The General has a more colorful and complicated brand history than folks might realize. Mac’s Motor City Garage takes a look back at some GM divisions that have been forgotten along the way.
With the auto industry collapse of 2009, GM was forced to kill off four of the eight brands it was then marketing in North America. Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab were all thrown over the side—the better to allow GM to compete with oh, say, Toyota, which sells roughly the same number of cars with only three brands. Today, GM thrives with four division badges in the USA: Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, and GMC (and Opel, Vauxhall, and Holden overseas).
Seeing all these familiar brands disappear overnight was a shock to the psyche for many car enthusiasts, as was the loss of Oldsmobile a few years earlier. We want to believe that GM divisions are forever, it seems. But if we look a little closer at the automaker’s long history, we find car brands regularly coming and going through the years. Here are just a few.
When Billy Durant originally assembled General Motors in 1909, one of the carmakers he brought into the conglomeration was Elmore of Clyde, Ohio, the leading manufacturer of two-stroke automobiles in the United States. Durant would later say that in acquiring Elmore, he was simply hedging his bets on engine types. Though the cars were soundly engineered, two-strokes were not the future, and GM folded the operation in 1912.
The Elmore plant in Clyde was then used to assemble Clydesdale trucks, and now the site is part of a Whirlpool appliance plant. Shown above are the company’s co-founders, brothers James and Burton Becker, in a chauffeured 1909 Elmore 30 hp Laundaulet. In the background is Clyde’s brand new Carnegie library, still in use today.
With greater geographic area and much lower population density than the USA, Canada has always presented a challenge to American carmakers—hence the shuffling of dealer networks and the creation of Canada-exclusive nameplates with broader market coverage. One such realignment was the Asüna brand, marketed through Buick, Pontiac, and GMC dealers in Canada for only two years, 1993-94.
Three vehicles wore the Asüna emblem: the Sunrunner, a rebadged Chevy Tracker; the SE/GT, a variant of the Daewoo LeMans; and shown here, the stylish Asuna Sunfire. Americans will know it as the second-generation Isuzu Impulse/Piazza. Or maybe as the Geo Storm. In the years 1988-91, GM Canada operated a similar division called Passport that sold a Daewoo-built Opel Kadett E as the Optima.
In the late ’20s, GM launched its companion brand strategy, designed to plug the gaps, real or imagined, between the existing GM market segments. Oakland received a Pontiac companion, Oldsmobile the Viking, Buick the Marquette, and Cadillac the LaSalle. Each companion brand slotted in beneath its parent in price (except the Olds Viking) with the LaSalle positioned as a younger, sportier version of the Cadillac.
In response to the Depression, the 1934 LaSalle (shown here) borrowed Oldsmobile’s engine and body shell. Since the brand mainly served to cannibalize senior Cadillac sales but at lower margins, LaSalle was discontinued in 1940. The Marquette brand lasted only two years (1929-30) while the Viking hung on for three (1929-31). However, Pontiac (born 1926) was so successful that it killed its parent brand, and Oakland folded in 1932.
Sheridan was the first GM division conceived from within the corporation, all the other brands up to that point being outside acquisitions. Two models were planned, a four (above) and a V8. But in 1920, just as the vehicle was nearing production, chairman Billy Durant, the champion of the project, was ousted from the company for the second time. GM management saw no potential in Sheridan and was pleased to sell off both the car and its Muncie, Indiana plant to Durant’s new enterprise, Durant Motors.
Durant’s plans for Sheridan included installing his son Cliff Durant as president and WWI flying ace and Indy 500 veteran Eddie Rickenbacker as sales manager. Cliff, a wannabe race driver, was by all accounts a drunk and a rake, and Durant senior hoped the war hero might serve as a driving instructor and life coach. However, the relationship soured as quickly as Sheridan sales. The brand was discontinued in September 1921 and Rickenbacker departed. But not empty handed. The beautiful Adelaide Frost Durant, Cliff’s ex-wife, became Mrs. Eddie Rickenbacker.
Beginning in 1968, General Motors South Africa could boast its very own car brand, the Ranger. Assembled in Port Elizabeth, the Ranger was marketed behind the slogan, “South Africa’s own car” and sported a springbok (a local gazelle that can run 60 mph) as its mascot.
Based on the Opel Rekord with a medley of Opel, Vauxhall, and Holden components, the Ranger was available in sedan, wagon, and coupe versions. The 1971 SS shown here used a 153 CID pushrod four from the American Chevy II—the engine that later became known as the Iron Duke. From 1970 to 1975, an Opel Rekord with Ranger badging was also built in Belgium and sold in selected European markets.
Cartercar was another charter member of the GM product line in 1909, reportedly obtained for the rights to its novel friction-drive transmission. As illustrated above, torque was transmitted through a pair of discs at 90 degrees to each other, with the driven disc sliding radially on the drive disc to alter the effective ratio. Sure. The company’s unintentionally wry slogan was “It’s hard to improve a Cartercar.” GM threw in the towel in 1915 and the Flint factory was converted to Oakland production.
Cartercar is most remembered today for its founder-namesake, Byron Carter, who died in April 1908 from injuries sustained while attempting to hand-crank an automobile. In GM folklore, it was his death that motivated the invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering at the behest of Cadillac manager Henry Leland.
In 1971, Holden and GM Australia launched the luxury Statesman marque as a separate, stand-alone division, but using Holden components and sharing the Holden dealer network. The setup was similar to that employed by Ford with the Lincoln and Continental divisions in the 1950s, or Chrysler and Imperial at around the same time.
Statesman remained a separate but parallel division through five design generations, including the 1980-84 WB series shown here, which sports a stretched Holden platform with a 114-inch wheelbase and Holden’s own 308 CID V8. The Statesman label was dropped after 1984, but reappeared as a Holden model designation in 1990. In 2010 the Statesman name was retired, and Holden’s luxury models now wear Caprice badges.
More fascinating GM lore:
1930 Viking Touring Sedan