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How Car Companies Got Their Names

By Edited Feb 25, 2016 4 9

Giving name to a baby, a building, an item for sale or to a city is always an important and rather sentimental occasion. But still, most of us probably don’t put too much thought into our cars’ names. Sure, we’ll take the wheel of a Dodge or a Volkswagen, but I don’t think anyone has ever questioned the name? Let’s take a look at a few that aren’t quite as obvious as the Ford name.

Mercedes Was his Loving Daughter

Mercedes is a German company founded in 1871. In the beginning, there were two people - Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Karl Benz was born in 1844, a descendant of blacksmiths and son of a German engine driver, and is generally accepted as the first man to invent a four wheel vehicle with petrol driven internal combustion engine. Gottlieb Daimler was able to invent the automobile with internal combustion independently. It is very interesting however that he was  only sixty miles apart from Benz in that time.

Logo- Mercedes Benz

An Austrian diplomat, Emile Jellinek, who was more interested in cars than diplomacy; He was enthusiastic about the dawn of motoring age and believed that the motor car was of major importance for the future. He had connections and money. He was impressed by Daimler’ design and was willing to place a huge order (36 cars) , provided the car was named after his daughter ‘”Mercedes”- a Spanish Christian name meaning "grace", and a name he obviously liked. His demand of name was accepted and Mercedes cars started rolling out. Later he combined with Benz company and since then we have the beautiful cars known as ‘”Mercedes Benz”. Since the very first roll out, the car has maintained its standard and is generally considered to be a luxury car or ‘”the car for elite”.

It may also be interesting to note that Emile Jellineck , aware of the commercial significance of his Pseudonym , asked and got permission from Daimler to legally call himself Jellineck Mercedes , noting, “This is probably the first time a father has taken his daughter’s name”. 

French Governor Cadillac, Lost war, got Name

 In 1701,  Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a 43 year old French Army Officer, established  a French settlement at the waterway between lake St.Claire and Erie. Cadillac . In the capacity of French Governor for the colony, he had convinced King Louis IV’s chief minister, count Pontchartrain, that a permanent community at this strategic location would strengthen the French control over upper great lakes and repel British advances. So Cadillac built fort Pontchartrain. It was not enough to keep the British away. The French lost the fort in the French and Indian war. The British who now occupied the region, kept the French names, even though they did not understand them. That is why the city is called Detroit, meaning the “Straits”. And the waterway, which in fact is a strait, is curiously name as the “Detroit River”.

Logo of Cadillac

At the turn of the century, Henry Martyn Leyland, a skilled gunsmith and tool maker , with very high standards of precision manufacture, was running Leyland and Falconer, a successful Detroit company, that built among other things, engines for the infant auto industry. In 1902, he advised William H. Murphy  to re-organize his failed  Detroit automobile company, and build a new design car based on the Leyland’s high quality engine. Murphy agreed and Cadillac automobile company was born. The name was given in honour of the city’s founder.

Henry Ford was the chief engineer of the Detroit automobile co, when Henry Leyland re-organized the company in 1902. Ford later left the job to start his own famous company which ultimately revolutionized the automobile manufacturing by introducing the mass scale production system. 

In Memory of Abraham Lincoln

Logo- Lincoln
Henry Martyn Leyland already had the reputation of a high quality auto engine manufacturer , the first world war produced a requirement and an opportunity which he decided to cash. He borrowed $ 2 million, a huge sum in 1917, started his own company and built aircraft engines. He was a civil war buff and so named his company after President Abraham Lincoln. When the first world war ended, Leyland started building another high quality V-8 car in his plant, the first of the Lincoln automobile. By the end of 1921, the company was on the stage of financial collapse, and was ultimately taken over by Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor company turned this vehicle into a prestigious car, such that it got the name of ‘”Car of the Presidents”. President Roosevelt and many other presidents used this car. President Kennedy , when finally shot , was travelling in a Lincoln model. 

Legacy Of Indian Ottawa Chief


Pontiac has been a standard bearer of high performance. The car was named after a famous   Ottawa chief , who also gave his name to the city of Pontiac in Oakland country, Michigan. It was there in 1907, that the Oakland motor company , the precursor of Pontiac was founded. Two years later, Oakland became part of General Motors who built cars giving them the name of the Ottawa Chief. The first Pontiac rolled out of the assembly line on December 28, 1925, The car became so successful that General motors’ changed the name of the company to “Pontiac Motor Company”, and  later to the Pontiac division of the General Motors. This lower cost model captured three fourth of the GM division sales.

Some General comments

A name doesn't have to be "vicious" in order to be 

Logo- Land Rover
great, however,. Some of the best names, such as the Ford Explorer, are utilitarian. At the time of its introduction, the Explorer was a radical new thing--and its functional name implied that you could take the vehicle off-road, a message that Ford wanted to communicate. The Dodge Ram is another practical name given that it is a work truck. Calling it the "Horse" might not have been optimal, but giving it an animal name that doubles as a violent verb was a good move (the Ram is also Dodge's logo). Similarly, the name Land Rover--and to only a slightly lesser extent, its larger, more expensive cousin, Range Rover--aptly conveys that vehicle's ability to go wherever it likes and handle virtually any terrain. 

Every name I have come across , had some kind of attachment. Some car is named after  Indian hero , some for President, some for the one who established the city and in one case, father changed his name to the name he had given to his loving daughter and to his car. All indicating that people are still sentimental about names and rose by any other name will not be as sweet. 



Feb 23, 2012 7:42am
I wonder how car named foxy got its name ??? lolxxxx
Feb 23, 2012 8:36am
Hitler had coined this term, at a time when the car was not there. He insisted that a cheap car within reach of a common man be manufactured, so it got the name meaning "Car of the people". Let me add the initial cost was more than the sale price but ultimately it become a profitable project.
Feb 23, 2012 8:55am
Car off the people - is the new rule if the oil prices keep rising globally ... Anyways quite an interesting article. Added a lot to my knowledge :) Thanks !!!
Feb 24, 2012 12:36am
Actually I was writing on another topic, but when I read some books, I found this to be very interesting. How noble that father names the car after his daughter and then adds that name to his name. Thanks for liking.
Feb 27, 2012 3:39pm
Why don’t the Americans keep simple names like “Foxy” :)
Feb 28, 2012 10:52am
"Foxy" is a nick-name and not a proper name. "Volkwagon" in German Language, read as '"Folks wagon" in English, meaning "transport for the people" was Hitler's given nmae.
Mar 13, 2012 9:31pm
Interesting article. I hope there will be more featuring other car brands.
Mar 16, 2012 12:09am
Very good read, and once again, I learned something new on IB. Like WebAddict, I would like to read more about how different cars got their names. Good featured article, and congratulations.
Apr 21, 2012 2:53pm
Wow, nvr knew about it. Great write up!
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  1. Evan Morris From Altoids to Zima: the surprising stories behind 125 brand names. Google: Amazon.com- Google, 2011.
  2. Laura Lee The name's familiar: Mr. Leotard, Barbie, and Chef Boyardee. Google: Pelican Publishing Co- Amazon.com, 2011.
  3. Lee Shanks Days gone by. Google: Lulu.com - Amazon .com, 2011.
  4. "Pontiac Performance." Popular mechanics. 178 # 4 (2001): 97-98.

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