The Automobile Name Game

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by Nick Thomas

Do you have fond memories of your first car? I don’t. And the reason can be explained in two words: Chevy Chevette.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. I know this was not a vehicle that a young, testosterone-primed male of the 80s could worship as it rattled along the Interstate powered by an engine that roared like an electric toothbrush.

So after driving around unknowingly for weeks with a “Ram Me” sign someone had attached to the back bumper, I realized it was time to trade up to a vehicle with a name boasting a little more panache  a Thunderbird.

Car names are important to automobile manufacturers. They are keenly aware that public recognition and acceptance of a name can influence a vehicle’s commercial success in a highly competitive industry.

Consider the Jeep Wrangler  a great earthy name for a car. But the Kia Kickit probably wouldn’t inspire much consumer confidence.

Vehicles are often christened with names that intrigue or arouse our sense of adventure and excitement. What bold driver wouldn’t want to be seen trekking through the rugged wilderness in a Pathfinder, Explorer, Outback, Expedition, or Navigator?

Exotic places also sell cars: Dakota, Monte Carlo, Malibu, Park Avenue, Tahoe, and Yukon  all exciting destinations and, presumably, exciting cars. A Lincoln Lubbock might never make it off the showroom floor.

Then there are drivers who select specific models according to his or her profession.

Can’t you see an astronomer behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Eclipse; an optometrist in a Ford Focus; or a pilot taking off in an Isuzu Ascender?

And what proctologist could resist parking a Ford Probe outside the surgery?

The late explorer Sir Edmund Hillary would have felt right at home climbing into a Mercury Mountaineer, although he would have been wary about the Chevy Avalanche.

And almost certainly the infamous Heidi Fleiss would have treated her “girls” to a fleet of Escorts.

The animal kingdom has also been well represented in the automobile name game over the years. But not just any animal  often it is one that symbolizes power, strength or speed. So the Mercury Cougar, Dodge Ram, and Ford Taurus worked well (at least in name).

But there have been successful exceptions to muscular monikers: the VW Beetle was a cute, popular car, and justly deserved its quaint title.

Two animal categories have been especially popular: horses and birds. In addition to the Mustang, Ford rounded up the best equine names with Bronco and Pinto as well. Wisely, they never produced a Ford Gelding  probably a little too Freudian for young male drivers.

During the energy conscious Carter administration, Dodge created a stable of their own with the Colt. It was a time of efficiency, when cars were named after little animals, such as the Audi Fox. There were even VW Rabbits multiplying all over the freeways.

Our feathered friends have been well represented with the Jeep Eagle, Ford Falcon, and the Buick Skylark. Even chickens made an appearance in the 30s and 40s with the Bantam.

From the 60s and 70s, Plymouth had the Barracuda and the Roadrunner, which were great looking cars. But the head of Plymouth’s marketing department should have taken a lesson from other companies that produced the Corvette Stingray, Fiat Spider and the Dodge Viper. Now there were some classic cars with names that had bite.

Along these lines, there are a few car names that may not immediately be recognized as animals, such as the Mercury Sable. A sable might be best described as an elegant weasel. Wisely, the Mercury marketers chose sable over weasel.

And let’s not forget the Chevy Impala, named after a graceful deer-like African mammal. Well, perhaps graceful on four legs when gliding over the subtropical savannas, not necessarily when rattling along the Interstate on four wheels.

And speaking of rattling, I sometimes wonder about the fate of my old Chevette. I suspect it was melted down and recycled into a faster and more graceful vehicle, such as the one my neighbor currently owns, which just happens to be …… a John Deere.