Severe snags sank these unsuccessful syndicates
What's in a name?
Stutz, Part Two
For a car, quite a bit. A good name resonates with drivers and can even convey a characteristic, such as sportiness or reliability. But look through history, and you’ll find that one letter doesn’t always fare so well. Is it possible there’s a “Curse of the S-Car?”
Imports were taking a wide slice out of domestic sales in the 1980s, and so GM introduced its new Saturn brand for 1991 in an attempt to fight back. The no-haggle pricing was as unusual as its dent-resistant polymer body panels, and its family-friendly focus even included throwing a massive “homecoming event” at the factory. GM kept the brand at such arm’s-length that some people thought it was Japanese. But Saturn eventually became just a badged version of other GM models, and was phased out in 2010 during the company’s reorganization.
Saab dates to 1947, when the Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget airplane company diversified into cars and showed a prototype to the press. Its Model 92 went into full production in 1950. General Motors took full ownership in 2000, which led to some odd models: the 9-7X, based on the Chevy Trailblazer, and the 9-2X, a lightly-disguised Subaru Impreza. GM sold Saab to Spyker in 2009, but it went bankrupt in 2011. Still, it may live again: it was sold to National Electric Vehicle Sweden, which recently turned out a new 9-3 intended for China and Europe.
Suzuki started as a loom manufacturer in 1909, and began building motorized bicycles in 1952. It built its first mini-car, the Suzulight 360cc, in 1955, along with a lightweight truck version of it in 1961. Motorcycle sales began in the U.S. in 1963, while Suzuki Canada was formed ten years later. Its partnership with GM and Isuzu dates to 1981, and in 1989, a joint venture of GM and Suzuki, called CAMI, began vehicle production in Ontario. But sales toppled in recent years, and while it will still build vehicles globally, Suzuki will leave the Canadian and U.S. auto market in 2014.
Possibly the world’s oldest carmaker—it started as a wagon company in 1852—Studebaker first made electric cars when it got into automobile production. It had its share of issues over the years, including going into receivership in 1933. Company president Albert Erskine was accused of the mismanagement that led to the bankruptcy; he resigned his position and then shot himself. The brand bounced back but fell again in the 1950s, worsened by a 1954 merger with Packard that killed that once-glorious brand four years later. Studebaker closed its U.S. operations in 1964, but its plant in Hamilton, Ontario built cars until 1966.
This British firm started in 1887 as John Marston Limited, a bicycle company named for its founder. It turned out a prototype automobile in 1899, started production in 1901, and was renamed the Sunbeam Motor Car Company in 1905. It was shaky until 1909, when a new chief engineer got everything going in the right direction, but finances were tight by 1920, and Sunbeam amalgamated with auto companies Talbot and Darracq into S.T.D. In 1927, a special 1,000-horsepower Sunbeam racer set a speed record of 203.792 mph, but business was uneven, and in 1935, Rootes bought S.T.D. Chrysler bought Rootes in 1964, and discontinued the Sunbeam name in 1976.
Gasoline engines weren’t alone in the auto’s earlier days; drivers could also choose electric or steam cars. Twin brothers Francis and Freelan Stanley liked steam, and built their first car in 1897. Their cars sold well, but steam had disadvantages, including a long start-up time and complicated operation. Cadillac’s 1912 introduction of the self-starter, which eliminated cranking a gasoline car to start it, put petrol way ahead. Stagnant sales forced a company reorganization in 1924, and the last Stanley was built in 1927.
There were at least five cars named Star, and all of them failed. The best-known American one was built by William Durant, who started the Durant Motor Company after he was forced out from General Motors, which he’d founded. He offered the Star as a low-cost alternative to Ford, starting in 1922, and for a while, it worked: in 1923, it was number seven on the U.S. bestseller list. But the company went downhill, and the Star only lasted until 1928. (For the record, my grandfather said his was the best car he ever owned.)
Built in Cleveland, Stearns started as a motorized buggy in 1899 but gradually morphed into a luxury model. In 1902, when you could buy an Oldsmobile for $650, a Stearns was $3,000. The company eventually went with Knight sleeve-valve engines, which used sliding cylinder sleeves that let in fuel and expelled exhaust when holes in them lined up. The company was purchased by Willys-Overland in 1925, which kept it as a prestige brand, but the last Stearns was built in 1930.
The Bearcat of the 1920s was probably Stutz’s best-known model, but it started out making race cars, entering one in the first-ever Indy 500 in 1911. Located in Indianapolis, the company made high-end luxury cars. Stutz diversified in 1929, building both pricey models and a less-expensive line called the Blackhawk, but it couldn’t survive the Depression. Production ceased in 1934. The company announced 1936 models, but never built them.
But it didn’t end there. From 1970 to 1987, a New York company built the Stutz Blackhawk, an outlandish model designed by ex-Chrysler stylist Virgil Exner and based on a Pontiac Grand Prix. The first model was $22,500—a Grand Prix was $4,000—and by 1975 it was up to $41,500. Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra fought over who would buy the first one (Elvis won). But even that wasn’t the end. There’s a Stutz Motor Car Corporation of America, based in Los Angeles, which announced production of luxury gas, hybrid, and electric Stutz cars. That was in 2010, so it looks like the “S-Curse” is hanging in.
Brothers Frank and Charles Duryea are credited with building the first U.S. car, a motorized horse buggy. Frank was also considered the first U.S. driver when he took the 1892 prototype for a spin; he won the first U.S. car race, in 1895, beating a Benz; and in 1896, after Duryea sold its first car, its owner hit a bicyclist in the first recorded American auto collision. Charles stayed on to run the company, but in 1902, Frank joined forces with firearms manufacturer J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company, which built a version of the Duryea in its factory. The company made cars until 1924, but was still selling inventory into 1927.
Sometimes, the “S-Curse” is just beyond a company’s control. The Swallow Sidecar Company was formed in 1922 by Bill Lyons and William Walmsley to make motorcycle sidecars. Lyons saw an opportunity in the new Austin Seven and began supplying stylish bodies for it. In 1931, Swallow presented its own car, which it called the S.S. for the company’s initials. Lyons asked his advertising agency to name an all-new 1935 model, and the result was the S.S. Jaguar. It remained a model name until 1945, when S.S. became a painful reminder of the Nazi troops, and the model name became the company name.
Yes, it’s still here, but life hasn’t been easy for Spyker. It’s actually the second time around for the name, which was used by an Amsterdam-based automaker from 1900 to 1925. It was founded by the Spijker brothers, blacksmiths who started out by modifying Benz cars. Victor Muller resurrected the name in 2000 for his sports cars, but suffered a serious setback when he paid $74 million for Saab—another S!—and got dragged down by that company’s bankruptcy. Spyker restructured in 2012 and as recently as early 2017 announced its latest model, the C8 Preliator, would use an engine sourced from Koenigsegg.
Only time will tell if it can succeed, or if the “Curse of the S-Car” will ultimately claim another victim.