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Evocative Car Names - On The Line

The Game Of The Name

Jul 1, 2007 SHARE
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Ever since the first automobile (arguably the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen), makers have used evocative names for their wares. The earliest racers were given whimsical monikers; turn-of-the-century machines like Jenatzy's 1899 electric Jamais Contente (Never Content) land speed record car, the famous Peerless Green Dragon racer from 1904, and the incomparable 1907 21.7-liter Fiat Mephistopheles racer. From 1910 on, cars like the Stutz Bearcat and Mercer Raceabout captured imaginations, and a car from England dubbed the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost just had be quiet and luxurious.

By the '20s and '30s, many manufacturers resorted to numbers. Hence the Type 35 Bugatti, Model 77 Chrysler, and 540K Mercedes-Benz. Individual racing cars still had proper names. One of the most famous was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Built by Count Louis Zbrowski in 1921, Chitty 1 (he actually built three cars with the Chitty epithet) used a pre-WWI Mercedes frame and a 23-liter Maybach aircraft engine. The name came from an off-color Royal Flying Corps drinking song, which puts the later Disney movie of the same name into some perspective.

Other well-known racing cars took their names from antiquity or literature. Thus ERA (English Racing Automobiles) raced cars named Romulus and Remus, while the three official MG Factory Trials Competition cars in 1938 and 1939 were named Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, collectively The Three Musketeers.

In the years following World War II, American makers started using names that reflected power and strength. Aircraft in the war were called things like Mustang, Spitfire and Lightning. So a Hornet, Corvette, Thunderbird or Firedome implied the same kind of speed and performance, though there was the occasional misstep, such as the Edsel.

In the '50s, the Germans showed off their meticulous engineering heritage by using numbers: BMW 501, Porsche 356, Mercedes-Benz 220S. The British also played with numbers-Jaguar XK120, Austin Healey 100-but they also used letters: the MG TC, TD, TF and MGA, for example. Or they mixed letters and numbers: Allard J2X, Triumph TR3 and Aston Martin DB2. A few Brits worked with proper names, but they didn't always work. The Riley Pathfinder (re-christened the Ditchfinder due to its dodgy handling), the Humber Super Snipe, the Fairthorpe Minor Electron, and the Triumph Mayflower just didn't create the jet-age image Americans were targeting with their nomenclature strategies.

American cars of the '60s sounded tough, fast and aggressive, or like places people would want to visit. Would the Mustang have been such a success without its evocative title? Did Chevrolet owners really envision themselves driving on the streets of Monte Carlo?

In England, perhaps the best automobile name ever coined was for a tiny little box called the Mini, which actually started out as the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor. Soon both models were simply called Mini, and became legendary, spawning such other worthy inventions as the mini-skirt. British sports cars like the Sunbeam Alpine, Daimler Dart and Elva ('she goes' in French) Courier carried reasonable names, while more mundane sedans like the Hillman Minx, Riley Elf and Sunbeam Stiletto left enthusiasts scratching their heads.

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Volkswagen probably executed the naming strategy as well as anyone when, in the '70s and '80s, it had car names such as Polo, Golf, Passat (Dasher in the States), Scirocco, Jetta and Vanagon. The names were short and direct, and sounded good in many different languages (although why the Golf had to be the Rabbit in the US is still anybody's guess.)

No discussion of this topic would be complete without mentioning the Japanese. In the '60s, when Japanese manufacturers were just getting started, things like Datsun Fairlady and Toyota Corona seemed innocuous enough. But by the '80s and '90s, Japanese home-market car names became downright bizarre. They would consist of several unrelated English or English-sounding words, resulting in the Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear, the Honda Life Dunk, the Hino Super Dolphin Profia, and the Mazda Proceed Marvie Wild Breeze III. Thankfully for their export markets, the Japanese stuck with made-up manufacturer handles like Lexus and Acura and model designations like LS400 and NSX.

Today, of course, we're much too sophisticated to be interested in a Reliant Kitten or DAF Daffodil. Serious cars require somber sobriquets, preferably numbers or individual letters. So we have the 3 Series, the E-Class, the 9-5, the A4, and the S-Type. Ironically, the one company with an established history of using numeric model names (356, 911, 912, 914, 928, 944, 930) is now using names like Boxster, Cayenne and Cayman. Meanwhile, American companies are resurrecting popular names like Malibu and Charger. There are still some clever labels. Ford has its Ka in Europe, an excellent handle for an abbreviated car. The Bentley Brooklands and Arnage both evoke racetrack successes in the 1920s, while the Volkswagen Eos sounds as new and modern and fresh as the car actually is.

Perhaps, if cars continue to become more uniform and less fun to drive as electronics take over, car companies might return to fanciful designations to give owners a better sense of connection.

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