The name came to Carroll Shelby in a dream.
It was 1962. In Shelby's ramshackle garage was a muscular little sports car with bulging fenders and a V-8 engine. It had no top, no side windows and no name. Then Shelby had a dream: he saw a coiled black snake with a hooded neck and white fangs. The next morning, he told his crew that the new car would be christened the Cobra.
Pete Brock, who was there at the time, remembers his first reaction: "Cobra? What kind of stupid name is that?"
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The kind of name that every car executive dreams of, as it turned out. Forty-eight years later, the name is still being used, and original Cobras now sell for more than $1-million. A great car name is a money-maker, and industry experts regularly cite Cobra as one of the best of all time, along with Carrera, Mini and Corvette Stingray.
So what makes these names work while others flop? Would a Cobra by any other name be as sweet? "The right name helps define a car," says Mark Gillies, executive editor of Car and Driver magazine. "Who wouldn't want a car named Cobra?"
A successful car name is an act of inspiration. Car companies spend millions trying to come up with new names, yet for every hit there are countless misses - like the Studebaker Dictator, the Chevrolet Luv and the Rickman Space Ranger.
The sublime and the ridiculous can be separated by the thinnest of margins. Ford may have come up with the brilliant Mustang, but it also coined the unfortunate Probe, which conjures up a colonoscopy. By all accounts, Chevrolet's Corvette Stingray was a stroke of genius. Then came Citation, a name that makes you think of a traffic ticket.