Before Boaty McBoatface hit the scene, ships had a history of being referred to as “she.” According to the Imperial War Museums, the tradition was rooted in the mother-goddess ideology of a protector.
But what about automobiles? They’re not necessarily a protector but have a sexy edge. So does the driver’s gender play into if a car is masculine or feminine?
Cars are often attributed masculine traits despite being frequently referred to as “she.” Car manufacturers are usually named after men. Also, car models frequently go by male names or evoke male imagery. But some car models do have women’s names, and many women buyers give their cars women’s names.
Herbie, the famous VW bug, was a cheeky guy. Then there is Lightening McQueen, another lad. Yet, they are not the norm in the real world of automobiles.
It is far more common for a car to have a name like McQueen’s girlfriend, Sally Carrera, a Porsche 911 (996). Yet unlike ships, the tradition is not rooted in superstition. Also, it may surprise you to learn who is behind most cars’ nicknames.
Emil Jellinek Names Mercedes, The First Feminine Car
You might think that the honor of naming an iconic car would be given to the person who built the first “practical” one to possess an internal-combustion engine. However, Karl (Carl) Friedrich Benz, the man behind the engineering triumph, would have to settle for his name being second best.
Instead, his name got shoved over when his company, Benz& Cie, merged with Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (another mouthful). The two companies came up with the highly forgettable name: Daimler-Benz.
Mixed up in all this was a man named Emil Jellinek, an insurance agent who was delighted by the idea of horseless carriages. So as a successful businessman with money to spare, he bought various models, beginning with a three-wheeled De Dion-Bouton, a motorized tricycle.
Soon, his passion led him to Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG), where he placed a special order for a DMG car with a 2-cylinder engine. However, it went too slow for his tastes (15mph / 24kph).
Eventually, DMG produced for him the first road-going four-cylinder car. Jellinek’s love for cars grew, and soon he was entering his special fleet of DMGs in races under the pseudonym Mercedes.
Eventually, Mercedes would take the lead in the car manufacturer’s name. But the groundbreaking decision remains unique.
Automotive Brands Take Male Names, But Models May Be Feminine
Mercedes-Benz is unique in that the car manufacturer’s name is after a woman, and even then, she shares it with a man. The rest of the automotive companies that are named after people all allude to men. Examples include:
- Bentley: After founder W.O. Bentley (Male)
- Chevrolet: In tribute to Louis Chevrolet (Male)
- Ford: After founder Henry Ford (Male)
- Porsche: After founder Ferdinand Porsche (Male)
- Lamborghini: After founder Ferruccio Lamborghini (Male)
- Tesla: In homage to Nikola Tesla (Male)
- Tucker: After founder Preston Tucker (Male)
However, when naming cars, manufacturers provide a broader scope. But many still lean into the male image. For example:
- Bugatti Veyron: After racer Pierre Veyron (Male)
- Ford Shelby: After designer and racer Carroll Shelby (Male)
- Koenigsegg Jesko: After founder’s father, Jesko von Koenigsegg (Male)
- McLaren Senna: After racer Ayrton Senna (Male)
- MINI Cooper: After racing legend John Cooper (Male)
- Ferrari Enzo: After founder Enzo Ferrari (Male)
Then there are names that, while gender-neutral, still carry traditional masculine traits of being rough, tough, or downright scary:
- Jeep Gladiator
- Dodge Challenger SRT Demon
- Dodge Viper
- Ford F-150 Raptor
- GMC Typhoon
- Land Rover Defender
- Studebaker Dictator
But there are many car models that lean into the feminine, even if some are fierce:
- Alfa Romeo Guilia (After Federico Fellini’s wife, Guilietta Masina)
- Aston Martin Valkyrie
- Chevrolet Corvette (Feminine French word for a type of fast navy warship)
- Fiat 125 Samantha
- Ford Crown Victoria
- Lotus Elise (Named after the granddaughter of Lotus’ chairman in 1995)
- McLaren Elva (French for “she goes”)
- Mazda Carol
- Nissan Laurel
- Renault Zoe
Who Names Their Cars: Men Or Women?
Traditionally men were sailors and named ships in tribute (and superstition) to the mother-goddess arch type to symbolize the role of women as carriers and protectors.
Men were also at the forefront of the car industry. After all, Mercedes, while a women’s name, was bequeathed to the car by a man.
Women remain the minority in the automotive industry management (22.4% in 2021). Thus, you’d be forgiven for assuming most cars are named by men.
Yet, when it comes to consumer power, women rule, influencing 85% of automobile purchasing decisions and representing over 62% of buyers.
Hence, it isn’t surprising that more women are responsible for nicknaming their cars. Yet, like sailors in times of yore, women are more likely to give their vehicles women’s names.
Oddly enough, it is the men that seem to perceive their cars as male, just like automotive companies.
Why Are Cars Referred To As “She”?
Cars are often referred to as “she” despite often being given names like Ford Shelby and MINI Cooper.
“She’s a beauty” is a phrase uttered by many working the floor of an auto dealership. Theories commonly refer to sailor traditions, as mentioned above. But some argue it is a matter of linguistics.
For example, in French, “voiture” (car) is a feminine word. Similarly, in Italian, “macchina” (car) is feminine.
But it isn’t true for Spanish, where “coche” and “automóvil” are both masculine words. Nor does English give their nouns masculine-feminine classifications.
However, English does favor certain words for one gender more than another. For example, a man is typically handsome, whereas a woman is beautiful.
Also, when speaking of sleek curves on a body, people generally are discussing the female form, not the chiseled angles associated with masculine strength.
As much as cars are discussed in horsepower and speed, qualities often attributed to men, the language of an engine also harkens back to vocabulary associated with women.
Consider the phrase, “the engine purrs.” Cats are associated with women, and dogs with men, despite many women owning dogs and plenty of men being adopted by cats.
A purr is also associated with allure, sexual appeal, and red lipstick. It conjures up the idea of a racy thrill and passion.
But there have been arguments that cars are referred to as “she” because they are owned objects. They point to the history of men and women and how often women are “won” or a trophy, as in “trophy wife.”
However, while sexism in the male-dominated automotive industry has a long history, the issue appears more complex than objectifying, especially since women do the bulk of the nicknaming.
Instead, when talking to people about their cars in person or across social media, they speak of them like old friends, a reliable pal, or a partner in (mostly legal) crime.
Then some talk of their car like a mishappened mutt that looks quirky and needs a lot of TLC. In short, many folks talk about their vehicle like a pet.
Unlike ships, cars do not have a long history of being given feminine names. However, it is true that they are often referred to as “she,” which may have to do with associates of terms such as “beauty” and “curves.”
But when it comes to giving cars nicknames, it’s mostly women doing it.