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In the early days of the automobile, it seemed like everybody wanted in, including tractor manufacturers.
It made sense: these companies already had dealers in rural areas where automakers hadn’t yet set up shop. Case and International tried it, although their success was short-lived, victims of old-fashioned styling and the constraints of the First World War.
John Deere didn’t get into auto production itself, but played a vital role in a very successful car called the Velie.
It was founded by Willard Velie, a grandson of John Deere who reluctantly joined the family business in Moline, Ill. And that’s where, when a travelling show came through town in 1901, he saw his first automobile and was smitten.
Within a year, he’d started his own company, although he initially made horse-drawn wagons. He used money from that venture, and possibly some “farm aid” from Deere, to produce his first car in 1908.
Velie believed the key to success was a good product, quick sales, and efficient production. The car rang in at $1,750, a real value for its high quality.
The Velie was initially sold through Deere’s dealers, and it appeared in the catalogue alongside horse collars. Its own dealer network was established by 1915. On average, the company built some 3,500 cars a year, recording a high of 9,000 in 1920. Things got even better when the U.S. navy looked at engine designs that could be developed for aircraft, and Velie made the final cut. Encouraged by this, Velie’s son Willard Jr. began producing engines for a small aircraft company, which Velie then bought. The planes became almost as successful as the cars.
But in 1928, Willard Velie died suddenly from a suspected embolism. Overwhelmed, his son closed the car plant a month later, and when he died of heart failure five months after his father’s death, the aircraft company was sold. The Velie plant became a John Deere factory.
Getting a grip on automaker handles
So what’s in a name? Ford’s Thunderbird honours the southwestern native legend of a divine bird (it was chosen over some 5,000 other suggestions, including Runabout, Beaver, and Hep Cat), while rival Chevrolet Corvette was named for the small war ships used during the Second World War.
Volvo, introduced in 1927, is Latin for “I roll,” while Bridgestone Tire, established in Japan in 1931, is named for founder Shojiro Ishibashi. He switched around “stone bridge,” the English translation of his surname.
And while many know that Willys, famous for its Jeeps during wartime, was named for founder John North Willys, most also pronounce it incorrectly. Rather than Will-ees, it’s actually Will-iss.
Those are all pretty clear, but the Mustang’s origin is a little foggier. Many say it was named for the P-51 Mustang fighter plane, not the horse. The plane had lent its name to the Mustang’s original prototype, after all.
But according to Lee Iacocca, who oversaw the Mustang’s development, the new car was first called the Special Falcon in its earliest stages, and then the Cougar. Other considerations included Torino, Monte Carlo, and Monaco, names which would later be used on cars made by Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge, respectively.
Ford asked its advertising agency to compile a list of animal names. Coincidentally, Mustang was included, although this time it was for the horse, not the plane. “We all liked Mustang,” Iacocca later wrote in his autobiography, and so the decision was made.