What’s in a Name? (Part One)

An exploration of the arcane and sometimes treacherous landscape of automotive nomenclature.

(c) hobbydb.com

A DTW article on the venerable Ford Cortina raised in my mind the question of the enduring appeal of the name chosen for this model. Was it the association with the glamorous Italian ski resort, or simply that the word was phonetic and tripped off the tongue easily, that was behind Ford’s decision to append it to a fine if unglamorous family car? Probably a bit of both: Ford was already using Capri, another Italian tourist destination, for the coupé version of the Consul Classic.

In any event, I began thinking about the whole business of finding suitable names for new motor vehicles. Fundamentally, this involves choosing words that

sound pleasant, are easy to pronounce whatever the buyer’s native tongue, aren’t obscene in a foreign language, and have positive associations that will embellish the vehicle’s appeal. It sounds straightforward, but history tells us otherwise.

There are some other rules established by convention. The smaller the car, the shorter the name, with double or even single-syllable words being favoured, hence the VW Up!, Ford Ka, Nissan Micra, Toyota Aygo etc. The name must not appear at odds with the car’s place in the model hierarchy. Without ever seeing them, you instinctively know that the Nissan President is not a small runabout and the Reliant Robin is not a supercar.

(c) autoexpress

If cars are to be named after places, they must be attractive and aspirational. Lancia Monte Carlo sounds very alluring, but you’ll never see a Vauxhall Jaywick*. If named after a living creature, the creature must embody characteristics deemed appropriate and desirable in the car. US Manufacturers used to do this very well, with evocative names such as Barracuda, Stingray, Cougar, Impala, Pinto, Bronco and Charger. Don’t hold your breath for an Opel Slug, Chevrolet Skunk or Ford Cockroach anytime soon, notwithstanding the latter’s legendary reputation for durability.

Okay, it’s not a Lancia, but it is a Monte Carlo: (c) myclassicgarage.com

As car manufacturing became increasingly globalised, it was getting trickier to choose words that weren’t already trademarked somewhere, or likely to cause offence in some far-flung corner of the world. The solution was simply to make up words that meant nothing but just sounded right.

I believe one of the first of these in Europe was Tagora, the name chosen for Talbot’s ill-fated executive saloon and last hurrah, launched in 1980. More recently, Mondeo, another synthesised word but with a clear reference to the French word for World, has graced Ford’s large saloon for over a quarter of a century, except in America, ironically.

Sometimes manufacturers box themselves in unnecessarily by attempting to maintain a phonetic pattern in their model names. Buoyed by the success of the Metro, Austin Rover decided to choose names for its forthcoming larger models that conformed to the same M—-o format. Maestro was fine, but I was never convinced by Montego. The fashion for naming cars after exotic places had largely passed by 1984 and the name was writing a cheque that the workmanlike but uncharismatic car could never cash. GM Europe followed a similar pattern, with numerous model names ending in ‘a’ but allowed itself the freedom to invent its own words, such as Vectra, Agila and Ampera.

So, who are the heroes and villains of car nomenclature?

First, a couple of the very best: Golf was the third wind-inspired name chosen by VW in 1974 for its new FWD hatchback. (The first was the Passat, followed by the  Scirocco, which preceded the Golf by six months, to prove their shared mechanical package and iron out any teething troubles.) This choice of name was utterly brilliant: the snappy, single-syllable, easy to pronounce name perfectly suited the sharply styled and contemporary design that immediately made its competitors look old-fashioned.

Strangely, the Golf name was not initially used in North America, where the car was marketed as the Rabbit until the MK2 was launched in 1983. The Rabbit name was also resurrected for the MK5 Golf in the United States. Why this name was chosen in preference to Golf is unknown (to me, at least) but, weirdly, Rabbit is also a term used to describe golfing novices with high handicaps…

Golf Class went on to define the C-segment for the next 45 years, although whether it continues to do so into the EV era remains an open question.

Mustang was an inspired choice for Ford’s 1964 trailblazer. The name captured the romance of the Wild West, open roads, freedom and independence, the very essence of America. It was besmirched by some truly dreadful pony cars in the oil-crisis years of the 1970’s but was restored to its rightful status in 2005 with the launch of the fifth-generation model. Sadly but, I suppose, inevitably, the name is now being repurposed for an EV crossover.

As an aside, I’ve always thought that Capri, the name chosen for Ford Europe’s Mustang equivalent, was slightly effete for the car, not that it seemed to harm sales at all. Cougar, for example, would have been rather more appropriate for a hard-driving coupé, even if the majority of sales were of the smaller-engined versions.

So, who deserves a place in the car-naming hall of shame? I’m going largely to ignore the Japanese manufacturers here, because it would be like shooting fish in a barrel: for every Toyota Century and Nissan Pathfinder there is a Mitsubishi Chariot Grandio Super Exceed and Minica Lettuce, an Isuzu GIGA 20 Light Dump and Mysterious Utility Wizard, and a Nissan Homy Super Long. I could continue more or less indefinitely with this, but we would be here all day and our esteemed editor would (again) tell me off for excessive word-count.

Inspired, perhaps, by VW’s success with wind-inspired badges, Renault decided to use the generic name on its dumpy looking 2010 coupé-convertible, much to the amusement of those (most?) of us who find flatulence a subject for humour. The car wasn’t up to much either, and the Renault Wind died after just three years. VW ran into similar difficulties when it rechristened the saloon version of the Golf, previously branded Jetta, as the Vento in 1992, because the latter also has associations with flatulence in colloquial Italian.

Renault Wind

Another hall of shame exhibit is the Ford Probe, a belated successor to the Capri that was launched in Europe in 1993. This name is proof that the US and UK are sometimes divided rather than united by sharing a common language. In America, where the (rebodied Mazda MX-6) coupé was designed, Probe invoked high-tech images of satellites and space exploration. In the UK, it just made us squirm, thinking about uncomfortable and intimate medical examinations. The Probe limped on for four years, selling in insignificant numbers.

When British Leyland sensibly decided to scrap the Austin, Morris and Wolseley badge-engineered versions of the 18-22 Series after just six months in favour of a single, unifying model name, inexplicably, it chose Princess. The company had previously used this name on its rather dour limousines and hearses, and a bijou wood and leather version of the ADO16 1100/1300, so this hardly created the appropriate associations for its modern, wedgey large saloon in the minds of potential buyers.

Sometimes names are risibly inappropriate for the car to which they are attached. An example of this is the Ford Ecosport, a car that was not remotely ecological and had all the sporting prowess of a wardrobe. Before you ask, yes, I do know what the ‘S’ in SUV stands for, but at least most manufacturers don’t have the cheek to incorporate this into their model names.

Sometimes even perfectly pleasant names can be undone by the British sense of humour and predilection for puns. The Austin Allegro became the All-aggro in recognition of its terrible design, build quality and reliability. The Nissan Qashqai became the Cash-Cow because that’s exactly what it was for the company. The VW Touareg became the Toe-rag, a term of abuse, merely because it was a big German SUV.

That’s it for today. In Part Two, we’ll look at the superficially safer practice of using numeric or alpha-numeric model names and some other arcane aspects of this engrossing topic. In the meantime, please do share your favourite car names, good or bad, for our amusement.

* A seaside town in Essex, allegedly the poorest in England.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

62 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? (Part One)”

  1. The first VW named after a wind actually was the Passat. VW’s then head of development – Professor Fiala – knew of an ancient Greek column listing the names of winds, so it seemed there would be plenty of names available. After somebody actually visited said column they found that most of the winds listed there were so exotic that they couldn’t be used as model names. Therefore after a mere two windy VWs they chose the Gulf stream whose name – at least in German – is identical to golf sports, which in turn made Polo the next logical step. Winds only reappeared with the Bora.

    1. There was already another wind before the Bora, although not a specific one – Vento (Italian for wind).

    2. Hi Dave, I’d forgotten about the Passat, so thank you, duly noted and corrected.

      There was also Jetta, from the Jet Stream, and I thought Polo was an allusion to Polar winds as well as the game, but I might be misinformed.

  2. Your association of Renault and flatulence reminds me of their dour saloons of about 10 years ago which could be subsumed under this name – yes, I’m talking about ‘Fluence’ and ‘Latitude’.

    The naming of the Ford Probe was unfortunate not only in Britain, but also in German speaking countries. The German word ‘Probe’ means rehearsal or test. So it sounded a bit like Ford was rehearsing here before launching a real car…

    1. That car was launched in the 1990s, long after it was well understood that you had to do language checks in the markets the car was intended for. It was a rotten name in English as well. I think even American customers didn´t like it as it suggested medical examination.

    2. My nephew drives a Fluence, so no prizes for guessing what it’s called in his household…

    3. ‘medical examination’ reminds me of an American acquaintance. She insisted she owned a Chevrolet Speculum – Spectrum of course it was.

    4. Back in 1993, my partner and I spent three weeks driving around California in a rented Chrysler LeBaron convertible. The name of the car was written in a rather tacky looking badge on the passenger side of the dashboard. Mid way through the second week, my partner remarked, “That’s an odd name for a car, Lebanon”…

    5. The Probe was meant to have been called Mustang. At some point Ford chickened out of a Mazda-platformed, front wheel drive, no V8 available or even possible, Mustang and added the Probe to the line as a separate model.

  3. Vauxhall’s Ampera naming was quite appropriate as it says “Amp era” albeit in a stylised format.

    1. And ‘Amp’ is just an abbreviation of ‘Ampere’, so Ampera was an excellent choice.

  4. Maserati and the winds come to mind. If VW hadn’t nicked the concept they would’ve had a straight flush. Though they came away with the better ones like Bora, Ghibli, Khamsin, and Mistral.

    To me, the best name in history is the Buick Roadmaster. There you have it, all in the name. This Buick is the master of the road. In the same vein, we have the Land Rover and (Toyota) Land Cruiser. This is what you get when you want to cruise an entire continent. Especially considering the clever wordplay of adding the model prefix to the brand name suffix. This is a (Land) or (Range) Rover.

  5. You’ve probably heard it before, but BL’s Montego was going to be called Monaco, but the tragic death of Princess Grace not long before launch was due rightly made Harold Musgrove’s management team have a change of heart. I am not sure Monaco is any better name than Montego, but the car was hampered by more than just its name.

    Maestro was one of the potential names for the Metro, which was was chosen via vote of all the BL employees, with Maestro being the second most voted for choice.

    Personally, I like a proper name for a car, even if they are harder to get right. I seem to remember reading, probably in Car a long time ago, that Fiesta was felt by experts in marketing to be the absolute Goldilocks of car names – short enough, punchy, fun and vivacious. Not sure I agree – and it seems a little old-hat now, but it’s better than Yaris or Fabia.

  6. För the Lancia lovers here, I rather like their concept of naming their cars after Roman roads. Via Appia, Aurelia, Flaminia, Flavia, and Fulvia. There’s so much into that concept above all cars and roads, but also about history and especially Italian or rather Roman history. Add to that the delightness of alliteration, obbat least two accounts. I’ve checked the history of the Roman roads, and there’s about 200 known and major roads, which of them about a dozen would be suitable for a name to a car. I find it interesting nobody else have taken up on that theme, and that there are more names to harvest that haven’t been used for this purpose.

  7. Thank you for your text! I have always thought Golf for the sport and given this Polo the other sport. Gm was suppossed to use only A at the end (corsa, astra, omega, insignia, impala, agila..etc). Fiat use value names for the cargo series, dobló (for doblone) scudo, fiorino. A name that i love is Clio, in italy the advertisment was ” io (I), Clio”. Fiat Punto = uno + P and T, alfa MiTo (MIlano + TOrino).

    1. Lancia and Alfa Romeo could have named cars in the Latin or Italian for slag heap or septic tank and they would still have sounded romantic and evocative to our ears. Conversely, can anyone think of a good car name in German? (Apart from Volkswagen, of course!)

      Fiesta may have been catnip to the advertising types, but coupled with Escort, it had an entirely different and less appealing connotation in the UK: it made (at least some of) us think of middle-aged men in raincoats scuttling away from an adult bookstore with something in a brown paper bag…

    2. Good German names? Difficult…
      One of the last examples that come to my mind is Taunus, but in the last 40 years, there’s hardly anything, is there?
      A good German name I thought of was ‘Adler Autobahn’. Very in line with what Ingvar said about the Roadmaster. Alas, that was not an official name, the car was just called ‘2,5 Liter’.

      But what about good French names? Renault still dares to do this with Mégane, but otherwise it seems that the French want to kill all the frenchness in order to sound more international (and probably not evoke connotations of bad quality).

    1. Fusion for the first Focus I’d heard about, but Lyrus is a new one on me. It sounds more appropriate for a Toyota.

    2. Astra, vectra, corsa, agila are not bad names in my opinion, Ford Puttana (escort) a success with Berlusconi.

    3. Focus comes from the Latin for “fireplace”. You’d think Ford wouldn’t want to go there for the line descendant of the Pinto, but it worked.

  8. How about these: AMC Gremlin (recently seen here on DTW), Subaru Brat (that one spoiled it for me), Mitsubishi Carisma (if ever a name was misplaced), Chevrolet Celebrity (what were they thinking. They have the Corvette and Corvair, which I like, but celebrity?), Daihatsu Applause (my hands still hurt from clapping) and the Maybach Zeppelin (The only Zeppelins for the road were the Tatra T77 and T87)

    1. I always rather liked Opel’s rather formal 1960’s and 70’s names for its larger cars; Kapitan, Admiral, Commodore, Diplomat, Senator etc. Thinking about Vauxhall, was Ventora a synthesized name long before the Tagora? Possibly not: I think it might mean ‘lady’ in Spanish.

      Seat’s Arosa sounded to me like a knock-off version of Viagra, even if it’s a town in Switzerland. Skoda’s Superb would have been remarkably presumptuous had the name not been taken from its back-catalogue. At least the car was pretty good too. They were crazy to drop the Yeti name, which suited the car to which it was attahed jolly well.

    2. Dropping Yeti was a really bad move. Now we have different Kqkkq combinations which mean nothing and are hard to remember and distinguish. At least that’s in line with how the cars have evolved, compared to the Yeti.

    1. Hi DGatewood. I thought you were making that up, but you weren’t!

      Yikes!

  9. Nissan Murano would be an example of a contemprary car (OK, SUV) named after a place. No cut glass anywhere in sight, though…

  10. I once heard that the “X” Citroëns (BX, AX etc.) were so named as a vanity nod to the CEO Xavier Karcher. That never made much sense to me because the CX had already set the precedent and was named after the French term for drag coefficient.

  11. Decades ago I heard that the (Ford?) Nova had really poor sales in South America versus US. Not surprising really when “No va” means “[it] doesn’t go” in Spanish!

    Some cars are also better known by their nickname, eg. the original VW “Beetle”; or an object they resemble, eg. old Fiat 500 “Philishave” – if I’m not mistaken, that one was Daniel’s creation. Classic!

    1. Here in Chile at least, the Chevrolet Nova was quite popular in period, so I don’t think it mattered. On German car names … maybe it was a good idea for them to use numeric designations?

    2. Hi vwmeister. It was a Chevrolet rather than Ford, but you’re right about the Nova name not going down well in Spanish speaking countries. Conversely, the first Opel Corsa was rechristened the Nova for the UK market because they thought Corsa sounded too close for comfort to ‘coarser’. They got over their concerns for the second generation. Likewise, the Fiat Ritmo was rechristened Strada in the UK for some reason I’ve never understood. Perhaps one if the DTW commentariat can enlighten us? (I bet Dave knows!)

      Guilty as charged as regards the Fiat 500 ‘Philishave’, although I think I was referring to the sound it made, rather than its shape, per se.

    3. On the Beetle/Käfer/Escarabajo/Fusca… They were lucky it found so many names around the World, as neither Volkswagen (or even worse, KDF-Wagen) are particularly easy to pronounce for non german speakers

  12. There are no good-sounding german names for vehicles. There are no good-sounding names in this (my) language – at least not for foreign ears.
    To my ears, even a cake recipe in French or English sounds like poetry, while the same text in German sounds like an order.
    However, when I see which names are used for vehicles worldwide, we don’t have to hide our language in terms of absurdity.

    The Maybach Zeppelin got his name because the construction of the V12 dates back to the Zeppelin engine or was based on this – more or less – and the Maybach-Motorenwerke built these Zeppelin engines.

    The name has nothing to do with the bodywork at all. As far as I know, there was no factory bodywork for this car, they all came from external coachbuilders, but what do I know…

  13. Personal favourites being the Gilbern Invader and the Jensen Interceptor. Nothing like a Welsh Invader to terrify anyone. Then add in the Biceps from the Black Country. Meaningful, emotive: highly ironic. We need more of this kind of thing.

    Sticking in the Midlands, Defender is apt for such a solid creature.

    Octavia being the eighth car that Škoda launched. Trips nicely off the tongue but as for the new Enyaq, well, just how strong can Czech beer be?

    1. Delightful correspondence from a more civilised and genteel era. The suggestions are, of course, completely bonkers!

      Thanks for sharing, Freerk, it brightened up my day!

    2. That list have been circled around for decades, and though much fun it is, I don’t think it was ever meant to be taken seriously. I applaud it as a token of freeform creative thinking, and in that it’s not worse than anything I’ve ever seen done by a bunch of ad guys having a beer and a laugh. What’s more interesting in the Edsel debacle is the second life all of the model names got later in life, the Citation, Pacer, Ranger, and Villager.

      https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/nostalgia/whats-in-a-name-the-second-lives-of-edsel-model-names/

  14. Simonstahel: of course, they must have supped vats of the stuff to “find” Enyaq. And then gone on a bender.

    Freerk: what wonderful correspondence. I’m not sure any of Marriane’s suggestions fit but the closing section of sympathies and that the original instigator Mr Young was now working for the coastguard. Beautiful, emotive, highly ironic…

    Can anyone imagine a manufacturer contacting a poet or writer today for such advice? Could they deal with a human being rather than a corporate consultancy ?

  15. On French names, I’ve always loved the Renault Floride. French spelling of an American name, that for some reason was renamed the Caravelle in English speaking countries.

    On German names, we have the Austro-Daimler Bergmeister, a master to conquest not the roads of the mere flatlands but preferably an Alpine pass no less.

  16. “Yeti” was considered to cause resistance with the middle aged female demographic which is the core market for compact suvs.

    To my shame, that turns my thoughts to ‘Cougar’.

    Could the Kuga’s rethought spelling and sloppily non-enunciated ‘r’ be an attempt to distance the suv from the modern – non-feline – connotation?

    1. The only Yeti driver I know is a 30yo woman who needs it to tow her horse trailer.

    2. My brother-in -law (not the one that owns the Kodiaq) has a very smart 4×4 Yeti, a special edition in white with a black roof. It’s the nicer looking pre-facelift version too and is used to tow a caravan. He’s very pleased with it.

  17. Also, as mentioned, anything Italian automatically sounds sophisticated, it’s like adding cream to a course which makes anything taste good. But I’m extremely fascinated even a mere description of something sounds like an awesome name in Italian.

    Like Quattroporte, monoposto, bisiluro. For four door, single seater, and (the shape of) twin torpedoes. Also a mere description of the shape, like Coda Tronca, for a (truncated) Kamm tail. There’s just so much of it…

  18. i think its sad the germans wont use more german sounding names – like Daniel, i really liked the old opel names like kapitan, blitz, etc, and who doesnt like the sound of kübelwagen, kettenkrad or prinz? it just fun to say out loud.

  19. Great article Daniel.

    I’ve always thought Rolls-Royce were clever choosing beautiful names that sounded ethereal and wafty – Wraith, Ghost, Phantom, Spirit, Dawn, Cloud, Seraph – the antithesis of the vehicles themselves. I suppose they were meant more to suggest the style of travel on offer, or perhaps soften the image of the outsized, ostentatious behemoths said motor cars are in the metal.

    Rolls also have a florid, bordering on contrived vernacular for other elements of their nomenclature – I love the name Drophead for the Phantom convertible – so evocative – and coach doors are rather nicer sounding than suicide doors. But high-sided vehicle in place of SUV for the Cullinan is almost as bad as the name Cullinan itself – a rare misstep, but I’d wager intended to follow the lineage of Camargue and Corniche in starting with a C. Is that really the best Rolls-Royce could come up with?

  20. Thanks NRJ and Martin. Glad you enjoyed it!

    Martin, I agree with you about the elegance of Rolls-Royce names, but they nearly came unstuck with the Silver Shadow. It was going to be called Silver Mist until someone pointed out that ‘Mist’ had unpleasant scatological associations in German.

    J don’t particularly like the car, but Cullinan, named after the largest rough diamond ever mined, is appropriately OTT for a huge SUV (sorry, high-sided vehicle, which makes me think of a HGV!)

    1. “…that ‘Mist’ had unpleasant scatological associations in German.”
      Come on.
      It would be very funny, at least for me, if they droped the name because of the Germans. There must have been another, more important, reason. Maybe the printing company for the brochures ran out of “M”s in capital letters, or so…

  21. Good stuff. Can never go wrong with a car name article. I still think that Americans in the 1950s did the Dan Dare spaceship/military thing better than anyone.

    De Soto Fireflyte
    De Soto Firedome
    Plymouth Fury Golden Commando
    Plymouth Satellite
    Oldsmobile Rocket 88
    Ford Galaxie 500
    Mercury Comet
    Studebaker Commander
    Hudson Hornet
    Pontiac Firebird ( they held that back for a decade from the show car)

    Buick was more discreet: Invicta, Electra and Park Avenue
    Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz – you knew an outright porker was following along behind that name.

    But the names given to automatic transmissions and other accessories was beyond the pale sometimes. Borg Warner must have sweated bullets when AMC called their Type G the Flash-O-Matic: the side-valve 6 could not compensate for the obvious connotation. Buick Dynaflow, Chevy Powerglide, Chrysler Powerflite and Torqueflite, GM Hydramatic, Ford Cruise-O-Matic.

    These days, I think Hyundai and Kia have the best names when they choose to not go alaphanumeric: Sonata, Telluride, Palisade, Soul, Stinger, Forte, Kona, Santa Fe, Tucson.

    ‘Ere, there’s a part two? I’d better stop.

  22. I know the story about the name “Silver Mist”, but I don’t know if the story is right or not.
    Given the marginal market in Germany compared to the UK, USA and the rest of the world, it’s hard to believe and much easier to think it’s just an urban legend – and “Silver Shadow” sounds much nicer, anyway.

  23. One of the more unfortunately named cars I came across when writing this piece was this one:

    What is it? No prizes for getting it right, apart from the usual (virtual) anorak, of course.

    1. Well done, Charles. There was actually a range of Studebaker Dictator models, two and four-door saloons and a coupé. Studebaker dropped the name in 1937 when the penny began to drop about Mussolini and Hitler.

      DGatewood, good guess, but ‘President’ only became a real embarrassment from January 2017…

    2. Ah – I didn’t realise they did a whole range. Wikipedia says the idea was that the model ‘Dictated the standard’. ‘Standard’ ironically being another marque that changed its possible interpretation, from ‘flag’ to ‘nothing exceptional’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.