Orphan Cars: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 31, 2018

The American car market can be tough. I’d hate to be putting out a crossover SUV right now, simply because there are so many really good ones on the market right now. Inevitably, there are casualties—brands that, for whatever reason, tried and failed to get a toehold here.

Don't mess with an orphan Citroen DS21 and its complex hydro-pneumatic suspension.

The cars they left behind are orphans, without an official dealer or service network. And because some brands have been gone for 20 years or more—Peugeot, Citroen, dare I mention Yugo?—parts can be scarce on the ground.

The Daewoo Lanos in all its orphaned glory.

This was brought home to me recently when my daughter called up, telling me her pedestrian-out-of-necessity roommate was finally buying a car, and had $2,000 saved up. “We’re going to look at a Daewoo Lanos,” she said. “Eeeek!” I said.

Despite being designed by the brilliant Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Korean Lanos (produced from 1997 to 2002) is an ugly lump that no one cared about when it was new, and is scarce on American soil now. GM took over the Daewoo operation, but that doesn’t mean the company is all that interested in supporting orphan Lanoses.

Auto Zone has some routine maintenance stuff, but good luck finding upholstery, or a good, useable left fender. What matters is that the orphan brand have people who care, and who keep the flame burning with know-how, parts and literature.

I love Borgwards but they were never numerous in the U.S., and the parts supply is pretty sketchy. (Wikipedia photo)

So for that reason—and this is me personally—I’d stay away from French cars, especially the Citroen DS with its ultra-complicated hydro-pneumatic suspension; anything made in the former Yugoslavia; Korean cars before Kia and Hyundai found their mojo; and scarce-on-our-shores brands like Borgward (though I love them), Daimler (the British one), Bristol, Opel, Fisker, Armstrong-Siddeley, Mosler, Zimmer, the list goes on and on.

The Saturn Outlook is still a reasonable choice, and cheaper than its GMC or Buick equivalents.

But that doesn’t mean that all orphan brands aren’t worth a look. I always had a soft spot for Saturn (gone since 2009), because of its brave attempt to Japan-ize how we make cars in America. But cars like the Saturn Outlook are generally worth about $3,500 less than vehicles on the same platform—including the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave. Reports Jalopnik, “Worries about the cost of repair and the availability of parts hang over the industry's lost toys like a cloud of dust over Pigpen.”

Still, a used Saturn could be a savvy choice if you want something to run around in. They were robustly made (though things fall off them), and use common GM parts. Plus, they were made in great numbers so the junkyards and used parts suppliers can get you what you need.  

The Pontiac Vibe is a Toyota Matrix under the skin, and you should definitely consider a nice used Scion (scrapped in 2016). My daughter (the one with the friend) is happily driving a 2007 Scion Xa that belonged to my mother.

And here are a few other brands to consider:

Saab. I’m biased. I own two of them (1992 and 1996 900 turbo convertibles) and could be just trying to get their value pushed up. Yes, Saab declared bankruptcy in 2011, and efforts to revive the brand in China aren’t going anywhere.

My latest Saab 900 cost just $800. And support has been great. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And yet. Saab owners were and remain a passionate lot, and they’re not letting the brand die. There’s an authorized parts dealer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Orio, run by the company’s last CEO. That’s dedication, wouldn’t you say?   

In addition to the official sources, there are huge numbers of beyond-the-call Saab-istas out there. Guys like Ko Denhamer, my 900 convertible friend, who is a fount of knowledge about the “classic” 900s (before GM got its meathooks into the company). Sure, Ko will sell you a part, but he’ll also explain in great detail how to install it, and then “agonize” over how much to charge.

The result is that I haven’t had much trouble finding parts for my Saabs, and the cars are definite bargains. Here’s one of several boards where technical help is available. Values are rising, but only for certain models. The late-period cars don’t have a big following. What you want—and what exists—is a rather big disparity between what they fetch on Craigslist and what a collector will pay. Perfect for hobbyists like me.

Triumph/Austin-Healey/MG. British cars usually have Lucas lights. Why do the British drink warm beer? Lucas refrigerators. Lucas’ motto: Home before dark. What do you call an MG with a dual exhaust? A wheelbarrow. Why does the Triumph TR7 have driving lights? To illuminate the tow rope.

People love their MGBs, even when parts fall off.

There are a million good British car jokes. Stories of their failures are legion. The convertible tops always leak and are a nightmare to put up, though they’re from the same period that the Italians were making great ones. The heaters never work. And yet. The cars are stylish, full of character, and great fun to drive. Of course, they have to be running, which is always a dicey proposition.

But values have done nothing but climb since these makes all bit the dust in the great British auto industry meltdown of 1980. American owners may be long suffering, but they’re hugely dedicated and helpful. They have tow ropes, and Lucas spares. There is extensive club support. I don’t have space to list all of them, but here’s the U.S. Triumph Register.

Cars to consider are the Austin-Healey 3000, the Triumph TR4 and its variants, and the MGB. If you’re into exotica, MG made a scarce twin-cam version, Triumph built the TR8 with V8 power, and the Austin-Healey 100M Le Mans is much sought after. If you want something really scarce and great, consider the Italian-designed Gordon-Keeble with Corvette power. Only 90 were made. Buy a flat cap and check it out.

Packard. The last Packard circa 1958 was a sad beast, a garish Studebaker variant. But in its glory days Packard’s slogan was, “Ask the man who owns one.” And the marque rivaled (or maybe exceeded) Cadillac for prestige.

A post-war Packard, like this 1952 Patrician, can be a good investment.

Any Packard from the origins in 1899 to the early 1950s remains collectible today. The build standard was incredibly high. Packard was audacious enough to offer V-12-powered luxury cars in the depths of the Depression. My grandfather, being a military officer and still getting paid, sported around in one. I wish he’d kept it.

The support network for Packard is very strong. Here’s the club, gateway to fanatics galore.

American Motors. Hudson and Nash-Kelvinator (yes, the refrigerator people) merged in 1954 to create American Motors. The Nash and Hudson names were gone by 1957, and it was the Rambler that made its mark as a new American economy car.

The Rambler story is a lengthy one, but some cars stand out for me. The 1964 American was a clean piece of work. The Marlin fastback (a response to the Barracuda) was amazing, and then there were great muscle cars like the AMX.

The Gremlin was grimly amusing, and I pass a reasonably intact Matador every day when I go to work. Who can forget the inverted bathtub that was the Pacer? Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, and that was pretty much it, except for oddities like the Eagle Premier (one of the first test cars I drove). Chrysler wanted Jeep, and never had a survival plan for AMC’s orphans.

This 1957 Rambler Rebel was an early muscle car, and is still collectible today.

AMC people, like my friend Pat Foster, really love the cars and keep them alive. Some stuff is hard to find, but Ramblers are never going to go through the stratosphere price wise (except for the muscle variants) and I still see clean American ragtops for $2,500. What could go wrong? OK, what could go far wrong?

I could go on, but the bottom line is that there are good and bad orphan cars. Don’t buy a Daewoo Lanos, no matter how cheap it is.  

Here's cool video about an orphan car show:

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