From Model T to Mustang: Car Names

One of the recurring premises of Amaze-ing Words Wednesday is that names matter to us. I’ve covered our own personal names, town names, and rock band names. Today we’re looking at the names of cars.

The first mass-produced car was the Model T (1908-1927). Not a great name. When Henry Ford began manufacturing cars, he named them after letters. While he begin with the letter A, models were not named in sequence. But the Model T was the design that took hold and was produced on a mass assembly line and sold to the American middle class. In the 1920s, who cared what your car was called? If you had a car at all, that was something!

Photo from the Henry Ford Museum

However, automakers often chose car names that evoked a certain emotion or conveyed a mood. For instance, Chrysler manufactured the Imperial, Briggs & Stratton had the Flyer, and Rolls-Royce made the Silver Ghost.

As the 20th century unfolded and automobiles took over the roads, manufacturers chose all kinds of names for their vehicles.

Through the years, luxury cars have typically been labeled with words that convey privilege and money. For instance, the Lincoln Continental and the Buick Riviera convey a well-traveled sense of luxury. In recent years, though, these cars are typically labeled with letters and numbers, such as Mercedes M Class, BMW 5 series, Lexus SC 430, and Acura TSX.

Sports cars are given names to make us think of power, freedom, and coolness. Vehicles like Porsche Carrera (Spanish for “race”), Ford Mustang, Dodge Viper, and Chevrolet Corvette (a corvette was a small, manueverable warship) somehow make us think of speed and the open road.

Then, there are the larger off-road vehicles and SUVs with names like Range Rover, Nissan Pathfinder, Jeep Wrangler, Ford Explorer, and Toyota Highlander. They are clearly meant to convey ruggedness and adventure.

Family vehicles don’t seem have a theme. In fact, I don’t understand many of the choices in this category. Why did Ford name it a Taurus? Are we supposed to think of a lion, a constellation, or the zodiac sign? What is a Corolla or a Camry? Does the Honda Accord make us imagine family vacations with perfect agreement and harmony, or does it relate to the unity of car parts? Nissan Maxima? Chevrolet Malibu? Volkswagen Jetta? Who knows.

Sometimes, however, we remember car names not because of how great they are, but because the names themselves come to be synonymous with their failure. For instance, what do you think of when you read the word “Yugo”? Yep, the Yugo has been nominated as one of the world’s worst cars, as it was small, cheap, and poorly made. In fact, I recall it being mocked in a scene in Dragnet (Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks; 1987). How about a Ford Pinto? Or a Ford Edsel? Do you have a favorable impression of those names? Probably not. The Pinto had a tendency to burst into flames, and the Edsel was a complete disaster.

Animals get some play in car names with the Mercury Cougar, the Corvette Stingray, the Dodge Ram, the Shelby Cobra, the Ford Bronco, the Volkswagen Rabbit, and more. Mythology has a few nods with the Pontiac Phoenix, the Buick Apollo, and the Honda Odyssey. Our space age can take some credit as well with the the Dodge Aries, the Mitsubishi Eclipse, the Ford Galaxie, the Nissan Pulsar, and the entire line of Saturn.

In case you’re wondering about what’s coming in the future, Edmunds provided a list of all-new 2012 cars. Here are their names: Audi A7, BMW Active Hybrid 5, Buick Verano, Chevrolet Sonic, Ferrari FF, Fiat 500, Hyundai Veloster, Lamborghini Aventador, Land Rover Evogue, McLaren MP4-12C, MINI Coupe, MINI Roadster, Mitsubishi i, Scion FR-S, Toyota Prius V, Volkswagen Golf R. Other than the “Sonic,” I think the car namers need to return to the drawing board.

In preparation for this post, I asked my teenage son what he thought about car names. Do they matter? He said that he cares a lot more about the car’s look and speed than what word you stick above the fender. Still, I doubt he’d want to drive, say, a Tortoise or a Peanut. I think the name matters . . . at least a little.

Personally, my favorite car names are from Rolls-Royce. Check these out: Silver Ghost, Phantom, Silver Wraith, Silver Dawn, Silver Cloud, Silver Shadow, Silver Spirit, Silver Spur, Silver Seraph, and Corniche. They now manufacture the Ghost and the Phantom. Of course, I will likely never ride in any of these.

What are your favorite car names? Do you think the label of a car matters? Do you think it influences our purchasing decisions? What would you want to name a car model?

8 thoughts on “From Model T to Mustang: Car Names

  1. I laugh at car names a good bit.

    The name of the Chevy Silverado becomes the Shoovy Silver-doodoo. I laugh at the Honda Fit. You know as well as I do that “fit” is Texas slang for having a tantrum. So are the drivers of the Honda “Fit” more prone to tantrums? The Nissan Murano is the No-Sense Moron-o for me. Every time I see a Toyota Land Rover, I say “Bowowow” and do a long mournful howl. And the Toyota FJ Cruiser is the Fart Jack Car.

    Maybe I’m just bored while I’m driving. The names don’t really influence me one way or the other. If I were in the market for a car, I’d seriously look at the Nissan Murano or the Toyota FJ Cruiser. LOL

    1. Mocking car names sounds like a great hobby! The one that gets me right now is the Smart Car. If hit by an 18-wheeler, buying that dinky car won’t seem so smart anymore.

      I love your sense of humor, Catie!

  2. I’m a car buff, so I like to think I’m more about performance than anything else. But I honestly don’t know if I could own a car called a Peanut. 🙂

    And Smart cars? In our house, we call them Smart Coffins. If you get in an accident, they don’t even have to extricate your body from the wreckage, they can just bury the whole thing.

    1. “Smart coffins” is clever. Car buff, huh? Impressive. I’m all girly when it comes to cars – how’s the radio? is it fast? what color? I wish I knew more.

  3. Love the topic, Julie! I think the names do matter, whether we consciously realize it or not, it’s part of the product’s brand.
    Catie’s names are LOL! My family calls the Smart car the Fart car (of course), and one of my daughter’s friends said she was tempted to get a Honda Fit and get HISSY on her license plate!

    I like the origin of my favorite car’s name: “Camaro” is supposedly an obscure French colloquialism meaning “friend, pal, or comrade.” You don’t need to hang out with Camaro enthusiasts for long to see how true that is!

    1. Honda Fit with a HISSY license plate would be perfect! I didn’t know the meaning of Camaro. Very interesting. I have noticed that Camaro owners love their cars. I dated a guy a long time ago with a gold Camaro (it was cool), but I married the guy with the Toyota Corolla. 😉

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