This week, we’ll conclude our look at the etymology of some car names, starting out with a couple well-known American marques before moving on to the stories behind the names of some of their foreign competitors.

In 1964 Ford introduced its iconic Mustang, which most experts agree was named not after the horse, but after P-51 fighter plane of the World War II. Still, the Mustang’s logo became a horse, a wild horse running to the left, presumably to the Wild West where it can run free. But as sporty as the new car was, it wasn’t sporty enough for former racer Carroll Shelby, who called the Mustang “a secretary’s car,” and convinced the suits at Ford to let him soup it up.

At a loss for what to call his first creation, Shelby is said to have wondered how many steps it was from his office to his hen house, and then used that number on the sides of his car: the Mustang GT 350. Before long he was looking for a bigger number for his Mustang’s latest iteration, and settled on 500 because it was bigger than Chevy’s 427 and Chrysler’s 440 (even though the engine in his car was 428 cubic inches). To make sure everybody got his point, Shelby added two more letters to its designation, which became the GT 500 KR, or “King of the Road.” (In West Germany, Ford’s new car would be known as the T-5 until 1973 because the company refused to pay truck manufacturer Krupp AG $10,000 to use the Mustang name, which Krupp had already named one of its trucks.)

At about the same time that Ford was getting ready to launch the Mustang, Pontiac chief John Delorean installed a big V8 into a small car. The model was called the GTO (which stands for “Gran Turismo Omologato “) and was based on the company’s Le Mans model. Delorean made no secret of the fact that he had borrowed the letters from a type of Ferrari that had recently done well in the 24 Hours of (what else?) Le Mans.

Not to be outdone by us Yanks, many Asian car makers have also gotten creative with their names. Toyota was founded by Kiichiro Toyoda, but the company soon changed the “d” in its name to a “t” after consumer surveys found that people liked the name Toyota better. Also the new name could be written in Japanese with eight (a lucky number in Japan) strokes of the pen. (If you’ve ever wondered what a “Camry” is, its name is a neologism, or a phoneticized version of “Kanmuri,” or “Crown,” a reference to the Crown sedans that Toyota has been producing in Japan since 1955.)

Back in the day, one of Toyota’s main rivals was the Dat Motor Company. Nissan purchased its competitor in 1934, and the name was reportedly changed to Datsun as a way to honor the sun on the Japanese flag. After having used the Datsun name on only the vehicles it exported to the United States between 1958 and 1986, Nissan retired the Datsun name in favor of its own. (By the way, Nissan is a contraction of “Nippon Sangyo” or “Japan Industries.”)

A few years ago a British automotive program stated that Kia’s little car called the Cee’d was “The only car in the world that actually has an apostrophe in its name.” Technically that may be true, but there had also been a truck that used the same punctuation — the Isuzu P’up — which was the twin of Chevy’s little LUV (Light Utility Vehicle) pickup truck.

Kia has kept the Cee’d name alive by releasing models such as the Pro_cee’d (which has to be the only vehicle in the world that actually has an underscore in its name), and the unpunctuated Xceed. This makes me wonder what’s next. Maybe as the hairlines of the guys in Kia’s marketing department begin to retreat, they’ll come out with something called the Recee’d.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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