This Is Why We Call Cars Sedans, Limousines, And Saloons

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Everyone knows what a sedan is, right? Of course you do. They’re three-box cars, often with four doors, and two rows of seats. They’re pretty much the shape of the generic, iconic everycar used to convey the very concept of “car.” Did you ever wonder why they’re called “sedans?” No? Too bad, I’m going to tell you anyway. And, I may as well tell you about where the words “limousine” and “saloon” come from as well, because, why not?

All of these words refer to closed-bodied cars. Closed cars were in use even before the word “sedan” was associated with automobiles; those cars were called “limousines” or “saloons.” At the time, they all meant generally the same thing: a car with a fixed roof and actual doors.

As time went on, the words began to differentiate themselves: conventional, three-box (usually engine, passenger compartment, and trunk, though rear-engine cars reversed that) were known as sedans in America and saloons in British English-speaking countries. Limousines eventually came to refer specifically to luxurious, usually elongated versions of sedans, especially in America.


That still doesn’t explain where these words actually come from, so let’s take care of that right now:


Limousine is a word of French origin, and originally referred to a city in central France called Limoges. The locals there sometimes wore a cloak called a limousin, which featured a hood that extended over the wearer’s face.


The hood sort of resembled the extended roof that gave the chauffeur some little bit of weather protection, though not nearly as much as the enclosed cabin that the people of proper breeding got to enjoy.


Even though later limousine designs soon relented and allowed the hired driving help indoors, the name stuck. So, a limousine is named after the hood on a French cloak.


I know the British seem to have goofy car-words for everything (bonnet, spanner, probably dolly-flaps or some shit) and their insistence on saloon for a three-box, closed car is no exception.


If you’re thinking that the word ‘saloon’ reminds you of the other word ‘saloon,’ that place where cowboys drink whiskey and piano players get threatened with gunfire, that’s because, duh, they’re the same word and come from the same source.


‘Saloon’ comes from the French word (again!) salon, which just meant a large room, really. Once adopted into English, the word began to refer to gatherings of artists or intellectuals or people pretending to be one or both.

Saloon started as an 18th-century variation of salon, and by the 1800s, the word began to be used to describe the cowboy bars we all know and love, and, more relevantly, large passenger cars on trains. From there, it followed that automobiles with a largeish, enclosed passenger compartment could also be referred to as a saloon.


For whatever reason, in Britian this stuck, but not so much in America. We settled on a different term, which I’ll get to next.


Finally, this one isn’t of French origin: it’s Latin. Well, Latin and Italian. The base root word is the Latin word sedes/sedere, a verb that means “to sit.” From there came the early 1600s Italian word sedan, from the Italian word sede (chair), which was a “covered chair on poles,” something like an enclosed litter.


The word was introduced to England in the 1630s, replacing the more cumbersome term “covered chair.” The transition from a box with a chair in it, carried by some poor bastards at front and rear, to a motor vehicle of roughly the same proportions (smaller on each end, bigger and boxy in the middle) was pretty straightforward, since they were both enclosed vehicles, of a sort.

It is odd that “sedan” (or somethimes “sedan chair”) as a term for this type of human-powered vehicle started in England, yet the term for the mechanically-operated vehicle named after it was almost never used there.


In America, it appears that the first car to be referred to as a ‘sedan’ was the Ohio-built 1911 Speedwell. That first sedan was an enclosed, two-door car, though, annoyingly, I’ve yet to find a picture of that car.

Look at how much more you now know! Eat it, ignorance!