5 Automotive Brands That Came Back from the Dead

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It’s hard enough to start—or restart—an entire automotive company these days. A hundred years ago, car companies would come into being and fade away with the frequency of app design firms and cupcake shops today. But there’s an easy way to give a new car company some instant gravitas: pick up one of those old names and bolt it to a shiny new car.

Sometimes a company just needs break with its own recent past. Sometimes it needs an old name for its new ambition. And sometimes a guy just needs some instant history to attach to the car of his dreams. Read on to see which second chances lived—and which were DOA.

1. Lincoln Motor Company (1920-1950s, 2012-present)

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The Lincoln Motor Company was founded by Henry LeLand in 1920, but it didn’t operate on its own for long. The more famous Henry in American autos, Henry Ford, snapped it up in 1922, and the marque has served as the Ford company’s luxury nameplate ever since. Eventually, in the 1950s, the name was shortened to Lincoln, and over the years, it lost some of its luster. In the latter part of the twentieth century, Lincolns were regarded by many (and not incorrectly) as gussied-up Fords, not luxury cars in their own right.

In 2012, as part of Ford’s overhaul in the wake of the automotive crisis of 2008, it resurrected the full Lincoln Motor Company name for its 2013 models. Even Abraham Lincoln, for whom the company was originally named, was trotted out in ads for the rebranded cars. It helped that there was an Oscar-nominated Stephen Spielberg movie that autumn called Lincoln—and who doesn’t love a tie-in?—but the new Lincoln Motor Company cars will have to prove their luxurious chops if they want buyers to take the rebranding seriously.

2. Bugatti (1900-1995, 1998-present)

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Bugatti has always meant speed, power, and luxury, as well as the wads of cash required to pay for those things. Its French blue race cars were unstoppable in the early days of automotive history, and its oval nameplate and EB logo (for founder Ettore Bugatti) crossed the finish line first repeatedly in the first decades of automotive racing.

But World War II did a number on the Bugatti company, as it did for so many exclusive car makers. The company loped along for decades before it was finally sold to fellow old-timey carmaker Hispano-Suiza in 1963. There was an attempted revival in the late 1980s, and even a new model in the early '90s called the EB110, but the company went completely bankrupt in the 1990s.

Luckily, none other than the Volkswagen company (which also owns Lamborghini and Bentley) swooped in with money and a mission: to bring back Bugatti in all its nearly unobtainable, checkbook-breaking glory. Since 1998, when VW reestablished Bugatti at Molsheim, the company has made one amazing car: the Bugatti Veyron. It comes in many guises, from convertible to Hermes-clad, but each is bespoke and unique. What else would you expect for a million bucks—minimum?

3. Maybach (1921-WWII, 2002-2012)

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Wilhelm Maybach and Gottfried Daimler were besties in the early days of the automobile, working together in the late 1800s to build engines and cars—until Daimler maneuvered Maybach out of the partnership picture. So Maybach started his own company in 1909 with his son Karl, affixing the curious name “Luftfahrzeug-Moterenbau,” which translates as “aircraft engine.” (There was a lot of crossover in the early days of autos and airplanes.)

In 1921, the name was changed to the more melodious Maybach Moterenbau, and the factory in Friedrichshafen, Germany, built exclusive, expensive luxury cars. During World War II, the Maybach factory was pressed into service to turn out military engines (not for the good guys) and, as with so many manufacturers after the war, Maybach never resumed making cars.

But Daimler wasn’t done with Maybach yet. In 2002, Mercedes-Benz, which is part of the Daimler group, rolled out the Maybach 57 and 62. And then Daimler was done with them again, for real this time. The 2012 models would be the last of the line, as the Maybach brand had cost Daimler $1 billion over its decade-long resurrection. Maybe they’ll give it another go next century.

4. Spyker (1898-1925, 2000-present, fingers crossed)

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Like Maybach and Bugatti, the Spijker brothers were in the automotive game early, building their first car in 1898 in the Netherlands—not a country renowned for its supercars, then or now. In 1907, a Spyker (the brothers had changed the company name so it would be pronounceable by the rest of the world) finished second in the Peking to Paris race. And in 1914, Spyker merged with the Dutch Aircraft Factory, taking the motto “Nulla tenaci invia est via,” or “For the tenacious, no road is impassable.”

Except, of course, the road to long-term viability. Spyker didn’t even make it to World War II; it was belly up by 1925, the heyday of the Jazz Age and big, expensive cars. There may have been a lesson to learn there.

It took 75 years for the brand to see the light of day again. This time, a European fashion magnate with his dream car in mind dusted off the old wheel-and-propeller insignia and debuted the Spyker C8. That seemed to go pretty well for a first supercar, so in 2006 Spyker fielded a Formula 1 team for one expensive season.

Not content to merely leak money all over the track, Spyker took over struggling Swedish passenger car maker Saab in 2010—or tried to, anyway. Saab went bankrupt in 2011, and Spyker sued Saab’s former owner GM for $3 billion in damages in 2012. The Dutch carmaker is hanging by a thread while it awaits the outcome of the suit.

5. Detroit Electric (1907-1939, 2009-present, maybe)

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Back in the early days of the automobile, electric cars were really popular—as popular as gasoline-powered cars in Northeastern metro areas. One of the best-known electric car builders at the time was Detroit Electric, and it lasted a surprisingly long time, thanks to its ability to build cars that could go over 200 miles on a charge (the Nissan Leaf of today gets about 100 miles per charge). But even in Detroit, the economic effects of World War II took their toll, and gasoline had long before won the fuel war in America. Electric cars had become a novelty, and then a nothing.

But by the twenty-first century, electric cars were starting to make sense again. Fuel prices were up, the phrase “peak oil” was being tossed around, and Americans were tired of fighting wars for oil. Mainstream manufacturers like Ford, Chevy, Nissan, Toyota, and others quickly electrified a small percentage of their fleets while new companies started from scratch. One company decided if it was going to start from scratch, it would at least start with a name people might know: Detroit Electric.

In 2009, the new Detroit Electric emerged. Sort of. There’s a web site, and a concept, and some proprietary technology, but as of 2013, there is not yet an actual, drivable car.

January 29, 2013 - 11:00am
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