Commentary: Preserving the Orphans

If you are looking for one of the most educational and emotional car meets in the country – head to Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Ypsilanti is the home of the Willow Run airport where automotive and aviation history meet. It is also home of the annual Orphan Car Show, held at Riverside Park by the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. What makes this show more attractive is the fact that you can see the many automotive brands that have faded into oblivion over the generations. This year, the show focused on small and mini cars made by orphan brands, such as Crossley. You also had your share of Studebakers, Hudsons, Nashes, Packards and so forth.

Having never been to Ypsilanti, Miller Hudson or this show, my interest in orphan cars is rooted in one brand – Oldsmobile. I heard there were a couple Olds cars at the show. There is hope for the world when people can still keep the memory of this pioneering American automotive nameplate alive after its demise in 2004.

In recent years, other brands have joined Oldsmobile attained ”orphan” status. These brands were chucked by their parent company because of market trends and economic realities. Their continued presence on their roads are a reminder of how much this industry has changed since the end of the Bush Administration and the path through bankruptcy of two American automakers.

If you go to any shopping center or place of business, you will spot plenty of Saturns and Pontiacs. There may be a few Oldsmobiles and Mercurys there, too. Fewer these days would be Plymouths, Eagles and Hummers.

The sad part of seeing vehicles with these obsolete brands is the reaction you get by people who know what they are – or care to remember them. "They don't make 'em anymore." That would be a common response these days.

They do, but you have to look closely these days. The North American market Chevrolet Captiva is just a nose away from the last Saturn VUE. We often forget it began life at a couple of studios in Germany and the Republic of Korea as an Opel and Vauxhall years ago. However, the cleverest form of honoring heritage was discovered when the 2013 GMC Acadia was unveiled at this year’s Chicago Auto Show. A few observant journalists discovered that a chunk of the rear end of the new Acadia was melded from the recently demised Saturn Outlook. Short memories already erased the fact that Saturn was part of the original Lambda crossover program.

I am a strong believer in keeping history alive. Fewer enthusiasts agree these days given how this recent wave of brand devolution came about. Some people figure that as long as some of these vehicles can still get warranty service, what is the point of waxing poetic about them.

Give it another decade. We may find out sooner, however.

What will happen in the next several years should be evident when looking for a pre-owned car. How will a Mercury be valued against a similarly positioned brand of the same age? Will Saturns become collectables because of their story? What about Oldsmobiles and Plymouths?

Rather, how many more of these brands will be featured at Riverside Park in Ypsilanti every late September?

More importantly, how will owners perceive their orphaned vehicles in terms of continued or subsequent ownership?

These are questions that were probably asked when Hudson, Nash, Studebaker, Packard and AMC were sent to automotive oblivion. In some cases, service for these vehicles continued by dealerships of the parent company. Still, having a vehicle wearing a brand that no longer exists has a certain burden attached to it, especially when you are not an enthusiast.

Vehicles are often heaped down the economic scale. When they get into places where half the population would never tread, they are immediately forgotten. They are reduced to mere brand-less transportation. That is a sad fact.

To reverse this trend, preservation is needed. Owners with these brands should care about the history of these vehicles. If these vehicles are broken, there should be ample resources to keep them running two or three decades down the line. It is common sense to ensure a vehicle's lifespan is supported, especially when they running – regardless of the badge up front.

It is also the task of industry historians to remind the manufacturers that once sold these brands to find ways to ensure its heritage is kept within their corporate confines. General Motors and Chrysler do a good job of this. They must continue to do so.

At my day job, there are about a half-dozen Saturns in the parking lot during "normal business hours." Given the initial brand loyalty Saturn had, it would make sense for this brand to find ways to ensure its heritage continues well beyond its last days. Perhaps to create new industries where the easy-to-repair plastic body parts are remanufactured. If enthusiasts of current brands can do so with memorable vehicles – i.e. classic Mustangs and Corvettes – the opportunity exists for every orphaned brand as well.

Again, it is not just Saturn. It is the rest of our automotive industry that should consider continued paths of heritage preservation – even on an ownership level for current daily drivers.

When we begin to forget, we walk away without an understanding of history. When the Orphan Car Show reconvenes in Ypsilanti next year, see what shows up and learn about how your Mercury, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Eagle, Plymouth or Hummer would be welcomed amongst those at Riverside Park in future years.

After all, a short memory is a terrible thing to have these days.

Photo by Randy Stern

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