WHAT IS IN A CAR’S NAME?
WHAT’S in a name?
Have you ever wondered where the brand name of your car came from?
In some cases it is pretty obvious. Only the most uninformed would think that a Ford was named after a river crossing instead of that ornery native of Dearborn, Michigan — cantankerous old Henry. Likewise Messrs Opel, Chrysler, Honda, Toyoda (why the change from a “d” to a “t” is a bit of a mystery) and Chevrolet were all closely involved in the vehicles that bear their names. Mercedes-Benz is a little more complicated. While the Benz part comes from Karl Benz, the man who built the first petrol-engined motor car, the Mercedes part was inherited from his partner Gottlieb Daimler, whose cars were diplomatically named after Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of an Austrian diplomat who provided both financial and moral support.
Some makers opted for acronyms. A wellknown German example of this is BMW, which as most people know stands for Bayerische Motorenwerke, often wrongly translated into English as “Bavarian Motor Works” rather than the more accurate “engine works”, as the core company was a manufacturer of aircraft engines — hence the representation of a propeller in the badge.
Two Italian manufacturers’ names are also acronyms. Fiat was not based on the Latin verb “let it be done”, although this was probably in the back of the founders’ minds, but on an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automoblili Torino, which translates into English as “Factory for Italian Automobiles in Turin”. A frequently misspelt maker’s name is Alfa Romeo as people often assume that the “alpha” is the first letter in the Greek alphabet rather than the contraction of Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, which somewhat more awkwardly translates into “Lombardy Factory for automobiles” — the “anonima” means “public company”. Nicola Romeo was the entrepreneur who acquired control of the company.
Something of a curved ball in the acronym stakes is the name Datsun, back with us after a 30-year gap. DAT-branded vehicles took their name from the first letters of the surnames of the company’s three principal investors (always an idea to keep the moneybags on side). When the company produced its first small car they decided to name it Datson — son of DAT. When Nissan — a contraction of the words for Japanese Industries — took over they changed it to Datsun as “son” in Japanese meant “loss”, something which all carmakers are constitutionally averse to.
Some makers’ names can be vaguely described as aspirational. The British were fond of these — Standard, Reliant and Triumph — and look where it got them. I suppose Volkswagen (People’s Car) can also be seen in this category. Volkswagen was a project of Adolf Hitler’s co-ordinated through the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy, usually shortened to KdF) organisation. VW are fortunate that the original KdFwagen did not stick. But a popular brand that most people probably think was named after its founder belongs in this category. This is Hyundai — the Korean word for “modernity”. It’s not only the name it seems that is aspirational, the “H” logo is easily confused with that of another well-known make.
However, quite the most unusual derivation of a car maker’s name belongs to Audi. Its founder, August Horch, had set up his first factory in the early years of the 20th century, but then had a falling out with some of his partners. He left to set up a new car-making venture, but for obvious reasons could no longer call his new cars Horchs, as the name was already in use for the products from his original plant. What to do? The story goes that while he and others were mulling over the vexed issue of a new and snappy name for his cars, Horch junior was busy doing his Latin homework in a corner of the same room (so much for vast corporate headquarters) when he came up with the inspired idea of translating the family name — which means Hark, Hear, Listen (take your pick) in Old German — into Latin, in this way Horch became Audi. Ironically, some years later both Horch and Audi were joined by DKW and Wanderer to form Auto Union, from whence came the four rings — one for each of the previously independent manufacturers — proudly displayed on every Audi product.
• Simon Haw is the author of Old Walls, New Echoes, the story of Maritzburg College’s last three decades, obtainable from the school.