automobile

How the car came to be called a car

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We explore how the word “car” came about

We call them “cars”.

Americans insist on “automobile”.

The Italians and Germans have shortened it to “auto”.

While the British favour the term “motor car”.

So, how did the car get to be called a car or automobile?

The word ‘automobile’ was first recorded in France in 1876 and has Greek (auto) and Latin (mobile) roots.

The word ‘car’ was adapted from the carriage trade and later, the railways, and had been in use since the 1880s to describe a self propelled device.

The thing is though, back in the late 19th Century, no one was quite sure what to call these new-fangled ‘horseless carriages’.

To solve the problem a Chicago newspaper ran a naming competition.

Some of the quaint entries included self-motor, autobat, autogo, autowain, locomobile and pneumobile.

The winner was ‘motocycle’.

Meanwhile, other names being promoted included autobaine, autokenetic, autometon, automotor, buggyaut, diamote, mocole, motor carriage, motor-vique and locomobile.

In 1896 Henry Ford called his first car a “quadricycle”.

By the early years of the 20th Century the words ‘automobile’ and ‘car’ started to gain traction in newspapers and manufacturer’s advertisements and they have been used interchangeably ever since.

The term “sedan” once described a hand-carried chair.”

Americans have been using it since 1912 to describe an enclosed four door car.

The British term for a four door is ‘saloon’, from the French salon, meaning the best room in the house.

The term “coupe” lost its acute accent when it travelled across the Atlantic to the USA and was applied to a two-door automobile.

Ford tried its hand at influencing the language with its Fordor and Tudor descriptions of its four and two door offerings

The carriage building trade has provided a wealth of descriptors for car makers over the years.

How about “landau”, which was once a four-wheeled convertible carriage.

Ford has taken a particular liking to it over the years, here and in the USA, to describe top of the range models.

Remember Ford Australia’s “Landau”, which was really a tarted up a 1973 two-door hardtop. Rare then and even rarer now.

Then there’s the term “Brougham”.

This is our all time favourite.

It was once a two-door, two-wheel, horse drawn carriage.

By 1916 Cadillac was using the term to describe its poshest cars, and continued to do so until 1992.

But Cadillac was not alone in adopting “Brougham”.

Just about every major, and some minor, US manufacturer has appropriated the word when desperate for a description.

Dodge even slapped it on an up-market station wagon, which already carried the lofty label of Royal Monaco.

In 1968 Holden gave ‘Brougham’ whole new meaning when it lengthened the boot of a Premier, filled the car with hectares of brocade upholstery, threw in all available options, stuffed every nook and cranny with thick sound deadening insulation and sold it as a Ford Fairlane alternative.

No one was fooled.

The advertising line was that a Brougham should be “seen and not heard”.

Some unkind folk at the time suggested the wording was around the wrong way.

Mind you, rehabilitation has occured, and these days highly restored Broughams can command $50,000.

Anyway, my vote for the best ever Brougham goes to the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

This was a hand-built car and only 400 were sold that year.

Priced at a staggering $US13,000, when a ’57 Chevrolet was just $US2600, it boasted hardtop styling, a brushed stainless steel roof and air suspension.

Anything that could be powered electrically or hydraulically was.

And the styling was drop dead gorgeous.

I saw one at a recent classic car show in Sydney.

It was driven in late.

Everyone just stopped what they were doing and looked at it.

Very few automobiles have that impact.

David Burrell is the editor of www.retroautos.com.au



David Burrell is the founder and editor of Retroautos.com.au, a free online classic cars magazine. David has a passion for cars and car design. He's also into speedway, which he's been writing about since 1981. His first car was a rusted-out 1961 Vauxhall Velox. Prior to starting the magazine, David worked as an international executive in a Fortune 500 company, in Australia, NZ, Asia, Latin America and the UK.