Donate SIGN UP

The car's the star

01:00 Sun 23rd Dec 2001 |

Q. First of all, why are cars called cars

A. The term 'car' today refers almost exclusively to those four-wheeled metal things with an internal combustion engine that we all rely on so much. There was a time, however, when it meant any wheeled conveyance, and you still hear it used with a specification; for example, the 'dining-car' on a train. As the motor industry burgeoned in the early 20th century and became less the sole preserve of the very rich, car manufacturers found that they could offer vehicles to fit different-sized pockets and that they needed to make a distinction between the various models in their range.

Q. Don't some model names come from the days of the horse and carriage

A. Given that that the immediate precursor to the horseless carriage was the horse and carriage, it seemed logical to borrow familiar terminology associated with the earlier industry.

Q. Such as


Coup� (or 'coupe' and often pronounced coop): from the French 'cut' this originally referred to a four-wheeled closed carriage for two, and now means a model - still often only a two-seater - with a rakish roof

Landau: named after the town of Landau in Germany, this was originally a kind of carriage where the back half of the roof could be either up or down and the front half removed completely

Brougham: originally a one-horse closed carriage, named for its inventor Lord Brougham, it now means a car with an open driver's seat

Sedan: named after the sedan chair, in which a passenger was carried by two chairmen - not strictly a horse and carriage, but the same idea - it now refers to a car with an enclosed roof and is synonymous with a saloon

Q. What about the dashboard

A. Originally a kind of mudguard - 'to dash' meaning to spatter with mud - on which drivers placed their feet, and found on both carriages and early cars, the term began to be used for the instrument panel when the cabin became enclosed.

Q. So, what's with all the GTs, Ls and so forth

A. GT means 'gran turismo', the Italian for 'great touring', and it first appeared in the 1950s to designate a comfortable, high-performance model.

Pinanfarina: named for the Italian design company of the same name, who not only designed cars from scratch but also lent their moniker to plusher models in a range of cars which they refurbished.

L: used by Ford do designate a bottom-of-the-range model; meaning 'low', perhaps

Q. How did the various marques get their names

A. Most car marques are named for their founder - Ford, Morris, Olds(mobile), Porsche, Peugeot, Rolls and Royce - and some for the place they are made - BMW (Bayerische - Bavarian - Motoren Werke) - but others have a more interesting history.

Q. Such as

A. Jaguar started out as Swallow Sidecars, SS, which didn't look so clever in the 1930s and 1940s, so they changed their name. The original Volkswagen was designed by Ferdinand Porsche as the 'people's car' of the German Volk - so next time you see a City wide-boy driving around in his Boxter, just remember that it's related to the Beetle (or Bug if you're American). The Citro�n DS, so radical in its gloriously streamlined and futuristic design when it first appeared in the mid-1950s, was so named because the French pronunciation of DS is 'd�esse'. and the French for 'goddess' D�esse.

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

Do you have a question about Phrases & Sayings?