11 May 2015

Five car nameplates that started with a bang but went out with a whimper

The automotive landscape is littered with new model nameplates that started out capturing the world’s imagination, only to end up as shells of their former selves through a labyrinth of bad corporate decisions and even worse luck.

Here are five prime examples of cars that started out with a bang, only to go out with a whimper:

Mercury Cougar

After the unbridled success of the Ford Mustang, The Blue Oval sought to spread some pony car mojo to its Mercury division with the 1967 Cougar. The model shared a lot of hidden bits with its Ford cousin, but it rode astride a longer wheelbase for a smoother ride and it had its own brand of swagger thanks to its imposing hidden-headlight face.

As time went on, the Cougar became less and less distinctive, morphing into little more than a trim-and-tape version of the bloated Ford Thunderbird in the 1970s. The Cougar was then substantially downsized in its fifth generation for 1980, whereupon it moved back onto the Fox-body Mustang platform. It was a difficult time for the Cougar faithful who saw the range bizarrely expand to include a four-door sedan and wagon body style in an effort to make up for lost sales after its Mercury Monarch sibling was discontinued.

The Cougar’s luck improved somewhat in 1983, when it gained sleek new aerodynamic bodywork that it would carry evolutions of through 1997, and it even gained modern performance credentials with the introduction of a turbocharged XR7 in 1984.

The Cougar would go on hiatus for the 1998 model year, only to return as an underpowered, front-drive compact hatchback. Incorporating strange “New Edge” styling, the new Cougar read more like a Ford Probe successor than anything else, and the U.S. market wasn’t interested in buying what the Cougar was selling. This once-proud cat was supposed to have nine lives, but the reborn eighth-generation model only lasted until 2002.

Oldsmobile 4-4-2

The Oldsmobile 4-4-2 started life in 1964 as a high-performance option package on the Rocket Division's F-85 and Cutlass models, earning standalone model status from 1968 to 1971. Originally conceived as a Pontiac GTO fighter (back when General Motors was happy to let its divisions duke it out), the 4-4-2 was so named because of its four-barrel carburetor, four-speed manual and twin exhausts.

The 4-4-2 enjoyed a reputation as a fierce performer until the U.S. government’s emissions regulations started to choke outputs of all sporty models beginning in the early 1970s. With performance increasingly tough to come by, the 4-4-2 held its own through most of the 1980s essentially as an upscale trim package on the popular fourth- and fifth-generation Cutlass notchback coupes.

It all fell apart in 1991, when the fabled 4-4-2 moniker was revived on the poorly regarded Cutlass Calais, a downsized, front-drive notchback coupe. Because it didn’t have a V-8 engine, Olds officials maintained the 4-4-2 now stood for four valves with four valves per cylinder and two exhausts. The Quad-4 engine under the hood was actually surprisingly powerful, carrying up to 190 horsepower, but the entire package was more of an unlikely sport compact than a muscle car. The model didn’t find much favor with critics or consumers, and it was consigned to The Great Crusher in the Sky after just two years.

Lotus Elan

The original 1962 Lotus Elan is arguably one of the purest, most iconic sports cars of all time. Sporting a lightweight backbone chassis shrouded in winning fiberglass bodywork, the Elan is still regarded as one of the sweetest-handling and most communicative sports cars of its era, not to mention one of the most elegantly styled. It was so perfect, in fact, that Mazda famously benchmarked the original Elan when developing the MX-5 Miata roadster decades later. The Elan would enjoy a lengthy production run of 13 years, a term that saw the addition of a +2 model in 1967 that incorporated a longer wheelbase to accommodate a pair of small rear seats.

In an ironic twist, in the late ’80s, Lotus sought to reclaim the pure sports car mantle from Mazda’s upstart Miata, so it developed the M100 Elan, which debuted for 1989. Compared to its curvaceous predecessor, the neo Elan was a wedgy doorstop of a thing, seemingly as wide as it was long. Powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine sourced from Isuzu, the M100 Elan was actually front-wheel drive, a strange choice for an elemental sporting roadster. Still, the M100 was regarded as one of the finest-handling FWD cars of its day, and in turbocharged form, it wasn’t as slow as its powerplant’s origins would have one believe. However, that didn’t help the car find favor with Lotus traditionalists – let alone new devotees.

The M100 Elan endured seven years of slow sales, whereupon the rights to its design and name were licensed to Korean automaker Kia for the South Korean market from 1996 through 1999.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo

The Chevrolet Monte Carlo entered the world as a Chevelle-based expression of personal luxury, something of an affordable Cadillac Eldorado for the masses. With its clean, Coke-bottle flanks and a wide variety of trims and powertrain choices, the original Monte Carlo was a hit.

In 1973, the Monte’s styling took a turn for the baroque, and as the ’70s wore on, increasingly stringent emissions, fuel economy and safety standards conspired to drain much of the performance out of the Monte as it continued to grow in size and heft.

By 1978, it was time to hit the reset button, so the third-generation Monte Carlo shrunk and gained angular new bodywork. That look would evolve for the fourth-generation 1981 model, which would eventually bring with it a new Super Sport model with a 305 cubic-inch V-8. The SS would prove to be hugely popular both on the street and at the track, where Chevrolet’s NASCAR efforts helped the coupe stand out. As the car aged and the large coupe market eroded, though, so, too, did the Monte Carlo’s fortunes. The nameplate would be discontinued after the 1988 model year.

The Monte Carlo would return in 1995 as a renamed version of Chevy’s Lumina Coupe, an aerodynamic, two-door coupe that had little in common with Monte Carlos past. The sixth-generation model kept its front-drive W-Body platform, bowing for the 2000 model year wearing unflattering front and rear ends that looked like they were designed by committees in different buildings. A better-looking facelifted model turned up for 2006, but it only lasted just two years, despite the advent of an SS model fitted with an LS4 small block. The sun had long since set on the affordable personal coupe market, and the Monte Carlo’s aging front-wheel drive bones just weren’t up to the task of hosting 300+ horsepower.

Studebaker Avanti

To be fair, the original Studebaker Avanti only lasted two years. Between 1962 and 1963 (model years 1963-64), fewer than 6,000 examples of the radically styled coupe were manufactured in South Bend, Ind. Born into a failing brand, the Avanti wasn’t a great sales success, but it was a groundbreaking car, with futuristic grille-less styling, advanced safety features and, with its optional Paxton supercharger atop its 289 cubic-inch V-8, record-setting speed.

Despite the closure of Studebaker’s Midwest factory and the company’s financial troubles, the Avanti would live on as the evolving product of a series of independent owners. The model was rechristened "Avanti II” and was put back into production in 1965 under the newly created Avanti Motor Corporation umbrella, a company formed by a small group of Studebaker dealers who bought the rights to the Avanti's design and tooling. The company hand-assembled a string of these continuation models, fitting them with Corvette engines. The Avanti II would continue to sell in small numbers largely unchanged until the company was sold in 1982 to a real estate developer.

The new owner, Stephen Blake, would go on to update the Avanti’s design’s aesthetic with body-colored plastic bumpers and square headlights, and he manufactured the cars until 1986, whereupon he declared bankruptcy.

From then on, Avanti production bounced unceremoniously from entrepreneur to entrepreneur, growing less attractive and less recognizable as time went on.

In the late 1980s, Avanti assembly was moved to Youngstown, Ohio. Production of a much-updated model would continue for a number of years under yet another new owner, real estate maven John Cafaro, who added a four-door model and a convertible to go along with coupe.

The Ohio plant would eventually close, but the Avanti saga was far from over. The soap opera would go on to include new owners, new factories (in Georgia, then Mexico), and even subsequent new donor chassis (the Pontiac Firebird and the Ford Mustang), all developments that further muddled the Avanti’s famous styling and appeal as time went on.

Michael Eugene Kelly, another real-estate man who owned Avanti Motors not once, but twice, would eventually find himself in jail over a $428-million time-share condo Ponzi scheme that bilked the elderly out of their retirement money.

Today, the original Raymond Loewy-penned Avanti is still viewed as an icon of mid-century modern design – a near miracle considering the model’s long and tortured history.

33 Reader Comments

  • 1
    palma Brasil May 13, 2015 at 23:00
    It's beautiful...
  • 2
    Gary Surdyke St Croix USVI May 13, 2015 at 23:05
    I had a first year Olds 442. You say 442 stood for 4 barrell carb, 4 speed tranny and dual exaust. Mine had a two speed automatic. As I recall 442 stood for 400 inch motor ,4 barrell and dual exhaust.
  • 3
    Don Hilston So. Florida May 13, 2015 at 23:12
    No mention of the Thunderbird? A great start in the two seat personal car then changing it to the pig it became, shame on Ford. GM got the Corvette better and better (with a few slips) and still has a great car.
  • 4
    Johnny Thiele Illinois May 13, 2015 at 23:58
    I pay you money to insure my car and you insult me by calling it a loser ?...I'm gettin' pretty sick and tired of these kind of articles !
  • 5
    JEAN-PIERRE AUGER Lac Brome, Qc. May 14, 2015 at 13:28
    ...some day, I hope someone will resume and go back to it's exquisite original design détails and propose an alternative to many cottage industry potato bags...just saying...!!!
  • 6
    Jim Willig Sierra Vista, AZ May 14, 2015 at 02:56
    I have had a 1967 Olds 442 convertible for 37 years...all original...runs great...looks even better...original red-line spare in the trunk...and I wouldn't trade it for a new Corvette.
  • 7
    ken florida May 14, 2015 at 07:04
    Detroit, what happened to you? Stupid design decisions and front wheel drive. What were you thinking? Another ruined nameplate was Thunderbird. Although it could never decide whether it was a sports car or a two seater luxury car, it still had a cache even as a two door luxury car. Until the 1970s when it apparently became nothing more than a Fairlane dowager in disguise.
  • 8
    Steve Witham Florida May 14, 2015 at 07:17
    Sorry, but this article is full of inaccuracies.
  • 9
    Karl Princetown NY May 14, 2015 at 19:40
    77 Monte was best car I ever owned. Red with white vinyl top, pinstripes, and white interior. A very sexy looking car. Had all the neighbors walking by to check it out when I first brought it home. Put 187,000 miles on it without much in the way of repairs. I could do all the maintenance myself, so the car never saw the inside of a mechanics garage. In the end, the salt took its tole. Lots of rusted out floor boards and door skins. Still wish I had it today.
  • 10
    Ron De Vito Sherman ct. May 14, 2015 at 07:53
    Born in 49 turning 16 in 65. I totally agree with the olds 442 and Lotus Élan as far as the other three No big deal.
  • 11
    Carolyn Stokes Powder Springs, GA May 14, 2015 at 20:43
    I had a 1968 Mercury Cougar that my father gave me for college graduation. I loved that car and wish that I still had it. I sold it in order to buy a 1976 Olds Cutlass with the 442 trim package. The Cutlass was the first car that I bought on my own.
  • 12
    Gerald Olson Wilmington, N.C. May 14, 2015 at 08:45
    A few facts for the author of the Avanti article. The original two years of Production were 1963 and 1964 NOT '62 and '63. And the head light switch from round to square bezels took place in the original two factory production years being round in 1963 and square in 1964. Regards, Jerry
  • 13
    Joe Central VA May 14, 2015 at 09:07
    Makes me glad that the GTO did not really survive past that '74 abomination. The "new GTO" of the 2000s did not please me but at least it had power. I'd have hated to see it go down the same road as the Cougar or Monte Carlo. While the Challenger enjoyed a glorious resurrection, don't forget the 4 cylinder Mitsu that wore the name in the mid 70s....
  • 14
    Dean Burnett Warren, MI May 14, 2015 at 09:19
    Does anyone remember that "442" Stood for "400 CID", "4 BBL Carb" & "2 (Dual) exhaust pipes"? Not all were 4-Speed Manual Transmissions, so the "engine" only moniker makes a lot more sense! The later models were almost exclusively "Automatics" (Turbo 400).
  • 15
    jay jersey shore May 14, 2015 at 09:19
    how can we forget the chevy nova and the chevy malibu
  • 16
    Gary Harvey Belva, WV 26656 May 14, 2015 at 09:32
    I love my 69 cougar rag top, not a high dollar car,(20 footer) but it catches a lot of eye and its only the second one I've ever seen.
  • 17
    Nick USA May 14, 2015 at 09:55
    Anything after the 70's were losers, and now all our cars look like the European cars, Ugly
  • 18
    Donald Wallace Georgia May 14, 2015 at 10:23
    The cougar pictured is not a '68. The '68 shared the same body style as the original '67. The convertible was not available until '69.
  • 19
    jack portland May 14, 2015 at 10:23
    The appeal of the 1962 Of the list of the five cars, the 1962-63 Avanti stands out. I feel the car was desirable because it was regarded as a unique looking custom car with a reliable American car drivetrain. The owner of such a car desired individuality and practicality. This was my nerd friend Cleveland's dream car back in the 1970's.
  • 20
    Mister 2 Tim South Florida May 14, 2015 at 10:34
    My first car (in 1968) was the 1964 F-85 w the aluminum engine. I changed the 3-speed on the column to a 4-speed on the floor. I also changed off the 2 bbl for a 4 barrel carburetor. The 442 you pictured was not very easy to locate even back then. Interestingly, w slicks this car was able to pull small wheelies. This car introduced me to the hobby mechanic world.
  • 21
    mike michigan May 14, 2015 at 10:46
    picture of the cougar is not a 1968 model.
  • 22
    Tom Waco, TX May 14, 2015 at 11:20
    How about the Pontiac LeMans that ended up as a Japanese import and bringing back the Daytona moniker on that piece of junk Dodge made?
  • 23
    bob day 62236 May 14, 2015 at 11:56
    in 63 or 4 my neighbor couple / he had a corvetand she a studebacker and the would race regularly / she mostly won / i was a siu student with a vw just watching the daily show
  • 24
    David Fort Worth, Texas May 14, 2015 at 00:57
    Who edits these articles? Obviously not a true car guy or gal. I found several laughable mistakes that are quoted as fact...
  • 25
    JohnnyB Ft Wayne, IN May 15, 2015 at 16:57
    A few commenters above regarding the orignal meaning of the 442 apparently forgot that it WAS 4-bbl / 4-spd / 2-exhaust as the first year '64 came w/ a 330ci 4-bbl "High Compression" engine and was available with ONLY an 4-speed manual transmission. In '65 when the 400ci engine replaced the 330 and an AT was made available, Olds "redefined" 442 to mean 400ci/4bbl/2-exh.
  • 26
    Bill Sass Grand Junction Co. May 15, 2015 at 17:56
    To these people who have their misguided opinions of how 442 got its name. 400 cubes ha ha the 64's had 330 cubes so how do you get a 4 out of that and yes you could get a 2spd auto, but the performance package was a 4spd trans. GUESS that should enlighten you if ???
  • 27
    Jim Kremsreiter United States May 15, 2015 at 07:52
    Remember Farrah Fawcett doing the Couger commercial with the big airliner? Well, that airplane is now landlocked at the Don Q Inn in Dodgeville, WI. They do open it for self guided tours! Check it out!
  • 28
    David Sykes Langley B.C. May 15, 2015 at 09:54
    General Motors also drove a wooden stake through the heart of the Chevrolet Nova. The last model was a Toyota Corolla inspired version commonly referred to as a toilet.
  • 29
    charlie tx May 16, 2015 at 14:33
    Let us not forget the "car guys" on TV who make a heck of a lot of errors too. Like the one who found a 1965 Mustang Fastback Convertible and the "Car Guy" who told us he was looking at what was a 1965 or 66 Mustang Fastback but was really a 1968. These shows are a joke.
  • 30
    bill ill May 16, 2015 at 08:59
    No mention of Pontiac ? The GTO was the first muscle car....and how about the GP (1969-1972) designed by De Lorean.
  • 31
    Dave Pyle Houston TX May 16, 2015 at 10:16
    I currently own and drive a 1967 Cougar, a 1972 Monte Carlo and have owned three Avantis. You can judge my interest in these "might have beens". I also have a 1965 Corvair which didn't make the list.
  • 32
    Paul Tinley Park, IL May 18, 2015 at 13:01
    I've raised the issue on the Avanti Owners Page in Facebook about the content of the article. All 5 nameplates had significant years of production. The Avanti was produced by several ownerships from 1963 through 2007. I think its a stretch to say a car produced over 43 years is a failure. There are many departed nameplates that only lasted a year or two. When looking at failed nameplates, look at Edsel, Pinto,Vega,Citation, Pacer to name a few. I expected to see a better quality article from the company that has no problem taking my renewal fees every year for my two Avantis.
  • 33
    Boo Honolulu, HI May 24, 2015 at 20:05
    Heh, heh, these were cars that started out hot but then turned tepid at best. Edsel, Pinto, Vega, Pacer all started out lame. Well, just about every '60s muscle car marque turned into a lead sled once they bolted on the air injection pump and slashed the compression ratio in the early '70s. Now we've got some runners again but just try to work on 'em under the shade tree. Gotta unbolt ten pieces just to change the serpentine. Oh my, those were the days.

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