There’s been a lot of chatter lately surrounding the holiday known as Columbus Day on the New Hampshire side of the border and Indigenous People’s Day on the Maine side.
I can already detect blood pressure rising and the polarized sides forming over this incendiary issue, so let me splash some water on it. I only bring this up because it got me thinking about other explorers, and my meandering stream of consciousness dropped me on the shores of cars with names that conjure up images of adventure.
Back when cars were exciting machines that invoked the personality that automotive pioneers hoped the consumer would buy into, explorers were at the top of the naming list.
General Motor’s Cadillac division has been around so long, most people don’t realize it was named after the French soldier, explorer and administrator in French North America, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.
He was also the founder, fittingly, of the city of Detroit in 1701, governor of Louisiana for several years and resident of Maine for a time, which is why Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is named in his honor.
The Cadillac Automobile Co. was founded in 1902 by none other than Henry Ford in his second attempt to create a successful automobile.
Following the departure of Mr. Ford after an internal leadership struggle, Cadillac was acquired in 1909 by William C. Durant, who had formed General Motors by assembling Buick and Oldsmobile under his corporate umbrella where Cadillac took the top honor in GM’s lineup.
When GM needed an automobile to fill the price gap between the top-of-the-line Cadillac and their Buick cars, the LaSalle brand was created in 1927. Since this new introduction, based on Cadillac underpinnings but intended as a step down model from Cadillac, it seemed fitting that it be named for another French Explorer, Cavelier de LaSalle, who explored the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and naming the basin of the later Louisiana for King Louis XIV of France in 1682.
LaSalle Automobiles is credited with developing the industry’s first in-house, styling department and employing a young Harley Earl, who went on to become a pioneer of corporate car design eventually creating the Corvette for Chevrolet.
In time, as Cadillac lost ground to Packard, LaSalle moved down market, sharing components with Oldsmobile until 1940, when the brand was discontinued. Ironically, LaSalle himself was killed by his own men while on an expedition, a fate delivered to his namesake automobile by the corporate leaders at GM.
General Motors' strategy, early on, was to build a ladder of cars that the consumer could purchase as their lot in life grew. Each brand was a step up from the previous in appointments and price. The position between entry-level Chevrolet and Oldsmobile was filled by Pontiac.
Originally conceived as the Oakland Motor Car Co. and purchased by GM in 1926, the division was renamed for the tribal Ottawa Chief Pontiac, who lived in the Great Lakes region and for whom the Michigan town of Pontiac, where the cars were manufactured, also is named.
After the French exited the region and the British came to occupy their outposts, Pontiac attempted to allow the new settlers to go in peace in return for their respect. This was not to be, but after years of bitter fighting, a treaty was finally signed. Eventually, Chief Pontiac was killed by a member of another tribe in 1769, and Pontiac Motor Division was killed by the recession in 2010.
The idea of naming a car after an explorer was not lost on Walter Chrysler, who introduced the DeSoto in 1928. It was named for Hernando de Soto, the 16th century Spanish explorer who died along the banks of the Mississippi River after exploring much of the southern continent of North America.
The DeSoto automobile was a mid-priced car that featured in its logo the likeness of the man himself, dressed appropriately in explorer garb. Models with names like Adventurer, Diplomat and Rebel played to its heritage. In the 1930s, DeSoto featured “Airflow” bodies, streamlined and wind-tunnel designed, they offered groundbreaking styling and were also used on Chrysler cars.
Throughout its existence, DeSoto shared a definitive family resemblance to its Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler siblings, with plenty of radical styling and large fins. In the end, a combination of quality issues, a national recession and its own lack of individuality brought the line to a close in 1961.
Although Plymouth is a place — a town in Massachusetts just before you get to Cape Cod, to be specific — history credits it as ground zero in the discovery of the America we know.
The Pilgrims, as a group, were explorers of sorts, but their ship, the Mayflower, is the stuff of folklore. Perhaps more a symbol of adventure than the pilgrims, and certainly more dynamic than the buckle hat commonly associated with the group, the Plymouth automobile has used the image of the Mayflower, or a stylized version thereof, as part of its logo throughout production.
Introduced in 1928 by Chrysler Corp., Plymouth was intended to compete in the lower end of the auto segment with the likes of Chevrolet and Ford. Following Chrysler Corp.’s merger with Daimler-Benz of Germany in 1998 to become DaimlerChrysler AG, investment in Plymouth waned, transforming the brand into little more than rebadged Dodge products until, in 2001, Plymouth was discontinued.
Unlike history, which celebrates the Pilgrims’ accomplishments every Thanksgiving, the Plymouth brand faded into obscurity when the largely forgettable, last, silver Neon economy car rolled off the assembly line.
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.