When you create a company of any kind you have to give it a name. There are many forms of inspiration for this, but one easy choice is to use the name you already have yourself, or perhaps that of a relative or someone you admire.
This has happened very frequently in the motor industry, and sometimes even in the case of individual models as well as the manufacturer.
What follows is a list of examples, followed by a few exceptions where a car or company might look as if it was named after a person but actually wasn’t.
Some of this will already be familiar to most car enthusiasts, but if you learn something new, we’ll be very pleased.
Karl Abarth was an Austrian who moved to Italy in his mid 20s and changed his name to Carlo, the one he’s known by now.
After a successful pre-War career as an engineer and motorcycle racer, he formed the Abarth company which built racing cars and produced tuning parts for Fiats.
Fiat bought him out in 1979 and for a while used his name to denote high-performance versions of otherwise ordinary models, the way Ford does with RS. More recently, Abarth has become a brand in its own right, though despite the marketing its cars are still really Fiats.
Abarth’s birthday was November 15, which means he was a Scorpio. The company’s logo is a scorpion for precisely this reason.
Alfa is an acronym standing for [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or Lombardy Automobile Factory Company.
Five years after Alfa was formed in 1910, entrepreneur Nicola Romeo bought a controlling stake.
In his honour, Romeo’s name was added to that of the Alfa company and its cars in 1920, and it has remained there ever since.
AMG was founded in 1967 by Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher. The initials of their surnames provided the first two letters, while the third stands for Aufrecht’s birthplace of Großaspach in south-west Germany.
At first, AMG concentrated on racing engines, but it later began providing tuning parts for Mercedes models. It is now a division of Mercedes, producing high-performance derivatives of most models in the Mercedes line-up.
When Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford set up a car dealership in 1913, they decided, reasonably enough, to call it Bamford & Martin.
The decision to build cars of their own led to a change of policy. Only Martin’s name was used now, while Aston refers to the hillclimb at Aston Hill in Buckinghamshire, where both Martin and Bamford had competed.
It is sometimes said that Aston actually refers to the nearby town of Aston Clinton, but this is not true.
Audi is named indirectly after the German engineer August Horch, who began building Horch cars in the early years of the 20th century.
In 1909, Horch was forced out of the company by its board of directors, so he set up another one. He couldn’t use his own name again, but he cunningly converted it into Latin. Horch is the German word for ‘listen’, and its Latin equivalent is ‘audi’.
Both Horch and Audi became part of the Auto Union in the early 1930s. Neither brand survived the Second World War, but new owner Volkswagen decided to drop the downmarket DKW name in the 1960s and replace it with the better-sounding Audi.
In a sense, August Horch had finally won the battle he appeared to have lost in 1909, but he didn’t live to see this happening. He died in 1951.
Herbert Austin was briefly the boss of Wolseley but resigned after an argument about engine design.
He immediately set up another company under his own name which produced some of the most popular British cars in history, including the Seven and later the Mini.
The Austin name was last used for a car in 1987, but it is still owned by China’s SAIC Motor Corporation (current owner of MG) and could conceivably be brought back, though at the moment there is no sign of this happening.
Austin himself is remembered as a major force in the British motor industry. Part of the A38 running through Birmingham is called Sir Herbert Austin Way.
Having first joined forces in 1912 to sell cars made by the now almost completely forgotten DFP company, Walter Owen Bentley and his brother, the less well-known Horace Millner Bentley, created a manufacturing business of their own after the Second World War.
After early success, including five wins at the Le Mans 24 Hour race between 1924 and 1930, Bentley went into liquidation and was bought by Rolls-Royce.
W.O. stayed on only for as long as he had to and then moved to Lagonda. The company bearing his name outlived him (he died in 1971) and is now part of the Volkswagen group.
Ettore Bugatti, born into a family of artists, was an Italian engineer who set up a car company in Molsheim, then part of Germany but now, after a border change, definitely in France.
Bugatti built many successful road and racing cars, including the fabulous Royale, but the company faded when Ettore died in 1947.
The name has been revived twice. It is currently owned by Volkswagen, which builds today’s Bugattis in Molsheim.
Buick is almost unknown in the UK, but it is the oldest active car manufacturer in the US and was the first to become part of General Motors in 1908.
It was founded by David Dunbar Buick, who lived in America from the age of two but was born – as many famous people, including the inventor of the adhesive postage stamp, have been – in the east-coast Scottish town of Arbroath.
Buick is commemorated by a plaque at his birthplace in Arbroath and by the many millions of cars bearing his name built over more than a century.
Louis Chevrolet was a Swiss-born professional racing driver who, in 1911, co-founded the Chevrolet car company with William Durant, the creator of General Motors and an early investor in Frigidaire.
Chevrolet pulled out of the business named after him within four years and set up some other, less successful ones, as well as continuing with his motorsport career. He died in 1941. Nearly 80 years later, the Chevrolet brand is still one of the most successful in the US.
Walter Chrysler began working for Buick in 1911 as a production manager and resigned eight years later after making an enormous amount of money.
In 1925 he created his own company which soon became one of the Big Three US manufacturers along with General Motors (which included Buick) and Ford. Chrysler’s wealth increased to the point where he could personally finance the construction of the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building, briefly the tallest building in the world and still the sixth tallest in New York.
Chrysler died in 1940. His company later got into trouble, and was part of a short-lived alliance with Daimler before merging with Fiat in 2014.
Andre Citroen was a brilliant and innovative engineer who formed the Citroen company to build cars in a factory previously used for the manufacture of armaments during the First World War.
His products included the first commercially available passenger car with a diesel engine and the brilliant front-wheel drive Traction Avant, also known as the Light Fifteen.
Citroen was also a clever publicist. From 1925 to 1934 his name appeared in illuminated letters between the second and top floors of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The Traction Avant was very successful, but its high development costs bankrupted the company and forced its sale to Michelin in 1934. Andre Citroen died a year later.
Starting in 1999, Citroen used the Picasso name for its MPV models for nearly two decades. The first example was the Xsara Picasso, which proved to be immensely popular due to its extra interior space and higher seating position compared with the regular Xsara.
The name was used less frequently as customers began to choose SUVs over MPVs. For example, the C3 Picasso MPV was replaced by the C3 Aircross SUV. The C4 Picasso and its larger Grand equivalent are still MPVs, but Citroen began calling them SpaceTourer in May 2018 to emphasise their connection with an even larger, van-based vehicle with that name.
‘Picasso’ naturally refers to the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, whose family licensed use of the name to Citroen.
There was some controversy about this. Marina Picasso, the artist’s granddaughter, was quoted as saying, “I cannot tolerate that the name of my grandfather be used to sell something as banal as a car. He was a genius who is now being exploited outrageously. His name, his very soul, should not be used for any ends other than his art.”
However, Marina had no legal right either to license the name or to prevent this happening, while Pablo’s son Claude, who was supportive of the deal, did.
Former General Motors executive John Zachary DeLorean used his own surname for the company which built a single, famous and controversial model called the DMC-12.
The cars were built in a suburb of Belfast for a period in the early 1980s before the company collapsed, taking a large amount of UK government money with it.
At around the same time, DeLorean himself was arrested for drug trafficking but found not guilty. His car later gained fame by being used as a time machine in the Back To The Future film trilogy.
Brothers John and Horace Dodge set up in business as suppliers of car parts before starting to build models of their own in 1914.
They both died six years later during the Spanish flu pandemic. Their company was sold by surviving relatives and eventually became part of Chrysler.
Dodges were briefly sold in the UK, without much success. Perhaps the best-known models, from a British perspective, are the Viper sports car and the Ram pickup truck, though the latter is no longer marketed under the Dodge brand.
Enzo Ferrari worked for Alfa Romeo in the 1920s, first as a racing driver and then as manager of the race team. He founded his own company in 1939, but this did not produce a car bearing the Ferrari name until 1947.
Ferrari died in 1988 at the age of 90, shortly after the launch of the F40 supercar. A successor to the F40, the 2002 Enzo, was named after him.
Enzo Ferrari’s first (and only legitimate) son was named Alfredo after his paternal grandfather and nicknamed Alfredino, which was shorted to Dino. He worked for the family company until his early death, at the age of 24, from muscular dystrophy.
In 1968, 12 years after Dino’s death, Ferrari created the Dino sub-brand, which produced sports cars which were cheaper and less powerful than those with Ferrari badges.
The last of these was the 308 GT4, launched in 1973. It was rebranded as a Ferrari in 1976 and remained in production until 1980.
Henry Ford, descended from Irish and Belgian immigrants, was born in Michigan in 1863. By the time he was 40, he had formed three companies, one of which became Cadillac.
The third was the Ford Motor Company, which quickly became enormously profitable due to the success of the Model T.
The Ford Fiesta has been the most-registered car in the UK for several years. Ford is regarded by many people here as a British manufacturer, even though it now operates as the UK arm of the German subsidiary of an American company.
Hillman was a popular brand in the UK until the 1970s, producing cars such as the innovative Imp and the more straightforward Avenger, until the Rootes Group which owned it sold out to Chrysler, which in turn passed it on to Peugeot.
It was named after Essex-born William Hillman, who made a fortune manufacturing sewing machines, bicycles and roller skates, among other things.
His car company was founded in 1907, when he was already 59. He died in 1921, when the business was still in its relatively early stages and well over half a century before it faded away.
Soichiro Honda rose up from humble beginnings to become an enormously respected engineer and businessman.
His company started out in the late 1940s building and selling motorised bicycles, later branching out into engines, motorcycles, pickup trucks, small cars and eventually everything from supercars to MPVs.
People magazine said in 1980 that Soichiro Honda was “revered as the Japanese Henry Ford”.
Innocenti was the manufacturer of the famous Lambretta scooters, and also built British cars such as the Mini and the Austin Allegro under licence in Italy.
The company was sold to Fiat in 1990 and abandoned six years later.
Its founder was Ferdinando Innocenti, the son of a successful blacksmith. Unlike many industry leaders he is remembered as a quiet, modest and pleasant man. His son Luigi took over from him as boss of the company when Ferdinando died in 1966.
To English speakers, Koenigsegg may seem an extravagantly odd name for a car, but in fact it’s simply the surname of the company’s founder.
Christian von Koenigsegg created the company at the age of just 22. Still only in his mid 40s now, he is responsible for some of the most remarkable supercars on sale today.
Ferruccio Lamborghini made so much money in post-War Italy building tractors (initially with British Morris engines) that he was soon able to afford a fleet of high-performance cars.
He liked them, but thought he could make better ones, and in 1963 he founded a company to do just that. One early success was the 1966 Miura, which introduced the mid-engine layout now almost used for almost all supercars.
In his late 50s, Lamborghini retired from industry but maintained several business interests. In the January 1991 issue of the British magazine Thoroughbred & Classic Cars, he was described as “very much a peasant at heart, and the kindest man we have ever met”.
Now a shadow of its former self, Lancia once built buses, commercial vehicles, military vehicles, championship-winning race and rally cars and fabulous road cars including the Stratos (pictured) and the Delta Integrale.
The company was created by Vincenzo Lancia, employed by Fiat as a racing driver from his late teens, and his older friend Claudio Fogolin, who resigned in 1918.
Lancia died relatively young in 1937, but not before the manufacturer named after him had developed a reputation for building innovative and successful cars.
There has been a lot of speculation about why Colin Chapman called his cars Lotus, but none at all about how the Elise got its name.
It came from the granddaughter of Romano Artioli, who owned Lotus (and indeed Bugatti) at the time of the car’s launch.
So, she’s called Elise Artioli, then? Not quite. Her first name is actually Elisa, but she is definitely the inspiration for the name of the car, and is quite rightly very proud of it.
Marcos was a small but successful British manufacturer of sports cars. One of its early models, an odd-looking device known as the Ugly Duckling, was raced very effectively in the early 1960s by future three-time F1 World Champion Jackie Stewart.
There are many people in the world called Marcos, but this company wasn’t named after any of them. It was founded by Jem Marsh and Frank Costin, who contributed the first three letters of their surnames in that order.
Costin’s younger brother is Mike Costin, who was part of a similar arrangement with Keith Duckworth. When they formed a company to build racing engines, they combined the first syllable of Costin’s surname with the second of Duckworth’s and ended up with Cosworth.
It’s probably just as well they used that method rather than its opposite. ‘Ducktin’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Brothers Alfieri, Bindo, Carlo, Ettore and Ernesto Maserati began building racing cars in 1926. Another brother, Mario, wasn’t directly involved, but as a professional artist he created the company’s logo, which is based on the trident featured in the Fountain of Neptune statue in Bologna.
Maserati began producing road cars in 1957, as it does to this day, but by that time the brothers had sold the company to the Orsi family and (after a ten-year gap) set up another race car business called OSCA.
McLaren Automotive is the road car division of the group which also includes the McLaren F1 team.
The team was formed by New Zealander Bruce McLaren, who was a very good racing driver but an even better designer. His single-seaters won many F1 races and championships, while his brutally powerful sports cars dominated the CanAm championship for several years.
McLaren died while testing one of the CanAm cars at Goodwood in 1970, aged 32. His attitude to life was summed up in his autobiography, written six years earlier:
“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”
Emil Jellinek was an Austrian who moved to Nice in the south of France. He was at various times a businessman, a diplomat, a racing driver and an agent for Daimler cars.
His race team was named Mercedes after his first daughter. Jellinek used it again for a sports car he commissioned from Daimler in 1900. The car was radical for its time, very fast and greatly admired.
Daimler benefitted enormously from this, and registered Mercedes as a brand name in 1902. As you know, it’s still being used today. Jellinek changed his surname to Jellinek-Mercedes – “probably the first time a father has borne the name of his daughter,” he said.
Sadly, young Mercedes Jellinek did not have a happy life. Both her marriages failed, she lived in poverty for a while, and she died of bone cancer aged just 39.
One of the strangest-looking but also most familiar vehicles of the bubble car era was the Messerschmitt.
It was named after the aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt, whose fighter planes were notoriously effective during the Second World War.
After the war, Messerschmitt was prevented from building planes for ten years. The bubble car was designed by Fritz Fend, who obtained permission to manufacture them in the dormant aircraft factory. Messerschmitt allowed this to happen but otherwise had almost nothing to do with them.
Monteverdi was a Swiss manufacturer of high-performance luxury cars, generally with large American V8 engines.
It was founded by Peter Monteverdi, who had a brief career as a racing driver and a longer one as an importer of prestige automotive brands.
As well as creating its own cars, Monteverdi modified existing ones. One example was a four-door Range Rover which was sold for a brief period before Land Rover decided to market one of its own.
Morgan is named after Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan, who founded the company in 1910.
His son Peter and grandson Charles later took their turn at running the business. When Charles left, Morgan had no family member on the board for the first time in over a century.
The Morris name was last used for the Ital in 1984 before being submerged in the company which ended up being called MG Rover. Morris is perhaps best remembered now for the Minor, one of Britain’s most popular and loved cars.
William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, began building cars in 1912. He devoted much of his large fortune to charity, and arranged for iron lungs (cheaper and better than the one he first saw in 1938) to be built at his factory in Oxford for international distribution.
Although it was shut down by General Motors in 2004, Oldsmobile was a popular American brand for more than 100 years.
The cars were built at first by the Olds Motor Vehicle Co., founded in 1897 by Ransom E. Olds. The Oldsmobile Curved Dash went into mass production in 1901, several years before Ford used a similar technique for the Model T, though not for nearly as long and in much smaller numbers.
Olds left his own company in 1904 and promptly set up another one called REO, based on his initials.
An early product of the new firm was a very successful truck which inspired the name of the rock band REO Speedwagon, though the truck was actually called the Speed Wagon and the company, unlike the band, pronounced its name ‘rio’ rather than spelling out the letters.
Horacio Pagani is an Argentinian who moved to his ancestors’ homeland of Italy and was given a job at Lamborghini.
He left Lamborghini in the early 1990s and set up a supercar business under his own name. The Zonda and the later Huayra are both extraordinarily fast cars powered by large Mercedes V12 engines.
The Peugeot family set up in business in 1810 and began making almost everything that could be made out of metal, including bicycles, pepper mills and frames for crinoline dresses.
Armand Peugeot created the car company in 1896. In 1912, a Peugeot won the French Grand Prix despite having a much smaller engine (7.6 litres, which wasn’t much at the time) than its competitors.
The family still has a shareholding in the company, now part of Groupe PSA, though not a controlling one.
Dr Ferdinand Porsche formed an automotive consultancy in 1931. His was particularly interested in tractors, competition cars and cheap family cars, the last two categories being covered by the amazingly powerful Auto Union racers and the Volkswagen Beetle respectively.
It took until 1948 for a car bearing the Porsche name to go into production. This was the 356, forerunner of today’s 911.
Louis Renault built his first car, the Voiturette, at the age of 21, and demonstrated its ability by driving up the steel Rue Lepic in Paris.
Today you could do that in almost anything, but on Christmas Eve 1898 it caused a sensation.
So many people offered to buy replicas that Renault set up a manufacturing company which still operates today, just short of 120 years later.
Rolls-Royce was established in 1904 by Henry Royce and the Honourable Charles Rolls. Rolls, a pioneer aviator, lived long enough only to see some early success, since in 1910 he became the first person ever to be killed in an accident in a powered aircraft.
Royce survived until 1933, having built up an enviable reputation as an excellent engineer.
Another man involved in the company’s creation was Claude Johnson, who also looked after the business side for several years. Though not specifically named, he has often been referred to as “the hyphen in Rolls-Royce”.
Michio Suzuki began producing weaving looms in 1909 and concentrated on this for many years. Keen to diversify his business, he built his first car in 1937, and later became extremely successful as a motorcycle manufacturer.
The current chairman of the company is Osamu Suzuki. He was not born a Suzuki, but was officially adopted into the family after marrying one of the daughters and changed his surname.
This practice, known as mukoyōshi, is quite common in Japan, and particularly at Suzuki. Osamu Suzuki is the fourth adopted son-in-law in a row to run the company.
One biography of the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla is subtitled ‘The Man Who Invented The Twentieth Century’.
This is not as extravagant a title as it might seem. Tesla did enormously important work in almost every field involving electricity, and in particular was a pioneer of motors powered by an alternating current.
The Tesla car company is named after him, but he had nothing to do with it. He died alone in a New York hotel room in 1943, ignored largely because of predictions which sounded ridiculous at the time, though they seem obvious now.
The word Toyota is a deliberate mis-spelling (or perhaps re-spelling) of the name Toyoda. The company was founded in 1926 by Sakichi Toyoda to make weaving looms, in much the same way as Suzuki was 17 years earlier.
His son, Kiichiro Toyoda, decided to bring car manufacturing into the business. A new logo was created, showing the syllables ‘to’, ‘yo’ and ‘da’ in Japanese katakana symbols.
Drawing it involved making ten brush strokes, but if you changed the ‘da’ to a ‘ta’ you needed only eight strokes. Eight is a lucky number in Japan, so the company made the switch.
Other suggestions for it have also been made, but in any case the company formerly known as Toyoda became Toyota, and has remained that way ever since.
TVR doesn’t look like it has anything to do with anyone’s name, but it does. It’s a contraction of Trevor, which refers to Trevor Wilkinson, who founded the Blackpool-based sports car manufacturer in 1949.
Wilkinson left his own company in 1962 and later retired to Spain, where he died in 2008 at the age of 85.
An exception: Saab
Saab is quite a common surname in Lebanon, so you might imagine that it was a Lebanese immigrant to Sweden who set up the car business.
Wrong. Saab is actually an acronym for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, which means ‘Swedish aeroplane company limited’ (Saab built planes for several years before it began designing cars).
Another exception: Renault Zoe
Renault accidentally caused a tremendous amount of fuss by calling its small electric car Zoe. There were complaints and even court cases about the fact that it was ridiculous to use a girl’s name for a car.
Nobody ever thought this was a problem with Mercedes, but in any case it wasn’t Renault’s intention at all. While Zoe is a popular girl’s name in France (there are even people there called Zoe Renault), the company had actually used it as a shorter term for zero emissions.
The complaints were ignored or dismissed. The car was, and remains, a big seller, and French parents are still happily naming their daughters Zoe.