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21st Century Orphans find home at Iola 2012

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1940 Mercury

1940 Mercury

By Phil Hall

For 2012, 21st Century Orphans will take over the feature tent and display areas to the south of the F+W Media building for the July 12-15 event in Iola, Wis. But what in the world are the 21st Century Orphans that are being celebrated as the theme of the 40th Annual Iola Old Car Show and Swap Meet?

Each year, the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians picks a theme that is aimed at attracting the interest of participants. This year, the brands of domestic vehicles that went out of production in this young century were chosen: Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury. Saturn and Hummer also were casualties, but their time in the marketplace put them beyond the 1982 cutoff year for displaying feature vehicles.

Automotive history has been deeply paved with orphan brands, abandoned by their builders, sometime after as little as one example had been constructed.

A few orphan-producing eras stand out. Early in the 20th century, successes greatly outnumbered failures. As the major manufacturers grew, lesser financed nameplates could not compete. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a large orphan producer, particularly for luxury brands. Then, as the “Big Three” flexed their marketing muscles, several independent brands checked out in the 1950s.

That brings us to the 21st century, where only domestic “Big Three” brands of passenger cars were mass marketed. Instead of independents, the “Big Three” faced strong import competition which, at times, captured over half of the new vehicle market.

However, each shutdown was for a different reason.

1933 Plymouth

1933 Plymouth

First to go was Plymouth, which dated back to the 1928 introduction of the 1929 models from Chrysler Corp. Chrysler later fell under the control of Daimler-Benz, which increasingly called the shots from Germany. DaimlerChrysler didn’t see the need for the low-priced Plymouth brand when it had Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep nameplates to market. It killed off various Plymouth models until the 2001 Neon was the last to go.

As Plymouth was entering history that year, General Motors decided to ax its oldest brand, Oldsmobile, which had been around since 1897, well before GM was born. Oldsmobile’s problem was different. Its Cutlass intermediates had been hugely successful in the 1970s and early 1980s and attracted a lot of dealers to sell them. When Cutlass and other Oldsmobile sales cooled down in the later 1980s and 1990s, it left a lot of dealers that sold very few cars.

It was decided the least painful way out of the problem was to do something nobody thought GM would ever do: kill Olds.

To its credit, as production wound down, special-edition final models were offered to the Olds faithful and collectors. Finally, the 2004 Alero was the last standing with much of the final model year production being absorbed by rental car fleets.

1957 Oldsmobile

1957 Oldsmobile

Pontiac, which started as a replacement for Oakland in 1926, joined its fellow division on death row, but this time it was not especially GM’s decision. With the federal government in charge and bankruptcy looming, orders were given to cut more brands. Pontiac, which lacked the Chinese connection of Buick, drew the short straw, along with Saturn and eventually Hummer.

Pontiac production ended in 2009 with the G6 staying around the longest to fulfill a rental car order. The Vibe was the only Pontiac to carry a 2010 model year, but it left early.
That brings us to Mercury, the last to depart thus far. Mercury dates back to 1938 when the first 1939 Ford Mercury models were produced. (The Ford tag was quickly dropped.) It was pushed by Henry Ford’s son Edsel to cover the gap between Ford and luxury Lincoln.

1967 Pontiac GTO

1967 Pontiac GTO

Mercury’s time in the saddle was threatened when sales dwindled in the 2000s and offerings were little more than spiffier trim on a Ford. When CEO Alan Mulally came over from Boeing to run Ford, he saw little sense to keep the slow-selling Mercury brand, something Ford family descendents were unable to do.

The death of Mercury was announced in mid 2010 and it was to be swift. By year’s end, there were no more Mercury automobiles or SUVs. Models were axed without fanfare, but for reasons unknown, 2011 versions were announced. The final Mercury built was the Grand Marquis, which was produced into the 2011 calendar year, but not because of any special recognition. Rather, a snowstorm held up the parts needed to complete the last few cars.

Each of our newly christened orphan brands have loyal followings and a huge number of significant models which are cherished by their owners. The entries for the Iola Old Car Show feature area have been massive. Listing significant examples from each nameplate would fill too much space, and why read about them when you can see them at the show?
Also, as an attendee, you likely had experiences of some sort with one or maybe all four marques. All body styles, trucks and even some imports carried these brand names. You, your family, relatives and neighbors likely made them a part of your memory bank. Now the time is here to see them, talk to the owners and share your experiences.

Though the featured four carry the orphan status, it does not mean any decrease in popularity in the collector field. Being so new, many are still in daily driver use and will be for some time to come.

To learn more about the 2012 Iola Old Car Show, visit

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