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Where do cars get their names from?

Daantjie Badenhorst By:
Thursday, September 29th, 2011 10:44 am GMT +2

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One of the most important decisions a motor manufacturer has to take when developing a new model, is what it should be called.

Some manufacturers have a very logical pecking order when it comes to various new models, whereas others come up with the strangest model designations one can imagine. The “German three” usually make use of alphanumerical designations. Audi have almost never used a proper name as a model designation, except for the legendary quattro and the Coupé. However, they confused the public by making a quattro coupé and a coupé quattro available at the same time. The former was a version of the famous rally car, but the latter was a less expensive two-door model with four wheel drive. Since the 1990’s, the company has adopted the more logical A1 to A8 designations; the even numbers being reserved for the mainstream versions and the uneven numbers going to the “niche” models. BMW has done much the same, with the 1,3,5 and 7 series. There is talk that the next 3 Series coupé will be known as the 4 Series, which would fit in with the more expensive 6 series; the latter being available as a coupé or cabriolet. In a way, this makes a lot of sense.

Mercedes-Benz’s model designations have confused the public for many years, even though in most cases, the model designations of their models have reflected the engine capacities. However, in the 1970’s, the range consisted of models known as the 240 D 3,0 instead of the 300 D, the 280 SE 3,5 instead of the 350 SE and the 450 SL and SLC 5,0 instead of the 500 SL/SLC. This matter was put right before the successors of these models reached the South African market, but now it is even worse. The C180, C 200 and E200 all have 1,8 litre engines, whereas the E 350 CDI is actually a three-litre.The 600, which was the Mercedes-Benz flagship from the early 1960’s to aroud 1981, had a 6,3 litre engine, and the same engine was fitted to what was called the 300 SEL 6,3. No 630 SEL was ever available and the successor of the latter model was illogically called the 450 SEL 6,9.  I remember that BMW had very much the same situation; at one point the 325iS was fitted with a 2,7 litre engine, and the 518 had a two-litre engine with four cylinders whereas the 520 was fitted with a six-cylinder engine of the same capacity. Apparently, BMW’s parent company refused the South African arm permission to call the respective models the 520 and the 520/6, or something similar.

Some cars have been given the strangest names; in some cases they were downright offensive or arrogant. The best example was probably one of the first models Kia introduced to this country; the Pride. This was a totally unremarkable car that disappeared into oblivion almost as soon as it was launched and Humility would have been more suitable.  Another questionable model name was given to the flagship of the international Honda range; the Legend. Fiat and Mitsubishi have had to market some of their models under different names for certain markets; the Fiat Ritmo was called the Strada and the Mitsubishi Pajero is known as the Shogun in the United Kingdom. Some manufacturers have also decided to name their cars after race tracks. The Daytona name used by Studebaker and later by Chrysler for its bewinged Dodge Charger-based muscle car was quite credible, as was the Kyalami name used by Maserati in celebration of Pedro Rodriguez’s victory in the 1967 South Arican Grand Prix behind the wheel of a Maserati-powered Cooper. However, the Chrysler Sebring’s name flattered to deceive. This car was named after the track where Bruce McLaren won his first Grand Prix, but the car was anything but performance-orientated. The same could be said about the Opel Kadett-based Pontiac Le Mans. The Korean manufacturers have used names that were contractions of expressions (like the Ssang Yong Korando, whose name came from Koreans Can Do), or the junction of two or more words (like the Kia Carens, whose name comes from “car” and “renaissance.”). To be fair, Toyota has done the same thing; Yaris comes from “young and Paris”. Seriously. What were they thinking? It also seems like the previous L/GL/GLS model designations have been replaced by model names ,like  Executive, Exclusive, Elegance or the two most-abused names in the motor industry, Classic and Sport. A car that simply has wider alloy rims than its lesser stablemates, a body kit and carbon fibre-like inserts in the interior does not deserve the Sport badge. The less said about the Classic name, the better.

Certain names have been so successful that they made people forget about the companies that manufactured the cars carrying these names. For example, the names Valiant, Anglia, Zephyr and Zodiac stuck to such an extent that people hardly even mentioned the names Chrysler or Ford. If you only mentioned the model names, everybody knew what you were talking about. The original VW Beetle did not initially have a proper model name; it was simply a Volkswagen.  Whenever people talked about a Volkswagen, everybody assumed that the topic of conversation was the Beetle; not cars like the Karmann-Ghia, the Type 3 or even the Kombi. Besides, the Beetle name has never appeared on the bodywork; not even on its failed successor or the recently-introduced new model.Other names were so successful that they have been used over and over again; like Toyota Corolla and Hilux, Ford Escort and Cortina and Honda Civic.  For some reason, some manufacturers have decided to revive old names for new models. Alfa Romeo, for example, introduced the first Giulietta in 1954, but when its replacement was introduced, it was called the Giulia. The Giulietta name was re-introduced in 1979, and again last year on totally different cars. Honda did the same with the Ballade. However, in Honda’s defence, the car known as the Ballade here is known elsewhere as the City, but because that name belongs to Volkswagen, it could not be used here.  Lancia has re-enterd the European market with a range of rebadged Chrysler models with left hand drive. The Sebring replacement, the 200,gets the Flavia name last used in the 1970’s, whereas the large 300 sedan is known as the Thema; a name used for Lancia’s popular BMW 5 series-rivalling sedan in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Heaven only knows why this was necessary; thankfully, South Africa will be spared this idiocy.

There will always be a debate about whether cars should be given “real” names or numeric designations, and there is certainly a case for and against both.  Numeric designations are only desirable if they are logical and do not cause confusion, but real names give cars a stronger identity if they are not silly. Whatever car manufacturers decide to call their cars, they can be sure that they will have to deal with praise and criticism.


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PLEASE NOTE: The opinion expressed in this article is the author's own and publication does not mean it is endorsed by the CAR magazine editorial staff or RamsayMedia, publishers of CAR magazine.
  • Luís Miguel

    There are fancy and nice names that suits quite well such as the Focus, fiesta, Astra, Corsa, Punto, Ballade, Jazz, Palio ( a place dated from the middle age in Italy Florence were every year we can assist to typical horse races) , and on the other side nonsense names such as Passat, Ka, Touran, Stavic, Rodius…

  • Joy

    Yes, there will always be a debate weather cars should be given “real” names But i think manufacturer have to decide the name which is suits their features and to attract the people to buy that car. Latest Car Reviews