Family ties have been important to automotive brands, especially because many take their names from their founders. And even today, members of the Ford, Porsche and Toyoda families, for example, are helping to lead companies bearing the same names (with the occasional minor change in spelling for good luck). Yet things are a little bit different in the corporate age. Now it’s the companies themselves that have become families, with an umbrella corporation often owning multiple automotive brands.
There are more than 35 major auto brands selling vehicles in the United States, but only five of them are without corporate relatives that are part of the U.S. new-vehicle market. Further, one of them, Volvo, is a member of an international auto-brand family; it’s owned by the Zhejang Geely Holding Group, which also owns China’s Geely Motors. Tesla, Subaru, Mazda and Ferrari essentially are standalone auto brands as well, although they do engage in their share of partnerships. The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ, for instance, are the products of corporate teamwork.
As for the rest of the automakers, their family trees include the following:
Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (Seven Brands)
Despite its name, this automaker is responsible for a lot more than just the Fiat and Chrysler brands. Looking only in the United States, the Italian branch of the family is additionally responsible for the Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands, while the U.S. side also oversees Dodge, Jeep and Ram. Fiat is another brand that’s partnered with Mazda, too, to develop the Fiat 124 Spider from the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Volkswagen AG (Six Brands)
Beyond its multiple global brands, the Volkswagen Group owns half a dozen car brands that operate in the United States, including three that owe their success to one of the founding families of the German auto industry. Ferdinand Porsche handled the final design for the original Volkswagen Beetle, then started the eponymous auto company, and it was his nephew who helped Audi achieve its premium status. Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini make up the rest of the Volkswagen Group’s U.S. brands.
General Motors (Four Brands)
General Motors was founded in 1908 specifically as a holding company for individual automakers. The concept was the brain-child of William C. Durant, then head of the Buick Motor Company. Durant wanted to establish a dominant player in an early auto industry where many automakers were here today and gone tomorrow. One hundred years later, GM was selling vehicles from eight different brands in the U.S. alone. After axing Pontiac, Hummer, Oldsmobile and Saab during the recession, however, only Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC remain.
BMW (Three Brands)
Itself controlled by a single German family, and well-known for its own line of premium vehicles, BMW also owns two brands that are historically considered “British.” Mini was purchased by BMW in the late 1990s, and Rolls-Royce joined the BMW stable at about the same time, albeit only after a convoluted bidding war and legal tussle with Volkswagen. Indeed, one of the outcomes was that BMW ended up owning the Rolls-Royce name, but VW got the brand’s factory, which eventually was used to make the VW Group’s Bentley vehicles.
Hyundai Motor Group (Three Brands)
Showing just how much was going on in the auto industry at the end of the last millennium, 1998 was the year that the Hyundai Motor Company took over Kia Motors, outbidding rivals like Ford. More recently, Hyundai also jumped into the premium end of the new-vehicle market by launching its third brand, Genesis. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because the original Genesis coupe and sedan were part of the Hyundai-brand lineup from 2009 to 2016.
Nissan-Renault Alliance (Three Brands)
Hyundai’s decision to introduce a separate brand for luxury vehicles follows a pattern that dates to at least the late 1980s. That’s when the three main Japanese automakers, which had found plenty of success selling on value, all debuted separate brands to compete in the premium segments in the United States. For the Nissan Motor Co., it was the Infiniti brand that premiered in 1989. Also, further behind the scenes, Mitsubishi is controlled by the global automotive “alliance” between Nissan and the French automaker Renault.
Daimler AG (Two Brands)
Born from a 1926 merger between the German companies of Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, this company was first incorporated as Daimler-Benz. But if Karl’s name isn’t on the current corporate letterhead, it is on the automaker’s most famous brand: Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes? She was Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of an early Daimler enthusiast, amateur racer and entrepreneur. Perhaps surprisingly, Daimler is the company behind the Smart brand.
Ford Motor Company (Two Brands)
The Ford Motor Company also had some serious expansion plans back in the day, at one point bundling five brands in its Premier Automotive Group. Included were Lincoln, along with Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo, and with the Mercury division still in business at the time, the automaker was responsible for seven brands. Ford is still the best-selling auto brand in the country, though only Lincoln remains from the others.
Honda Motor Company (Two Brands)
The Honda Motor Company was the very first Japanese automaker to launch a premium brand specifically for U.S. customers, introducing the Acura division in 1986. An immediate success, Acura sold more vehicles in 1990 than BMW and Lexus combined, and in 1991, the brand offered its first supercar, the Acura NSX. Today, with an all-new NSX at dealerships, perhaps sales success will return for Acura.
Toyota Motor Company (Two Brands)
The just-mentioned Lexus brand opened for business in 1989 and was the Toyota Motor Company’s answer to Honda’s Acura and Nissan’s Infiniti brands. As for the relative success of that trio in 2017, it was Lexus that outsold the combined efforts of its two archrivals in the most recent month of sales results. (Toyota’s Scion brand, remember, closed last year, when three models were converted into the Toyota FR-S sports car, Corolla iM hatchback and Yaris iA sedan.)