If you’ve ever turned on your headlights, put something in the trunk, or boasted about your car’s horsepower, then you’ve reached back into the automobile’s earlier days, and maybe even long before that.
While most of our terms today are modern—obviously, those first Model T owners never discussed dual-zone climate control or Bluetooth—we still use a few from days gone by.
Headlamps and tail lamps
Cars don’t have heads or tails, but horses do, and the term dates back to those original four-footed engines and the rudimentary lighting used by riders and those in wagons or carriages. They were called lamps because that’s exactly what they were: candles in protective lanterns. Eventually, early cars used gas lanterns that burned kerosene, oil, or acetylene gas, obtained by dripping water into a tank containing calcium carbide rocks.
Yes, there really was a horse in horsepower. James Watt came up with the term, sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s, when he was working on steam engines and needed a benchmark to determine power ratings. He looked at pit ponies, the horses that were used to haul coal out of mines, and calculated that one horsepower was a horse raising 330 pounds of coal, up 100 feet, in one minute. You’ve probably already noticed that his calculation measured pound-feet, which is also the modern measurement for torque.
Watt’s original computation is now standardized to one horsepower equals the power needed to lift 550 pounds by one foot, in one second. Europeans measure engines in watts, with one horsepower equal to 746 watts. And James Watts’ name further lives on in our light bulbs--yes, that 60-watt rating pays homage to him as well.
Strictly speaking, hubcaps only go over the hub, although wheel discs, which cover the entire wheel, are often called hubcaps as well. The term dates back to horse-drawn carriages, which had metal caps placed over the axle hubs to keep out dirt. The wooden-spoked wheels on early cars carried on the tradition, and they remained in place when those spokes were replaced with steel wheels. Today, wheel discs are rare, since most cars run alloy wheels rather than steel ones. They have covers over the hub, but these are more commonly called centre caps.
The new long-n-lean styling of the 1950s introduced us to the flat hood that we know today, replacing the peaked hoods of the 1940s. Why hood? That’s pretty much what it originally was: a hood over the engine. Some of the earliest ones lifted off in one piece, while later ones were two-piece and were hinged to a bar that ran from the radiator to the cowl. These were lifted up to access the engine, and were often called “butterfly” hoods because they resembled insects with their wings up when they were open.
Most cars of the 1920s and early 1930s didn’t have interior storage areas, since the back seats butted right up to the rear panel. If you had cargo, you literally put it in the trunk. The car would be fitted with a fold-down rack, and when you needed to carry something, you’d unfold it and attach a steamer-style trunk. This would be filled, closed with leather straps or metal locks, and you’d be on your way.
We usually just say dash today, but it’s short for dashboard, and it dates back to horse-drawn wagons. The dashboard was a wooden board fitted to the front of the wagon. It was usually on an angle, so the driver and front passengers could put their feet against it, making the ride more comfortable. But its main purpose was to keep mud—and horse exhaust—from splashing up and getting everyone dirty.
The dashboard design continued onto the earliest cars, which were basically just carriages with engines instead of horses attached. As car design evolved, the dashboard morphed into the firewall between the engine and passengers. The first gauges were mounted directly on this wooden panel, which eventually led to “dashboard” being the name for the section that held the instrument cluster.
This term for a vehicle’s floor structure is becoming outdated itself, although older drivers may still use it to describe a car's floor structure. It dates to early cars, which had floors that were made out of wooden boards.
The story goes that Henry Ford, when ordering parts from outside suppliers, would include very specific instructions for the size of the crates in which they were shipped. Once the crates were empty, his workers would take them apart and use the boards for floors, since they were cut to exactly the right size. There’s no telling if that actually happened, but it’s all part of what makes the automobile so fascinating, right down to the names we use today.