The history and origins of popular car naming systems

... and their reputation on the internet

By George Kuruvilla

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Published: Thu 19 May 2022, 10:34 PM

Like how most humans get their names from their parents, most cars companies derive theirs from their founders, save a few exceptions. This week, we take a look at the backstories of some the most famous names in the business, how they differentiate their models and what the Internet people have to say about them.


The name ‘BMW’ is an acronym. When expanded you get “Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH” and not Bavarian Motor Works as some of us may believe. The name harks back to the firm’s genesis in the German state of Bavaria. It also implies that BMW’s original product range did not just include car engines, but engines meant for other applications as well.

The naming system for BMW cars are based on a three-digit number, the first one indicating the designated class and the following two, indicating engine displacement. Of course, it has changed over the years, thanks to turbocharging and other reasons. Now the last two digits usually indicate the equivalent displacement in most cases. While their SUVs get the ‘X’ prefix and green vehicles get the ‘i’ prefix, both of which are followed by a digit indicating their class or segment.

On the Internet, BMW drivers are known to be wilfully snobbish and there are countless memes that highlight their aversion for operating directional indicators. Tailgating is yet another trait that they share.


If it wasn’t obvious enough, Volkswagen is a combination of two words — almost like a portmanteau. ‘Volks’ denotes folks or people in English; and ‘wagen’ is German for car. And that is how it becomes the ‘people’s car’. Volkswagen is also known by shortened names like ‘VW’ and ‘VDub’. It was established by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s as a move to mobilise the common folk of the country. Hence, the name.

Although a single naming scheme isn’t adhered to, we’ve noted that some names are based on a tribe or the movement of air. Taos, for example, is named after a North American people native to New Mexico and Touareg, which means ‘free folk’, is named after a nomadic tribe that resides in the Sahara. While both ‘Passat’ and ‘Jetta’ mean trade wind and jet stream in German, respectively.

If you are Volkswagen owner, you already know that the Internet is flooded with memes that mention the check engine light. Apparently, VW vehicles are susceptible to engine failures or at the very least VW owners ignore the health of their engine.


The American manufacturer Ford is named after the founder, Henry Ford. And everything about the names of its vehicles has an earthy or outdoorsy vibe. For example, the term ford itself means ‘stream’ or ‘small river’. And similarly, their SUVs are called Escape, Excursion & Expedition. The same goes for the half-ton pickup truck, the Ranger. Even their halo car the Mustang and their newly revived nameplate ‘Bronco’, which shares a similar meaning i.e., wild horse.

And as far as memes go, owners of Mustangs are known to drive into crowds while showboating or drifting, especially at car meets. As for the rest of pack, their jokes centre on their seemingly problematic reliability.


Without question, this is one of the most influential automotive brands out there. Any guesses how the name came about? Mercedes-Benz was founded by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler and thus formed the name Daimler-Benz. Later, the prefix transitioned to Mercedes, which was Daimler’s daughter name Mercedes Jellinek.

The Mercedes-Benz nomenclature of its vehicles is alphanumeric in nature. The alphabet denotes the class or segment and the number, usually used to denotes displacement. But like BMW, it has been altered slightly in recent time. Their electric range is denoted using the EQ series.

Although, MB cars are synonymous with luxury and status, fans of rival companies like BMW and Audi make it a point to attack any or every aspect of Mercedes.


Arguably the largest automotive manufacturer in the world, Toyota Motor Corporation was founded by the Toyoda family. Apparently, the word “Toyoda” uses 10 Japanese strokes to write while “Toyota” uses only eight. And since eight is considered lucky and auspicious in Japan, “Toyota” was chosen as the company’s name.

Most Toyota vehicles are named with the letter ‘C’, like Camry, Corolla, Cressida, Crown, Corona and Celica. But what is less obvious is that all of these names either directly translate to or imply the word ‘crown’. This besides, their pickup trucks start with the letter T, like Tundra and Tacoma.

Globally, Toyota is known to be reliable with great residual values. And although the Prius is the highest-selling hybrid of all time, it has become the butt of all jokes for most American gas-guzzler SUV and pickup truck drivers, the kind of people who deny ‘climate change’.


The premium Japanese car manufacturer Mazda was founded by Jujiro Matsuda in 1920. Therefore, it should come as no surprise the Japanese pronunciation of Mazda is “Matsuda”. However, the term “Mazda” is derived from Ahura Mazda, the creator deity of Zoroastrianism from the earliest civilisation in West Asia.

Mazda’s upmarket styling and high-quality materials, help gain some advantage over its rivals. In general, it has a reputation for affordability and reliability.


Irving Hausmann, one of the engineers working for Willys-Overland, reported that he overheard soldiers referring to the test vehicles as “Jeep”. And although the word Jeep isn’t technically an acronym, it appears to reference another acronym, what military personnel would refer to some vehicles as GPs (General Purpose).

Jeep vehicles don’t necessarily have a common thread to their naming system. The Wrangler name for their popular 4x4 comes from the term wrangler — someone who argues or disputes. The Cherokee is named after North American Indians of Iroquoian lineage. The Compass, the directional tool and Renegade, mean a rebel or an outlaw.

Most Jeep memes we see online relate to Wrangler owners who take it upon themselves to park their vehicles in some of the most difficult spots. And this rather silly park-anywhere attitude that accompanies the park-anywhere capability is what gets jeered at.


Honda is named after its founder Soichiro Honda. However, the origins of the term “Honda” come from the Japanese word meaning “original rice paddy” or “root rice field”.

Its vehicle nomenclature generally pertains to civilisation, with vehicle names such as Accord, Civic & City. While their SUVs have a hyphenated names like HR-V, MR-V and CR-V (thought to expand as Compact Recreational Vehicle or Comfortable Runabout Vehicle).

Honda has the reputation for producing some of the most reliable vehicles, some of which can last a million ‘car’ years. But their VTEC technology has been made fun of. No thanks to the fan boys who over endorse it at every given opportunity!

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