Wheels: Car names

By Eric Meltzer

Do you ever look at a car and wonder how it got its name?

In the automotive lexicon, most manufacturers' brands are easily recognized and entrenched in our culture, and many American car companies derive their names from their founders so many years ago.

Chevrolet, an American automotive icon, was named for Louis Chevrolet who ironically was a Swiss-born American race-car driver of French descent.

Chevrolet was involved with his namesake company only for a couple of years before he decided that racing, rather than manufacturing, was his passion. William C. Durant, Chevrolet's partner and General Motors founder, bought out Louis and kept the brand alive, partly because he liked how the name sounded.

Dodge was named for the Dodge brothers, Horace and John.

Ford Motor Co., of course, was named after founder and industrialist Henry Ford, while the ill-fated Edsel was named for Henry's son.

Henry Ford's first venture, the Henry Ford Co., ended with his ouster in 1902 because he was spending too much time developing a race car rather than a passenger car. The remnants of the company were reorganized as Cadillac, which was named for Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, founder of Detroit, Mich. Cadillac is second only to Buick as America's oldest car brand.

Some companies were named for their founders, who went on to pioneer other companies.

Take Ransom Eli Olds, who — after selling his manufacturing operation, Oldsmobile (whose name was inspired by the newly coined French word "auto-mobile"), to William Durant, who incorporated it into General Motors — went on to make REO trucks, named after his initials.

Walter P. Chrysler also named his cars for himself, as did David Buick, who invented the overhead valve engine. Like many inventors, Buick wasn't that savvy with business and stayed with the company only for a few years as Durant grew the brand and used it as a cornerstone for General Motors.

Lincoln was named for Abraham Lincoln by founder and engineer Henry Leland. After Lincoln Motor Co. ran into financial difficulty, it was purchased by Ford Motor Co. and Henry Ford, who was now in a position to have his way with the very people who fired him from his original company years before.

Japanese automakers don't tend to follow a specific naming convention.

Toyota, originally a loom manufacturer, is named for Kiichiro Toyoda, who began the automotive division, albeit with a letter change from D to T, which culturally depicts better luck.

Honda is named for mechanic and founder Soichiro Honda, who began as a producer of motorized bicycles after World War II before starting to make cars in the late 1960s.

Subaru is a Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster, which explains its logo, incorporating stars.

Nissan began as DATson, which derived its name from the first letter of the family name of the three founders. Later, the name became Datsun and was owned by Nippon Sangyo — loosely translated to Japan Industries — which was blended to become Nissan.

Some European car names also summon up their founders — for example, Porsche is named for Ferdinand Porsche, who originally coined the Volkswagen — German for "People's Car" — Beetle. Mercedes-Benz is named for founder Carl Benz and Mercedes Jellinek, daughter of Emil, an early racer, investor and promoter.

BMW stems from Bayerische Motoren Werke — German for Bavarian Motor Works.

BMW was entrenched in aircraft history before building motorcycles and later cars, and its logo depicts a spinning propeller of white against a blue sky.

Volvo means "I roll" in Latin and was originally a division of SKF ball bearings. The name was meant to be used on everything that rolled, from ball bearings to bicycles to cars, but World War I delayed the company's goals.

SAAB, another automaker steeped in aviation, stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget — Swedish for "Swedish Aeroplane, Ltd."

Fiat stands for Fabbrica Italiani Automobili Torino — or, in English, "Italian Automotive Works Turin."

These are just some examples of where these now-common names originated. Many of the early manufacturers long outlived even the memory of the people whose names remain on the brand. It's said that David Buick himself profited so little from his automotive endeavor that he died unable to afford one of the cars that bore his own name.

At least, these early pioneers' names live on to mark their legacy.

Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.