportable. And that which cannot support itself inevitably no longer does.
Both are shaping up to happen again. The difference, this time, is that every brand – just about – is making the same things or has announced their intention to do just that. Salt into the mix that most people have less money to spend on anything, to say nothing of cars that continue to get more and more expensive to buy. Electric cars, especially – which cost on average 30-50 percent more than an otherwise similar car that’s not electric.
It is not unlikely that – after the dust settles – there will be even fewer brands remaining than disappeared 15 years ago.
Maybe just one brand will remain. Consolidated Motors, anyone? One car, in different sizes and colors? The Universal Transportation Appliance.
It’s exactly the result you’d expect to arise from the consolidating-homogenizing effect of government, with the electric car being the ultimate manifestation of that.
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