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The stories behind the names on your cars

We see their names every day — Ford, Toyota, Dodge, Chevrolet, Chrysler and Honda — but rarely do we think of them as more than chrome letters on your car. They are, though, the names of actual people. Now, meet those whose family name graces your car.

David Dunbar Buick: America's oldest surviving marque was founded in 1899 by the man who developed the process for affixing porcelain to cast iron, giving the world the white porcelain bathtub. Buick was the first company to join General Motors in 1908.

Oddly enough: David Buick left Buick in 1908 and never created another successful car brand. He died impoverished in 1929.

Louis Chevrolet: William C. Durant created GM in 1908 and lost the company to bankers in 1910. To get back in the game, Durant had a member of Buick's racing team create a new car. Louis Chevrolet obliged but left the company shortly after the car was launched in 1912.

Oddly enough: The first V-8-powered Chevrolet was produced in 1917, not 1955 as is commonly thought.

Walter P. Chrysler: Walter Percy Chrysler rose through the ranks of GM until 1919, when he quit his job as Buick's president. Walking out with $10 million, he landed at Willys-Overland before taking over Maxwell Motors. There, in 1924, he launched the Chrysler.

Oddly enough: Willys built the Jeep during World War II. Jeep is now owned by Chrysler.

John and Horace Dodge: The Dodge brothers had made a fortune producing engines and transmissions for Oldsmobile and Ford. As Henry Ford moved production in-house, John and Horace decided to build their own car, which debuted in 1914.

Oddly enough: In 1920, both brothers died: John of pneumonia, Horace of cirrhosis.

Edsel Ford: Henry Ford's only son, Edsel, imbued Fords of the '20s and '30s with a sense of style that his father, Henry, lacked. Edsel died of cancer and undulant fever in 1943. His son, Henry Ford II, named a line of cars in his memory in 1958.

Oddly enough: A car derided for its ungainly looks was named for a man with an impeccable taste in design.

Henry Ford: Until Henry Ford gave the world its first affordable car, the Model T, automobiles were playthings for the wealthy. The T changed that. Fifteen million were built from 1908 to 1927. Prices dropped to $290 in 1924 from $850 in 1909.

Oddly enough: Ford Motor Co. was Henry's third company. The second was renamed Cadillac after Ford left.

Soichiro Honda: Soichiro Honda started as an auto mechanic in the 1920s, and he built engines for bicycles before manufacturing motorcycles. The first bikes hit the U.S. market in 1959. Car production started in 1963 with the S500, a two-seat roadster.

Oddly enough: Honda, not Toyota, was the first Japanese automaker to build cars in the United States.

Wilhelm & Karl Maybach: Wilhelm Maybach engineered the first Mercedes. Son Karl topped him, producing a series of more exclusive, more expensive Maybach luxury cars. Production ended in the 1930s. Mercedes-Benz revived the brand in 2004.

Oddly enough: Father and son first teamed up to produce engines for airships built by Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Mercedes Jellinek, Karl Benz: The world's oldest car company dates to 1886, when Karl Benz produced the first modern car — the Benz Patent Motorwagen. A separate company, Daimler, introduced the Mercedes in 1901, named for the daughter of Daimler dealer Emil Jellinek. The companies merged in 1926.

Oddly enough: Mercedes-Benz cars were sold in the United States by Studebaker dealers during the 1950s and '60s.

Ransom E. Olds: Ransom Eli Olds' future was assured when a fire ripped through the Olds Motor Works in 1901. The only car rescued — the 7-horsepower Curved Dash Oldsmobile — was a huge hit and became the first mass-produced car in America.

Oddly enough: Olds left Oldsmobile in 1904 to start Reo, builder of the Reo Speedwagon truck. His name may be familiar to some Pinellas County residents. Olds purchased 37,541 acres on the northern tip of Tampa Bay, an area now known as Oldsmar.

Charles Stewart Rolls, Frederick Henry Royce: When a Decauville automobile he had bought proved unreliable, Henry Royce decided to build a better one. By spring 1904, he produced his first car, which caught the attention of Charles Rolls, who locked up the rights to sell it.

Oddly enough: The Rolls-Royce hood ornament, named the Spirit of Ecstasy, was modeled after actor-model Eleanor Thornton.

Kiichiro Toyoda: The success of the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works led Sakichi Toyoda to nurture son Kiichiro in a different line of business. Kiichiro decided to build automobiles in the 1930s under the name Toyota.

Oddly enough: Why the name change? Toyota in Japanese takes eight brush strokes, Toyoda requires 10. Eight is considered lucky; 10 is not.

The stories behind the names on your cars 09/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 2:17pm]

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