Continuing our series on the stories behind the names of some of the most famous names in classic automobiles, this month we take a look at Plymouth, Firebird, Dart and Jeep. Read on to learn more.
The Mayflower ship on the radiator of the first Plymouth automobiles may have suggested the car company got its name from the rock of the pilgrims. But according to The Plymouth Bulletin editor Lanny Knutson, if it weren’t for a famous brand of binder twine, there would never have been a car named Plymouth.
In 1926, Walter Chrysler was looking for the perfect name for his bold new automobile designed as a low-priced and reliable alternative in a market dominated by Ford and Chevrolet. Chrysler wanted a name people would recognize instantly. But his executives were stumped until Joe Frazer (then an up-and-coming Chrysler employee who would, in 1939, become president of Willys-Overland) suggested the name “Plymouth,” a then famous brand of twine known to every farmer in America.
The first Plymouth eventually debuted in 1928, a year before the start of The Great Depression. According to Knutson, Chrysler executives who two years prior saw the name as too “puritanical” soon saw the wisdom of giving their new car a moniker that rung so many positive bells in the minds of American’s car buying public.
Most Americans still had some connection to farming and, as Chrysler had reasoned, would find an easy and comfortable familiarity with a name they saw nearly every day. At the same time economically strapped Americans were struggling to survive an uncertain financial future, Plymouth also brought to mind positive connotations of “endurance and strength, ruggedness and freedom from limitations” that so typified the first American colonists.
In 1967, the Firebird was Pontiac’s answer to the hit-selling Ford Mustang. But GM actually used the name first (and a smaller version of the logo) for a trio of prototype cars designed by Harley Earl’s styling team in 1953, 1956 and 1959.
According to the story, GM’s Norm James (the style chief of GM’s Firebird III) saw a stylized version of the mythic bird in the Phoenix airport and went on to apply a similar graphic to the nose of the 1959 version of the concept car. Under Pontiac, the emblem fans know as the “screaming chicken” evolved into a 12-inch nosepiece decal on the 1970 Trans Am.
But it wasn’t until 1973 that Pontiac styling chief John Schinella applied a giant version of the bird to the hood of a pre-production Trans Am. According to Daniel Strohl, writing for Hemmings Muscle Machines, Schinella took the car up to Detroit’s Woodward Avenue and its eye-catching graphics proved a hit with guys who wanted to know where they could get one.
Burt Reynolds would eventually do for the popularity of Firebird Trans Am what Sean Connery character did for Aston Martin. Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Hooper (1978) and Smokey and the Bandit II were films that simultaneously made the Firebird Trans Am famous while also elevating the car to an enduring automotive icon symbolic of 1970s anti-establishmentarianism.
The original Dodge Dart was first produced for the 1960 model year as a low-priced replacement for the Plymouth line of vehicles taken away from dealers during divisional restructuring at Chrysler. While project planners originally proposed the name “Dart,” unimpressed executives decided to poll customers who were in favor of calling the car the “Zipp.” Perhaps fortunately for Dodge — and proof that the customer isn’t always right — somebody came to their senses and scrapped the name before it was too late.
The monikers most associated with this practical econo-car, however, are most likely the result of Chrysler shedding the image of pragmatism they worked so hard to create for the Dart in the early 1960s. Perhaps trying to capitalize on the “groovy” time period and the need for speed that gripped the youthful muscle car market, the company released the Dart Swinger 340, Demon (with a logo that featured a pitchfork wielding cartoon devil) and Demon Sizzler in 1969 and 1971.
Want to know the quickest way to rile up a roomful of Jeep fans? Ask them where the word “jeep” actually came from?
One often cited theory is that the name “jeep” evolved in World War II, deriving from Ford’s “G.P.” classification attached to the vehicle. G.P. was often mistakenly thought to mean “General Purpose,” but actually, “G” stood for Government and “P” for all 80-inch-wheelbase recon cars. At any rate, it’s a reasonable vernacular leap.
But in fact, according to Steven J. Zaloga’s book, Jeeps 1941-45, the word “jeep” first appeared in army lingo as early as World War I and was used to describe anything “awkward or silly” as well as by mechanics to refer to any new vehicle. The term went a little more mainstream in 1937 when the Jack Keenan’s popular comic strip Popeye unveiled Eugene the Jeep. Eugene was from another dimension and had the ability to go anywhere and do anything. Perhaps because of it, wrote Zaloga, “Jeep crept back into army slang as a term for a new recruit.”
Citing Zaloga’s book in their 1991 paper “The Jeep MB,” Jeep authorities Ken Massey and David Zatz wrote that by 1944 the jeep nickname was in common use even outside the military.
“Other vehicles [also] had the same nickname, including the B-17 bomber. This was rather unfair to Minneapolis Moline, which produced a tractor actually called the Jeep (starting in 1943); and to Halliburton, which used the name for an “electric [data] logging device.”
While the exact evolution of the word “jeep” in the military lexicon will likely remain a tangled mystery, the result was the same: Jeep became the moniker for the world’s most iconic military vehicle.
Jeep is now the commercial trademark of the Chrysler Group LLC, the result of fifty years of mergers and acquisitions leading back to the Willys-Overland Co. of World War II, which established the trademark for its civilian jeeps after the war.