Before they got into the car business, some well-known makes had surprising histories, building everything from airplanes to tractors, and even silk looms and bathtubs
Toyota: Fabric looms
Dodge: Bicycle parts
Lincoln: Aircraft engines
Honda: Toyota parts
Jaguar: Motorcycle sidecars
Mack: Wagons and buses
Subaru: Planes and scooters
Peugeot: Coffee grinders
Kia: Steel tubing
Suzuki: Silk looms
- BMW: Airplanes
- Toyota: Fabric looms
- Buick: Bathtubs
- Dodge: Bicycle parts
- Lincoln: Aircraft...
- Honda: Toyota parts
- Mack: Wagons and...
- Mazda: Corks
- Subaru: Planes...
- Peugeot: Coffee...
- Mitsubishi: Shipping
- Kia: Steel tubing
- Suzuki: Silk looms
- Saab: Airplanes
- Volvo: Bearings
- Citroën: Gears
- Studebaker: Wagons
BMW started in the air as Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Company), established in Munich in 1916. A year later, the company registered Bayerische Motoren Werke, or BMW, and a logo that combined the look of a spinning propeller with Bavaria’s blue and white colours. German companies were prohibited from building airplanes right after the First World War and BMW focused on ground transportation, first with a motorcycle and then with the Dixi, a British Austin Seven it built under license.
Sakichi Toyoda founded the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1918 and invented the world’s first automated loom. His son Kiichiro took an interest in cars, and in 1933, the company added an auto division. Why the change from Toyoda to Toyota? No one’s quite sure, but it’s been suggested that the new name made eight brushstrokes in Japanese characters, considered lucky; or that if the fledgling company failed, it wouldn’t tarnish the loom works’ reputation.
Italy was in desperate need of farm equipment after the Second World War, and engineer Ferruccio Lamborghini saw an opportunity. He opened a workshop in 1946, making tractors primarily from surplus military vehicles. That made him wealthy, and he spent his money on sports cars. When he found there wasn’t much difference between many tractor parts and far more expensive sports car components, he knew cars could be profitable. The agricultural division is no longer connected with the cars, but still makes Lamborghini tractors.
Born in Scotland in 1854, David Dunbar Buick arrived in the U.S. as a child and apprenticed at a plumbing fixtures company in Detroit. He later took over the company and developed several innovations, including a method for sticking enamel to cast iron that led to modern bathtubs. Interested in cars, he sold the business and started the Buick Motor Car Company, which entrepreneur William Durant used to create General Motors.
The company is named for brothers John and Horace Dodge, who got jobs at a boiler company in Detroit in 1886. A few years later they moved to Windsor, Ontario and worked for a bicycle company. Horace patented a new bicycle bearing and the pair became partners in the firm. They sold it to CCM in 1900 and opened a machine shop in Detroit, making parts for Oldsmobile. They made their fortune building the mechanical parts of Henry Ford’s cars, and launched their own car company in 1914.
Engineer and gunsmith Henry Leland founded Cadillac in 1902, and stayed on after selling it to General Motors seven years later. When the First World War broke out, Leland wanted the company to build aircraft engines for the military. GM president William Durant refused. At the age of 74, Leland left and founded the Lincoln Motor Company, named for the U.S. president, and made 6,000 aircraft engines. After the war he switched to cars, selling the company to Ford in 1922.
Soichiro Honda was the son of a blacksmith. Fascinated with machinery, he apprenticed in an auto repair shop in Tokyo. He later opened his own repair shop, along with a side business making piston rings—which he sold to Toyota. Cars became scarce in Japan after the Second World War, and Honda built small engines that could be attached to bicycles. In 1948, he founded the Honda Motor Company to produce motorcycles, and started building cars in 1963.
In 1922, neighbours William Walmsley and William Lyons got together to build motorcycle sidecars. Naming it for a bird, they called it the Swallow Sidecar Company. From there, they began making bodies for car manufacturers such as Morris and Fiat before producing their own cars, shortening “Swallow Sidecar” to “SS” for them. Hitler’s use of the initials “SS” in the Second World War made the name a liability, and the company switched to the name of one of its car models, Jaguar.
The truck company traces its roots back to 1893, when brothers John, Gus, and William Mack bought a New York carriage company. They took note of the new “horseless carriages” and in 1900, they built a motorized, 13-passenger bus that was used to carry sightseers around Prospect Park in Brooklyn for eight years. The famous bulldog mascot is a copy of a wooden dog that the company’s chief engineer carved for something to do when recuperating from surgery in 1932.
Corks were big business back in the day when they were the primary way to seal containers. Mazda’s roots are in the Toyo Cork Kogyo Company, founded in Hiroshima in 1920. It began making machine tools in 1929. It changed its name in 1931 with the launch of the “Mazda-go,” a three-wheeled, motorcycle-based delivery vehicle. It continued to make three-wheeled trucks and, in 1960, produced its first car.
Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company, was created when several firms joined in 1953 to build, sell, and maintain aircraft. Two years later, its investors broadened its scope by adding other businesses, including automotive. One of the original companies made scooters, and the Rabbit scooter became the first Subaru product to reach North America. The company’s first cars included the experimental P-1, the 1500, and the tiny Subaru 360.
Born in 1734, Jean-Pierre Peugeot ran several businesses, including a grain mill. In 1810, his two sons turned it into a foundry. In 1840 they began making coffee grinders, later adding salt and pepper grinders. Peugeot bicycles appeared in 1882, a steam-powered car in 1889, and the company’s first gasoline car in 1890. Peugeot automobiles are no longer sold in Canada, but you can still buy a Peugeot pepper grinder—considered among the world’s best, and like the cars, adorned with a lion logo.
Mitsubishi was founded by Yataro Iwasaki, who started a shipping company in 1870 with three old steamships. The firm added several branches over the next two decades, including shipyards, mining, banking, and insurance. In 1917 it produced its first production car, the Mitsubishi Model A. The company was broken up after the Second World War, but many of its branches merged in 1954 to bring it back. It’s still massive today, and its holdings include paper mills, beer, heavy machinery, chemicals, and appliances.
Hyundai the car company is just a small part of Hyundai Group, at one time the largest conglomerate in Korea. It was founded by Chung Ju Yung, who started Hyundai as a construction company in 1946. He took advantage of the Korean government’s push for industrial expansion and founded the Hyundai Motor Company in 1967, and later added several other branches, including ships, locomotives, road- and bridge-building, oil drilling equipment, consumer electronics, and musical instruments. Chung, who died in 2001, even made an unsuccessful bid for the Korean presidency in 1992.
Kia traces back to 1944 with the founding of Kyungsung Precision Industries, which made steel tubing. The company turned some of that into bicycle frames, and in 1951, began bicycle production and was renamed Kia Industries. Motor scooters followed in 1957 and motorcycles in 1961, and in 1962 Kia built its first three-wheeled truck. Its first car, the Brisa sedan, appeared in 1974. Kia was weakened by the 1997 Korean financial crisis, and Hyundai bought controlling interest in 1998.
Like Toyota, Suzuki started out making silk looms, founded by Michio Suzuki in 1909 as the Suzuki Loom Works. The company tried to diversify into automobiles in the 1930s, but never got beyond prototypes before the Second World War began. It launched a motorized bicycle in 1952. Renamed the Suzuki Motor Company in 1954, it introduced its first motorcycle in March 1955, and seven months later, a minicar.
No longer in the auto business, Saab often advertised its cars as being “born from jets” because of its aircraft heritage. The name stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktie Bolag, or Swedish Airplane Corporation, and the company was founded in 1937 to build military aircraft as it became obvious Europe was heading for war. It continued to build planes after the war – and still does today – but wanted to diversify. The company’s first car, the Saab 92, went into production in 1949.
Volvo sprang from a Swedish company founded in 1907 called Aktiebolaget Svenska Kullagerfabriken, better known as bearing manufacturing SKF. In 1924, its sales manager Assar Gabrielsson met with Gustaf Larson, who had worked for an auto company in England, and the two decided to build a car specifically for Sweden. SKF funded the venture, which turned out its first production models in 1927. The Volvo name comes from the Latin version of “I Roll,” in homage to ball bearings.
In 1912, André Citroën founded a company to make double-helical gears with chevron-shaped teeth. To help create a market for them, he took over engineering management of Mors, a Paris-based automaker. He started his own auto company in 1919, using mass-production methods copied from Henry Ford, and by 1921 was building 10,000 cars a year. The chevron emblem on Citroën grilles is based on the shape of the company’s original “herring-bone” gear design.
If it was still around, Studebaker would be the world’s oldest auto company. It was founded as a wagon shop in Indiana in 1852, and made military wagons during the Civil War. Its first cars, in 1902, were electric. Studebaker folded in the U.S. at the end of 1963, but continued to build cars at its Canadian branch in Hamilton, Ontario before finally closing entirely in 1966.