Why Is a Car Called a Whip?

From a horse's stable to Kanye West's garage, the whip has been around for more than a century. What's up with that?

Senior cowboy on horse using bullwhip, driving cattle, rear view
Steve Bly—Getty Images

The lineage of the word "whip" in reference to a vehicle is a rich one. You probably didn't know that, since it's become commonplace idiom. We use the term all the time to sound younger than we are, and like we know "what the happs." But the truth is, unlike much of what today's youth say, whip actually has depth, meaning, an etymology—and people have been using it in this context for decades. Imagine that.  

It all starts with an actual whip. Then it migrates to the steering wheel, then to hip-hip, and eventually to your dining room table, where it lives today. 

Before the steering wheel, there was the whip

Here's a car guy's description of how you control a bunch horses tied to a carriage or stagecoach that you're sitting on: You grab hold of a whip, wield it with the threat of force and the occasional whipcrack. Assholes and sadists actually whip the horses. Then eventually the stagecoach you're holding onto for dear life will turn in the direction you want it to go. This is how people used to steer vehicles. 

When the combustion engine was placed into the carriage near the turn of the last century, designers turned to yachting for inspiration in the steering system, and installed a "tiller" that functioned similar to those found on sailboats. That worked fine, because people were so freaked out about the engine that the familiarity of using a tiller was reassuring, and likely boosted sales. 

Like most great things, innovation came from motorsports

The track the introduction of the actually steering wheel, you have to transport yourself to the 1894 Paris–Rouen race, where a gentleman named Alfred Vacheron installed a wheel  a 4 horsepower Pahhard driven by Alfred Vacheron. Turns out the act of steering with a wheel is intuitive, and all the marques quickly adapted it for commercial use. It also allows the driver to brace himself with both hands and stabilize his body by gripping the wheel.

The transition to the wheel was so seamless that people still called it a whip: The thing you steer the carriage with.

And then along came hip-hop

And so it was until the 1990s, when someone—not even rap genius or urban dictionary knows preciesly who—took a look at the Mercedes-Benz logo on the steering wheel and felt that it resembled a whip. So for a while, a whip referred specifically to a Mercedes-Benz. Our sources at Mercedes-Benz USA claim no knowledge of this, though the evidence of corporate complicity can—as ever—be tracked via social media:   

Eventually, the word became normalized, and now refers to any car on the road.