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.
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.
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