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Why do we call defective cars lemons?

When you buy a new car, the hope is the expensive purchase will be perfect.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. When a new automobile begins to fall apart well before it should, buyers feel cheated. West Virginians call these low-quality cars lemons, but why?

While the origin of this slang doesn’t have one solid answer, there are some strong theories:

The face

One theory is that both a lemon car and a lemon elicit the same pained, puckered expression. The face a person makes when their new car is stuck on the side of the road is like the one made after biting into a lemon.

Layers of a lemon

The flip side of the fruit-related explanation is that it relates to the appearance. A lemon, like a new car, looks shiny and appealing. However, if you bite into the lemon you get a mouth full of sour, bitter fruit.

The same applies to a lemon car. It looks perfect sitting on the lot, but once you drive it the flaws become painfully obvious.

1900s slang

Another idea is that the phrase comes from American slang. Lemon in the early 20th century meant a hustle. The idea was that once someone discovered they had been taken advantage of, their face looked like they had eaten a…well, you know.

The thought is that buying a junk car gives you the exact feeling of being hustled.

The Volkswagen ad

While defective cars were called lemons by most people in 1960, an ad from Volkswagen cemented the term in our vocabulary.

The ad featured a Volkswagen Beetle with the word lemon below the car. The ad is highlighting Volkswagen’s rigorous testing process but that image of a bad car being a lemon stuck.

These are a few of the theories for why we call bad cars lemons. No matter what the reason is behind it, getting a lemon is never a fun experience.

If you think you’ve purchased a lemon or want to know how to tell, a skilled consumer rights attorney can help.

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The Grubb Law Group

The Grubb Law Group
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