Orphans We Love: The 7 Best Cars From Dead Automotive Brands
The automotive industry is as red in tooth and claw as any terrifying tableau nature might conjure up. It's very, very difficult to stay in the business of building cars, and the last 60 years or so have seen the overall number of vehicle brands pare itself down to the point where more than three quarters of the companies that were making vehicles at the beginning of the automotive age are now but a distant memory.
When thinking back on the badges of days gone by, what are some of the models that stand out? Which cars not only came to define the automaker in question, but also resonated through the years, long past their expiration, to still influence enthusiasts and collector's today?
We took a look at 7 dead brands and picked the best orphans they ever produced. See if you agree with our choices.
1. 1963-1964 Studebaker Avanti
Studebaker's corporate situation was dire at the beginning of the 1960s, but that didn't stop its president, Sherwood Egbert, to swing for the fences with one last clean-sheet sports car design that he felt had the potential to lift the brand out of the red. The fiberglass-bodied Studebaker Avanti arrived as a 1963 model, and it featured V8 power and striking Raymond Loewy-influenced looks.
Intended to fight against GT cars like the now-larger Chevrolet Corvette, the Avanti's focus on performance included 240 horsepower in the base model (from a 289 cubic inch V8), 290 horsepower from an 'R2' supercharged version of the same, and a handful of 335 horsepower R3 supercharged editions. Studebaker would take the Avanti's slick shape to the Bonneville salt flats, where it would shatter 29 records and post a top speed of 196 miles per hour.
The Avanti only received two model years of production before Studebaker's financial woes would wipe it from the showroom, followed shortly thereafter by the company itself. Just under 4,000 examples were ever built, but such was the appeal of the Avanti shape that reproduction 'Avanti II' models—produced using the vehicle's original designs—would continue to be sold for decades.
2. 1951-1955 Hudson Hornet
Hudson produced a diverse range of cars that targeted a wide customer base. When looking at the models that were the most successful in their day, however, a strong case has to be made for the Hornet as being the best that the automaker every had to offer.
The Hudson Hornet debuted in 1951, and it brought with it a number of advancements that had previously been found exclusively with high-priced luxury cars. A 'step-down' cabin lowered the floor pan below the door sill and combined with unibody construction to boost interior room. Outside, bodywork was aerodynamic and expressive at the same time, and power for the Hornet was derived from a 308 cubic inch straight-six engine good for 145 horses. Step up to 'Twin H-Power' and its pair of single-barrel cabs, and the aluminum-headed motor was good for 160 horses and 260 lb-ft of torque.
The Hornet would have a very successful racing career in every series it entered—particularly NASCAR—thanks in large part to their excellent handling and tuner-friendly mechanicals. Hudson would win multiple American championships during the 1951-1955 lifespan of the first-generation Hornet.
3. 1970 Oldsmobile 442 W30
Oldsmobile built so many important automobiles during its long history that it was difficult to choose only one to represent the best of what it had to offer. Still, a look back on the annals of muscle car performance makes it clear that the Oldsmobile 442 had an outsize influence on gearheads of every generation.
While the 442 was introduced in the mid-60s, it came into its own with the 1970 model and its W30 package. When added to the 455 cubic inch V8 under the hood, which was normally good for 365 horsepower, the W30 package would boost output by way of a larger carburetor and a more aggressive cam shaft. On paper the upgrade was good for an additional 5 horses, but with the pedal down it was obvious that the 442 W30 was pushing major muscle (on top of its 500 lb-ft of torque).
Other goodies that came with the 442 coupe's W30 option included front disc brakes, a limited-slip differential, and a Hurst shifter for either automatic or manual-equipped models. Oldsmobile also sliced some weight off of the car by way of a fiberglass hood, through using aluminum wherever possible on the engine and drivetrain, and by stripping soundproofing out of the cabin.
4. 1964-1969 Pontiac GTO
Make no mistake: the Pontiac GTO played a huge role in 'inventing' the concept of the muscle car. Introduced as an options package on the Pontiac Tempest/LeMans for its first two years of existence (at the behest of Pontiac brand managers avoiding a GM corporate ban on large engines in small cars), the GTO would drop a big-displacement V8 into a mid-size package. In so doing, it created the template for so many other automakers to fill with their own affordable performance machines.
By 1966 Pontiac had wised-up and made the strong-selling GTO its own model, with a 389 cubic inch engine capable of 360 horsepower and 424 lb-ft of torque thanks to its 'Tri-Power' carburetor setup. The engine would graduate to 400 cubic inches the following year, and by 1968 a new body style introduced a plastic Endura front bumper and hidden headlights. The hits just kept coming in 1969, with a 370 horsepower Ram Air IV version of the motor found in 'The Judge' model that would be a massive sales success for the brand.
5. 1949 Mercury Coupe
If you've been to a hot rod show at any point in the last 50 years, chances are there was at least one 'Lead Sled' sitting there on the grass. Also known as the Mercury 8, or the 9CM, the chopped, lowered, and skirted Mercury became one of the most treasured canvases for rodders in love with its long, smooth lines. This was amplified in the mid-1950s by the Hirohata Merc, built by the Barris brothers using the 9CM as a starting point, which was a vehicle that would dominate the creative energy behind hot rodding for decades.
Even if you weren't into custom cars, you couldn't escape the influence of the '49 Merc in pop culture. The song 'Mercury Boogie,' written about the car, would spawn a hundred cover versions and enter into the permanent rock and roll lexicon, while James Dean's '49 in 'Rebel Without A Cause' further extended the reach of the iconic design. For a brand that would spend many of its twilight years slavishly cloning Fords, the 1959 Mercury Coupe was a genuine automotive milestone.
6. 1970 Plymouth Superbird
Built exclusively to homologate its big-winged, nose-coned body style for NASCAR competition, the 1970 Plymouth Superbird was an outlier in an era where loud, brash muscle cars were the industry's stock in trade. Like its predecessor, the Dodge Charger Daytona, the Superbird took an intermediate coupe, in this case, the Road Runner, and added aero in a bid to dominate the super speedway banks at Daytona and Talladega.
Its success in NASCAR was immediate, and had far-reaching consequences. The vehicle, which could reach 200 mph, was eventually legislated out of the sport by forcing Plymouth to use smaller engine sizes as part of an effort to equalize competition against less slippery rivals. On the street, the Superbird fared less well. Customers were uninterested in its cartoonish appearance and examples hung around dealer lots for years, unloved and unsold. Their extreme performance and shrinking rarity (under 3,000 built) have made them six-figure collector's items today.
7. 1968-1974 AMC Javelin
Although the AMX grabbed a lot of attention with its two-seat, short wheelbase platform, the car that shared its chassis with the pint-size coupe is a more worthy contender for the title of best American Motors Corporation car ever made.
The AMC Javelin was the automaker's Mustang competitor, what with its small two-door styling and available 315 horsepower, 390 cubic inch V8 (which was also good for 425 lb-ft of torque). Output would climb to 325 horses by 1970, and a 330 horsepower, 401 cubic inch V8 would appear after the vehicle's 1971 redesign. By the time it left the market, the Javelin had incorporated the AMX name as a sub-model.
In addition to its street cred, the Javelin was an impressive racing platform. The Javelin would compete hard in Trans Am and NHRA, eventually winning a trio of manufacturer's titles in the former as well as numerous driver's championships. Notable names such as Roger Penske and Mark Donohue would be associated with the racing program, with Donohue even getting his own SST trim level sold to legalize its aero gear for on-track competition.
Curious about other classic muscle machines that aren't kicking around anymore? Check out this look at alternative performance cars that stand out from the crowd.