What’s In A Name?

August 12, 2014

Check out the backstories behind a few of the most famous names in classic automobiles.



In 1960, Chevrolet debuted a revolutionary, budget friendly, six-cylinder vehicle with an air-cooled rear-mounted engine like a Porsche. Many versions of the story exist when it comes to how that year’s Motor Trend “Car of The Year” came by its name.

In one version, then General Manager Ed Cole decided on the name "Corsair," a famous type of World War II fighter aircraft, but someone in Cole’s office supposedly mistook the “s” for a “v” and the name “Corvair” was used instead. In another telling, the name Corvair came about thanks to the genius design that blended the sportiness of CORVette with the family-friendly features of the Bel AIR. Still another story says that “Corvair” came in the attempt to combine the word “Corvette” with “air” (suggesting an air-cooled Corvette).

Tony Fiore, author of The Corvair Decade: An illustrated history of the rear-engine automobile, says that Cole did like the combination of the words “Corvette” and “Bel Air.” But the name Corvair was actually first used on an experimental Corvette body that was first shown at the New York auto show in 1954. A closed, fastback coupe version of the original open bodied, 1954 Corvette, the car some called the “Corvette Corvair” never actually went into production. But Cole never forgot the great sounding name and decided it was a perfect fit for one of the 1960s most unique automobiles.  

Plymouth Road Runner

Road Runner

In 1968, Chrysler was looking to fill a segment of the car buying public looking for a powerful but low-price performance car.  Capitalizing on the performance-crazed days of the late ’60s, Plymouth introduced the Belvedere based, stripped down, budget-minded Road Runner.  To solidify its street (racing) cred, the initial offering of the souped up, B-body Mopar was equipped with a tuned 383 CID big-block or the ground pounding 425-horse Hemi. The Road Runner was among the best selling muscle cars of the era and far outpaced Plymouth’s sale projections for 1968. 

Beyond the tangible performance offerings needed to attract the Baby Boomers, Plymouth’s marketers needed a fitting moniker. Continuing with the theme of pleasing the youth and firmly establishing the potent Mopar muscle car as a vehicle not quite fit for adults, the team at Plymouth named the mid-sized missile the Road Runner after the mischievous bird from the famed Warner Brothers cartoon. Plymouth reportedly paid Warner Brothers $50,000 to use the Road Runner cartoon image in its promotion. Decals of the cartoon bird also adorned the car along with a distinctive-sounding horn that went “beep-beep.”

Volkswagen Beetle


Old myths never die, and the most enduring one when talking about the history of Volkswagen’s most iconic economy car is that Adolf Hitler had a hand in its design. This is true insofar as Hitler, in 1933, did commission Ferdinand Porsche (Germany’s best-known engineer at the time) to build a series of prototypes based on one of the legendary carmaker’s early creations, the “Type 32.”

Hitler’s “car for the people” was built in the German town of "KdF-Stadt" (called Wolfsburg today), a town built entirely around the factory that would begin producing the original and rather unimaginatively named “Kdf Wagen.” Six years later, and just a few months before the Nazis would invade Poland, the very first production-ready Beetle (the “Type 60”) debuted at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show.

Historians have traced the first reference to the car as a “beetle” to a 1938 New York Times article that pointed out the upcoming vehicle’s insect-like body design. But it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the name began to stick with the general public thanks to automotive press editors like MotorSport’s, Bill Boddy, who sometimes referred the car as the “beetle” in articles spotlighting Volkswagen.  


Studebaker Dictator


While it may be hard to imagine today, there once was a time in America when the word “dictator” didn’t conjure up any negative connotations. In 1927, in fact, the Studebaker Corporation thought the word so perfectly described their standing as an industry trendsetter — a car company that "dictated the standard" that other automobile makes would be obliged to follow — that they picked the word to rename one of their most popular models, known up to that point as the Standard Six. 


Everything was going fine for the company until a very angry fascist named Adolph Hitler began terrorizing Europe. Car buyers over there, along with British Empire countries that imported the vehicle, suddenly became more than a little put off by anything having to do with dictatorships. In response, Studebaker decided to rename the car (calling it the “Director”) in any market that might be hypersensitive to a word connoting a murderous, war-mongering ideologue bent on world domination.  


  1. David Brown Monroe, Michigan

    Relative to the story that Ed Cole wanted to name the Corvair the 'Corsair', I doubt this story version very much. As 'Corsair' was being used as an Edsel series name from Sept 1957 through Sept 1959 (during the Corvair development and announcement period), I can't imagine that Cole would have wanted to use 'Corsair' as the name for the Division's new product and that someone in his office made a typo out of Corsair, morphing it into Corvair - especially with all the negatives that would have associated with the Edsel by late 1959. This particular story is surely just a myth.



  3. Brian Adams Reno. NV

    The Road Runner's horn sound (as could the cartoon character's) could better be described as "Meep! Meep!".

  4. Bob DeVore Martinsburg, WV

    Your contribution to "What's In A Name" containing the name change of the Studebaker (Dictator) is incorrect., The 1937 Studebaker was the last year for this usage.. The proper renaming was "Commander", not Director.. The 1938 six cylinder began as the "Commander".

  5. Jan H-F Mechanicsburg, PA

    Since you mentioned "KdF"... Some folks might know that the subscription stamp scheme through the Nazi "Strength thru Joy" sports group... The scheme was a lot like the savings stamps we saved for in grade school - fill the booklet and you got a savings bond... In Nazi Germany, it was fill the booklet and get a KdF Wagen. And people believed it!


    I think Studebaker was more political than lead to believe, because their top-O-the line was the "President", and the middle marquee was "Commander". Chevy did the best job at coming up with great names that actually fit the cars. Chevy II, Chevelle, Chevette, Citation, Celebrity, Caprice, Bel-Air was the Best. But then there was the Vega. AMC had a unique pattern: 220, 330, 440, 550, 660,770, 880, 990. You knew the scale of luxury by the numbering. And let's not forget the "fish cars", Stingray, Barracuda, Marlin, Sardine.............no wait that was a Renault, right? Then we got on a City Kick. Tahoe, Colorado, Durango, Cheyenne, Rainier, Eldorado, Silverado, Aspen, New Yorker, Dakota, Sedona, Tucson, Santa Fe, Montana, Tacoma................and more. Notice we have never seen a Buick Bakersfield, or a Ford Fulsom, or a Chrysler Tucumcari !!! But what about the Lame-Names? "Fit" "Swinger" "Gremlin" "Thing" "Probe" Charade" "Volare" "Vega". There ya go, I knew I could use Vega in a sentence.

  7. Harry Radtke Sterling Heights,MI

    It would be a great feature to reveal how other cars received their names. Also there has been duplication of names e.g. Citation, Hornet, Pacer etc. through the years and with different parent corporations. Wondering if there was any controversy with name duplications through automotive history.

  8. Maximilian Brand Bellows Falls, Vt.

    What about the Packard Cavalier versus the later Chevrolet Cavalier ?

  9. Jim bernardin Metamora, MI

    Ted Little, who was Chairman of Campbell-Ewald--the Chevrolet ad agency, named the Chevy II. He had a reserved table at the Recess Club in the Fisher Building in Detroit and often took Chevy clients to lunch. On one occasion he got into a discussion about the name and scribbled it, among others, on the white table cloth. It was greeted with great enthusiasm and Little brought the table cloth back to his office in the GM Building as a trophy. He called a bunch of us to his office to show the cloth and the new name. Later he had the cloth framed for his office.