The spectrum of what a car brand gets its name from is really astonishingly broad: planets, gods, family names, acronyms, made-up words, words adapted from Latin, two or three letters, you know the drill. For the most part, a car marque gets a name from a fairly lofty or evocative source; a ringed planet, a fleet god with winged shoes, a family’s storied name, a lithe jungle cat. But there is one very well-known, if currently deceased, brand that has a name origin story of far humbler inspiration, even if that origin story was later ret-conned to be something with a lot more gravity. I’m not clear how well-known this story is, either. It’s not exactly a secret, it’s been definitely told and written about before, but I, a car-obsessed dipshit, hadn’t heard it until fairly recently, so I figured there may be others of you out there, still sadly ignorant of the fact that a major car brand was named for binder twine. Yes, like that scratchy thin rope stuff. Twine.
The car brand in question is Plymouth, one of the former key pillars on the edifice of the Temple of Chrysler, and most of us think we know what Plymouth was named for because their logo has looked like this over the years:
Yes, a big ship. Since the brand started in 1928 to when it ended in 2001 (with a bang called the Prowler, it’s worth noting) at various times a logo featuring a specific old sailing vessel, the Mayflower, was used. The Mayflower is, of course, the famous ship that in 1620 brought a boatload of fussy Puritans to America from England, where they did a lot of starving but eventually established the Plymouth Colony, which set in motion a chain of historical events that culminated in the existence, among a number of other things, of the Dunkin’ Donuts chain. There’s probably other significant results, too.
According to the Chrysler/Mopar-obsessed website AllPar, Chrysler’s official line on the origins of the Plymouth name was this:
“Product of Chrysler engineering and craftsmanship, Plymouth has been so named because its endurance and strength, ruggedness and freedom from limitations so accurately typify that Pilgrim band who were the first American Colonists.”
That certainly sounds plausible, and fits with the visual identity of the brand, so closely linked to those buckle-hatted pilgrims and their big wooden ship. But that’s not really how it got that name.
The original goal of the Plymouth brand was to be an entry-level brand to compete with Chevrolet and Ford. Chrysler knew this wouldn’t be easy, as between the two mainstream brands, that market was pretty well locked down. Still, when Chrysler was considering this plan, the Ford Model T was nearing the end of its life, and was seeming archaic and sales were slowing. There was a likely opportunity here.
A lot of the potential buyers for a low-priced car were farmers, and while the percentage of farmers in America was on the decline, the 1920 census still showed over 30 million farmers, about 30% of the workforce. So there was plenty of market there to sell to. The story goes that Joe Frazer, later to go on to found the Kaiser-Frazer car company, who was working for Chrysler at the time, is the one who came up with the Plymouth name.
The reason he chose that name had nothing to do with pilgrims or Puritans or colonies or sailing ships or historically significant rocks or anything like that; he chose it because it was a name he felt would be familiar to farmers, thanks to their familiarity with a product called Plymouth Binder Twine.
The Plymouth Cordage Company made this useful farmer’s twine, which I suppose was used to secure sheaves of things or maybe a tractor hood in place, or perhaps keep some pants up or really, almost anything. It was twine.
Walter P. Chrysler was from Kansas, and while his father was a railroad employee, he was surrounded by farms and agriculture and, yes, plenty of Plymouth Binder Twine. He got the appeal, and saw the value in making a car with a familiar name, one they could sort of piggyback onto decades and decades of familiarity and goodwill. It seemed to have worked. When the first Plymouth hit the scene in 1928, it sold well, and by 1931 had reached the third best sales position, and the next year was the only car to actually improve sales, even despite the Great Depression.
So, I guess it worked! Sure, Chrysler never actually admitted that the car was named for twine, instead preferring to push the narrative that it was named for the whole first Thanksgiving/Pilgrims mythos, but now we all know the truth: Plymouth is the only major automotive marque ever to be named for really scratchy string.
Maybe GM or Stellantis or The Volkswagen Group will decide to launch a new EV-only brand called Sisal or Jute, but until then, I think Plymouth’s distinction is pretty safe.
The Frazer Vagabond/Kaiser Traveler Was The Most Amazing Car That Becomes A Truck That You Never Heard Of
The Wildly Different Cars Named For A Type Of Ship Or A Thing That Cuts Hair
Here’s The Ridiculous Way The Oldsmobile 442 Got Its Name, Plus A Bunch Of Cars I Renamed Using Even More Ridiculous Methods
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And I’ll stop here rather than string you along.
I’ll stop now since I’m making myself sick.