What is – and isn’t – an ‘orphan’ car?

Gerald Perschbacher |

Acme, Auburn, Briscoe, Bantam, Cole, and Chandler are just a few of the A B C’s of notable cars considered “orphaned” in America’s automotive history. Figures differ, but most historians agree that about 2,000 or more makes of cars and trucks flashed onto the scene, only to eclipse and fade into memory. In other words, there are far more makes of cars that had been made than are being made today, even worldwide.

In truth, being an orphaned car is really the norm, not the exception.

There are different types of orphan cars, and if you asked a
novice in the hobby to name an orphan car, many would probably
name Studebaker first. Beautiful products from the company, like
this 1935 Studebaker Dictator coupe, now remind people that the
company once existed.

What bobs up and down in our old car hobby today are variations of what it means to be an orphaned make. Some longtime hobbyists will stick to the original definition. In general terms, an orphan car was a vehicle that outlived its parent company. Packard and Pierce-Arrow, for example, are considered orphan car makes. The makes were in full production right up to the time each operation was stopped. In Packard’s case, an unwise purchase of Studebaker (really a merger more than anything else) resulted in Packard and Clipper cars being manufactured in what became a branch of the new corporation by 1954.

Packards were made in 1955 and 1956 as full luxury cars, with Clippers as the medium-priced entries. In 1957, after Detroit operations ceased and the venerable Packard factory was scrapped, production was consolidated in South Bend, Indiana, resulting in a modest number of 1957 Packard Clippers being made to appease contracts for such a brand to be supplied to dealers. In 1958, officials offered only a Packard range alongside Studebakers, and the Detroit marque was no more after that. Corporate officials believed it was wiser to face legal battles over a modest remainder of broken contracts than to produce a brand that was a shadow of former glory and too costly to make in small numbers.



The 1957 Nash was the last car to carry the nameplate, though
its parent company, American Motors, continued on through
1987, at which time the company was sold to Chrysler. Since
Chrysler still sells automobiles, is the Nash considered a true
orphan car?

For Pierce-Arrow, the end was much more gradual. The Buffalo, New York, company peaked in sales in the 1920s and began a jagged, but generally skeptical trend thereafter. Management changes, inability to be flexible to the sales market, a merger with Studebaker, and a declining dealership base finally resulted in a scant handful of cars bearing the Pierce-Arrow tradition in 1938. Here was the end of a luxury car that, by 1930, seemed ingrained into the American psyche.

The whys and hows of such corporate demises aren’t of prime importance to our general discussion in this article, except to show how two brands —Packard and Pierce-Arrow —?became orphaned makes. Imagine buying a new car today, only to suddenly discover in two weeks that its parent company was gone. Imagine the probing questions: “Where do I take the car for servicing or repairs? What about parts? What about trade-in value?” All logical questions, but not necessarily worrisome in bygone days.

Remaining Packard dealers often switched to Studebaker or some other make by 1957. Most of those dealers wanted to service existing customers and try to swing them toward another brand. After all, business is business. Keeping a stock of new parts for fairly recent Packards meant finding excess space for the obsolete parts, since the future contentment of an old clientele was at stake. Parts were stocked, and dealers maintained a reasonably active business for years thereafter in networking with other former Packard agencies in locating parts. That was good for car hobbyists. By 1970, when most 1956, 1957, or 1958 Packards were no longer used for daily driving, old dealerships occasionally had a forgotten stock of miscellaneous Packard parts and literature squirreled away in a deep, dusty corner of their operations. At times, energetic car collectors scanned old phone books and made stops in off-beat locations to ask if there was any old Packard stuff around. A good number of those old, yet new, parts gained new interest and still appear in original wrappings at automotive swap meets, although the appearances become rarer each year.

Okay, so there is no doubt that Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Studebaker, Moon, plus Marmon, Tucker, and a multitude of other makes are orphans. But what about LaSalle?

It depends on the person you ask. Longtime hobbyists who are sticklers for accuracy will say, “LaSalle’s parent company was Cadillac, a branch of General Motors. The parent company still exists. Therefore, LaSalle isn’t an orphan.”

Hmmm.

That definition, in its strictest form, seems true. If an orphan is “a child whose parents are dead,” as my dictionary defines it, then LaSalle isn’t an orphan. If anything, it was abandoned.
Another “Hmmm.”

By this definition, Plymouth and Oldsmobile are among the most current “abandoned” makes. Their planned discontinuation was due to corporate decisions based on sales and strategies. Add to those names a host of other brands, including Oakland, Little, Edsel, DeSoto, and, in the context of early car history, perhaps even the Autocar automobile line, abandoned for a corporate series of trucks.

Yet, the term “orphan” is regularly applied to these abandoned makes almost as freely as what some would call the true orphans. In a sense, both are in a similar state. Production ended, parts were no longer being made, and the names were dropped. In most cases, the quality of a car was not the major criteria for ceasing production.

If cessation of production is the main gauge of “orphanism,” then let’s look at the subject from yet another perspective. If you bought a new car more than a year ago, in all likelihood it became an orphan when new models were recently introduced. The old version stopped production; new parts were no longer made (at least unique trim pieces), and perhaps a new name was subsequently applied to the updated model.

By this simplistic definition, after each year a new series of orphans joins the fold.

Yet another “Hmmm.”

Now consider Studebaker, Crosley, Kaiser, and Frazer. All had a good measure of success. Studebaker had its ups and down over the decades. Its wagon and carriage business switched to electric cars, ending eventually with gasoline-burning vehicles. The 1950s and 1960s became times of merger and self-examination. When corporate officials determined diversification was superior to car manufacturing, assembly plant lines were halted. The company continued in new directions. Does this make Studebakers orphans or abandoned cars and trucks?

With Crosley, as I recall, a line of appliances and radio-related products outlasted its cars. Is orphan status justified? As for Frazer, it bit the corporate dust with the 1951 version. It was hardly more than a gussied-up Kaiser, anyway — an example of good, creative badge and trim engineering more than anything (except for the 1951 offering which carried a few unique body parts). Was Frazer, by definition, an orphan? Then consider Kaiser, also discontinued due to diminished sales, corporate adjustment, and hunger for profits. It continued in an overseas form in South America for years after 1955, but eventually the Kaiser Aluminum interests and other holdings seemed to dictate the future. Orphaned or abandoned?

In a certain respect, any make that was once under Chrysler control still has its parent company in operation, albeit in a merged status with Daimler these days. Would you then consider any brand that had been discontinued under Chrysler Corporation operations (or its predecessors such as Maxwell) to be abandoned rather then orphaned?

Add another “Hmmm.”

Confused? Then add to this yet another concept: Are Nash and Hudson really orphans? Generally, they are accepted as such and have been for years. Yet, each brand was abandoned by its parent company. It’s not the same as Packard, which was meant to continue on its own in its Detroit facilities as a major segment of merged corporate planning. Early plans for Nash saw the brand give way to the American Motors nameplate, but carry some old-time monikers such as Rambler. Hudson, brought under the wing of Nash to form American Motors, might be considered a stronger candidate for true orphan status since the old and unique Hudson “stepdown” styling was scrapped in favor of shared bodies with Nash and even some engines from Packard until the new organization gained a better grip on its future. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that both Hudson and Nash were discontinued, rather than AMC going out of business while each brand was selling new.

There’s another issue, too. Is the term “orphan” applied to makes or models? Good case in point is Falcon. It really was promoted in the 1960s as the Ford Falcon. Ford, thankfully, still exists. But Falcon was discontinued. As an abandoned car, it was really a model and not a make. The same may be said of Imperial, which at most times was considered a Chrysler-Imperial rather than a marque. The designation “Continental” was supposed to stand on its own four wheels in the mid-1950s as a “Mark II,” not carrying the Lincoln name, but for most of the corporation’s application, it has been a model of Lincoln. Some might say the Continental Mark II is an abandoned make, and some would argue the Mark I or III should be seen as discontinued models, not orphans or abandoned cars.

If you have run out of “Hmmms” by this time, don’t be concerned. This whole idea of orphaned makes doesn’t need to bog you down. Car events bannered as orphan meets often seem to use a simple application. If the make or model had been a mainstay in the car industry and was stopped, it is welcomed as an orphan. That pretty well includes Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and sometimes even Falcon.

An open mind in the old car hobby is good for our common growth and enjoyment. Event organizers who want to make friends for themselves and the hobby often show a good sense degree of flexibility in accommodating vintage car owners with similar likes.

Some may call all discontinued cars of their particular choosing to be orphans. Others may divide classifications into orphaned, abandoned, or even “recently homeless,” my own term offered for consideration. Still other organizers simply hold their meet by inviting owners of certain makes to attend — makes defined as orphaned in general collector-car circles or in their locality.

You don’t have to have an orphaned or abandoned car to maximize your hobby enjoyment, although it adds a special luster to your attendance. Onlookers who stumble their way toward your 1930 Pierce-Arrow, 1924 Moon, 1919 Overland, 1948 Hudson, 1950 Packard, or 1958 Edsel usually react in several diverse manners. “Haven’t seen one of those in a l-o-n-g time,” or “What’s that, Daddy?” or “I grew up in the back seat of a car like that.”

Plainly put, it enhances your enjoyment, makes you feel special, and helps you stand a bit taller in your own hobby eyes. You are giving people something bordering on the unique. You are preserving and enjoying a memorable manifestation of American individualism that stretches beyond the “big three” auto makers, as they had been called, and is far from mirroring anything offered overseas.

Hmmm.

If that’s what turns your wheels, go for it.

One Response to What is – and isn’t – an ‘orphan’ car?

  1. Denise Nantais says:

    Would a 1960 Frontenac be an orphan? It was only made in Canada for the one year.

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