Great (?) Moments in Badge Engineering
"Badge engineering" occurs when an automobile manufacturer sells what amounts to the same car under two different brand names. It's not to be confused with "platform sharing," where two or more different cars share some or all of their basic engineering. To illustrate the distinction with an example: the first-generation Chrysler minivans shared the K-cars' platform, but a Plymouth Voyager was a completely different vehicle from the Plymouth Reliant--that's platform sharing. On the other hand, the Reliant and its Dodge Aries counterpart were identical in all but minor decorative touches--that's badge engineering.
Economically, it makes sense to use as many common components as possible across multiple product lines, and carmakers have been doing this ever since Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik started offering two model lines way back in eighteen-ninety-something. Platform sharing is so common we almost don't notice it anymore, and VW is taking the concept a step further by developing a "construction set" platform that all of its vehicles will eventually share.
The problem arises when the manufacturer gets too focused on keeping costs down (or too lazy, take your pick) and shares more than drivetrain components or platforms between cars. Share too much, like, say, all of the outer body sheetmetal, and soon what are allegedly "different" cars become indistinguishable, whether viewed from twenty yards away or from the front left seat. We look down on the practice today as the bane of automotive variety, but the first recorded instance of automotive badge engineering was actually welcomed by consumers.
In 1925, Nash (the ancestor of AMC) introduced an entry-level car called the "Ajax," and sold about 22,000 of them. Since Nash was a more established brand name, they decided in early 1926 to rebrand the "Ajax" as the "Nash Light Six." Nash made up trim kits consisting of one car's worth of Nash badges, hubcaps, radiator caps, and miscellaneous decorative pieces, and transformed every Ajax still on the factory lot, and every unsold Ajax at every Nash dealer in the country, into a Nash Light Six.
The rebranding led to an increase in Ajax Light Six sales, as hoped, but it also made the owners of pre-rebranding Ajaxes uncomfortable, as their car was now an "orphaned make" and its resale value began to decline. To maintain customer goodwill, Nash handed out the same trim kits to existing Ajax owners for free so they, too, could badge-engineer their cars into Nash Light Sixes! As a result, finding an unmodified Ajax today is about as common as drawing to an inside straight.
By the end of the 1930s, General Motors had an established practice of sharing bodyshells (or at least body components) among two or three or even four of its divisions at a time. This continued after the war, but each division still produced its own engines and there was enough of a visual difference between one division's cars and another's that the products didn't start to run together. To modern eyes, it's pretty clear that a '57 Oldsmobile and a '57 Chevy are variations on the same car, but they were distinctive enough for their day.
Chrysler's "Forward Look" cars of the same vintage used a lot of common sheetmetal, but each make had different front ends and different two-toning patterns, and this succeeded in maintaining their distinctiveness. Of the Big Three, Mopar was probably the most successful at striking a balance between economies of scale and brand identity.
And then there's the tragedy (in the original Ancient Greek sense of that word) that unfolded over at Studebaker-Packard. In deep financial trouble and desperate to cut losses, S-P closed the Packard factory in Detroit and concentrated all its U.S. production at Studebaker's South Bend plant. S-P didn't have the cash to tool up a new Packard body, and couldn't get loans to cover the expense, so management directed Packard stylist Dick Teague (later of AMC fame) to work up a stopgap Packard based on the existing Studebaker sedan and station wagon bodies.
The resulting "Packardbakers" were badge engineering taken a badge too far. Mr. Teague did everything humanly possible to turn Studes into Packards on the microscopic budget he had to work with, but nothing he could afford to do could disguise the fact that the 1957 Packard was a 1957 Studebaker playing dress-up. Customers stayed away in droves. The follow-on '58 Packardbakers were even less convincing, and the Packard brand died an inglorious, futile death.
You'd think that would have served as an object lesson to Detroit on what not to do, but if it did, the lesson hadn't gotten too far. Right around 1960, there was a fundamental transformation in how Detroit defined automobile brands, which led to an enormous increase in the practice of badge-engineering.
Before then, each make had a particular spot in the pecking order. Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth were the entry-level brands. colloquially referred to as the "low-priced three." Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Mercury, DeSoto, and Dodge competed in the medium-price market; while Cadillac, Lincoln, Chrysler, and Imperial covered the high end. Each brand stayed strictly within its price range--and in GM's case, each brand had a set place on the "ladder of success." Your first new car would be the Chevy, then you'd trade up to a Pontiac, then an Olds, then a Buick, and when you got to the top of your profession, it was time to swank out with a Caddy.
In line with this approach, when the Big Three introduced their first import-fighting compacts in the 1960 model year, they were branded as "low-priced" cars. The Falcon was a Ford, the Corvair was a Chevrolet; the Valiant was originally intended to be a separate make, a notch below Plymouth in prestige, but was soon re-designated a Plymouth.
The new domestic compacts sold well, and the dealerships franchised to sell mid-priced brands started asking when they were going to get compacts of their own so they could get in on the new market segment. And so, before long Dodge dealers got a badge-engineered Valiant of their own called the Dart, Ford developed the Mercury Comet from the Falcon (though Ford at least did an excellent job of making it look like a different car), and GM used the Corvair as the starting point for a family of "senior compacts" with conventional front engine RWD drivetrains: the Oldsmobile F85 Cutlass, Pontiac Tempest, and Buick Special--with a Chevy version soon to follow.
Then, Ford turned the Falcon into the Mustang and created the "pony car," and everybody else wanted a pony of their own...and John Z. DeLorean dropped a monster V-8 into a Tempest and created the archetype of the muscle car, the GTO, and now all the other makes had to have their muscle car...and the T-Bird was establishing the personal luxury car as another distinct market segment, and every brand had to have one of those, too. By the latter half of the 1960s, the old "ladder" hierarchy had disappeared--all of the surviving "low price" and "medium price" brands had their nameplate on everything from entry-level compacts up through mid-sized family cars to near-luxury road yachts, along with a muscle car, a personal luxury car, and possibly a pony car or two to round out the lineup. When the time came to design succeeding generations of each car, badge engineering was no longer an act of desperation, but a baseline assumption. This was partly due to economics--not even GM at the height of its glory could afford to design four completely different cars for the same market segment--and partly due to the increasing centralization of authority in car companies. Whatever the cause, the Packardbaker idea had gone mainstream.
This era also saw another form of badge engineering becoming popular, the "captive import." Instead of spending the money to design a new small car from scratch, Chrysler decided to preform a badge transplant on a small car already being built by one of its affiliates overseas. The first was the British-built Hillman Avenger, which appeared on this continent as the "Plymouth Cricket."
The hapless Cricket was succeeded by several generations of badge-engineered Mitsubishis, which had the invaluable advantage over the Cricket of having been competently designed and assembled. Ford rebadged some European Fords as Mercurys, and GM eventually treated us to Suzukis and Daewoos with Chevy bowties.
By the late 1970s, badge engineering had led to such absurdities as the Pontiac Astre and the Lincoln Versailles. The cars were becoming indistinguishable even to the people who built them: one of our commenters has told of seeing a Mopar F-body in the showroom with an "Aspen" badge on one fender and a "Volaré" badge on the other. The Cimarron--a pathetic Chevy Cavalier pretending to be a Cadillac--is usually considered history's absolute worst instance of badge engineering, the Packardbaker error turned up to eleven.
Faced with this reality, Savvy J. Consumer thinks to himself, "If the Starfire...
...and the Monza...
...use the exact same sheetmetal, are powered by the same craptacular Buick V-6, built on the same assembly line by the same bunch of slackers, and come with identical build quality defects, why am I being asked to pay a 5% premium for the Oldsmobile?" and starts cross-shopping one GM division's dealers against another's. The result is inter-divisional fratricide, red ink in the annual reports, and declining market share.
And, ultimately, disappearing brand names. If there's almost no difference (visible or otherwise) between a Plymouth Neon and a Dodge Neon, if the only advantage the Lynx has over the Escort is its cooler commercials, if the only thing uniquely "Pontiac" about a 2000 Pontiac is the cheesy lower body cladding, what's the reason for incurring the expense of building two or three or five "different" variations of the same car for redundant dealer networks? Eventually, even the densest auto company executives started asking that question---and that, boys and girls, is why there are no more Plymouths, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Saturns, or Mercurys.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The K-car auto show display photo comes from Station Wagon Forum user "Fat Tedy." The Ajax ad is from Wikipedia. The Cricket came from Allpar.com. The Monza and Starfire advertising artwork are from the brochure collection at H-Body.org.