But behind many brand names there is a flesh-and-blood inventor, entrepreneur or industrialist. Many times they gave their name to the companies – and that fame was often about all they ended up with.
David Buick, who invented the overhead valve engine, founded the Buick Motor Car Co. in 1903. William C. Durant, the industrialist who would eventually found GM, took over the company in 1904, after it ran into financial trouble. Buick stayed on as a director but left in 1908, never making much money from the enterprise. He died in 1929, reportedly unable to afford one of his cars.
Durant kept the name for one of his company divisions and for the car, even though he worried that people might pronounce it 'Boo-ick', according to one author. Strangely enough, the man who practically created General Motors singlehandedly never really liked the idea of a 'Durant' car.
In another example, Robert Hupp invented the Hupmobile,a small runabout, in 1908. But he sold his stock in his Hupp Motor Car Company in 1911. He turned around and founded the Hupp Corp. that same year. Investors in his first firm took him to court to make him drop the "Hupp" from his new company's name and they won. His own automotive glory quickly faded, although the Hupmobile survived until the 1940s.
Swiss-born Louis Chevrolet's experience was similar. Durant brought him into a new car building venture in 1911, hoping to trade on his fame as an absolutely fearless race driver. Chevrolet left the company in 1913, apparently unable to make the adjustment from racing to building production vehicles. But its name stuck to the new Chevrolet vehicles; Durant reportedly liked its musical lilt.
Things turned out a little differently for Henry Ford. He suffered the ignominy of being booted from an early auto company that bore his own name. But his revenge was sweet. The Henry Ford Company, which traded freely on Ford's early fame as an inventor and racer, fired him in 1902 "because he was spending all his time developing a race car, not a passenger car," according to the Encyclopedia of American Business and Biography. After Ford was gone, the company was renamed Cadillac, after Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, the French nobleman who founded Detroit in 1703; his heraldry became the model's badge and the company became a part of General Motors in 1909.
After his firing, Ford quickly found investors to help him launch his own firm, the Ford Motor Co., in 1903. He introduced the firm's first new vehicle, the Model A, and followed it with other low-cost vehicles, including his greatest achievement – the Model T – in 1908. Its price tag started at $850 and fell steadily as Ford introduced more production innovations. The young firm became phenomenally successful.
In 1922, Ford got the chance to buy the five-year-old Lincoln Motor Company out of bankruptcy. It was then owned by one of the very people, Henry Leland, who fired him twenty years earlier. Then he used the former aircraft company to launch his own line of luxury cars bearing the Lincoln name.
For its part, General Motors almost didn't get the name it bears today. Durant actually incorporated his company under the name International Motors Company in New Jersey in 1908. But his attorney advised him that it would be easier to raise capital under a new name. "We might use 'United Motors Company' were it not for the fact that there is already a United Motor Car Company in that state," the attorney wrote. "We suggest the name General Motors Company, as we have ascertained it can be used."
A newly-coined French word – auto-mobile – inspired many vehicle names in the early years. Inventor Ransom E. Olds filed a patent for an "auto-mobile" during the mid-1890s. Names like Bugmobile, Locomobile, Hupmobile, and of course, the Oldsmobile, could not have come along without it.
The origins of some names can be tricky to trace. The first use of 'Jeep', for instance, is shrouded in mystery. Jim Allen, the author of a book called Jeep, concludes that it's based on early World War II slang for "a new, unproven recruit or a new unproven vehicle." Others have suggested it is a contraction of G.P., or General Purpose. It wasn't until 1950 that Toledo-based Willys-Overland, Inc., one of the producers of the early 4WD vehicle, trademarked the term.
Many of the names were not originally associated with the auto industry. The Toyota name came from the Toyoda loom works in Kariya, Japan; When it turned to car production, the Toyoda family changed the 'd' to a 't' to make it simpler and more elegant in Japanese script.
There's little doubt about other brand names. Pontiac was an offshoot of the Pontiac Buggy Co., a horseless carriage manufacturer named after a renowned Indian chief. Mechanic Soichiro Honda started producing motorized bicycles after the devastation of World War II and eventually graduated to cars.
Volkswagen, a response to Adolf Hitler's call for a car for the common folk, means 'people's car' in German, evidently beating out the prototype's name, 'Strength through Joy,' for the honors. In 1917, the Rapp Engine Works became known as the Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH, or Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), as the four-year-old airplane engine firm diversified into motorcycle engines, with a stylized white propeller against a blue sky as its logo. The first BMW cars were produced roughly a decade later.
The legendary Jaguar name is considered one of the best sports car names of all time. It beat out a long list of lackluster animal names compiled by a British ad agency in 1935. In 1939, Ford struck gold with Mercury, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods. It tapped into Greek and Roman mythology for the name, just as it did for the similarly styled Lincoln Zephyr, the god of the wind, three years earlier.
Some other storied automotive brands are based on acronyms. Fiat stands for Fabbrica Italiani Automobili Torino, or Italian Automotive Works Turin. Similarly, Saab stands for Svenska Aeroplanaktiebolaget, or Swedish Aeroplane Ltd., hearkening back to the automaker's origins as an aircraft company.
Ford might have done better with an acronym in 1958. The Edsel was conceived as a new, distinct Ford Motor Co. brand, with its own models, badge and division. The mission was to take on GM's Oldsmobile.
After considering thousands of suggestions, Ford named the new brand after Edsel Ford, Henry Ford's only child. He had been a major styling influence within the company and was its president at the time of his death in 1943.
The name Edsel was an immediate letdown. Ford stock fell 10 points on the day it was announced. One disenchanted executive predicted that the name alone would cost the new vehicle 200,000 units in sales. Its name wasn't the sole reason for its failure. It didn't help that the country was in recession or that the new car seemed based on Ford and Mercury models. But all that didn't stop Edsel from entering the vocabulary as an idea or project fated to failure.
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