Concluding our exploration of the often treacherous practice of automotive nomenclature.
Given the numerous problems and pratfalls we uncovered in Part One, it might seem simpler to avoid the bear-traps altogether and stick to safe and neutral numbers. These can be used to indicate the range hierarchy, such as BMW’s ultra-logical 1 to 8-Series model designations.
This works fine as long as the manufacturer is happy to reuse the same number for successor models. Apparently, Renault was not: the venerable 5 was the only model to retain its number, and then only for a second generation. Numerical inflation began to cause confusion: the 9 and 11 replaced the 14, the 19 was a smaller car than the earlier 18 while the 20 and 30 were both replaced by the 25. In the end, Renault gave up on this and reverted to names. Likewise, Fiat after a couple of generations of three-digit 12- and 13- model numbers in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Peugeot has recently run out of road with its three-digit with zero in the middle model designations, deciding that it will retain the -08 suffix for its advanced European models and -01 for its more conservative emerging market offerings. The company has only used -09 once, for the 309, which should have been sold as the Talbot Arizona. This was done to avoid the risk of harming sales of the existing 305 model if the unexpected addition to the range had instead been called 306, from which potential buyers might have inferred that it was a replacement model.
Audi’s A prefix to its model numbers has always struck me as superfluous. Why not just Audi 4 instead? Mazda went for a simple, numeric scheme like this for its non-crossover and sports cars, but still managed to confuse us: is it Mazda 6 or Mazda Mazda6? The manufacturer’s website suggests the former, but the badging and, for example, Autotrader, seems to think it’s the latter. In similar vein, don’t get me started on DS. Here, the badging is unequivocal: it is a DS DS3, which is appropriately incoherent for a brand still trying to find its raison d’être after a decade.
Volvo attempted to emulate Audi when it introduced its current model numbering scheme in 1995, which uses S for saloons, V for estates and hatchbacks, C for coupés and XC for SUVs. The company intended to follow this with a single digit, but a threatened lawsuit from Audi saw the prototype S4 become S40 in production guise.
Mercedes Benz, at first glance, has an eminently logical and progressive naming structure, with its different models named using one or three alphabetic characters, followed by a three-digit number representing engine size. However, it has in the past frequently confused itself and others regarding the latter. The predecessor to the S-Class, under the company’s former naming scheme, was the 450SEL, a 4.5 litre large saloon(S) with fuel injection(E) and a long wheelbase(L). When the company introduced a 6.9 litre range-topper, instead of 690SEL, it was called 450SEL 6.9.
Before being rechristened E-Series in 1993, Mercedes-Benz’s mid-line saloon was known as the 200. This was problematic when the W201 small saloon was introduced in 1982. Even though the launch engine was 2.0 litres, the car was branded 190, or 190E with fuel injection. Later, the engine size, 1.8, 2.0 or 2.6 litres was appended to the 190E model name. Even today, the company routinely plays fast and loose in identifying engine sizes and the SL lives on in defiance of the new rules.
Alfa-Romeo has regularly alternated between names and numbers for its models, but the numbers have been a lucky-dip of seemingly random two and three-digit codes that appear to defy logical explanation. Having said that, I expect that a DTW Alfisto out there will quickly disabuse me of this notion.
Even numbers aren’t always as neutral and anodyne as they might first appear. Renault had to rename the 17 coupé 177 in Italy after discovering that heptadecaphobia was still widely felt in that country. Needless to remark, there’s never been a Renault 13.
Toyota’s MR2 had an unfortunate scatological ring when articulated in French. Toyota should have learnt a lesson from this, but the Auris was named without taking into account how it might be pronounced in at least one English-speaking country. There was ample warning: Audi is widely pronounced Awe-dee in Ireland .
There is, of course, one number that transcends all others for its significance in the automotive firmament; 911. Nobody could possibly have imagined back in 1963 that a sports car launched by a small and slightly obscure German company would defy time and the dynamic shortcomings of its mechanical layout to assume such significance. But for Peugeot, it would have been called 901.
Naming commercial vehicles is, by comparison, a piece of cake, or at least it is if one accepts the manufacturers’ rather crude stereotyping of the typical buyer or user. He (and it is a ‘he’) is a football loving, lager drinking, tabloid reading working-class* man. The names are chosen to reflect his assumed self-image, interests and outlook, and the nature of his work.
Transit, Transporter, Ranger, Crafter, Pilot, Convoy, Boxer, Master, Dispatch, Relay, Partner and Expert all fit the bill perfectly, although I’m not sure quite what Citroën was thinking when it named two vans Jumper and Jumpy. The Berlingo is small enough to be used by a florist, so escapes this generalisation. GM Europe went out on a bit of a limb with Vivaro, which sounds to me more like a geriatric health supplement: “Let Vivaro put a spring in your step!” In any event, I think it’s safe to predict that we won’t be seeing a Ford Chihuahua panel van anytime soon.
Sometimes, vehicle designations have been chosen to align with high political and social ideologies. In the former Soviet Union and Communist** China, private car ownership was a serious business, a privilege not a right, and their cars should not have frivolous or, even worse, aspirational names that might give owners ideas above their station. Hence, the cars were given obscure numbers that resembled factory production codes, such as the VAZ 2104/5, known to us as the Lada Riva (and, formerly, as the Fiat 124) and the Lubao CA6410, a reheated Chinese version of the Austin Maestro.
Even the mighty ZIL limousine, official state transport of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and, of course, Vladimir Putin (before he defected to Mercedes-Benz) was saddled with the prosaic model number 41047. Putin’s latest ride goes by the rather more stately name of Aurus Senat.
So, there you have it: a crawl through the phonetic and logical minefield that is motor vehicle nomenclature. I’m off for a spin in my Boxster*** which, contrary to appearances, is not a mis-spelling.
* I loathe that descriptor: don’t we all ‘work’ apart from a tiny minority that inherit great wealth or are in a royal lineage?
** As opposed to whatever China is now: Central Command Capitalism?
***Now that such things are again permitted.