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What Do You Call It?

Sam MooreNovember of 1895 marked the launch of what was probably the first automotive magazine in America. The editor and proprietor, E.P. Ingersoll, wrote in his introduction of the first edition: “We present to the trade and the public the first number of the Horseless Age, a journal which will be published monthly hereafter in the interest of the motor vehicle. The appearance of journal devoted to a branch of industry yet in an embryonic state, may strike some as premature, and the somewhat desultory character of this number may provoke criticism in some quarters. But those who have taken the pains to search below the surface for the great tendencies of the age, know what giant industry is struggling into being there. All signs point to the motor vehicle as the necessary sequence of methods of locomotion already established and with lively interest its practical application to the daily business of the world.”

One of the earliest problems of writing about the new-fangled gadgets was what to call them! Mr. Ingersoll wrote: “It is certainly advisable for those who are pioneering new industry to carefully select their terms, and thus endeavor to secure the popular adoption of those terms which are best suited to express their ideas. But after all, the naming of things is the prerogative of the people, and before this democratic bar all verbal candidates must finally be tried.

“But in considering the choice of name for a vehicle without horses, we must consider that this class of vehicle is not new, but only the interest in them. For thirty-five or forty years the U.S. Patent Office has been granting patents on contrivances of this kind. So numerous have the applications been that long ago the distinct classification was adopted for them of “motor vehicles.” The term motor vehicle, therefore, covers motor bicycles, tricycles, buggies, wagons, trucks, traps, phaetons, carriages and what not, and if it is desired to specify the nature of the motor which propels the vehicle, we can subdivide the class into electric, gasolene, kerosene, acetylene, etc., bicycles, buggies, carriages, wagons, etc.

“At present the people seem to be wedded to the name “horseless carriage,” but it seems quite certain that this awkward expression will gradually be discarded in favor of the briefer, more terse and expressive term “Motor Vehicle.” The editor of The Horseless Age has adopted this terminology as the simplest and best, and will continue to employ it, unless forced by popular usage to abandon it.”

The idea was further explored in the next issue. “Word coiners in England and America have been racking their brains to find a name for the motor vehicle. In England we have such heathenish abominations as “autocar,” “automotor,” and “petrocar,” while in America “motocycle” and “autocycle” compete for popularity with terms such as “horseless carriage,” “motor wagon,” etc. These terms have been adopted by many editors and have attained considerable currency, but are all found to be objectionable for one reason or another. The prefix "auto" is not a synonym of motor, for it conveys the idea that the vehicle runs without human aid. Motor car would be properly employed with reference to some imposing vehicle used for processional or similar purposes, but as general term for the new vehicle it is misnomer. The two English candidates are still more inadequate. “Petrocar,” if the first element of the compound be associated with petroleum, is altogether too narrow, for motor vehicles are not all of the petroleum class. Automotor would seem to mean an automatic motor which requires no guidance or attention, and this term must therefore be excluded. The American inventions are not more promising than the English. Motocycle is a specific and not a generic term; the word “cycle” is already in common use as an abbreviation for bicycle, hence motocycle is a euphemism for motor cycle. Who would think of calling motor coal wagon, truck or omnibus a motocycle?

“So, while the word-coiners are pursuing their fads, the people are quietly settling this matter for themselves. When the trolley car was first introduced, the word coiners thrust upon the public the term “motorneer” to designate the man who controls the motor, but the word was not accepted. It was too hard to pronounce, and an easier one readily suggested itself. The propelling force was motor, and the person who controlled it was man, hence the easiest way for the public to describe the person who ran this new form of transportation was to call him a motorman.

“So let us put ourselves for moment in the position of the public who see a vehicle passing in the street which bears very close resemblance to vehicles we have seen drawn by horses, except there are no horses! One would naturally call it a horseless carriage, or a horseless wagon or buggy. But the novelty of seeing vehicles without horses would soon wear off as they multiplied in the streets, and as we came to know more of the force which propelled them, the horseless would naturally give place to the idea that these vehicles were propelled by a power within themselves. The motor has been made familiar to the public during the past ten years by its extensive use in the electrical field and the term has been extended to cover any light power, whether electric or not, as distinguished from heavy power. A large gas engine doing stationary work is called an engine, while a small engine propelling a boat or vehicle is termed a motor. It has been universally adopted by builders of motor boats, so we see that the new field is merely an extension of a familiar idea. Therefore, motor vehicle affords the simplest, tersest and most comprehensive term that can be used to describe a vehicle propelled by such power.”

So Mr. Ingersoll may have dubbed it the “motor vehicle,” although lots of other names were used through the years – not all of them complimentary. “Flivver,” “rattletrap,” “jalopy” and “tin-lizzy” come to mind. When I was a kid many of the old-timers called their car a “machine,” as in “I parked my machine out back.” “Automobile” was upper class, as in “The Cadillac is a fine automobile.” However “motor car” was most popular and soon was shortened to “car,” and that’s what they’re mostly called today.

– Sam Moore

1895 Benz Motor Wagon

The 1895 Benz Motor Wagon; what would you call such a contraption? (Photo from the December 1895 issue of Horseless Age magazine)