What's in a Name

Well, when you think about it, a lot can be packed into a name:

A description
A function
An emotion.

The Society of Automobile Engineers were considering “function” as they met in 1916 to codify model names for horseless carriages that had already been in use for some time. The Nomenclature Division submitted its proposed classifications in June; the report was adopted on August 1, 1916, and formally published in their minutes in September.

SAE Nomenclature Report courtesy Hathi Trust Digital Library

SAE Nomenclature Report courtesy Hathi Trust Digital Library

Although many manufacturers had thrived for ages building horse-drawn carriages, by 1918 it was for all intents a moribund industry, kicked to the curb by the advent of automobiles. Section XVIII of the SAE report proposed uniform descriptions of body types, some of which had carried over from the carriage trade, and some that were new even to automobiles.

Many terms regarding carriages were already well-known from years of being used, and so the SAE report focused on ten to define broad categories of powered transport. Times were changing, and so too were descriptive terms regarding automobiles, some of which were not uniformly defined when comparing between manufacturers. As the Nomenclature Division reported,

A scheme of classification based entirely on assemblies is
impracticable for general use, on account of diverse arrangement
of elements of so-called conventional cars. The classification adopted is therefore based largely on function.

The purpose of this initial step was to bring some simplicity and uniformity to names and categories that were used by manufacturers. As the SAE stated, “It is surprising how many distinctly different types of body are being sold under the name ‘brougham,’ for instance.”

Ironically, the ten terms that the SAE defined in its 1916 report did not include “brougham,” which was a well-known model of automobile with an enclosed passenger compartment and an open compartment for the chauffer. Their explanation: “In most cases the (non-included) names do not need defining to anyone familiar with automobile construction…” In fact, several other model names that were either currently in use or would still be during the 1920s were not listed in this nomenclature report.

Many names, along with the models that they represented, did not survive the subsequent decades of the twentieth century, but a few did in the SAE list of ten, which surprisingly did not contain the term “speedster,” even though by 1916, and certainly by 1922, it was a well-established model that was distinctly different from a roadster or a convertible/cabriolet.

Remo Raceabout Bodies for Model T ad courtesy Larry Sigworth collection

Remo Raceabout Bodies for Model T ad courtesy Larry Sigworth collection

However, keeping things defined in the broadest of terms, the SAE picked “roadster” as their go-to topless car and defined it to be

an open car seating two or three. It may have additional seats on
running boards or in rear deck.

Other models that seemed similar were nevertheless differentiated from the roadster. For instance: a “couplet” “seats two or three. It has a folding top and full-height doors with disappearing panels of glass.” And, a “convertible coupe” was “a roadster provided with a detachable coupe top.” These distinctions, of course, would melt over the decades to describe “roadster” and “convertible.” Today these two terms are almost interchangeable. Word meanings evolve.

However, one thing is clear: neither name raises blood pressure, connects to the race track, nor brings the madding crowds into the showroom.

And why?

Both model names describe and define their function. Both terms, however, lack emotion or excitement!

Neither term captures the zing, the sizzle, the je ne sais quoi of the term “speedster.” Speedster was a mojo word that rose up from everyday people, a slang term that had become an official model name as car companies discovered that this type of car turned heads.

Now, why didn’t the SAE adopt this term?

Well, in 1922, they were still arguing in public forums to justify their adoption of words like “phaeton” which defined an open touring car. With its adoption, the SAE had supplanted older popular names such as “tonneau,” and a kerfuffle ensued. Tonneau faded, but phaeton, too, became a word that fell into disuse by the 1940s. Bureaucracies rarely get things right, now, do they…

However… the model name “speedster” prevailed! It still excites the blood and evokes an image of a simple but powerful car made for fun and adventure. Speedsters are manufactured to this day, and we will cover that topic another time.

2018 Porsche 911 Speedster concept courtesy Porsche AG

2018 Porsche 911 Speedster concept courtesy Porsche AG