November is the month of Thanksgiving. But it’s also Native American Heritage Month—a perfect time to remember some popular old classics with names paid tribute to the people who settled America first.
Pontiac, the man, was an Ottawa war chief who allied with the French to fight British occupation and settlement around the Great Lakes region in the mid-1700s. His name was made infamous after he and 300 warriors attempted to take over Fort Detroit in 1763. One Michigan town was named after the chief, the same town where Edward Murphy founded his Pontiac Buggy Company in 1893—a company that would later become the namesake of General Motor’s performance division.
GM marketing material in the 1950s centered on Chief Pontiac’s storybook image and preeminent reputation as a rebel and leader. A number of their most famous early models—in addition to being adorned with beautiful chrome hood ornaments depicting the head of the Chief—took on Native America inspired names. One of the most popular was the Chieftain, one of the first original Pontiac cars to hit the market after WWII. The Chieftain was produced from 1949 to 1958.
Chrysler New Yorker Navajo
According to legend, Navajo women learned to weave from a spiritual medicine woman who learned the craft from a celestial spider. Anthropologists have placed the more earthly origins of the craft in the hands of early Pueblo people, who themselves were influenced by the early Spanish colonists/explorers. Whatever the origin of this distinct Native America art form, Navajo wool blankets and rugs have always been symbols of the rugged Southwest.
From 1940 until 1942, arguably the height of popularity for Southwest Indian crafts, Chrysler adopted the Navajo weaving style for an unusual and exclusive interior Highlander trim package. According to the folks at Howstuffworks.com, this now rare and highly desirable model sold for a showroom price of $1,255-1,548.
One of the most popular SUVs of all time, the Jeep Cherokee, owes its name to one the largest tribes in the United States—the Cherokee Nation. Jeep discontinued the Cherokee brand in 2001 only to bring it back into production in 2014. Fans of the Cherokee’s ruggedly reliable and go-anywhere reputation probably well remember the pickup version that debuted in 1985.
Reasonably priced pickups were all the rage during the mid-1980s, and the V-6 Comanche (the two-wheel drive version of which sold for around $7,000) was AMC’s answer to Japanese carmakers who seemed to have total control of that budding segment of the market. AMC billed the Comanche as a compact pickup, but owing to the truck’s powerful engine, roomy interior and spacious 6-foot bed auto historians consider it one of the first of what became known as the “mid-sized pickup.”
Comanche won “Four Wheeler of the Year” honors from Four Wheeler magazine before demand for economy pickups began to plummet. From a peak production of over 43,000 cars in 1988, Comanche fell to just over 900 units produced in 1992, the model’s final year.
The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska is one of the largest in America. It’s also the name of the RV brand of choice for retired grandparents and, most recently, moonlighting chemistry teachers “breaking bad” in the underground world of mobile methamphetamine production.
In 1958, Iowa businessman, John Hanson, founded Winnebago. Just as Kleenex was to tissue and Xerox was to copy machines, Winnebago RVs became synonymous with the “motor home.” Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the company embraced its Native American inspire name by releasing now iconic models such as the Brave, the Indian, the Chieftain and the Warrior. Winnebago Industries recently rekindled some of that old RV charm by re-launching a retro-styled Brave, which features a modern interior housed inside a classically boxy shell.
Two stories are out there when it comes to how Ford came to name the car that would created a new niche in the world of motorcars—the personal luxury car. One version of the story says that Ford Executive Ernie Breech came up with the name after joining the posh Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs.
The other tale says that “thunderbird” name was suggested by longtime Ford auto designer Alden Giberson in a 1953 contest put on by Ford executives who were stymied when they couldn’t come up with anything on their own.
No matter which story you believe, the idea of the “thunderbird” comes from the same place: the Native American legend of a mythic bird that created thunder and lightning. Many different tribes of the American Southwest, Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest had their own version this incredible bird that could shoot lightening from its eyes and create thunderous storms just by flapping its wings.
Pontiac Firebird, Super Chief, Dodge Seneca and Dakota…So many car names inspired by Native American tribes and legends, so little space. If you have a favorite classic model, please comment below or head over to the HVA’s Facebook page to post a picture and see what others are saying.