How 14 Car Companies Got Their Names

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Most of us probably don't put too much thought into our cars' names. Sure, we'll take the wheel of a Toyota or a Chevrolet, but how did those cars pick up their monikers? Let's take a look at a few that aren't quite as obvious as the Ford name.

1. Nissan

The company we now know as Nissan got its start in 1914 as DAT Motorcar. The "DAT" name came from the first initial of the three founders' family names. In 1931, DAT introduced a new small car they called the Datson, which later morphed into "Datsun."

Meanwhile, businessman Yoshisuke Aikawa founded an industrial holding company in 1928 and named his new venture Nippon Sangyo. (The name loosely translates into "Japan Industries.") Aikawa's company bought out DAT in 1931, and eventually the Nippon Sangyo name became abbreviated as Nissan.

Some drivers may remember cruising around in Datsuns before they ever got behind the wheel of a Nissan. What prompted the name change? Until the early 1980s, the Datsun badge appeared on the cars Nissan exported out of Japan. In 1981, though, Nissan execs announced that they were changing this practice in order to strengthen global awareness of the Nissan brand. Thus, you can't buy a Datsun Z anymore, but you can get the keys to a Nissan one.

2. Toyota

Toyota didn't start out as a car company. It wasn't called Toyota, either. In 1926, Sakichi Toyoda founded the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, a company that made looms, not cars. In 1933, Toyoda's son Kiichiro started a separate motors division, and the company's cars quickly took off.

How did the name get from "Toyoda" to "Toyota," though? In 1936, the company held a competition to design a new logo, and the winner consisted of the three Japanese characters that made up the Toyoda name. However, after giving it some thought, the Toyoda family decided that the slightly tweaked "Toyota" was stronger. Writing out "Toyoda" required nine brush strokes, whereas "Toyota" only required eight, a lucky number in Japan. Plus, the name just sounded better, so Toyoda became Toyota.

3. Chrysler

Walter Chrysler probably wasn't on anyone's short list of potential moguls when he was a young man. He spent much of his youth kicking around Texas as a railroad mechanic, and although the work wasn't glamorous, he developed quite a skill set as a machinist. In 1911, the gifted 36-year-old machinist became production chief for Buick, and by 1919 he was making millions of dollars a year as head of the company.

Chrysler eventually left Buick, and after a failed attempt to take over the Willys-Overland Motor Company, he uses some of his accumulated wealth to buy a controlling interest in the floundering Maxwell Motor Company. Chrysler's new company introduced a popular car called the Chrysler in 1924, and by the next year the Maxwell name had disappeared in favor of Chrysler.

4. Honda


Honda bears the name of its founder, Soichiro Honda. Honda was a precocious mechanic who started the Honda Motor Co. Ltd. in 1946 to build small motorcycles. Although the motorcycle business got off to a slow start, by the 1960s the business had become one of the world's largest manufacturers of bikes. In 1963, Honda introduced its first production automobile, the Honda T360 pickup truck.

5. Buick

Scottish immigrant David Dunbar Buick was an inventive fellow; before he ever got into the motors game, he created a more efficient way of manufacturing enameled cast-iron bathtubs. Buick began toying with engines during the 1890s, and after starting one failed engine company, he tried again with the Buick Manufacturing Company in 1902. Buick's cars were terrific -- his pioneering use of overhead valve technology made them tough to beat -- but he had trouble actually producing and delivering them on time. As a result he always needed to find new investors to advance him cash, and eventually his company was sold out from under him to General Motors founder William C. Durant.

In 1908, Durant gave Buick the heave-ho and a $100,000 severance check. Buick tried to parlay this money into a great fortune by investing in oil fields, but he didn't have any luck. When his attempts to get back into the car business in the 1920s floundered, he ended up working as an instructor at the Detroit School of Trades. That venture didn't go so well, either; the school demoted him to receptionist. When Buick died in 1929, he was flat broke.

6. Chevrolet

Remember how William Durant forced David Buick out of Buick's own company? Karma can be rough. In 1910, Durant's own creditors forced him out of his management role at the company he started, General Motors. Durant didn't stay down for long, though. He teamed with Swiss race car driver and mechanic Louis Chevrolet to start a new motor company in 1911. The pair named the company after Chevrolet, and legend has it that they developed a logo that resembled the Swiss cross of Chevrolet's homeland. (Other stories indicate that Durant copied the bowtie logo from a French hotel's wallpaper.)

The company quickly earned the pair quite a bit of loot. Durant suddenly had enough cash to regain control of General Motors, and in 1917 GM acquired Chevrolet. Louis Chevrolet didn't do quite as well, though. He sold his share of the company to Durant in 1914, and although his career had other highlights, including a 7th-place finish at the 1919 Indianapolis 500, he never enjoyed much financial success and eventually had to return to Chevy as a consultant.

7. Dodge

Brothers John and Horace Dodge were gifted machinists who began a Michigan bicycle company in the 1890s. Eventually they sold this business and began creating transmissions for Olds in 1902 and then Ford in 1903. However, they longed to create cars of their own, so in 1913 they left their lucrative supplier positions at Ford and started working on their own car designs. The brothers' cars were soon the second-hottest sellers in the country, and they were fabulously wealthy.

8. Mercedes

In 1897, Austrian entrepreneur Emil Jellinek began ordering Daimler cars that he could drive in some of Europe's quickly growing auto races. It took a few years, but by the dawn of the 20th century, Jellinek had a number of Daimlers that he adored driving. He often raced under an assumed name when driving these cars; he took on the name of his 12-year-old daughter Mercedes. In 1900, Jellinek worked out a deal with Daimler to order 36 new cars on the condition that the cars be called Mercedes. Daimler agreed, and the famed luxury brand name was born.

9. Volvo

The Swedish automaker's name is Latin for "I roll," a conjugation of the word volvere. The company got its start as part of the Swedish ball bearing company SKF, and after SKF trademarked the Volvo name in 1915, the company planned to put the "Volvo" name on most anything that rolled, from bears to bicycles to automobiles. The plan wasn't quick to get off the ground, though; thanks to World War I, Volvo didn't actually start its car business until 1926.

And a few quick ones:

10. Cadillac: Named for Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the French explorer who founded Detroit in the early 18th century.

11. Saab: Abbreviation of "Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolag," which is Swedish for "Swedish Airplane, Limited."

12. Volkswagen: German for "people's car."

13. Lexus: Toyota went to its ad agency and an image-consulting firm when it needed a name for its luxury division. At first, they decided on "Alexis," but it gradually evolved into Lexus.

14. Mazda: According to Mazda's website, the brand's name is borrowed from the Zoroastrian religion. Ahura Mazda is the Zoroastrian "God of reason who granted wisdom and united man, nature and the other gods."

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March 30, 2010 - 9:08am
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