Fun Stuff

Flash in the Pan Automakers

It’s tough enough to get any business off the ground, but the sheer size and scope of an automobile company adds an extra level of tough. For every automaker still around today, there are hundreds that have been lost to history.

Some survived for decades, and companies like Studebaker and Oldsmobile celebrated their centennials before fading away. And then there were automakers that started out with all good intentions but, for various reasons, never hit the big time. Here are some of those “flash in the pan” autos.

1974–1975 Bricklin

American businessman Malcolm Bricklin first made his mark on the American auto industry in 1968 by importing the Subaru 360, a minicar so small it didn’t have to pass automobile safety standards. He established and then left Subaru of America, intent on building a sports car that would bear his name – and ultimately, at Canada’s expense.

His unusual design included gull-wing doors, colour-impregnated plastic panels, an inner passenger safety cell, and retractable headlamps. After trying and failing to secure funding and assembly plants in Detroit and Quebec, Bricklin finally turned to the New Brunswick government, which wanted the jobs. Two factories were established: one in Minto to make the panels, and another in Saint John to assemble the car.

Little went right. The panels were difficult to produce and only half were usable, and it was tough to get the doors to work properly. Costs were soaring and Bricklin repeatedly hit the provincial government up for money, which Premier Richard Hatfield readily supplied. Canadians couldn’t even buy one. They were sold only in the US – under a scheme where Bricklin sold them to the American distribution company he owned for less than they cost to build, with government funding picking up the difference. When New Brunswick finally turned off the tap after just 2,875 cars were built, it had sunk $23 million into the failed project ($108 million after adjusting for inflation).

1981–1983 DeLorean

Similar-looking but unrelated to the Bricklin, the stainless-steel sports car that Marty McFly would ultimately pilot in the 1985 movie Back to the Future was the brainchild of John DeLorean, an ex-GM executive responsible for creating the Pontiac GTO and Firebird. He formed the car’s American-based headquarters in 1975, but it wasn’t until January of 1981 that the first one was built.

Like Malcolm Bricklin, DeLorean looked for funding from governments eager for jobs, and he found it in Northern Ireland. The car suffered some of the issues Bricklin had faced, including the gull-wing doors and body panel fit. There were also initial problems with the inexperienced workforce. Owners soon discovered that the Volvo-sourced, rear-mounted V6 wasn’t much of a thrill in the heavy car, and the unpainted body was difficult to keep clean. And at $25,000, it was $3,500 more than a Porsche 924 Turbo.

The company needed to sell 12,000 cars to break even, but by the end of 1981, only 6,000 had been built. A restructure that would have raised $27 million in stock fell through, and the British government turned down DeLorean’s pleas for more funding when he couldn’t raise an equal amount from investors. In October 1982, John DeLorean was arrested in an FBI sting operation, accused of trying to buy $24 million worth of cocaine – the suspicion being that he planned to sell it and shovel the profits into the company. He was found not guilty, but his car was done. Only about 9,000 were built in total.

2012–2013 Coda

California’s emission mandates and funding helped kick-start several plug-in vehicles, including Tesla and the “we’re not sure if it’s really doomed or actually coming back” Fisker – and the ill-fated Coda.

Coda based its electric sedan on the Chinese Hafei Saibao, a version of an older Mitsubishi Lancer. The chassis and bodies were built in China and shipped to California, where the batteries were installed and the cars offered for sale.

Coda claimed an overly optimistic range of 240 km on a six-hour charge, but the floor-mounted battery compromised rear-seat comfort. The company planned a 2010 release, which would have beaten the Nissan Leaf to market, but after several promised dates came and went, the first cars were delivered to customers in March of 2012. At almost $40,000 before electric-vehicle incentives, it was some $7,000 more than the Leaf’s pre-incentive sticker.

Much of the problem was funding. Coda initially raised $300 million from private backers, but a second offering expected at $150 million only pulled in $22 million, and the company applied for, but ultimately didn’t take, a $334 million federal loan available to electric-vehicle manufacturers. And instead of outsourcing its batteries as Tesla did, Coda burned through cash trying to develop its own.

It also didn’t help that the styling was bland, critics panned its handling and braking, and there was a recall on its airbags. Coda projected 14,000 cars a year, but filed for bankruptcy in 2013 after moving just 100 of them. The technology and a handful of unsold models were bought by Mullen Technologies, which planned, but has so far failed, to get the Coda back on the market.

1948 Tucker

Preston Tucker’s unusual car never went beyond 51 prototypes, but contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t because the “Big Three” of GM, Ford, and Chrysler sank it – in fact, Lincoln gave Tucker steering wheels to get it through a supply backlog. Instead, the car’s failure was due primarily to underfunding and government interference.

Tucker was an engineer who worked on tanks and combat cars in World War II. The revolutionary car he envisioned would use hydraulic pressure rather than a driveshaft, have a periscope for 360-degree visibility, and the driver would sit in the middle. None of those materialized, but it did have a rear-mounted torque-monster of an engine, three headlights, and numerous safety features.

Tucker’s problems started with his factory, which cost $500,000 a year to rent and was twice as big as he needed. His engines were $1,500 each, as much as he expected the whole car to cost, and his payroll was high. The federal government’s housing agency then expropriated Tucker’s factory for a prefab house manufacturer, and his legal battle created high-ranking enemies.

Following the Depression, the government examined any unusual stock activity to help prevent another market crash. Tucker sold shares in a car that didn’t yet exist, which triggered an investigation – launched the day the government also turned down his bid to buy a war-surplus steel plant. Car production halted and never restarted. Kaiser-Frazer, a more successful automaker founded the same time as Tucker, started with $52 million in funding but ultimately ran out of cash and failed – and Tucker had just $28 million. The car was doomed from the start.

1969–1971 Manic

Had it not been for supply issues, Quebec’s Manic might have established a successful Canadian sports car company. Jacques About, who was born in France and moved to Canada, went to Japan for school and ended up studying the automotive industry there. In 1966 he returned and went to work for the public relations team at Renault, which was selling cars in Canada at the time.

The company was debating importing the Renault Alpine, and asked About to study the possibility. He thought the car would do well, but Renault ultimately decided against it. Determined there was a market for such a product, About left and started his own company, headquartered near Montreal.

About designed the car, with its fiberglass-reinforced-plastic body, around components he could get from Renault. He drummed up investor interest by first building a racing model that set a record. The production car was meant for the street, but a higher-performance version of the lightweight Manic could hit 217 km/h. It was priced at $3,400, in the range of the Mustang and Camaro.

Finances were tight, but About was able to keep going with a company restructuring. What ultimately sank the Manic was Renault’s inability to supply parts on time, and About hadn’t negotiated any financial penalties for late shipments. He’d planned to build 1,300 cars a year, but had to close after some 160 were built.

1929–1932 / 1936–1937 Cord

The Indiana-built Cord was actually two flashes in the pan, with considerably different styles for each. Businessman E. L. Cord bought two existing automakers: Auburn, founded in 1900, and Duesenberg, first built in 1920. The third in his empire, the all-new Cord, would position between them.

Both series of Cords, the L-29 of 1929 and the 810 of 1936, were stunningly styled, but their historical claim to fame was hidden below: the Cord was America’s first successful production car with front-wheel drive. A regular attendee at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Cord met Harry Miller, whose front-drive cars dominated the racing scene. He worked with Miller to develop the new car.

The L-29 was well-received, although buyers had to overlook issues such as the transmission popping out of gear, and premature universal joint wear. What killed it was the Great Depression, where few could afford any car, much less one that cost $3,000 (the priciest 1932 Ford was $650). The second version was also front-wheel, and featured hideaway headlights.

However, E. L. Cord was dogged by financial problems, and in 1937 he shuttered all three auto companies, with his Cord the last to go.

2011 Azure Dynamics Transit Connect

In response to fuel prices and tightening regulations, Ford teamed with electric drive manufacturer Azure Dynamics to build an electric version of its Transit Connect compact delivery van. Azure Dynamics got its start in British Columbia, and retained a facility there after its head office moved to Michigan.

The all-electric van was announced in 2009, with the first trucks slated for late 2010, and full production for April 2011. Ford supplied the van, Azure Dynamics made the powertrain, Johnson Controls-Saft provided the battery, and the whole thing was assembled by AM General in Michigan. Although the van retained its Ford badge, Azure Dynamics was the manufacturer of record. The two had previously created a hybrid van, the Balance, based on Ford’s medium-duty E-450 chassis.

Numerous companies in Canada, the US, and Britain ordered the Transit Connect, which had a range of about 90 kilometres on a charge. One of the first production models went to Canada Post, which committed to buying nine more.

Azure Dynamics also planned a plug-in hybrid system for Ford’s Super Duty pickup, but it never got that far. The company’s finances were too wobbly, and in March 2012 it filed for bankruptcy protection in BC after a failed attempt at funding. Production of the Transit Connect abruptly ended, with an estimated 500 built during its short lifespan.

1930 Marquette

The Marquette was a model, not a manufacturer, but it’s still worthy of inclusion as a one-hit wonder for General Motors. (Production started in mid-1929, and some collectors mark their cars for that year, but GM designated them as 1930 models.)

Never believing that less is more, GM went through a phase in the 1920s when it had to compete in every possible niche. Every brand but Chevrolet made a “companion car” to fill any tiny gap alongside it. Cadillac had the very successful LaSalle from 1927 to 1940; Oldsmobile got the 1929 Viking, which lasted only two years; and Oakland, a company GM bought in 1909, eventually lost its life when its Pontiac companion, introduced in 1926, became far more popular.

The Marquette was Buick’s companion car. Available in six body styles, it was smaller than Buick and used an engine based on an Oldsmobile design. It was advertised as “Marquette Built by Buick” and “The most complete car in America priced under $1,000” (it started at $965). But the Depression – and, some believe, dealer dislike of its non-Buick engine – permanently cut production after 35,007 were made, just a couple of months after Buick shipped thousands of Marquette signs to its dealers.