First name terms: The unusual people behind some of the world’s biggest car brands

Most know that a certain Henry was the man behind the Ford empire and also probably that Enzo was the enigmatic first name of the figurehead of the Ferrari road and racing dynasty. But other car brands’ histories are less told. Enter the stage French explorer Antoine de Mothe Cadillac, car dealer’s daughter Mercédès Jellinek, industrialist Armand Peugeot and Japanese inventor Soichiro Honda.

Mercédès Jellinek

The mighty German luxury vehicle brand Mercedes-Benz used to be called the much less catchy Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). Its name changed for an unlikely reason too. Businessman and marketeer Emil Jellinek was a dealer of sorts for Daimler automobiles among southern French high society and raced its cars in 1899 using the pseudonym “Monsieur Mercédès”, after the first name of his daughter. By 1900 the elegant name had caught on to the extent that Daimler cars sported the name Daimler-Mercedes and by 1902, DMG had registered “Mercedes” as a trademark. The rest, as they say, is history.

Soichiro Honda

Born the son of a blacksmith in 1906 and starting his career as a garage mechanic, Soichiro Honda went on to produce piston rings for Toyota before WWII. After the war he started a motorcycle and car business that would become a global business empire, known as much for its mastery of engines of all kinds – from F1 racers to lawn mowers – as its fierce independence.

Antoine de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac

Probably the oldest name associated with a modern-day car brand is Antoine de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac. Born Antoine Laumet in 1658 in France, he took the name Cadillac from a town near where he grew up and left for the New World as an explorer, trapper and (morally dubious) trader of alcohol and furs. Ending up founding a settlement now known as Detroit, USA, when the city became the world’s centre for car production in the early 20th century, automotive pioneers William Murphy and Henry Leland liked the Cadillac name so much they paid homage to the Frenchman by naming their new car brand after him. Formed in 1902, but long since owned by General Motors, Cadillac is now America’s oldest-surviving luxury car brand and still uses Antoine de la Mothe’s coat of arms as its emblem.

Armand Peugeot

The business was founded back in 1810 by Jean-Frédéric and Jean-Pierre II Peugeot based on steel production of saws, springs, coffee mills and bicycles. But it was a family descendant, Armand, born in 1849, who transformed Peugeot in the 1890s into the successful French carmaker we now know today. When he stepped down from managing the company in 1913, Peugeot were the largest car manufacturer in France, producing 10,000 cars per year. He died two years later in 1915, but the path was set and his legacy intact.

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