The History of Automobile Names

The automobile has gone by several names in the past and still continues to as variations of motor vehicles have been spun off. For example, there is the common "car" term, but word automobile is often used as well. Then there's "truck," "jeep," "station wagon," "bus," "van," "minivan" and "hatchback" among others. However, it all began with a battle of semantics that pre-dated the word "automobile," which was coined at the turn of the 20th century.

So what other names for motor vehicles have famous inventors used prior to "automobile?" One good way to find out is to look at the names that were used in their patent applications. Here's a brief rundown of various car names throughout history:

  • American inventor, engineer and businessman Oliver Evans applied for a U.S. patent in Philadelphia in 1792 for an invention he called "oruktor amphiboles," which translates to “amphibious digger.” His vehicle was designed to be a steam-powered car that rolled out of his shop in 1804. Initially created for the Philadelphia Board of Health for the purpose of dredging and cleaning docks, the vehicle was capable of moving on both water and land.
  • George Selden, a patent attorney from Rochester, New York, received a patent for something he called a "road machine" in 1879. Due to existing laws at the time, the patent was pre-dated to 1877. Selden expanded its claims over the years. And by 1895, he had a patent for a three-cylinder motor vehicle. While he never actually produced a car, the patent allowed him to collect royalties from all American car manufacturers. Companies paid Selden's holding company, the Association of Licensed Automotive Manufacturers, for the patent licensing rights to build cars.
  • The fact that Selden hadn’t actually followed through with his idea made the patent questionable to some manufacturers. Henry Ford, industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company, was one of those who took issue with Seldon’s licensing fees and refused to pay it. Selden took Ford to court in 1904, but the judge ordered an automobile built according to the Selden patent. It was an utter failure and Selden’s patent was overturned in 1911. Selden could no longer collect royalties and car manufacturers were free to build their vehicles at lower cost without this added expense. 
  • The Duryea brothers patented their "motor wagon" in 1895. They were bicycle makers who became fascinated with the concept of automobiles and gasoline engines. 

"The new mechanical wagon with the awful name automobile has come to stay..." New York Times (1897 article)

The New York Times' mention of the name “automobile” was the first public use of the term by the media and eventually helped to popularize the name for motor vehicles. Credit for the name actually goes to a 14th century Italian painter and engineer named Martini. While he never built an automobile, he did draw up plans for a man-powered carriage with four wheels. He came up with the name automobile by combining the Greek word "auto" -- meaning self -- and the Latin word, "mobils," which means moving. Put them together and you've got a self-moving vehicle that doesn't need horses to pull it.

Other Names for Motor Vehicles Over the Years

Of course, the other popular name for an automobile is the car is thought to be derived from Latin word "carrus" or "carrum," which means wheeled vehicle. It can also be a variation of the Middle English term carre, meaning cart. Other possibilities include the Gaulish word karros (a Gallic chariot) or the Brythoic word Karr. These terms originally referred to wheeled horse-drawn vehicles such as a cart, carriage or wagon. "Motor car" is the standard formal name for cars in British English.

There were other early media references to motor vehicles and these included names such as autobaine, autokenetic, autometon, automotor horse, buggyaut, diamote, horseless carriage, mocole, motor carriage, motorig, motor-vique and the oleo locomotive.

The word "truck" may have come from "truckle", which means "small wheel" or "pulley." It's derived from the Middle English word "trokell" from the Latin word "trochlea." It may have also come from the the Latin word "trochus." The first known usage of "truck" was in 1611, used in reference to the wheels on ships' cannon carriages.

The word "bus" is a shortened version of the Latin word "omnibus" and "van" is short for the original word "caravan."