This is a fairly idle observation, but the death of the Pontiac automobile nameplate (last Monday) reminded me of the 20th-century fashion for naming car makes after figures from early American history. The Pontiac make was unique in commemorating an Indian leader who went to war with the United States (and whose name, I suppose, was considered catchier than Tecumseh’s). The more usual practice was to commemorate an explorer; preferably one with a Continental name: Hence the Chrysler DeSoto and the LaSalle make.
An earlier example of a car being named for a European in American history was LaFayette Motors, founded in 1919 in Indianapolis, and named in honor of the French marquis who came to America to work for George Washington. In his old age Lafayette performed at least as great a service to the young republic by returning here for its fiftieth birthday. Showing an endless patience for bad roads, provincial towns, and windy speeches, Lafayette was mobbed by admirers as he toured the country in detail to bestow his paternal blessing. Our grateful ancestors, showing a charming inability to get their hero’s name right, next blanketed the countryside with little burgs and counties named “Fayette,” “La Fayette,” or occasionally, just by chance, “Lafayette.” For good measure, they threw in the odd “La Grange” as well, after the marquis’s estate back in France.
LaFayette Motors probably counts as the endpoint of this enthusiasm for the marquis’s name. Perhaps, though, it was “LaFayette” that inspired others to mash up “LaSalle” and “DeSoto” and to brand cars with them.
With the fall of Pontiac, few people may realize that the last of the American history cars is Cadillac. Started in 1902, just after the bicentennial of Detroit, Michigan, the Cadillac Company is named after Detroit’s French founder. He called himself Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac — or “Caddy” to his friends.
(No, that was a joke.)