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funny car names

The Richard Heseltine Column - What's In A Name?

By Richard Heseltine

What’s in a name? Rather a lot as it happens. Automobile manufacturers blow millions on think tanks brimmed with chin-stroking thesaurus-wielders but to what end? All they do is raid the cliché cupboard or invent some spellcheck-bothering, typographically ‘witty’ name. Random capitalisation and the substitution of numerals for letters are deemed perfectly valid. It’s enough to make you very Kia cee’d off indeed.

The thing is, none of this nomenclature nonsense is new. When the motor car first appeared, the majority of horseless carriages had some sort of numerical designation. Fast forward to, let’s say, the 1960s or ’70s, and it was more commonplace to borrow names with hard-hitting, possibly military connotations – Avenger, Victor, Polaris and so on. As a rule of thumb, the more butch and manly the name, the more pedestrian the car. Other tags were calculated to play upon class consciousness, invoking images of beautiful people living aspirational lives - so that would be the Opel Diplomat, the Rambler Country Club or, shudder, the Chevrolet Celebrity.

Then there are those names that lose something in translation. Japan has long been a centre of excellence for daftness: particular favourites include the Honda Bongo Friendee, the Toyota Deliboy and the incomparable Isuzu Mystery Utility Wizard. However, more recently it has been usurped by the Koreans (lower-case letters, indiscriminate apostrophes) and the Chinese. Indeed, wrapping Occidental tongues around nametags is tough at the best of times, but Geely PU Rural Nanny?

Which brings us back to the nettlesome issue of dreaming up new and inventive names in the first place. It was Ford that dreamed up a brand name that has since become a byword for failure. The funny thing is, it had already exhausted 18,000 suggestions before it arrived at ‘Edsel’ after Henry Ford’s eldest son. This name may have carried some weight in Dearborn but it was greeted with zero recognition by potential punters. Nevertheless, it could have been worse. Among the many people canvassed for ideas was poet Marianne Moore. If the Pulitzer Prize-winner had got her way, it would have been called either Thunder Crester, Mongoose Civique, Intelligent Whale, The Resilient Bullet or, best of all, Utopian Turtletop. As an aside, a consumer survey later revealed the public took against the name Edsel more than the model range itself, associating it with weasels or, get this, dead cells…

We word monkeys love to criticise, but there is one default setting for manufacturers that will have us either in raptures or reaching for vials of vitriol – reviving old and much-loved titles. This works perfectly when the new product is as well-received as the original (the Volkswagen Scirocco leaps to mind), but rather less so when it’s an utter travesty (think Chrysler 200 rebadged as the Lancia Flavia and then stop thinking). And we haven’t even got onto acronyms or contractions yet. There was the F.A.R.T. Break (yes, really), the ASSystem, the…

Books by Richard Heseltine


Other blog posts by Richard:

The Richard Heseltine column - Road Trips: the fun and frustration 

The Richard Heseltine Column - The Joys of being a Motoring Writer 


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