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Making a marque: automotive etymologies

On a recent cloudy Sunday afternoon I found myself shepherding the truck-crazy young son of a friend of mine round the crowded arena of a retro and classic truck show at a motor museum in the English Midlands. There were hundreds of trucks of all ages and manufacturers neatly parked in rows and we walked the length of all of them, the kid exclaiming in delight at the more unusual rigs and me secretly wishing I could have a go at driving some of the older ones. I guess you have to be an enthusiast for older machines to appreciate these events, but as the owner of a 1960s car I felt right at home.

I found myself having to explain some of the names that were unfamiliar to the youngster, either having now disappeared from our roads, or some of the more unusual trucks from overseas.  The long-gone AEC, or the Peterbilt from the USA, which is very unusual here.

All of this led me to ponder these very familiar words. We are surrounded by the vocabulary of automotive marques yet you will rarely find them in a dictionary because they are commercial brand names rather than words in common usage. So as I made my way back down the motorway towards Oxford I resolved to collect some of them here for your entertainment.

What’s in a name?

At first sight, many such words are obviously derived from the surname of the company founder: Austin, Ford, Renault, Honda, or Oxford’s own Morris. But the founder’s surname can influence the brand in some surprising ways; one of the reasons that Toyota cars are thus named is because “Toyota” in Japanese is written with eight strokes symbolizing good fortune as トヨタ while the surname is “Toyoda”, written with a less-lucky ten strokes as トヨダ.

Probably the most cryptic marque derived from a surname though is Audi. The Latin for “I listen” is a pun on the founder’s name “Horch”, which means the same in German.

Eponymous automotive marques are not only derived from surnames though – some very famous ones are first names or initials. If you drive a Mercedes your car carries the name of the daughter of the designer of the first Mercedes, and ERF trucks get their name from the initials of the company founder’s father, E. R. Foden.  The brand associated with one of the most famous marketing failures in automotive history is also a first name, the Edsel. Named after the son of Henry Ford, the Edsel launch misjudged the market conditions of late 1950s America and its adventurous styling was considered ugly by the consumers of the time.

An honourable mention in this category though goes to one of very few cars to be manufactured in Wales, the Gilbern. The company founders’ first names were Giles and Bernhard, the first syllables of which they combined to create their marque.

In first place. . .

Others are derived from place names. If you drive a Vauxhall today it may have been made in Luton or Ellesmere Port, but the first Vauxhall cars were built in the part of London bearing that name. Smaller manufacturers such as Caterham or Bristol share this category, as does the truck manufacturer Scania, named after the Swedish region in which it originated.

Let it be

As a motor enthusiast, though, it is to the rooftop test track in Turin that you may have seen in the original Italian Job movie that I turn when I think of a place name associated with a brand. The Italian carmaker FIAT, from an Italian initialism “Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino” or in loose English translation “Turin Italian car factory” is indelibly associated with both that country and that city. However the etymology of “FIAT” does not end there, because the Italian phrase itself is a little strained. It was chosen in that form because it is also the subjunctive of the Latin verb “fio” meaning “happen, occur, become” and thus “Let it happen!” sounds like a good omen. This etymology has also given us the English word fiat, “a formal authorization or proposition; a decree”.

Some automotive etymologies are simply descriptive, usually derived from their first model. The Mini and the Volkswagen (in German: “People’s car”) are probably the most famous of this category, but they are not alone. Military initialisms have given us the Jeep, from “GP” or “General Purpose”, and the Hummer via Humvee which in turn is derived from the initials “HMMV” or “High-Mobility Multi-purpose Vehicle”.

Occasionally these descriptive origins are later masked by product marketing. The German DKW motorcycles were marketed as “Das Kleine Wunder”, or “The little Wonder”, but the name’s origins lay in “Dampf-Kraft-Wagen”, or “Steam-driven car”.

A Jaguar by any other name?

The final group of automotive names are those with no motoring etymology other than the choice of their originator. Lotus, named after the founder’s trials car, or Volvo, Latin for “I roll” and so named because it was a product of the SKF ball-bearing company. Sometimes these names are forced on a marque by necessity, as was the case with Jaguar which was chosen after World War Two because the company’s previous name, SS, had acquired negative connotations due to the activities of the Nazi Schutzstaffel.

The now-defunct British carmaker Rover started life as the producer of the Rover safety bicycle in the Victorian era and the name’s origin is simply as one appropriate for a bicycle. Though sadly the company has now gone, its name lives on in the Polish word for bicycle, spelt “rower” but pronounced the same as the English “Rover”.

So as you sit gazing at the badge on the car in front during your next motorway journey you may now have an idea of the origins of the name inscribed upon it. Meanwhile I will leave you, stepping into my Triumph Herald (itself named after a yacht owned by the chairman of the Standard-Triumph Motor Company) and driving off in search of other automotive oddities.

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