Rare Car Makers: Germany

(This is the 1st in a series on small, rare, or unheard of vehicle manufacturers around the world. We will be covering major manufacturers also, but with familiar household names we will look for things you might not know. For now, enjoy this post about German automakers you’ve probably never heard of. As always, if you know something we missed please post a comment.)

Germany

Everyone has heard of the big vehicle manufacturers like BMW, Mercedes Benz, VW, Audi, Porsche. All have earned a reputation for exceptional quality. It would be fair to say, if price is your only motivator, don’t start your shopping at the German auto lot. Some of you are probably even familiar with Opal. Here are a few we bet you haven’t heard of. 

Alpina

As with many of the car companies we’ll cover, Alpina doesn’t manufacture a line of vehicles so much as they customize and improve upon the work of other car makers. In the case of Alpina, their car of choice is BMW. 

Born in 1965, they operated completely independently for roughly five years. After taking the 1970’s off, Alpina came back with a more formal relationship to Bavaria motors–their mission; modernize BMW cars. Unlike an independent car tuner, or customizer, Alpina upgrades intereriors and engines of BMW cars. 

Gumpert

Again, we’re taking the widest possible definition of auto-maker for this series. The Story of Gumpert (Gumpert Sportwagenmanufaktur) is the story of Roland Gumpert, formerly of Audi Sport. 

They were founded in 2004 in Altenburg Germany, when Roland worked with the Munich technical university and Ingolstadt university of applied sciences to create a full-size Apollo model. There are currently two models of the vehicle and the company is headquartered in Denkendorf, Germany, employing roughly 45 people. 

This company exists because of Project  “Apollo.” Gumperts vision was a street legal car that could hold its own on a racetrack. When the first full sized prototype was tested, drivers raved about it. In series 11 of Top Gear the Apollo set a track record that would stand for three years. 

Mansory 

Mansory is a more traditional car tuning company. What makes them unique isn’t that they work on high end vehicles, so much as that they can take the vehicle in whatever direction the owner desires. Want a more luxurious luxury car? Sure thing. Want a more off-road-worthy 4×4? Can do. Want a faster sports car? They do that too. When you bought a car that’s already a limited edition, Masonry is who you call to take it from 1 in 100 to 1 of a kind. 

Founded in 1989, with the motto “Discover the Mansory Possibilities,” they’ve been offering complete conversion ever since. 

Smart

On the complete other side of the spectrum…founded in 1994 as a joint venture between automaker Daimler-Benz and Swiss watchmaker Swatch. While swatch ultimately left the project, it continued under the subsidiary Daimler Ag. The idea is a micro commuter car that is fuel efficient, easy to park, but doesn’t skimp on quality. 

The newest Smart Cars are EV’s of course. Shopping for a Smart car feels more like ordering take out than car shopping, but it has a certain market appeal. Their website simply says, what color, and where do you want it?

Maybach

The story of Maybach is almost sad, recently. Established in 1909 as a custom car maker, the company had a long tradition of making custom performance vehicles. Industry giant, Daimler, bought the brand in 1960 and did nothing significant with it until 2002 when they restarted production. Then in 2012 they shut the brand down again, only to bring them back a year later producing what’s essentially an exclusive type of Merc S-series. 

You can see from the picture what Daimler calls a “minimized technoid look.” As for performance and innovation, they don’t brag about it as much as the look. Don’t get us wrong if you want to give us a chance to test drive one, we’ll gladly take you up on it. 

Wisemann

Established in 1988, Wisemann went from making custom hardtops for convertibles to making convertibles–two roadsters and two coupes (MF 3/MF 30 & MF 4/MF 5). The company logo is a gecko, as these cars stick to the ground the way a gecko sticks to the walls. Wisemann makes about 50 bespoke cars a year, which marry British style with German Engineering for an iconic result. See for yourself…

Most exciting is Project Gecko, which will be unveiled later this year, 2022. 

Lesser-known Makers…(I know right?)

Trabant

Wartburg

Trabant means Satellite (roughly) which is what inspired by the Russian Satellite in 1957. Remember Germany used to be split East and West. Trabant is an example of an East German economy car–called a minicar at the time. Details are spars but if you know more than we do, please share. 

Wartburg

Wartburg is another company born in East Germany during the time the wall divided Germany. It actually got it’s start a year before Trabant, in 1956. While they produced cars until 1991 after the 1980’s their cars were not keeping up with modern equivalents from the west. Still their cars have a reputation for being reliable and durable. 

Okay, you’ve really never heard of these…

Here’s some honorable mentions we can’t leave without at least letting you know about them. Again, if you have more info, please fill us in. At the Kicker, we love to nerd out on this stuff. 

  • Bitter (1971) Premium-luxury models
  • Isdera, also Ingenieurbüro für Styling (1983) hand-built high-performance 
  • Keinath makes convertible variants of the Opel Monza and Opel Ascona
  • Apal (since 1999)
  • CityEl (since 1987)
  • Hartge (since 1985)
  • Jetcar (since 2000)
  • Lotec (since 1981)
  • Melkus (since 1969)
  • Pegasus (since 1995)
  • Ruf Automobile (since 1982)
  • Yes! (1999)

Stay tuned for Rare German Automakers Part B where we’ll dive into these really rare auto makers.  

The Mistake That Was The Edsel

Have you ever heard of the Edsel? Probably not, as they only manufactured for three years during the fifties, but if you work in car manufacture it is hard to forget them.

The Edsel was to compete against the Buick and the Dodge. They were marketed as cars of the future at medium price. In hindsight this seems mad, they were the same price as a Ford Mercury but not considered to be for the same market sector, so why?

It’s possible you do need to innovate during a recession but creating a luxury product?

Ford claimed at the time that was adequate product development involving sophisticated market analysis. In reality no such research had been carried out. The manufacturer of cars was a fairly new enterprise so maybe they should have known better, but they didn’t.

What’s in a name?

Ford Motor Co named this giant mistake after Henry Ford’s own son, which added weight to their claims that they didn’t do this as a joke. Then they created several different versions of the vehicle (four sedans and three station wagons), which had strange working names– for example the Edsel Citation.

The strange names, indirectly because of the influence of comic poet Marianne Moore who worked for the company at the time. Although her names were not used, they still leant the cars a tongue in cheek aura that didn’t help people take the project seriously.

Buzz and Foreshadow.

When Ford previewed beforehand pictures of the Edsel to promote it they appeared slightly blurred, which was probably an accident or an attempt to create an air of mystery, but it felt almost as if the company knew what was going to happen. When the pictures were shipped to the sales agents they were always done under wraps as if it was something illicit. Again, this was likely a sales tactic, but it struck many as if they were postponing the inevitable.

Looks that Kill.

Although the station wagon version had a superficial similarity to other station wagons but with innovative designs such as a rotating dome speedometer and a deep ditch steering wheel, the “horse collar grille” and powertrain features to the hood struck people at the time as bazaar. (It wouldn’t really move the needle by today’s standards but cars at the time were classy and fashionable not “other worldly.”)

September 4, 1957 was known as E-Day. This is where the first inklings of what the public felt about the vehicle was discovered; that it was far too unconventional a build.

It was thought to be reborn “LaSalle” a car also known for its design problems; it didn’t seem to be like any other car. And if it’s not like a car you know, how can you drive it?

Although some of the body panels were toned down in 1959 and it was given a vertical central grille the car still had trouble with its teletouch transmission system, no one could understand it. So still the sales numbers remained extremely small and it was eventually removed from the market.

Where did they Go Wrong?

It’s probably a case of hubris. Ford had a strong record of innovation and leading the car market. To some degree they may have believed that whatever they thought was cool and edgy would be adopted by the public as the next great thing. They may have been hoping that people in the market for a new car during a tough economy were advanced thinkers who would want a car that reflected their iconoclastic success. The truth is when people get their fingers burnt they get a bit cautious for a while.

They leapt to far beyond what people were accustomed to and at the worst possible time. However, looking at pictures of this car one wonders if there was ever a good time for the Edsel.

Given the amount of money involved it seems ludicrous that Ford employed none of the usual business safety procedures, such as getting the proper amount of feedback from the public including or having average consumers test drive it before it hit the market. Although Ford may have learnt its lesson, there will be further disasters masquerading as vehicles to come…

The American Story of Car Business (Part 1): Dodge

old-car-1245734_1920

When you look at the auto industry as it exists right now, it’s easy to get confused when talking about cars because there are so many brands, makes, and models. It’s like joining a movie halfway through. Many of the household names we associate with automobiles have a fascinating origin story and a fairly logical evolution. Knowing a little trivia about these names can help you wow you’re your friends and co-workers on trivia night, but more importantly it can really clear up your own understanding of cars.

As part of our effort to entertain and inform the on-line generation about the integral part the auto industry has played in the development of modern America, The Kicker Blog is pleased to spin off a series looking into the story behind names like Oldsmobile, Dodge, Nash, GM, Chrysler, Ford, Mercury, Saturn, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Benz, Audi, Opel, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, etc.

If there’s a theme to the auto industry it’s that successful car companies swallow up less dominant car companies. This accounts for several of our mystery names, but it doesn’t explain why those names continue to this day. Sometimes the reason lies in the fact that an innovative designer or quality auto maker might not be the most successful business person. Like the auto industry as a whole, often the backseat role a particular brand plays now belies the crucial role it played in American history.

We kick off our series with a deep dive into Dodge.

dodge-graham-truck-111249_1920

Dodge

Compared to other names, some folks consider Dodge an “also-ran” in the story of the American motor industry, but that’s not the real story. Unlike many of the names we’ll cover, Dodge is still a major player who has remained a fairly constant brand.

Dodge began in 1900 with the Dodge Brothers, Horace and John. While many automakers started as wagon or bike makers, instead the Dodge brothers began as a parts supplier for Detroit’s growing number of car manufacturers. That was until they made their own car–the Model 30.

It could be a coincidence that the Model 30 bore a strong resemblance to the Model T, but it wasn’t. The Model T Ford dominated this part of car history and unlike modern times, in those days you didn’t improvement your existing design each year just to beat your competitors to it. In short, Ford wasn’t eager to fix what wasn’t broken. So the opportunity was there for the Doge brothers to beat Ford at his own game.

Although both cars used chromium steel, the Model T has a wooden framing underneath and the Model 30 didn’t, improving the suspension immensely. The Model 30 also had 35 horsepower, compared to the Model T’s 20.

This was truly the hay day for Dodge as they were in second place to Ford between 1916 and up to the early 1920’s. 150 Dodge vehicles were used in the Mexico border war in 1916.

dodge-charger-1858599_1920

Unfortunately the Dodge brothers would not live to see how their brand would develop, they both died in 1920, John from pneumonia, Horace from liver damage.Because there was no relative the company went to an investment bank.

One theme you’ll notice in the car industry is that auto-manufacturing is a unique animal and it’s easy to lose your shirt trying to do it. Although the bank branched out the business to also make trucks it seems that the bank wasn’t taking enough risks. Ultimately the Dodge moved from the second biggest car company to the seventh biggest company; they needed an investor who was wise in the ways of the auto market.

The investor finally arrived in 1939, when Chrysler came to the helm. What Chrysler wasn’t interested in was competing with itself, so they began to look into more profitable areas like sedans and tanker trucks. All in all, Chrysler allowed Dodge to flourish.

The billboards and magazine adverts touted a new golden age for Dodge. The 53 Dodge was marketed as steadier, more level, and softer. It seemed no one cared about the price, or nothing could be done about the price. So it was better to concentrate on making the ride smoother. Chrysler poured money into marketed the all-American Dodge, suggesting thronging crowds visit it’s showrooms. Nowadays you won’t find an exclusively Dodge “showroom” but given the amount of money spent on advertising they must have been popular back then.

Dodge still make vehicles today and seem to be still proud of their Michigan roots. Having said that, Italian Car maker now owns Chrysler and with it, Dodge, having acquired it in 2014, but that’s Chrysler’s story for another day.