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Five car nameplates that started with a bang but went out with a whimper

  • 1969 Mercury Cougar

    1969 Mercury Cougar  (Hagerty)

  • 1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2

    1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2

  • 1971 Lotus Elan +2

    1971 Lotus Elan +2

The automotive landscape is littered with new model nameplates that started out capturing the world’s imagination, only to end up as shells of their former selves through a labyrinth of bad corporate decisions and even worse luck.

Here are five prime examples of cars that started out with a bang, only to go out with a whimper:

Mercury Cougar

After the unbridled success of the Ford Mustang, The Blue Oval sought to spread some pony car mojo to its Mercury division with the 1967 Cougar. The model shared a lot of hidden bits with its Ford cousin, but it rode astride a longer wheelbase for a smoother ride and it had its own brand of swagger thanks to its imposing hidden-headlight face.

As time went on, the Cougar became less and less distinctive, morphing into little more than a trim-and-tape version of the bloated Ford Thunderbird in the 1970s. The Cougar was then substantially downsized in its fifth generation for 1980, whereupon it moved back onto the Fox-body Mustang platform. It was a difficult time for the Cougar faithful who saw the range bizarrely expand to include a four-door sedan and wagon body style in an effort to make up for lost sales after its Mercury Monarch sibling was discontinued.

The Cougar’s luck improved somewhat in 1983, when it gained sleek new aerodynamic bodywork that it would carry evolutions of through 1997, and it even gained modern performance credentials with the introduction of a turbocharged XR7 in 1984.

The Cougar would go on hiatus for the 1998 model year, only to return as an underpowered, front-drive compact hatchback. Incorporating strange “New Edge” styling, the new Cougar read more like a Ford Probe successor than anything else, and the U.S. market wasn’t interested in buying what the Cougar was selling. This once-proud cat was supposed to have nine lives, but the reborn eighth-generation model only lasted until 2002.

Oldsmobile 4-4-2

The Oldsmobile 4-4-2 started life in 1964 as a high-performance option package on the Rocket Division's F-85 and Cutlass models, earning standalone model status from 1968 to 1971. Originally conceived as a Pontiac GTO fighter (back when General Motors was happy to let its divisions duke it out), the 4-4-2 was so named because of its four-barrel carburetor, four-speed manual and twin exhausts.

The 4-4-2 enjoyed a reputation as a fierce performer until the U.S. government’s emissions regulations started to choke outputs of all sporty models beginning in the early 1970s. With performance increasingly tough to come by, the 4-4-2 held its own through most of the 1980s essentially as an upscale trim package on the popular fourth- and fifth-generation Cutlass notchback coupes.

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It all fell apart in 1991, when the fabled 4-4-2 moniker was revived on the poorly regarded Cutlass Calais, a downsized, front-drive notchback coupe. Because it didn’t have a V-8 engine, Olds officials maintained the 4-4-2 now stood for four valves with four valves per cylinder and two exhausts. The Quad-4 engine under the hood was actually surprisingly powerful, carrying up to 190 horsepower, but the entire package was more of an unlikely sport compact than a muscle car. The model didn’t find much favor with critics or consumers, and it was consigned to The Great Crusher in the Sky after just two years.

Lotus Elan

The original 1962 Lotus Elan is arguably one of the purest, most iconic sports cars of all time. Sporting a lightweight backbone chassis shrouded in winning fiberglass bodywork, the Elan is still regarded as one of the sweetest-handling and most communicative sports cars of its era, not to mention one of the most elegantly styled. It was so perfect, in fact, that Mazda famously benchmarked the original Elan when developing the MX-5 Miata roadster decades later. The Elan would enjoy a lengthy production run of 13 years, a term that saw the addition of a +2 model in 1967 that incorporated a longer wheelbase to accommodate a pair of small rear seats.

In an ironic twist, in the late ’80s, Lotus sought to reclaim the pure sports car mantle from Mazda’s upstart Miata, so it developed the M100 Elan, which debuted for 1989. Compared to its curvaceous predecessor, the neo Elan was a wedgy doorstop of a thing, seemingly as wide as it was long. Powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine sourced from Isuzu, the M100 Elan was actually front-wheel drive, a strange choice for an elemental sporting roadster. Still, the M100 was regarded as one of the finest-handling FWD cars of its day, and in turbocharged form, it wasn’t as slow as its powerplant’s origins would have one believe. However, that didn’t help the car find favor with Lotus traditionalists – let alone new devotees.

The M100 Elan endured seven years of slow sales, whereupon the rights to its design and name were licensed to Korean automaker Kia for the South Korean market from 1996 through 1999.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo

The Chevrolet Monte Carlo entered the world as a Chevelle-based expression of personal luxury, something of an affordable Cadillac Eldorado for the masses. With its clean, Coke-bottle flanks and a wide variety of trims and powertrain choices, the original Monte Carlo was a hit.

In 1973, the Monte’s styling took a turn for the baroque, and as the ’70s wore on, increasingly stringent emissions, fuel economy and safety standards conspired to drain much of the performance out of the Monte as it continued to grow in size and heft.

By 1978, it was time to hit the reset button, so the third-generation Monte Carlo shrunk and gained angular new bodywork. That look would evolve for the fourth-generation 1981 model, which would eventually bring with it a new Super Sport model with a 305 cubic-inch V-8. The SS would prove to be hugely popular both on the street and at the track, where Chevrolet’s NASCAR efforts helped the coupe stand out. As the car aged and the large coupe market eroded, though, so, too, did the Monte Carlo’s fortunes. The nameplate would be discontinued after the 1988 model year.

The Monte Carlo would return in 1995 as a renamed version of Chevy’s Lumina Coupe, an aerodynamic, two-door coupe that had little in common with Monte Carlos past. The sixth-generation model kept its front-drive W-Body platform, bowing for the 2000 model year wearing unflattering front and rear ends that looked like they were designed by committees in different buildings. A better-looking facelifted model turned up for 2006, but it only lasted just two years, despite the advent of an SS model fitted with an LS4 small block. The sun had long since set on the affordable personal coupe market, and the Monte Carlo’s aging front-wheel drive bones just weren’t up to the task of hosting 300+ horsepower.

Studebaker Avanti

To be fair, the original Studebaker Avanti only lasted two years. Between 1962 and 1963 (model years 1963-64), fewer than 6,000 examples of the radically styled coupe were manufactured in South Bend, Ind. Born into a failing brand, the Avanti wasn’t a great sales success, but it was a groundbreaking car, with futuristic grille-less styling, advanced safety features and, with its optional Paxton supercharger atop its 289 cubic-inch V-8, record-setting speed.

Despite the closure of Studebaker’s Midwest factory and the company’s financial troubles, the Avanti would live on as the evolving product of a series of independent owners. The model was rechristened "Avanti II” and was put back into production in 1965 under the newly created Avanti Motor Corporation umbrella, a company formed by a small group of Studebaker dealers who bought the rights to the Avanti's design and tooling. The company hand-assembled a string of these continuation models, fitting them with Corvette engines. The Avanti II would continue to sell in small numbers largely unchanged until the company was sold in 1982 to a real estate developer.

The new owner, Stephen Blake, would go on to update the Avanti’s design’s aesthetic with body-colored plastic bumpers and square headlights, and he manufactured the cars until 1986, whereupon he declared bankruptcy.

From then on, Avanti production bounced unceremoniously from entrepreneur to entrepreneur, growing less attractive and less recognizable as time went on.

In the late 1980s, Avanti assembly was moved to Youngstown, Ohio. Production of a much-updated model would continue for a number of years under yet another new owner, real estate maven John Cafaro, who added a four-door model and a convertible to go along with coupe.

The Ohio plant would eventually close, but the Avanti saga was far from over. The soap opera would go on to include new owners, new factories (in Georgia, then Mexico), and even subsequent new donor chassis (the Pontiac Firebird and the Ford Mustang), all developments that further muddled the Avanti’s famous styling and appeal as time went on.

Michael Eugene Kelly, another real-estate man who owned Avanti Motors not once, but twice, would eventually find himself in jail over a $428-million time-share condo Ponzi scheme that bilked the elderly out of their retirement money.

Today, the original Raymond Loewy-penned Avanti is still viewed as an icon of mid-century modern design – a near miracle considering the model’s long and tortured history.