Cars with silly names

Has anybody noticed how many cars have had extremely silly names. It was always a thing. Over a century ago, US vehicle makers produced cars with names such as ‘Pungs-Finch’ (22 hp, 4 cylinders and $1850), Piggins of 1910 – a snap at $3500 in period dollars – about $90,000 US dollars today. And let’s not forget the inimitable Grout.

A lot of this came about because entrepreneurs usually named their vehicle company after themselves – Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds among them. Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897 and, later, the REO company. This last is usually associated with its iconic Speedwagon, which was a light truck before it was a rock band.

Anybody would think it was a busy street some time in 1937… These are English cars but probably not called the Tipton Piddlebom, Dibbles Canardly or Putney Pootler.

General Motors’ CEO Alfred Sloan invented the idea of annual ‘new models’ in 1923 because the market was saturated and people had to be induced to get rid of the ‘old’ car. He got ex-Ford engineer William Knudsen to devise ways of making construction machinery that could be swiftly re-tooled. With that came the pressure to differentiate between them.

At first the names were sensible. Ford re-started with the Model A in 1927 and – naturally – followed it with the Model B. Most other manufacturers did the same thing; cars emerged with ‘series’ names or numbers. In the UK, for example, the ‘Austin 7’ – a classic small car from 1922 – was followed by the ‘Austin 8’, and so on. There were a few exceptions – SS, for instance. No, not that SS. It stood for either Swallow Sidecar or Swallow Standard, depending on source. Their famous marque was Jaguar, which became the name of the company in March 1945 because the term ‘SS’ had become a bit of a liability.

My father’s 1949 SS Jaguar, mid-1950s at Wairakei.

During the 1940s marques such as the ‘Zephyr’, ‘Continental’ and such began appearing in the United States. A lot was to do with marketing, and for the US that reached its pinnacle in the 1950s with glorious names and cars such as the Hudson Hornet, Chevrolet Bel Air, and Chrysler Imperial.

By the end of that decade American cars were usually 96 feet long, plated with half the annual chrome output of South Africa, weighed 82.3 tons, had tail-fins, headlamps that looked like rocket launchers, and could easily reach 120 mph as long as you didn’t want to turn or slow down. On-board features also gained evocative names: FireGlide transmission, FireLite headlamps and so on. I haven’t been able to discover whether any wood-trim panel vans were called the FireWood.

Amidst the proliferation of marques and sub-brands the pressure was on to give cars names that were hip. Which led, I suppose, to the Dodge Dart Swinger of 1968 which was, presumably, intended to be swapped between married couples at parties.

Japan leaped on the band-wagon from the 1960s. Most of the earlier Japanese car names were sensible. I once owned a 1977 Mitsubishi Galant Colt, for instance (sold as the Dodge Colt in the US), which was meant to evoke the age of knights. It had a spelling mistake – ‘galant’ is a style of music from the eighteenth century. I think they meant ‘Gallant’. The next model kept the mis-spelt horse theme with ‘Mitsubishi Starion’. This was a pormanteau of ‘Star of Arion’, in reference to the mythical horse.

But then things started to get silly. Datsun produced the ‘Cherry’, a name with cultural significance in Japan but less elsewhere. Model names in the past decade or three have included ‘Bongo Friendee’ (a van), ‘Carisma’ (mis-spelt Charisma, I think), ‘Tiida’ (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), ‘Wingle’ (a utility vehicle), ‘Titan Dump’ (really!), ‘Lettuce’ (an asymmetric car from 1989), ‘Pajero’ (a derogatory Spanish word roughly meaning ‘wanker’), not to mention ‘Winky’, ‘Life Dunk’, ‘Deliboy’ and ‘LaPuta’. This last is either a reference to Swift’s fantasy novel or Spanish slang for prostitute.

All of which leaves me with a curious impression of slightly eccentric marketing department sub-cultures, and a vision of board rooms filled with suits, rationally discussing which marketing name to approve, and totally missing just how ridiculous they are. Or something.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

10 thoughts on “Cars with silly names

  1. Interesting! I didn’t realize how many silly names there were. I thought made-up words like “Camry” were about as bad as it got. Of course, wasn’t there some American vehicle called a “Duster?” I imagine it was supposed to invoke leaving in a cloud of dust; but somehow an impression of a feather duster pops up and ruins that image.

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    1. I own a Camry! I must admit, before buying it I made a lot of jokes about the name. 🙂 There was a Plymouth Duster in the early 1970s, also sold as the Dodge Demon (all I can think of with that last name is that Stephen King novel).

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      1. I owned a Camry from 1990 to 2015 (same car all those years). It was a 4 cylinder manual shift. We replaced it with a RAV4 6 cylinder automatic. I still miss that Camry, although the current vehicle works better for going places with the 125 lb. Newfoundland dog who joined the household in 2014. And yes, a Demon would have been perfect as the evil car, Christine. Although she was a Fury, wasn’t she? Almost as good.

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        1. Yes – 1958 Sport model. I just did a bit of a search and discover the actual movie vehicle was on sale for $198,000 in 2015, which seems quite a lot to pay for a near-60 year old car. On the other hand, maybe it isn’t…

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    1. Porsche were another eponymous company originally – Ferdinand Porsche made aero engines in the First World War. Later he got tangled with the Nazis. The VW Beetle motor is based on one of his WW1 aero engine designs (I am intimately familiar with these, my Dad had VW’s). The air cooling… not so much – Porsche pinched it from the Tatra company (the Tatra 97 model). I have a theory that it was why Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1939, which I’ve written in the inimitable style of Milligan’s war memoirs:

      One day in 1934:
      Hitler: I vant you to build a cheap wagen for der German volk.
      Porsche: Ja ja, mein fuhrer.
      Later, in 1939:
      Porsche: Look, mein Fuhrer, here it is. I call it der KdF Wagen.
      Hitler: Schtupid name, liebchen. Ve shall call it der Volks Wagen.
      Porsche: Um – mein Fuhrer – er – I zink I made a liddle bit of a mistake und stole der rear-engine air cooling off Tatra. I vill haf to seddle der lawsuit.
      Hitler: Neffer mind, liebchen, I shall fix it vor you anozzer vay. [Picks up phone] Oberkommando der Wehrmacht? Halder? Ja. I vant you to invade der Sudetenland. Ja, right now. Schnell!

      The patent issue with Tatra was apparently settled in 1965 for a cool million Deutschmarks.


      1. ROFL!!!!!!! Oh that made me laugh. Like Hogan’s Hero’s on steroids.
        I had no idea Porsche stole one of the components. Kind of tarnishes the image I’ve carried around since 1974 [that was when I saw my first Porsche outside a student hostel in Germany].
        Thanks for the info and the laugh. I’ve decided to forgive Porsche as the styling of the Mean Machine just can’t be beat. 😀

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