What’s In A Name: Corvair, Road Runner, Beetle, Dictator

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

Corvair

Corvair

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

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

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.

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