Classics: What’s In a Car Name?





TCC's Top Picks: Big American Sedans by Eric Peters (7/24/2006)
Big sedans, big V-8s — not so big prices.

Ever wonder where car names, and the names of car brands came from? Some like General Motors are bureaucratically derived (the company was formed from several smaller, formerly independent automakers into a single corporate entity). Others, such asToyota and Ford, were named after the family that founded them.

Here are some other car brands you’re probably familiar with — and their origins, which you may not be:

Chevrolet LogoGM’s Chevrolet division is named after Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet; he drove for W.C. Durant, founder of General Motors. Chevrolet drove a Buick in the first Indy 500 in 1911. The famous “bowtie” Chevy logo was reportedly inspired by a wallpaper pattern in a hotel bathroom.

Lamborghini is named after its founder, Ferrucio Lamborghini, who reportedly dismissed a complaint about the poor rearward visibility of his low-slung exotic sports cars by stating, “that which is behind me does not matter.” The company itself began as a maker of farming implements — tractors, especially. The company’s bull trademark was inspired by its founder’s birth sign, Taurus the bull.

Mitsubishi is the Japanese term for “three diamonds,” hence the corporate logo for this Asian automaker. The company was founded in the early 1870s by Yataro Iwasaki; during World War II, it produced the famous A6M “Zero” fighter plane.

Audi’s “four rings” represent the four original companies (Audi, Horch, Wanderer, and DKW) that merged in the early 1930s to become Auto Union, AG. The name “Audi” derives from August Horch; it is actually the Latin translation of Horch’s last name — “listen” or “harken to.” The Audi nameplate first appeared in 1910, prior to the formation of Auto Union, AG. In 1969, Auto Union GmbH merged with NSU, forming Audi NSU Auto Union AG, renamed Audi AG in 1985.

VW logoVolkswagen is German for “people’s car,” but the original name was to have been KdF-wagen, loosely translated as “strength through joy car,” in reference to the Nazi-era social welfare program of which it was to have been an integral part. The primary VW factory in Wolfsburg was named in honor of Adolf Hitler, who liked to be called “Wolf” by his intimates.

Aston Martin is another amalgam based on the name of one of the company’s founders (Lionel Martin) but not the other (Robert Bamford) combined with the name of a locally famous race, the Aston Clinton Hill Climb. In the 1960s, Aston Martin acquired the low-volume (but high prestige) Lagonda nameplate and the Aston Martin Lagonda was born. The famous “DB” series cars refer to David Brown, who bought the company after World War II and pulled it back from the abyss of bankruptcy.

Volvo means “I roll” in Swedish. The company was founded in 1924 by Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson. The first Volvo, the 1944-cc Jakob, was in production by 1927. By the early ’80s, Volvo was building more than five million cars annually.

Nissan called itself Datsun in the North American market until the 1980s, although it has been “Nissan” in the Japanese home market since 1934. But the cars themselves were called Datsuns, a reference to the 1914 Dat 31, the first vehicle produced by the company that would eventually become Nissan. “DAT” is itself an acronym, representing the initials of the three original investors Kenjiro Den, Rokuro Aoyama and Meitaro Takeuchi.

Saab is short for Svenska Aeroplane Aktiebolaget, and also much more pronounceable to non-Swedes. The company was formed in the late 1930s as an aerospace concern but launched an automotive subsidiary in 1945. The first production Saab, the 92, did not appear until 1949 however. It featured a transverse-mounted (sideways) two-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, very unusual features at the time.

Mercedes-Benz’ three-pointed star signifies excellence on land, sea, and air, while the company name is a combination of the last name of one of the company founders (Carl Benz) and the first name of the ten-year-old daughter of Emil Jellinek (Mercedes), who had ordered a special car to be built by what was then Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. He named the car after her and thus Mercedes-Benz was born. It is said that the other founder of the company, Gottlieb Daimler, never learned to drive.

Mazda began life as Toyo Cork Kogyo, Ltd., with the Mazda name first surfacing in 1929 when the “Mazda Go-a” motorized tricycle was first offered for sale. Though not officially acknowledged, many say the name refers to the Zoroastrian god, Ahura-Mazda. The company officially began calling all its cars “Mazdas” in 1934 and has done so ever since.

Lexus doesn’t mean anything, specifically, nor can its origins be traced back to the name of a founding father. Some hold that it is a neologism created and intended to evoke the positive connotation of “luxury” and “elegance” (very much as “Acura” seems to suggest precision). Many people don’t realize it, but the Lexus brand name was at first only used in the export markets of North America, Europe, and Australia . In the Japanese home market, Lexus models were still just Toyotas until as recently as 2005.


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