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