Ford's Mercury Could Follow Olds, Pontiac

DETROIT (TheStreet) -- The restructuring of the auto industry has taken a toll on some familiar -- and a few iconic -- brands.

Ford's ( F) Mercury brand -- the subject of the oft-covered song, "Mercury Blues," that immortalized the American automobile -- may be the next to go.

Ford directors will make the determination in July, a development first reported by Bloomberg News. The move would enable efficiencies for the parent company, which is focused on its flagship brand. (Last year, consumers bought about 90,000 Mercury cars and about 1.4 million Ford models.)
Mercury

On Friday, CEO Alan Mulally addressed the report during a Ford analysts meeting. "I saw some of those reports myself -- we have nothing new to add today," he said. "We have shared in the past that we continue to look at our portfolio of brands and the specific nameplates like any good business does, but we have nothing to add today."

Read on for more about a few recently shuttered -- but not necessarily forgotten -- American auto brands.

Mercury Grand Marquis

Ford created Mercury in 1939 as an effort to squeeze a brand in between its mass-market Ford and high-end Lincoln. "It has always been Ford-plus, with a bigger engine, more chrome, more trunk space," said IHS Global Insight analyst John Wolkonowicz recently.

Mercury sales topped out at 580,000 in 1978 and reached 480,000 in 1993, but have been in decline since. Today, "it's a brand that is a favorite of the Depression generation, people who bought it when they were kids in the 30s and 40s," said Wolkonowicz. The pool of these buyers is not getting any bigger.

Mercury Mountaineer

In recent years, Mercury survived because it buttressed Ford's distribution system, which pairs Mercury with Lincoln. "We have a great distribution channel, we have many Lincoln-Mercury dealers and they make a reasonable return," Mulally said in a 2009 interview with TheStreet. "It's a good brand in the U.S. and it's been a good brand for a long time."

Saturn Vue

Saturn had a far shorter lifespan than Mercury.

Saturn was established by General Motors in 1985, an effort to show that a U.S. company with U.S. workers could replicate the success of the Japanese in building small, fuel efficient vehicles. The first car was produced at the Spring Hill, Tenn., production plant in 1990.

Saturn attracted a loyal following, partially because, like Ford today, it had a story that U.S. car buyers could embrace.

But the car had flaws. It had a flimsy interior, various GM factions opposed it, and the brand's initial momentum did not continue. As GM downsized following the recession, it tried -- and failed -- to sell Saturn. New production was halted in 2009.

Pontiac GTO

Pontiac was also a victim of GM's retrenchment to four core brands and was shut down in 2009 after 83 years.

The brand was widely thought to lack originality. "Nobody's going to miss Pontiac," said industry analyst James Harbour, founder of the Harbour Report and author of the autobiography "Factory Man," in a 2009 interview. "There was nothing unique about it. It competed with Saturn, Chevrolet, and the low-end of the Buick line -- and all the cars it had were derivative off a Chevrolet base."

Oldsmobile Super 88

Then there was Oldmobile. Jesse Toprak, market analyst for Edmunds.com, said: "Pontiac was GM's performance-, sports-oriented brand, but it was never compelling enough, never good enough. For the most part, it was just a redundant brand. It had some exciting products that would come up and create buzz, but then they would go away."

GM closed Oldsmobile in 2004. Founded in 1897, Oldsmobile lasted for 107 years -- the oldest surviving U.S. car brand before it perished. Once an innovation leader, it was the brand GM selected in 1938 with which to introduce the fully automatic transmission.

As recently as 1985, GM sold nearly 1.2 million cars. But by the 1990s, the brand -- positioned between Pontiac and Buick -- had lost whatever distinctiveness it claimed.

In retrospect, Oldsmobile's shutdown was a harbinger of things to come. The move showed that GM, a company with 20% of the market, could not continue to operate as it did in 1962, when it had 51% of the market. Yet by 2009, GM had become so ossified that the government had to intervene to enforce this line of thought.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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