Hertz was recently forced to cut 12,000 people from its global workforce and put another 4,000 on furlough, but the measures came too late to save the 102-year-old business.
The firm, which has more than 400 outlets across the UK and Ireland, was 18.7 billion US dollars (£15.3 billion) in debt at the end of March with only 1 billion dollars (£820 million) of available cash.
Starting in mid-March, the company lost all revenue when travel shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic and it started missing debt payments in April.
It plans to continue operating while restructuring its debts.
Hertz said on Friday: "The impact of Covid-19 on travel demand was sudden and dramatic, causing an abrupt decline in the company's revenue and future bookings."
It added that the uncertainty over when the market would recover led the company to make the decision to file for bankruptcy.
The company, which began operating in Chicago with Model T Ford cars over 100 years ago, has also been plagued by management upheaval.
It named its fourth chief executive in six years on May 18 after the chief executive resigned last week.
“No business is built for zero revenue,” former boss Kathryn Marinello said on the company’s first-quarter earnings conference call on May 12.
“There’s only so long that companies’ reserves will carry them.”
Hertz’s bankruptcy protection filing comes as no surprise.
In its first-quarter report filed earlier in May with securities regulators, the company warned that it may not be able to repay or refinance debt and may not have enough cash to keep operating.
“Management has concluded there is substantial doubt regarding the company’s ability to continue as a going concern within one year from the issuance date of this quarterly report,” it said.
Under a Chapter 11 restructuring, creditors will have to settle for less than full repayment, but the business is likely to continue operating.