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What's in a Name Is Not AUTOmatic

August 31, 1989|PRESTON LERNER

How different it all might have been if Ford executives had heeded the muse rather than the marketing man when they named their new automobile 30-odd year ago.

Had they listened to poet Marianne Moore, whom Ford asked to come up with suggested names, we might today be driving around in Pluma Pilumas, Utopian Turtletops or The Intelligent Whales. Instead, Ford bowed to corporate wisdom and chose what proved to be the most memorable name of all--Edsel.

An Edsel, by any other name, would look as ugly, of course, but it might have fared better as the Mongoose Civique--another of Moore's many intriguing suggestions.

In recent years, thanks in part to the Edsel fiasco, bestowing names upon cars has grown from an afterthought to a big production. Auto makers routinely spend months and small fortunes conducting research before christening one of their new models.

Name Is All-Important

"We spent in the six figures many times over," says William R. Bruce, vice president and general manager of Nissan's new Infiniti Division. "The way we're approaching it, the name is all-important."

Shakespeare notwithstanding, it's an article of faith among automobile executives and corporate-identity wizards that while the best name can't save a dreadful product, the best product can be sabotaged by a dreadful name.

Although there's no truth to the story that the Nova bombed in Spanish-speaking regions because it translated as No Go , Dodge did pull the Demon from circulation after religious fundamentalists complained. Likewise, Studebaker's stately Dictator disappeared with the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.

On the other hand, Thunderbird and its diminutive, T-Bird--two of the all-time great names--helped transform the two-seater from a modest sports car into an automotive legend. A decade later, the Mustang became so popular that it spawned the so-called pony car craze.

"What you want is a name that's iconic," says Dr. Michael Marsden, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. " Mustang was a happy choice because it brought together all of the mythology of the West. It was meant for the first generation of baby boomers, who had grown up in the cities. The Mustang was a car that enabled them to tame the concrete landscape."

These days, there are about 450 car names on the U.S. market. According to the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Assn., there have been nearly 8,000 during the past century.

The list includes cars named after their builders, their benefactors, their technology, their hometowns, Presidents, Indian chiefs, football coaches, gods, saints, demons, birds, bees, flora, fauna, oceans, rocks, gems, stars, emotions, philosophical tenets, astrological signs, colleges, books, plays, movies and virtually every other subject under the sun.

"Automobile names are the single most complex group of nouns in the United States," says Ira N. Bachrach, president of NameLab, a San Francisco-based corporate-identity firm. "You can write down more car names than you can any other set of nouns. They occupy an inordinately large segment of our memory."

In the beginning, car names tended toward utilitarianism. Thus, Henry Ford, that paragon of simplicity, must have spent, oh, maybe 30 seconds before dubbing his first big success with that most logical of names--Model A Ford.

As cars grew more sophisticated, so did their names. Early names told consumers something about the cars (Oldsmobile Curved Dash). Later, names were chosen for their cachet, whether sporty (Stutz Bearcat) or stuffy (Vauxhall Prince Henry). The '50s sent names into orbit (Buick Starfire, Olds Rocket 88), while the high-performance '60s gave us names that sounded like they were ready to burn rubber (Dodge Charger, Plymouth Road Runner).

European Tradition

The Pontiacs of this era win the prize for ultimate automotive chutzpah. Following the European tradition of naming cars after famous racing triumphs (Ferrari Monza, San Remo Maserati), the company was extremely successful with its Grand Prix, Le Mans and Bonneville. Of course, the cars never competed, much less triumphed, in any of those three venues.

Not that anybody honestly expected the names to have anything to do with the cars. "Names were like whitewalls: You just slapped them on," Bachrach says. "Everybody accepted them for what they were, which was just social emblems."

But the '70s and '80s brought hundreds of new models into the marketplace, and automakers discovered that one way to distinguish their products from the competition was to give them names that highlighted some of their attributes.

In naming Mitsubishi's new high-performance coupe, for example, Eclipse was chosen because it sounded sporty, positioned itself at the high end of the company's line and connoted its purported ability to overshadow its competitors.

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