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The model names of the cars produced by various marques has always been highly important. It’s easy to imagine that the top floor at most car companies would have been filled by vivid discussions every time the name of a new model was to be decided upon. Of course, other car companies simply stick to numerical model names, which would no doubt make that exercise a lot easier – but also more dull.

When it comes to name giving their cars, the Americans have never been afraid of setting the bar high. The clever chaps in marketing quickly established that the right name with a nice ring to it, would always boost sales. Names like Corvette, Thunderbird and Mustang all played on old native American values and encouraged a patriotic purchase. The Mustang name was borrowed from the wild horse roaming their continent, but of course also shared the name with America’s famous Second World War fighter aircraft, the P51 Mustang. Rarely did the cars actually live up to what their names hinted at, but never mind, potent model names where the flavour of the month. It wasn’t until the late sixties that the same potency was to be found in the engine bay, and the model names followed suit: Charger, Challenger and Firebird were all hard-hitting powertrips which helped define a whole generation of fast cars – the Muscle Car.

Ford Mustang – one of the most loved model names.

Challenger – a potent name for a potent car.

Unsurprisingly, in Europe a more restrained approach was taken when dreaming up new model names. Numerical names were preferred by many companies. I’m not sure whether this was down to a lack of imagination, or whether the buying public actually preferred this engineer-like approach, but it could very well be the later. Especially the Germans subscribed to numerics – with the exception of Opel and Ford, which were of course American owned and thus stuck to tradition. VW were next to join the trend with their Golf model, and subsequently continued the use of names of major winds around the globe as their model names. This lead to several great names, and especially Scirocco seems particularly fitting for a sporty coupé.

Name-giving was a responsibility which the Swedes also left to the engineers, and so the numeric system was their favoured too. However, one model received a real name: Amazon. A fantastic name for the elegantly shaped saloon, which would have no doubt had an effect on those sales numbers as well.

Volvo Amazon – such a fitting name for a wonderful model.

British Jensen absolutely nailed it when it came to choosing the perfect name for their Grand Continental Tourer – the Interceptor. A name which seems highly suited for the big coupé’s form and function, and which surely goes down in history as one of the automotive world’s best model names. In stark contrast, I don’t feel that Maserati ever had much luck with their names. While their cars are truly exquisite, they were trying a bit too hard to appeal to the American market with their model names.

Jensen Interceptor – the name says it all,

Maserati Sebring – a stunning GT, but is the name appropriate?

Right from the word go, Lamborghini went for dramatic names often with double entendre. Most had their roots in the mythological world of bullfighting. This strategy lead to several spectacular model names, but surely Diablo must be another one of the very best ever. The diabolical name is a perfect match for the extreme wedge of a supercar. The moment you place yourself behind the wheel, you sell your soul to the Prince of Darkness – naturally with sinful pleasures in return. That the Diablo ended up being the last great and true Lamborghini only amplifies the names magic. It’s as if the company management sold their soul at the same occasion, leaving the model name with a bittersweet aftertaste of irony.

Diablo – the Devil himself!

When it came to naming prototypes, the companies really let loose! There was simply more room to be inventive. Sadly, only very few prototype names made their way onto production cars. Just imagine if they had given us a Maserati Boomerang, Oldsmobile Futuramic or an Alfa Romeo Carabo?

Maserati Boomerang.

Lancia tended to stick to either the Greek alphabet or lyrical names which suited their car’s graceful technical abilities and engineering. However, just as the seventies kicked off they changed horses and gifted their new rally weapon with a strong and powerful name: Stratos.

Stratos is my personal favourite amongst automotive model names. The name alone manages to elevate the already exceptional vehicle to another sphere while maintaining its air of mythology. Well Done, Lancia.

Stratos – my personal favourite.

Which model name is your favourite? Do you perhaps prefer numerics? Should all proper cars have propernames? Or are you indifferent?

6 Responses

  1. Dave Leadbetter
    The Brits had this one nailed in the seventies;

    Avenger
    Avenger Tiger (one better)
    Hunter
    Centaur
    Interceptor
    Stag
    Magnum
    Firenza
    Kitten

    Ok, scrub the last one. But anyway, all real cars have names (says the BMW owner disproving his own rule).

    Reply
  2. Niels V
    Well the Brits had that nailed in the sixties, Hillman IMP, Sunbeam Tiger, Sunbeam Rapier, Sunbeam Stiletto.
    And what about TVR Vixen, ( I am disregarding theTVR Griffith, being partially US )
    Though already in the thirties, Riley had a Falcon and an IMP, but their remaining car models had more dull bird of the garden names.

    In the Commercial vehicle sector they already in the thirties had that sorted with names like: Pioneer, Tiger, Bison, Matador, Amazon etc.

    Reply
  3. Anders Bilidt
    Like Dave, I too am bereaved from all those charismatic model names merely because I happen to enjoy classic BMW’s…

    The Brits did indeed use many excellent names up through the sixties and early seventies. , Stiletto has indeed always been one of my favourites…
    But the Japanese had some excellent ones too. I always felt that Honda’s play on the musical theme with Civic, Quintet, Accord and Prelude worked quite well. But my favourite has to be Toyota’s sporting little Corolla-based twincam coupé which they first introduced in 1972. For the Japanese market they had two different versions which only differed slightly in design and trim. They dubbed them the Trueno and the Levin, with Trueno meaning ‘thunder’ in Spanish and Levin meaning ‘lightning’ in Old English. Clever… :-)

    However, the Japanese also came up with my favourite numeric model name. Again, because it’s clever. It’s not just some apparently random combination of numbers in an attempt to define a model series. These numbers actually mean something – not just that, but they even mean something utterly sexy and fantastic. The ultimate incarnation of what we know as the Datsun 240Z was called the Z432. 4 because it had 4 valves per cylinder. 3 because it had 3 double carburettors. 2 because it had 2 camshafts. Pfffft… who needs some fancy-pancy model name, when you can have a Z432… ;-)

    Reply
  4. YrHmblHst
    “Names like Corvette, Thunderbird and Mustang all played on old native American values and encouraged a patriotic purchase. ”
    Hmmm… a Corvette is a fast, small ship and a Mustang is a horse – only ‘Thunderbird’ can be traced to ‘native american’ themes…and actually, the Mustang was originally named after the plane ; the horse theme was actually an afterthought so to speak.
    ” Charger, Challenger and Firebird were all hard-hitting powertrips which helped define a whole generation of fast cars – the Muscle Car.” Only the Charger is a MuscleCar – Challengers and Firebirds are pony cars. As are Mustangs, Camaros, Javelins, and Cudas. GTOs, RoadRunners, 442s, SS Chevelles, Torino Cobras and the like are Musclecars. Basically, if the car was ever raced in the original TransAm series [over 2 litre obviously] , then its a pony car. If its a midsize with a big engine, its a MuscleCar.

    Some fun names could be found under the hood also – Mopar had the Magnum and even the TNT! My fave tho has to be the fresh air package on a Roadrunner – the Coyote Duster. :)

    Reply
  5. Niels V
    what about the first generation hemi engine from Chrysler: FirePower.
    And when we are talking interesting engine names the British aircraft industry had some good ones: Hercules, Vulture, Griffon, Sabre and Sea lion
    Reply
  6. Tony Wawryk
    Very interesting article! I have to disagree with this though – “I don’t feel that Maserati ever had much luck with their names.” Ghibli, Bora, Khamsin, Mistral, Kyalami – wonderful names, all of winds (except the Kyalami, named after the South African race track) evoking speed – at least to me.

    Some others that I think really work – the Opel Manta and Monza (though the car was not as special as the circuit), the Ford Capri/Cortina/Triumph Dolomite – all meant to be glamorously aspirational, and I’m surprised the Reliant Scimitar hasn’t had a mention.

    As for bad names, I’m afraid the Japanese do well here – Starion (allegedly the result of the difficulty the Japanese have in saying “stallion”, though this is probably apocryphal), and my favourite, the Nissan Cedric, come to mind. Then there are some moderns – Renault’s Captur and Kadjar come to mind, Kia C’eed, VW Up! – the list is long – that are just random…

    It’s definitely true that names are more evocative than numbers, but there is one number that is as evocative as any name, and that, of course, is 911.

    Reply

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