Confronting Thanatophobia

Could your car be trying to tell you something?

(c) Vancello blog hu

Research has shown that the number one fear for most people is speaking in public. Fear of death (thanatophobia) comes second – or as comedian Jerry Seinfeld once concluded: “That means for most that they would rather be in the casket than reading the eulogy“.

Still, fear of death is pervasive enough to generate superstition in many forms around the world. In some cultures this effect is stronger than in others and it can be so powerful as to force car manufacturers to change the nomenclature of a vehicle.

That the number 13 is generally considered unlucky is no secret- so it is no surprise that Renault who had started to utilize numbers to name its cars in 1961 with the 4 never brought a Renault 13 to market. They did introduce the 15 and 17 Coupé twins in 1971 however, and the latter led to fierce resistance in Italy.

In Latin, the number 17 is written as XVII. An anagram of this is VIXI, which means “My life is over” in Latin. The Italians feel quite strongly about avoiding this dreaded number; the national airline Alitalia for instance neither has a seat or row 17. When this problem was pointed out to La Regie, their solution was to change the name to 177.

Problem solved, but since the 15 remained unchanged it made for a somewhat illogical sounding lineup. Incidentally, 13 is considered a lucky number in Italy, except in some specific contexts such as seating arrangements at a dinner table.

The Italians may have a fear of just one specific number, but the Cantonese-speaking Chinese have several. This caused problems for, somewhat ironically, Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo 164 was a success at the time of its introduction across Europe, but in markets like Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau it sold rather
poorly. Alfa Romeos management was informed by the Hong Kong branch that 164 when roughly translated in Cantonese means The more you travel, the more you die.

Numbers, they explained, when pronounced phonetically can sound like certain words to the Cantonese Chinese. Luckily the Cantonese also perceive certain numbers to be lucky. Thus the badge was changed to 168- this translates to The more you travel, the wealthier you will be. Much better.
As in Italy, 13 is considered a lucky number in Cantonese speaking areas as well as it means sure to live.

The lucky numbers for the Cantonese speaking are 2 (positive, easy attitude), 6 (flowing, smooth), 8 (prosperity, wealth) and 9 (Long lasting). Considered unlucky are 4 (death) and 7 (gone, lost).

When we examine some other cars of the past with numerical badges, it seems Ferrari was good with their 328 (life of easy prosperity). Porsche is a mixed bag, with the 928 (long lasting easy prosperity) on the positive side of the ledger but 944 (long lasting double death) less so.

And one wonders if the faith in numbers of the Cantonese speaking regions would still be intact if the Renault 9 (long lasting) had actually been sold there. In this respect, the SAAB 99 (double long lasting) more accurately reflected the actual qualities of the product.

Finally, 666 – the number of the beast – has understandably never been considered as a badge by any manufacturer. However, in 2005 a new translation of the Book of Revelations unequivocally showed it to be 616*; Mazda will be relieved.

* Source: Professor D. Parker, University of Birmingham.

24 thoughts on “Confronting Thanatophobia”

  1. Hi Brrrruno,

    I’ve only learned about the 17 being renamed 177 in Italy about 2 weeks ago myself ! Very instructive article, thank you

  2. The Saab 99 was double long lasting even outside Cantonese speaking areas so ita badge told nothing but truth…

  3. I wonder if Alfa Romeo had a logic behind their naming scheme: the assortment of 33, 75 147, 155, 169 all seemed a bit random

    1. The reworked Alfasud was called 33 in the vain hope that some of the image of the all conquering 33 racers would transfer to it. The 75 got its name to commemorate 75 years of Alfa Romeo.
      The others were named according to size and generation: 155-156-159, 145/146-147, 164-166. There was no 169. Not overwhelmingly logical

  4. Saab brazenly used everything from single digit to 4 digits over the years: 9.3, 99, 900, 9000

  5. The Chinese fear of the number four also led Citroën to rename their C4 to C-Quatre for China. No change of meaning, but the sound might be more like something lucky or prosperous.
    Peugeot’s 408 (a 308 with a boot) must have caused mixed feelings there, uniting 4 and 8 in the same car. You’d probably better sit at the right side in this one.

    1. But DS still named their Chinese compact DS 4S. Unless the added ‘S’ is supposed to cancel out the bad luck ?

    2. On the subject of the DS 4S, it wasn’t a bad-looking thing in my opinion. It might have fared better than our own European schizophrenic DS4 had it been offered on the continent, although Iam not sure it fares in other areas (handling, value, etc…)

  6. Fascinating stuff, thank you Bruno and commenters. NRJ, your “169” is no more random than other Alfa Romeo model numbers, so don’t worry!

    My only (un)lucky number anecdote concerns my 1987 Mercedes 190E company car, registration number E114 OEL. A acquaintance of mine who had a doctorate in biochemistry, upon first seeing it, commented that it was a “particularly nasty additive”. I note that this particular E-number is not listed, so it must have been pretty toxic!

    The Irish registration plate format and will be well known by many on DTW. For those that don’t, the format was two digits representing the year of first registration, follow by one or two letters identifying the county in which the car was registered, followed by number of up to five digits, assigned sequentially. Here are a couple of examples:

    The first is the 667th car to be registered in County Kerry in 2008. The second is the 21,158th car to be registered in Dublin in 1999. All very sensible and straightforward.

    However, as they approached 2013, the the authorities and dealers realised that there would be significant resistance to the number 13 appearing on a registration plate, so they altered the system to add a third digit, a 1 for cars registered in the first six months of the year and a 2 for cars registered in the second six months of the year. Here are two examples of the post 2013 format:

    These needs no further explanation, other than to say that the Gaelic name of the relevant county appears in full above the number.

    1. Thank you for that. It´s news to me that superstition drove the numbering policy. On balance, it harmed nobody but I still feel uneasy that the state pandered to this unreason, however mild. I find the three digits unsightly.

    2. Are you sure that’s the full explanation? What I remember from the time is that the motor trade were getting rather fed up with having all their new sales in the first few months of the year and they lobbied for a change which resulted in the year being divided in two thus giving a second and reduced sales peak in July. I’d guess that choosing 2013 for the first year of the change had more than a touch of triskaidekaphobia about it though.

    3. Hi DP. I report the story as it was told to me by Irish relatives, so you may well be right. However, the current Irish registration format was introduced in 1984, so it took the Irish motor trade 29 years to address the problem!

      Personally, I wouldn’t be bothered as to whether my new car was a 191 or 192 and agree with Richard that both are less elegant than the former two-digit numbers. However, the statistics tell a different story: up to 2012, Irish new private car registrations were roughly similar in June and July. Since then, sales in June are low, followed by a big jump in July. Here are the numbers for the past fifteen years:

      YEAR JUNE JULY
      2005 14,950 14,149
      2006 15,048 14,905
      2007 15,465 15,738
      2008 7,369 16,175 (A financial crisis aberration?)
      2009 4,833 4,355
      2010 8,314 7,018
      2011 9,240 6,953
      2012 5,481 6,164
      2013 3,293 9,306 (new 131/132 system introduced)
      2014 3,390 14,037
      2015 3,924 21,290
      2016 4,143 22,462
      2017 3,585 21,316
      2018 3,716 20,743
      2019 3,858 18,741

      The moral of the story is clear: if you want to negotiate a good discount on your new car in Ireland, buy in June. If you intend to keep the car for a good period of time, the better discount will probably be greater than the resale penalty for having a “1” rather than “2” suffix on your number plate.

    4. Thank you Daniel, this was really instructive, and indeed
      the pattern is perfectly rational.

      What intrigued me, though, is the 2nd example (the Baile Atha Cliath plate) – is it from a particular car you know of, or just
      a random example? Asking because, in Kabalistic numerology,
      the sequence of numbers of that very plate looks somewhat… interesting, and I was curious whether that car perhaps
      has had a specific story, or something peculiar
      about it.

    5. You’re welcome, Al. No, the Dublin (Baile Átha Cliath) number plate is not known to me and I was unaware the number had any significance. That number plate is simply lifted from a random Google image search for Irish number plates. As far as I’m aware, the numbers are simply allocated sequentially. That said, it does appear to be be the case that very low numbers often end up on very expensive cars, which is unlikely to be coincidental!

      I’d be curious to know the Kabbalistic significance of 21158, if you could oblige?

  7. I recall with pleasure LJK Setright starting a column in CAR with the Mozart Bi-Centenary, moving on to his last work, the Requiem, then onto the Koechel catalogue numbers, and finally onto writing about the then latest Mazda 626. (The Requiem is K.626. Herr Dr Koechel catalogued Mozart’s work.) You’d never get away with that degree of digression in most mainstream magazines nowadays…

    1. We sometimes have a go on these pages. In the printed press, no, it´s not permitted, as far as I know. This cues a conversation about the diminished hinterland of automotive writers as much as the narrower terms of
      reference of the readers.

    2. Some* of the DTW commentariat are proud to have been awarded honorary doctorates in digression, in recognition of their sterling work on here…

      * Ok, just one…me!

    3. LJKS devoted quite a large part of one AOB, presumably in 1992 or 1993, to his pleasure that the first four characters of his new Prelude’s registration were the Köchel number for Mozart’s singspiel ‘Der Schauspieldirektor’ (The Impresario). I have to admit my complete ignorance of Köchel numbers before reading the article – so much gratitude to Setright, who was above all a brilliant teacher.

      That said, if his new Honda had been assigned K231 or K233 he would probably have thought better of celebrating the significance…

    4. Köchel numbers are normally stated as KVXXX where KV stands for ‘Köchel Verzeichnis’ (Koechel catalogue). Therefore LJKS should have philosophised about the first five characters of the registration number of his Prelude – or the fact that a Prelude should not wear a registration from Köchel Verzeichnis but one from BWV Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Bach works catalogue).

  8. Daniel,

    since you asked, I’d reluctantly disclose – pertaking a risk to disturb this wonderfully peaceful afternoon – that (from what I vaguely know about it, and slightly exaggerated for clarity),
    it could perhaps denote a wasted destiny. In the sense of
    a well-heeled but Bohemian individual who slowly departs orderly manner of living, succumbing to not insignificant subsequent episodes of adulterous behaviour, probably followed by a chain of premature and deeply problematic events (does not seem to end well).

    Hence my curiousity as to whether, perhaps, the car those plates belonged to was actually known.

    1. Thank you, Al. That would serve as an accurate description of the lives of a few people with whom I was acquainted during my City career, half a lifetime ago. I’ve always thought that a much better way to scratch the itch of a mid-life crisis is by buying a sports car: much less costly in the long run than an affair…

  9. The DVLA must have decided that the British are less superstitious than the Irish, as the 13-plate was allowed to run here. I was a little surprised that there wasn’t much fuss made about the current 69-plate.

    The good luck associated with the number 8 in China had unexpected benefits for Peugeot, giving it a good reason to stop its sequences at x(0)08, once it finally had to confront what to do once they caught up with already-used 309. No need to chase Porsche for originally naming the 911 as the 901 after all. Didn’t Peugeot have trouble when releasing the x007 models, from the James Bond people? Perhaps they should have created a sponsorship deal and put Bond in a 1007 instead of a Ford Ka in Quantum of Solace.

    1. Hi Tom S,

      I found this regarding the 1007:

      “Peugeot has been embarrassingly forced to change the pronunciation of it’s new 1007-mini-MPV at the last minute, reports the Telegraph. (UK).

      The seething owners of the James Bond trademark disputed Peugeot’s “one-double-o-seven” pronunciation, claiming it was too close to the MI6 codename of the ubiquitous secret agent.

      In a rather humiliating climb-down for the car manufacturer, Peugeot have had to turn out press releases announcing that the model will be pronounced the “one thousand and seven” instead.”

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