Links updated and verified 10/22/2015
by Ken Gross
Petersen Automotive Museum director
When the car industry was in its infancy, auto pioneers usually named their cars after themselves: Henry Ford, the Duryea brothers, Alexander Winton, Elmore Haynes and Elmer Apperson, Francis E. and Freeland O. Stanley (Stanley Steamer), and Charles W. Nash and were just a few of many auto pioneers who took that route. James Ward Packard followed suit when decided he could build a better runabout than Alexander Winton. So did David Dunbar Buick, Louis and Gaston Chevrolet, Howard Marmon, Harry C. Stutz, the Studebaker and Dodge brothers, Walter P. Chrysler and, later on, even Preston Tucker and John DeLorean.
Early on, cars were sometimes named after a key investor: Mercedes was really the first name of the 11-year old daughter of a Vienna banker, Emil Jellinek. Arguably the world's first megadealer, he held Daimler franchises for Austro-Hungary, France, Belgium and America. In 1900, Jellinek placed a then-huge order (36 cars). A grateful Daimler company let him call them anything he wanted, and the name stuck.
Hudson stemmed from Detroit department store magnate, J.L. Hudson, an early major investor. Diminutive pre- and post-war Crosley's were named after company founder Powel Crosley, who'd originally made a fortune selling his Crosley radios and 'Shelvador' refrigerators. Remember Earl "Madman" Muntz, who sold discount TV's in a frantic fashion on early television shows? His Cadillac-powered Muntz Jet (based on a Frank Kurtis design) lasted just five years.
Initials were popular, particularly when a carmaker sold his company and later decided to re-enter the business. Hence Oldsmobile's founder, Ranson E. Olds, begat REO, Harry C. Stutz later founded a firm called HCS, and Harry A. Lozier (Lozier was a powerful pre WWI luxury car, founded HAL. When racecar builder Harry A. Miller reestablished his company, it was called Rellimah, (H. A. Miller spelled backwards). Henry J. Kaiser's small car entry was called, you guessed it, the Henry J.
Sometimes initials took on a bad connotation: the 1908-1912 E.M.F. car, a forerunner of the Studebaker, was euphemistically known as Every Mechanical Failure. To this day, FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) cars are lumbered with: "Fix It Again Tony." Enzo Ferrari, forbidden by his former employer, FIAT, to use his own name for five years after 1939 (war intervened, making the delay somewhat easier) introduced his first models under the name AAC 815 (L'Auto Avio Construzioi).
A casual cruise through the annals of automotive history indicates that many car company founders chose unusual, often humorous, and certainly distinctive names for their offerings. Most of the cars we'll cite are long gone: if names were the sole criterion, you can easily see why.....
Car makes and models named for animals were logical. Why not endow an auto with the qualities of a much-admired beast? That explains Spain's postwar Pegaso (named for Pegasus, the mythical flying horse), as well as Britain's Napier Lion, and Ford's Mustang ponycar which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. There was an American Pegasus, too, and Apperson offered the Jack Rabbit Straightaway 8.
Other animal names included Beaver, Colt, Badger, Fox, Weasel (a WWII amphibian), Wolfe, Wolverine, Deere-Clark, Panther, Panda, Pup, Bull Moose, Baby Moose and Dragon, to name just a few. Avian names were nearly as popular: early flying badges included Bird, Crow, Crow-Elkhart, Black Crow, Eagle, Eaglet (a juvenile cyclecar), Hawkeye, Wing and Duck....not to be confused with the waterborne Army 6 x 6 DUKW vehicle, and Steel Swallow. The Stork-Kar was made in Martinsburg, West Virginia, from 1919-1921; the Petrel flew briefly (1903-1905) from Kenosha, Wis.
Hudson popularized insect names with its postwar Hornet, Wasp and Super Wasps. Plymouth even offered a Super Bee. But long prior to those, there was the 1919-24 Martin-Wasp, from Bennington, Vt. The 1909 Beetle Flyer from Noblesville, Ind., preceded Volkswagen's Beetle. There was a Cricket car shaped very much like....a cricket.
Fish weren't exempt from the name game. Plymouth had a postwar ponycar called the Barracuda; AMC briefly marketed the Rambler Marlin. Radically styled pre-war sedans from the former Graham-Paige company were known as "Sharknosed" Grahams. Continuing the nautical theme, there were cars called the Anchor, the Herring, the Dock and and the Skimabout. The Fish automobile hailed from Bloomington, Ill. Preston Tucker called his postwar effort the Tucker Torpedo. One late 1930's Dodge model was called the Luxury Liner. Chevrolet's Corvette was named for a light, fast fighting ship. Packard had a model called the Clipper. There were two Monitor autos, but no Merrimac. GM's Fisher Body Division (named for Detroit's seven Fisher brothers) built car bodies for decades. Ferrari's sleek, postwar racing roadster was called the Barchetta, meaning 'little boat,' in Italian.
STARS AND PLANETS, ROYALTY AND RULERS
Saturn is a popular car today, but it was preceded by the Moon, the Star, the Haley, several Comets ( including one from Mercury in the 1960's), the Meteor, the Planet (not extraterrestrial, it was made in Minneapolis, 1914) and the Aurora car, built from 1905-1909 (by two separate companies) in Aurora, Ill. Oldsmobile just resurrected the Aurora name for its, proving (forgive me) there's nothing new under the sun. Oh, and two Zips were made, one in Iowa, one in Texas.
One of the earliest automobiles (1899) was the shortlived King. Another King auto was built in Detroit from 1911-1923, and later in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1923-1924. Other makes were named Queen, Prince, Princess, Prince Henry, Little Princess, Majestic, Monarch, Crown, Coronation, Knight, Bishop, Sovereign, Squire (a wonderfully racy but, short-lived British sports car), Lord Baltimore, Royal Tourist, Royalmobile, Rex (three different companies) Peerless, Silent Knight and Falcon-Knight.
In the 1930's, despite rampant political unrest in Europe, Studebaker named two models President and Dictator. After the war, Studebaker offered the Commander and Commodore. A Premier car was sold (Indianapolis: 1902-1926) long before it became a Lincoln model. There was a Boss, a Boss Steam car and a car from Detroit called the B.O.S.S. (for organizers Bowen, Olson, Smith and Stratton). After one year, they reportedly couldn't agree on who should be boss, and the venture expired.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Carmakers were fascinated with geography, hence Acadia, three Altantics (Augusta, ME, Newark, N.J., Brockton, Mass), three Pacifics (Oakland, Calif., Renton and Seattle, Wash.), and the Pacific Special which was made in Fruitvale, California. There was a Klondike, a Great Western, a Dixie Flyer (as well as several other makes with the name Dixie), the New Orleans, the Knickerbocker, the Amsterdam, and a light car called the Orient Buckboard. An Adelphia (you read that right) was made in Philadelphia in 1920.
There was an Albany (from a town in Indiana of that name), an Allegheny, and an Alsace, (that was built in New York). The Lone Star, of course, hailed from Texas; the Long Distance appeared from 1901-1903 in Jersey City, N.J. Several cars were called Niagara. There was even a Porto Rico (sic).
The New York Six, a car with trick wheels that allowed it to be parked sideways, made a brief appearance from 1927-1928, then vanished. At least three separate makes used the name Phoenix, and as many used Tex or Texas in their names.
While there was never a car called the Rabbi, there was a Pope-Toledo, a Pope-Robinson a Pope-Tribune and a Pope-Hartford. We mentioned the Bishop; Ford's still-born postwar light car was to be called the Cardinal and there was a delightful small car in the 1920's called the Templar.
Tool names attracted some carmakers. There was a Hammer, a Grout, a Lever, a Diamond, the Compound, the Rotary, the Barrow and even a car called Compressed Air. Only one was built.
TRANSPLANTS, INDIANS AND EXPLORERS
Much fuss is made today about U.S.-built Japanese "transplants," like the Toyota Camry, the Nissan Altima, and the Honda Accord, but that idea is hardly new. There was an American Mercedes (built in Long Island City from 1905-1907), and Rolls-Royce built SIlver Ghosts and Phantoms in Springfield, Mass. from 1921-1935.
The American Fiat was a shortlived venture in Poughkeepsie; the American De Dion was assembled in Brooklyn. And the American Austin was a factor from 1930 to 1934. The American Napier was assembled in Jamaica Plain, outside Boston. The hapless Anderson, "A little bit higher in price, but made in Dixie," failed to convince buyers and succumbed after a nine-year (1916-1925) run in Rock Hill, S.C.
A sense of adventure guided many early carmakers, hence explorer names like Cadillac, DeSoto, LaSalle, Lewis and Clark. Four separate makes called Columbus and the Balboa "Finer 6" were briefly extant. Surely an element of mystery must have dictated both the Holmes and the Watson. Sorry Conan Doyle fans, there was a Moore, and a Mora but no Moriarity. We should also mention, Mondex Magic, Little Mystery, Mysterion, Sphinx, Mystery Car -- and Rolls-Royce's fascination with the netherworld that led to models called the Silver Ghost, various Phantom Series I-V, the Silver Wraith, Silver Shadow and Silver Spirit. Rust Heinz, heir to the Ketchup fortune, built an 810 Cord-based car called the Phantom Corsair.
America's native population attracted its share of car names: Besides the Indian, there was the Silent Sioux, the Shawmut, the Pontiac, the Hiawatha, the Sequoia, the Seneca and the Scout. A car called the Half Breed appeared in McCraken, Kan. in 1916. It had been assembled from parts of two existing production cars. Not surprisingly, the first Half Breed was also the last.
ALL SHAPES AND SIZES
Wheel configurations often dictated car names: you've no doubt heard of the British Morgan Three-Wheeler -- with its two wheels in front and a single rear drive wheel. Just after WWII, Californian Gary Davis briefly marketed his Davis Three Wheeler (with just the opposite wheel configuration), then served a jail term for financial manipulations.
The three-wheeled Sessions steam runabout of 1904 also had a single wheel in front, and two in the rear. Milton O. Reeves, owner of a successful pulley company in Columbus, Ind., was convinced that a car's ride quality was directly related to the number of wheels it had. He offered the Reeves Octoauto (eight wheels, arranged in tandem) in 1911, and followed that with the Sextoauto (two wheels in front, four in the rear). There were no takers, and a chagrined Reeves returned to his pulley business.
The Serpentina appeared in New York City in 1915 with its four wheels arranged in the shape of a baseball diamond, aping a similar British effort called the Sunbeam-Mabley. The idea was to enhance the car's agility in dense traffic. Despite coverage in The Scientific American, the Serpentina struck out. Earlier, the 1906-1907 Autocycle of Philadelphia had tried a similar diamond-shaped wheel route, claiming a turning radius of seven feet, to no avail.
William Edgar Croft of Zion City, Ill., built a three-wheeled car powered by a two-cylinder engine that drove a 48-inch airplane propellor in the rear. Like so many of these efforts, the Croft failed to take off. James Scripps-Booth's chain-drive, tandem seat Bi-Autogo was built like a giant motorcycle. It had two large conventional wheels, fore and aft, and small "training wheels" at the sides to keep the V-8-powered behemoth upright when it stopped. Fully 450 feet of copper tubing were used for the car's radiator -- the pipes ran along the sides of the hood. Only one Bi-Autogo was built before Scripps-Booth decided to pursue more conventional autos.
The Auto Red Bug resembled a bodyless sled with four bicycle wheels; the left rear was driven by a small gasoline engine. Originally marketed in 1916, in Milwaukee, where it was called the Smith Flyer, later the Smith Motor Wheel, and still later the Briggs & Stratton, it was eventually produced from 1924 to approximately 1930 by the Automotive Electric Service Corporation in North Bergen, N.J. Besides conventional dealers, Red Bugs were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch and F.A.O. Schwartz. Some had 12-volt Northeast electric motors. An attempt to manufacture these tiny "cars" for amusement park use ended in failure.
REACHING FOR THE MARKET
A flip through auto annals shows that many manufacturers clearly wanted to describe their cars' aspirations or capabilities in their names. Oldsmobile does that today with its Achieva, and the name Acura was an adaptation of the word 'accurate.'
Perhaps that explains earlier automotive efforts such as the Improved, the Practical, the Classie, the Silent Northern, the Best car, the Able Eight, the Perfect, the Preferred, and the Winner. Several aero- nautically-influenced efforts tried and failed -- like the Aero, the Aerocar and the Aerocoupe. The 1917 Hydrocar amphibian was "designed to run backward on water by means of special propellors. Thankfully, WWI ended before the U.S. Army decided to buy a fleet of them. A late 1960's German floating car effort, the Amphicar, lasted several years.
Names that described a car's abilities, or emphasized what it lacked, were a logical extension. Who remembers the pre-WWI Owen Magnetic (with its electromagnetic transmission)? There was the Gearless, the Kurtz Automatic, the Tri-Phibian, the American Underslung (the springs were mounted under the axles, contributing to the car's low silhouette) and Hudson's bulbous late 1930's Terraplane. Knox sold an aircooled model called the Waterless.
There was a Climber, a Bluff Climber and a Hill Climber, a Roamer, a Power and a Powercar, an All-Steel, not to mention New Era, New Way and New Home. There was even a Heinz -- but it's unlikely there were ever 57 varieties. The Ner-a-Car (1921-1924) was really a motorcycle with many car qualities. Cannonball Baker reportedly rode (drove?) one from New York to Los Angeles averaging 84 mpg and 20 mph. I wonder how long that took. There's been both a Wing Midget and a King Midget.
THE RICH AND FAMOUS
The social register had its share of name-related car companies. While there never was a Rockefeller car (the family made its fortune with Standard Oil) there was an elegant classic called the duPont, (owned by the family of the same name). And there were cars called Astor, Biddle, Carnegie, Cosmopolitan, DeLuxe, Kennedy, Lowell, Yacht and Country Club. There was a Butler, a Cook, a Coffin, a Newport and a Bar Harbor.
Packard, Peerless and Pierce Arrow, "The Three P's," were American fine cars in the early 1930's. Packard tried a partnership with Studebaker, and both worked for a time with Mercedes-Benz. Fortunately for the Benz boys, they jumped ship before Studebaker-Packard's ship foundered.
Many automakers tried to piggyback on famed personalities. Amelia Earhart endorsed Franklins and they catalogued a model in her name. Marmon offered a low-priced car called the Roosevelt. There was also a car called the Eleanor. Studebaker sold its Rockne, named after the Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. Henry M. Leland called his conservative, but dignified luxury car, the Lincoln.
There was a Washington car in 1902, made in Washington, D.C. Imagine if others had tried, and the capital of the U.S. became the motor capital? It could have happened.....There were at least two cars with the name Senator, one called the Senate, one called Capital and three with the name Capitol. There's been a Clinton car and a Gore as well. There was a Bush auto but no Quail is on record.
LAUGHING ALL THE WAY
If you think auto marketers have their challenges today, imagine trying to sell the Cluts (built in Illinois in 1903 by Dr. A.C. Cluts), or the Clapp (a fuel-efficient car built briefly in Connecticut and New Jersey by Henry W. Clapp). Naturally, there was a Bean car -- built for a short time in Boston around 1901.
Fred Bergholt built a sleek auto by the same name in 1932 to publicize his cosmetic business. Reportedly Bergholt showed his prototype to "a lot of big Detroit men... they said it was too far ahead of its time, and to come back in four or five years." Bergholt later sued those automakers for patent infringement, settling for $1.5 million.
Long before the well-endowed Hollywood starlet of the 1950's, there was a Dagmar car, built from 1922-1926 in Hagerstown, Md. Models included the Petite, which soon became known as the "Baby Dagmar." The make's emblem was a pipe organ because its owner, Mathias P. Moller (aka the pipe-organ king) manufactured them. In 1924, a Dagmar was presented to the young woman from Philadelphia who won the Miss America title that year. Dagmar sales skidded after that high point, and Muller later built taxicabs under the names, Blue Light (long before K-Mart), Super Paramount, Astor, Five-Boro and Twentieth Century.
The Hyslop (we're not making this up) was a Toledo-based cyclecar that probably didn't last past the first prototype. Long before Hugh Hefner started his magazine, three Buffalo (actually North Tonawanda, N.Y.) men tried to sell the Playboy, a jolly little convertible with a disappearing hardtop. The shortlived Yarlott, of Fort Wayne, Ind. (1919-1920) had a patented rotary valve that would "...eliminate valve disturbances." Apparently, few buyers cared.
Imagine a car called the Seven Little Buffaloes? It was originally marketed in Buffalo in 1908 as the De Schaum. Despite an attractive $500 pricetag, the name change failed to sway buyers. Ads for the 1907 Servitor bleated "....all that the name implies." That name was changed to Barnes (after the engineer who developed it) but no one ever figured out what the Servitor name implied, and it was soon just a memory.
The Showmee-Dachshund showed up for a time in St. Louis in 1912. Reportedly, it was named for Missouri, the "Show Me" State. To call attention to this make's extended low silhouette, its radiator badge featured the likeness of a dachshund dog. The O-We-Go from Owego, New York (1914) had a brief fling, as had the American Chocolate car in 1903.
We've only just scratched the surface here. A search through the annals of the motorcar will turn up dozens more fascinating names and histories: Imagine trying to sell the Snodeal (Baltimore, Md., 1902), or the Utilis (Rockdale, Ill., 1907) -- or inviting prospects to jump into a Van Wambeke (Elgin, Ill.,1907-1909), or a Ripper, a Kuqua, a Kropp, a Krit or a Krupp?
With names like those, perhaps it's just as well that many of these makes faltered by the roadside. Still, it's hard to believe the buying public resisted the Emancipator ("the Free from Trouble car.") And did you know about the Wildman, the Ehrentraut or the Klink? Remember the Maine, the car not the battleship? And who could forget the Ritz, the Olsese, the Seery and the Seeney....... or the Izzer, the Kunz, or the Havoc.... Surely you remember the Peter Pan and the Piggins.......Don't you?