Once upon a time, cars had actual names. Your parents drove a Comet, a Country Squire or, God forbid, a Gremlin. The young neighbour had a Mustang. And you dreamed of the day when you'd get a Shelby Cobra or a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
But those days are gone. The automotive naming department has been closed, and its resident poets have been fired. In their place is a team of accountants and a computer that has been programmed to generate random automotive nomenclature codes. You don't get Fleetwood, Cordoba or Barracuda any more – you get Q50, FX35 and GLK.
Yes, the age of the alphanumeric car is upon us. We're in the midst of car-show season, which helps illustrate the problem: dozens of cool new cars are being announced, but most are difficult to remember, since they all have names that sound like licence plate numbers.
I asked one of my friends to name the beautiful new concept car Toyota revealed in Detroit just more than a week ago. My friend had enthused about the FT-1, but he couldn't remember its name – instead, it was as lost to him as a phone number spoken by a beautiful woman in a bar after a dozen vodka shooters.
If car company executives were in charge of the world, The Silence of the Lambs would have been titled N-2, since it was Thomas Harris's second novel. And your spouse and children would have prisoner-style numbers, instead of complicated names like Marian, William and Cate.
Alphanumeric car names are part of a global movement toward standardization. The rationale isn't hard to understand: alphanumeric names are orderly and digital – they look at home in a spreadsheet. Real names, on the other hand, are analogue, messy and packed with unimagined semantic pitfalls. When Buick named the LaCrosse, for example, they didn't realize that the term is a French-Canadian teenage slang term for masturbation. Then there's Mazda's LaPuta, an SUV aimed at the Asian market. The name sounded fine in Japan, but in Spanish-speaking countries, it came across as the Mazda Whore.
Then there's the VW Touareg SUV. Not only is the name hard to pronounce, but it comes with cultural baggage – the Touareg are a nomadic North African tribe with a history of slave trading.
The first alphanumeric name I recall is the 240Z, a 1970s sports car made by Datsun (the company now known as Nissan). The story behind the 240Z tells us a lot about why alphanumeric names have come to dominate the industry. In Japan, where it was developed, the car was known as the Fairlady, but consultants in the burgeoning North American market pointed out that the name would kill sales. After trying a long list of potential names, the company finally named the car after an internal code used to designate its development project – 240Z.
The 240Z moniker solved Japan's long-standing problem of misusing English terms. Isuzu called one of its vans the Mysterious Utility Wizard, and Daihatsu created both the Charade and the Naked. Honda coined the Life Dunk. In the 1960s, Nissan was inspired to name one of its cars after a character in the novel Little Lord Fauntleroy, giving us the Nissan Cedric.
Back then, the 240Z's name made it stand out. But as alphanumeric names began to proliferate, it became lost in a vast alphabet soup.
Some companies have always used letters and numbers to designate their cars – like Mercedes and BMW. Although it has used a handful of names, including "Bavaria," BMWs have always been known for branding based on ascending numbers.
Alphanumeric names achieve a key corporate objective – they derive power from the main brand, and transfer power back to it. You may own the lowliest car in the Mercedes lineup, but if someone asks you what you drive, you will respond "Mercedes," not "B-250." And if you're asked for clarification, how many people actually know the difference between a B-, C- and S-Class?
The golden age of car naming was during the Mad Men era. Detroit specialized in names that played on consumer insecurity and class aspiration: the Chrysler LeBaron, Rambler Country Club and Lincoln Versailles conjured up sweeping lawns, tree-lined driveways and intergenerational wealth, never mind that most buyers were of modest means.
Another major strategy was to use the name of impressive, often dangerous animals: Mercury Cougar, Shelby Cobra, etc. This strategy lives on at companies such as Lamborghini, which names every car after a fighting bull: Aventador, Countach, Murcielago, etc.
A great car name can be poetry, searing a machine into our memories forever. The original Ford Mustang was little more than a restyled Falcon, but its name made us dream of wild stallions racing across the plains. Eldorado conjured up a mythic landscape that was laced with gold and infinite possibility. Then there's Corvette, a name that is pure onomatopoeia – as you speak it, you hear a revving engine.
But every year, there are more alphanumeric cars. Pity. As Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – but we still long for Mustangs and Cobras, not B-55Rs.
Here is a brief list of the best and worst names for cars:
GREAT CAR NAMES
Silver Cloud (Rolls-Royce)
New Yorker (Chrysler)
Pantera (De Tomaso)
NOT-SO-GREAT CAR NAMES
The Thing (VW)
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