David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

The stories behind car brand names

Etymology is the study of the history of words. There’s a collection of company name etymologies on Wikipedia. Here are a few choice picks from the automotive industry.

Alfa Romeo logo

Alfa Romeo – the company was originally known as ALFA, an acronym for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. When Nicola Romeo bought ALFA in 1915, his surname was appended. (photo credit)

Aston Martin logo

Aston Martin – from the “Aston Hill” races (near Aston Clinton) where the company was founded, and the surname of Lionel Martin, the company’s founder. (photo credit: carpictures1.com)

Audi logo

Audi – Latin translation of the German name “Horch.” The founder August Horch left the company after five years, but still wanted to manufacture cars. Since the original “Horch” company was still there, he called his new company Audi, the Latin form of his last name. In English it is “hark.” (photo credit)

BMW logo

BMW – Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works). (photo credit)

Cadillac logo

Cadillac – named after the 18th century French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, founder of Detroit, Michigan. Cadillac is a small town in the South of France. The company, founded in 1902, was purchased by General Motors in 1909 and survives to this day as a GM brand. (photo credit)

Chevrolet logo

Chevrolet – named after company co-founder Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss-born auto racer. The company was merged into General Motors in 1917 and survives only as a brand name. (photo credit)

Chrysler logo

Chrysler – named after the company founder, Walter P. Chrysler. (photo credit)

Citroen logo

Citroën – named after André-Gustave Citroën (1878–1935), a French entrepreneur of Dutch descent. He was the fifth and last child of the Dutch Jewish diamond merchant Levie Citroën and Mazra Kleinmann (of Warsaw, Poland). (photo credit)

Daewoo logo

Daewoo – company founder Kim Woo Chong called it Daewoo which means “great house” or “great universe” in Korean. (photo credit)

Datsun logo

Datsun – first called DAT, from the initials of its financiers Den, Aoyama and Takeuchi. Soon changed to DATSON to imply a smaller version of their original car, then (as SON can mean “loss” in Japanese) again to DATSUN when they were acquired by Nissan. (photo credit)

Ferrari logo

Ferrari – from the name of its founder, Enzo Ferrari. (photo credit)

Fiat logo

Fiat – acronym of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Automobile Factory of Turin). (photo credit)

Ford logo

Ford Motor Company – named after its founder, Henry Ford, who introduced automobile mass production in 1914. (photo credit)

Honda logo

Honda – from the name of its founder, Soichiro Honda. (photo credit)

Hyundai logo

Hyundai – connotes the sense of “the present age” or “modernity” in Korean. (photo credit)

Mercedes logo

Mercedes – from the first name of the daughter of Emil Jellinek, who distributed cars of the early Daimler company around 1900. (photo credit)

Nissan logo

Nissan – the company was earlier known by the name Nippon Sangyo which means “Japan Industries.” (photo credit)

Porsche logo

Porsche – car company named after founder Ferdinand Porsche, an Austrian automotive engineer. The family name may have originated in the Czech name “Boreš” (boresh). (photo credit)

Proton logo

Proton – Malaysian car manufacturer, where the name is derived from Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional. (photo credit)

Renault logo

Renault – named after the founder Louis Renault. (photo credit)

Rolls Royce logo

Rolls-Royce – name used by Rolls-Royce plc and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, among others. In 1884 Frederick Henry Royce started an electrical and mechanical business, making his first car, a Royce, in 1904. He was introduced to Charles Stewart Rolls on 4 May that year. The pair entered into a partnership in which Royce would manufacture cars to be sold exclusively by Rolls, and the cars would be called Rolls-Royce. (photo credit)

Saab logo

Saab – founded in 1937 in Sweden as Svenska Aeroplan aktiebolaget (Swedish Aeroplane Company); the last word is typically abbreviated as AB, hence Saab and Saab Automobile AB. (photo credit)

Seat logo

SEAT – an acronym from Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo (Spanish Corporation of Touring Cars). (photo credit)

Subaru logo

Subaru – from the Japanese name for the constellation known to Westerners as Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, was formed from a merger of six companies, and the constellation is featured on the company’s logo. (photo credit)

Toyota logo

Toyota – from the name of the founder, Sakichi Toyoda. Initially called Toyeda, it was changed after a contest for a better-sounding name. The new name was written in katakana with eight strokes, a number that is considered lucky in Japan. (photo credit)

Volkswagon logo

Volkswagen – from the German for people’s car. Ferdinand Porsche wanted to produce a car that was affordable for the masses – the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen (or “Strength-Through-Joy car,” from a Nazi social organization) later became known, in English, as the Beetle. (photo credit)

Volvo logo

Volvo – which means “I roll” in Latin, from the infinitive form “volvere.” It was originally a name for a ball bearing being developed by SKF. (photo credit)

You can read a ton more company name etymologies on Wikipedia.

Additionally, you might find these Logo Design Love blog posts of interest:

BMW logo evolution
Mercedes logo evolution
Car manufacturer logo designs

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11 comments about “The stories behind car brand names”

  1. I had absolutely no idea where any of these names came from — some of the logos actually make sense now.

    Great collection of photos as well.

  2. Excellent pictures David, and interesting to know the origins of the names.

  3. Very interesting especially the origins of ‘Cadillac’ and ‘Rolls-Royce’.

    Although ‘Rolls-Royce’ is named after the two owners/partners it just seems too perfect to be so. Great images too David.

  4. This is great. It’s always fascinating to learn the meaning behind company names. You would assume that like a logo, the name of a company has similar value.

  5. Great pictures David. Thanks for sharing these!

  6. It was a happy day a few years back when the new Citroën logo was introduced; shedding those horrendous sharp edges on the base of the two arrows. The new version now looks more modern, like their new cars I suppose…

  7. FIAT, otherwise known in the industry as:

    Fix
    It
    Again
    Tomorrow!

  8. Very interesting. Most names were just using surnames or acronyms, however they have evolved into huge brands. Something which would be hard to recreate nowadays.

  9. This is a great little study David. It would be equally interesting to see one for manufacturer model names, e.g. Jetta — Volkswagen

  10. Fascinating! But the Audi origin is not quite right. From Wikpedia and some other websites:

    “The company name is based on the surname of the founder August Horch, his surname meaning listen in German—which, when translated into Latin, becomes Audi.”

  11. Thank you for this interesting post. I’m a graphic designer and my husband works in the car industry, so this was fun to look at together!

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