How Cars Got Their Names

What’s in a name? An awful lot when it comes to marketing, and cars are no exception. Some brands were simply named after the men who founded them, while others have some interesting tales to tell. We have a roundup of some familiar names and their sometimes-unfamiliar stories.

Named for Their Founders

Of course you know Henry Ford, but there were many others, such as Walter Chrysler and David Dunbar Buick. Sometimes there were brothers working together, including John and Horace Dodge; and Alfieri, Ettore, and Ernesto Maserati.

Ferruccio Lamborghini made tractors before he built sports cars, and that agricultural division is still around (and sells its tractors with the same fighting bull logo on them as the cars have). There was Enzo Ferrari, Ferdinand Porsche, and Soichiro Honda, and the partnership of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce.

Toyota was founded by Kiichiro Toyoda, and no one’s quite sure what happened there. It’s been suggested that changing the D to a T made for a “lucky” number of brushstrokes when writing it, or that Toyoda’s family owned one of the country’s largest silk loom companies, and a different name wouldn’t reflect badly on it if the car venture failed.

Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin teamed up to build sports cars, but for whatever reason, they agreed to name their company Aston-Martin by throwing in the Aston Clinton hill-climb where they raced.

Audi

August Horch first worked as an engineer at Benz in Germany in 1896, before leaving to create a car of his own. He produced his first in 1900, financed by a group of investors, but the man with the machine didn’t get along with the men with the money. He left to start another firm, but was legally prevented from putting his name on it. Horch roughly translates to “listen,” and so he used the Latin word for that – Audi.

Cadillac and Lincoln

Both rivals were started by engineer Henry Leland. Cadillac was the first in 1903, named for Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, a French explorer who established a fort on what would become Detroit. Leland sold the company to General Motors and, at age 74, started another. He named it after Abraham Lincoln, for whom he’d cast his first-ever vote. He eventually sold it to Ford, but there was a twist. Henry Ford had started two unsuccessful car companies before getting it right with the third. Leland was on the board of directors of the first one, and when Ford left, Leland turned it into Cadillac.

General Motors and Chevrolet

Most early auto companies were started by men who invented their cars, and then set up companies to sell them. GM was different: founder William Durant was a businessman who bought existing companies, starting with Buick. He jotted down a list of names for his new organization and handed it to his lawyers. They said the first, International Motors, wasn’t appropriate for an American company. Next was United Motors, but it was taken. Third on the list was General Motors.

Durant bought everything he could get his hands on, including companies that lost him huge sums. Fed up, GM’s board of directors kicked him out. The head of Buick’s racing team was driver Louis Chevrolet, and Durant asked him to design a car. Durant then used that to leverage his way back to his previous spot at GM.

Jaguar

The firm started in 1922 as the Swallow Sidecar Company, makers of motorcycle sidecars. When it began making cars, it switched to using the initials S.S. That was fine until the Second World War, when Hitler’s storm troops tarnished the name. The company then chose one of its models, the S.S. Jaguar, and used that to rename the operation.

Kia and Hyundai

These started as two separate companies, but when Kia went bankrupt in 1998, Hyundai bought it. Despite their shared technologies, they still consider themselves rivals. Of the two, Kia’s the elder, founded in 1944 by Kim Cheol Ho to make bicycle parts and steel tubing; its first trucks and cars were made in 1973 and 1974, respectively. Kia translates roughly as “to rise out of Asia”.

Hyundai was founded by businessman Chung Ju-Yung, who started it as a construction company in 1947 and spun the Hyundai Motor Company from it in 1967. The name is from the Korean word hyeondae, which means “modern” or “contemporary”.

Jeep

No one’s sure how Jeep got its name, but there are a couple of theories. It was originally designed for World War II by American automaker Bantam, but the little company couldn’t make enough of them, and Ford and Willys turned them out as well. One guess is that the Army called it a GP, for General Purpose vehicle, and people simplified it to “jeep”. Another is that it was named for Eugene the Jeep, a character in Popeye cartoons. Once the war ended, Willys trademarked the name. Through a series of mergers and buyouts, the brand eventually arrived at the Chrysler Corporation in 1987.

Mazda

There are a couple of stories about the name, but what’s known for sure is that Mazda started in 1920 as the Toyo Kogyo Company, which made corks. It launched a three-wheeled truck in 1931, named the “Mazda-Go.” One of the company’s founders was Jujiro Matsuda, and it’s said the name paid respect to him, since his name was pronounced similarly to Mazda. But the company has also said the name came from Ahura Mazda, the god of intelligence and wisdom in Western Asia.

Mercedes-Benz

Historians generally credit Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler with inventing the modern automobile, although they worked independently on their own designs, and it’s believed they never met. Their companies later did, though, and merged to form Daimler-Benz. Emil Jellinek was an auto enthusiast who bought his first Daimler in 1897, and soon ended up selling them. When he placed an order for 36 copies of a new model – an enormous sale at the time – he insisted that for the deal to go through, the cars would have to be named for his daughter, Mercedes Jellinek. The company registered the name as a trademark in 1902.

Nissan

The company has interchangeably used Nissan and Datsun over the years. It started as DAT Motorcar in 1914, with DAT standing for its three founders: Kenjiro Den, Rokuro Aoyama, and Meitaro Takeuchi. In 1931 it introduced a car called the Datson – son of DAT – which later turned into Datsun. DAT was later folded into industrial firm Nihon Sangyo, which was renamed Nissan for its “Ni-San” abbreviation on Tokyo’s Stock Exchange.

Subaru

Aircraft manufacturer Fuji Heavy Industries was incorporated in 1953, when five companies came together to create a new one. The star constellation known in the west as the Pleiades is called Subaru in Japan – it means “to unite”, as the stars are in the cluster. The stars in the company’s logo are for the constellation, and for the five companies plus the one they created.

Volvo

Volvo was founded in 1927 as a subsidiary of bearing manufacturer SKF, which stands for Svenska Kullagerfabriken, or Swedish Ball Bearing Manufacturing. Ball bearings are meant to roll, and that’s how the name came about – Volvo is Latin for “I roll.”

Some Long-Gone Names…

There are stories behind all the names of long-gone companies. Oldsmobile was started by Ransom Eli Olds, who eventually left the company and started a new one, REO, named for his initials. Most people think Plymouth was named for the rock where the Pilgrims landed, but it seems it was actually named for string. Plymouth was the best-known brand of binder twine, used for securing hay bales, so the company went with what would be familiar with rural buyers when it debuted in 1928.

And then there’s the poor Edsel. It was to be Ford’s exciting new company division, alongside Mercury and Lincoln. After sifting through thousands of name suggestions, the company dubbed it for Edsel Ford, Henry’s only child. Both Edsel and Henry were long gone by the time the car debuted for 1958, and a good thing too: it flopped and disappeared after just three years.

Some familiar names and their sometimes-unfamiliar stories. 5/21/2019 10:30:00 AM