5 automakers that weren’t always automakers
Many of today’s great automakers have been around for a long time, but they weren’t always automakers. Over the years, the following names have dabbled in everything from stationery and home appliances to aircraft and firearms. Sometimes, they’ve even found themselves on the wrong side of history. Whatever your thoughts on their actions past or present, there’s always a fun fact or two to be found in their back catalogues!
To kick things off, we have perhaps the most iconic name there is – Porsche. Named after Ferdinand Porsche, the first of many Ferdinands in the Porsche family. Porsche didn’t just start the company that bears his name, he also designed a little car called the Volkswagen Beetle – you may have heard of it. Ferdinand the first also built the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle in 1899 – the Lohner-Porsche Mixte. You’ve got to be a man of some skill when the Mercedes SSK is one of your less notable achievements. But there are two sides to every coin. Whether it was done willingly or forced upon him by circumstance is a volatile debate, but Porsche was involved in producing wartime machinery under the Nazi regime including tank prototypes and amphibious vehicles like the Kubelwagen. Whatever your views on his allegiances, Ferdinand Porsche’s resumé is without equal. Even the greatest only get a few shots at glory. Ford had the Model T, Issigonis had the Mini, but Porsche had the Mixte, the Beetle, the 356 and subsequent 911 (designed by his son), among others. Make of that what you will.
Before they were making some of the world’s best rally cars, Mitsubishi made lean, mean (and green) kamikaze machines in the form of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero – one of the best naval fighters of WWII. The Zero launched from aircraft carriers, and was the villain of the infamous Pearl Harbour attack. It turned tighter and flew farther than its contemporaries, and was the carrier-based fighter to beat in the early years of WWII. Time defeated the Zero, with Japan losing resources and economic might towards the end of the war. Stronger fighters arrived, having learnt their lessons from previous encounters with the Zero. Then, it became the flying coffin of many a Japanese youth in a last-ditch effort to preserve the Emperor’s honour. These days, you might find the Mitsubishi name on family-friendly cruise ships and humble tankers, or something smaller like air conditioners or even mechanical pencils. With Lancers and Pajeros consigned to history, precious little remains of Mitsubishi’s illustrious automotive past. But rest assured, they’re still building fighter aircraft.
Saab cars have always been slightly unusual, and they’ve had a reputation for having slightly unusual owners. Sometimes, it’s the 92 that resembles a shoe but has a drag coefficient of 0.30 (very good). Other times, it’s the bobble-headed 900 that looks wildly disproportionate but offers top-notch visibility. Saab started out in life as an aircraft manufacturing company meant to preserve Sweden’s military neutrality. Initially, Saabs were flown exclusively by the Swedish Air Force. Like their cars, Saab aircraft had a reputation for being unusual. The most unusual was perhaps the Saab 35 Draken (Dragon), which employed a double-delta wing design that hasn’t been seen before or since on a series production aircraft. Today, Saab Auto have been driven to bankruptcy by their small size and limited appeal, and Saab Aircraft have abandoned their weirdness in search of international military sales. They now produce the relatively conventional JAS 39 Gripen. Nevertheless, there remains a loyal faction of 'slightly unusual’ aviation and automotive enthusiasts who remember Saab’s trademark weirdness fondly as a lone differing voice in a sea of business as usual.
One may have seen a Yamaha motorcycle under a small Italian man with ’46’ plastered on his back, but did you ever wonder why a motorcycle brand’s logo featured three tuning forks? It’s because the bikes came later, and Yamaha was originally founded as a manufacturer of musical instruments. Like so many of today’s great motorcycle brands, Yamaha was forced into the automotive business by post-WWII strife and the need for affordable transportation. But they never forgot their roots – Yamaha electric and acoustic pianos have routinely been ranked as the best in the world, going toe-to-toe with specialist brands like Steinway, Roland, and many more. And bikes and pianos aren’t even the only things they make! The world of music and motorcycles once intersected in the archetypal rockstar, who adorned himself with fast bikes and shiny guitars in an effort to accentuate his manhood. In music, no other brand can claim to have equal accomplishment in both those fields. No guitar company can publish pictures of a bike and a guitar and have them share the same name. And just in case you thought that music was now Yamaha’s side quest, they happen to be the largest manufacturers of musical instruments in the world. Beat that, Honda!
There’s nothing left to be said about Royal Enfield, there’s little nostalgic adulation of the puttering Bullet the Indian ear hasn’t heard. Even if it is in Indian hands now, RE remains a remnant of the colonial past. Bullets roved these lands before these lands had names of their own. For this little nugget of history, we must go back a few centuries. The famous ‘Made Like A Gun’ slogan isn’t just marketing puffery. Royal Enfield did, in fact, make guns as a part of BSA. BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) was a consortium of fourteen gunsmiths who came together in the 19th century to manufacture firearms. They were made in the ‘Gun Quarter’ in Birmingham, then the weapons manufacturing capital of the world. It’s also why BSA, under Mahindra’s ownership, retains its logo featuring three crossed rifles. One of the founding members of BSA was Royal Enfield of Redditch (yes, that one), another was Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) Enfield. But here’s the kicker, RSAF Enfield as a part of BSA was responsible for the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle – the gun that triggered the Revolt of 1857 in the hands of Mangal Pandey.