Did you watch The Lion King and hear top cat Mustafa utter all that nonsense about the "circle of life"? Fine for him to say, since (at least theoretically, in the absence of wildebeest stampedes) he got to live to a ripe old age while everything else was prey.
I was thinking about the "circle of life" when Ford announced Wednesday that its more than 70-year-old Mercury division was soon to go back to the ground whence it came, there to nourish new growth. Mercury won't last out the year, and Lincoln could be next.
Ford was selling only 100,000 Mercurys annually, and that was only one percent of Ford's 16 percent market share. James Bell of Kelley Blue Book writes, "A large part of the equation was that Ford was investing very little into marketing or product development to even earn those sales, but this tactic would never have lead to a healthy future." Perhaps Mercury did not deserve such an ignoble fate, but it is shared by many other dying divisions. Sleep well, Mercury.
Let's look back at some of the more memorable failed auto makes (not coincidentally, all GM) that took part in the great circle of life, and what made them great:
Saturn, R.I.P, 2009. General Motors decided to shutter its Saturn division last year after a deal to sell it to rental king Roger Penske failed at the last minute. Penske had promised to retain 13,000 employees and 350 dealers, but it didn't happen. Saturn always left me cold as a brand, with only the flamboyant Sky roadster having any pizzazz. Who mourns for the Aurora, the Outlook and the Vue? Sure, there were some virtuous economy cars, but never especially good ones. Consumers voted with their feet for Hondas and Toyotas.
Pontiac, R.I.P., 2009. This venerable division was jettisoned in the same fire sale run by a bankrupt GM. Pontiac grew out of the Oakland Motor Car Company, and was acquired by GM founder William Durant two years later. Pontiac does have some emotional sway with me, because my family ran a two-tone '57 Star Chief for a while. I loved the light-up Indian hood ornaments. Pontiac sales soared after World War II, and really soared in the late 1950s and 1960s when John DeLorean (who signed on in '57) introduced the "wide tracks." He was responsible for the '64 GTO, a highlight of Pontiac history. I thought the first-year '67 Firebird (a Mustang chaser) was attractive, and the 1990 Trans Sport minivan was innovative, but not much after that floats my boat. Apparently, car buyers agreed.
Oldsmobile, R.I.P. 2000. This division bore one of America's oldest automotive names, having been formed by Ransom E. Olds (whose initials also went on REO Speedwagon trucks) in 1897. His curved-dash Olds was the first American car made in any numbers, and it inspired the huge 1905 hit "In My Merry Oldsmobile." Early Olds cars won races, and there were muscle car variants such as the 442 in the 1960s, and technically interesting ones such as the massive front-drive Toronado, but sales began to slump when the Olds acquired a "your father's car" image. I never got near one myself, though I admired the sleek Aurora as an attempted image changer. Even the collectors weren't enthused with Olds anymore. At the time of Olds' demise, I talked to Peter Berusch, who owned 13 of them in Lawrenceville, Georgia, near Atlanta. "I'm not getting teary-eyed," he told me. "Oldsmobile hasn't really had an identity for the last 15 to 20 years. These days, GM just produces the same car with different names."
Going back, we could get misty-eyed about the loss of American Motors, Packard, Duesenberg, Studebaker, Pierce-Arrow and many more. They were all worthy cars, which is more than you could say about GM's unlamented Hummer division, which isn't even worthy of an obit in this space. Luckily, the circle of life has killed off Hummer for all time.
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