There were only two real problems with the AMC Gremlin. First: it was a terrible car. Second: it was called the Gremlin.
Why AMC would name a car after a mythical dwarf that messed up mechanical devices is lost to history, but there you go. The Gremlin’s pathetic saga got me thinking about vehicle naming, which seems to be a hit-or-miss process. For every “Shelby Cobra” (an inherently cool name that conjures up power slides and days on a sunlit racetrack) there’s a “Daihatsu Charade,” a name that could make you swear off car ownership forever.
So what makes a great car name?
Like poetry, naming a car is an inexact process. Some companies (like Mercedes and BMW) avoid controversy by sticking with alphanumeric designations (E-350, GLK, M3, etc.) Other firms like to go with synthesized names (like GM, which has brought us the Firenza, Bravada and Vue). As with all arts, money does not guarantee car-naming success: in the 1950s, Ford spent a fortune trying to come up with a name for the car that eventually became the Edsel (a sales flop that was partly blamed on its name, which rhymed with “dead cell”). Few companies have a stranger naming policy than Lotus, a small British firm that makes sports cars at a former Second World War airbase. Founder Colin Chapman insisted that every car’s name begin with an E (Elan, Elite, Elise, Eclat, etc.) Fans worry that all the good E-names will eventually be used up, forcing Lotus to release the Eczema and the Enema.
Although some of the “E” names have been excellent (“Exige” sounds like an air-to-air missile) others are less than ideal – I drive a Lotus Evora, and although I love the car, its name reminds me of either a perfume or a reproductive component from an exotic flower (“… next to the pistil and the stamens, you will find the evora.”) So let’s have a look at some of the best and worst car names of all time:
Ford Probe: Ford executives probably believed that the Probe’s name would make buyers think of great quests (like the lunar and Mars probes). However, to most buyers, the Probe conjured up a police interrogation or an unpleasant experience with a proctologist.
Honda Accord and Civic: both are great cars, but their names sound like earnest attributes that no one wants to be associated with. “Accord” sounds like a dull Canadian political process. “Civic” conjures up an unexciting duty to be carried out at city hall.
Suzuki Esteem: if ever there were a name that smacked of desperation, this was it.
Subaru Brat: although it’s name was actually an acronym (Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter) no one knew that. Instead, the public believed that Subaru’s little four-wheel-drive was named after a poorly behaved child.
Dodge Dart Swinger: “Dodge Dart” was a pretty good car name, but when “Swinger” was appended to it, you suddenly envisioned a free-love-era key party, replete with double-knit pants and Hai Karate aftershave.
Chevrolet Lumina: for a while, North American car manufacturers believed that they could invent names that were superior to anything available in the vast catalogue that is the English language. The Lumina name, which sounds synthetic and cheap, showed just how wrong they were.
Pontiac Aztek: the Aztek has often been described as the ugliest, most poorly conceived vehicle ever built by a major car manufacturer. Why it was named after a civilization that practised human sacrifice remains a mystery to this day.
Chrysler LeBaron: although the name made some sense when it was first conceived back in the 1930s, “LeBaron” is now synonymous with cheap glitz. This is largely due to its association with pitchman Ricardo Montalban, a smooth-talking Mexican actor who turned “Corinthian leather” and “opera windows” into household words.
Shelby Cobra: in the 1960s, drivers sold their souls to buy Shelby Cobras (today, an original Cobra can fetch more than $1-million). The cars were cool, and the name was even better. (It came to Carroll Shelby in a dream).
Corvette: General Motors isn’t generally known for brilliant car names. (It came up with the Citation and the Alero, after all), but Corvette is pure genius. Corvettes are high-powered navy gunboats, and the word is sonically pleasant, rolling off the tongue like the sound of a revving engine.
Ford Mustang: although the original Mustang wasn’t a particularly great car, its name was marketing genius – it made you think of an unbroken horse and the finest piston-engine fighter plane ever built (the North American P-51 Mustang).
Jaguar E-Type: as company names go, Jaguar is hard to beat, evoking a particularly elegant jungle cat. And “E-Type” sounds cool, for reasons that no one can adequately explain.
Plymouth Hemi Cuda: it’s hard to know why the name of a fish combined with the description of a combustion chamber’s shape worked so well as a car name, but it did. The Hemi Cuda became synonymous with the golden age of the Detroit muscle car, and its odd yet perfect name was an integral part of the car’s mystique.
Chrysler New Yorker: through Detroit’s golden age, car models played on the social aspirations of a growing middle class. No name was more effective than New Yorker, which conveyed images of liveried doormen, velvet ropes, and posh Manhattan restaurants. The name was launched in 1946, and survived until the mid-1990s (by that point, the New Yorker badge was applied to lamentable K-Cars that made a mockery of the great name).
GTO: the acronym (which stands for Grand Turismo Omologato) was first used by Ferrari in 1962 for its legendary 250 GTO. Pontiac soon ripped off the name for its GTO muscle car. Good idea, because the name sounded a lot better than “Tempest” (the car the GTO was based on).
Aston Martin Vanquish: Aston Martin is a great company name, and Vanquish is the perfect corollary. The name is freighted with military overtones of conquest and subjugation – since the car is a 5.9-litre V-12 with a top speed of more than 300 km/h, this seems appropriate.
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