In a contest back in 1954, car designer Alden Giberson came up with a name that would power a hot new Ford product every bit as effectively as its standard V-8 engine.
That name was the Ford Thunderbird, and, for his efforts, Giberson won a $95 suit and a $42 pair of trousers.
Even when you adjust for inflation, it has been a long time since a car company paid that little for a name as good as Ford Thunderbird. Today the right name can easily cost a car company $50,000, though for a sum like that, the naming consultant might throw in a few extra letters, such as XT, XL or maybe even a ZZ, into the deal
The per-letter prices of $5,000 or $10,000 are about the greatest rewards of authorship around. And there's a reason the prices are high. It's quite a trick to come up with a good name when so many are already taken. One option is to coin an entirely new word. Another is to set off in search of the absolutely perfect characters to add to and electrify an existing name. Still another is to do both.
But in their extreme form, the results can look like untidy snippets of mutant gene code or meaningless debris from some Martian game of Scrabble. Some consultants point to examples like the Cadillac STS, the Pontiac G6, the Honda Civic Si Coupe, the BMW X3 SAV, the Taurus X, the Nissan Xterra, and many more. It's as though consumers "are going to go on vacation to outer space," says George Frazier, a partner at naming firm Idiom in San Francisco.
"If there's a pattern, it's to appeal to younger buyers," Frazier says. "Xterra is clearly a part of the whole X Games phenomenon. If you go down the scale from cars to mountain bikes to snowboards and skateboards, the names get wackier and wackier."
Automakers wouldn't be taking this approach if they didn't think it was paying off, says Frazier. He believes their goal is to push the envelope and appeal to the market that really matters to them: the youth market. Those appeals often work with older buyers, too.
"If a 50-year-old guy goes out and buys an Xterra, he hopes that his wife doesn't get on him about it," he says. "But he secretly considers himself edgy and a little bit dangerous."
Frazier speculates that it's no accident that carmakers especially like to use the letters S, E or X in various combinations.
But there's a far greater sin in car naming, as far as some experts are concerned. Automakers commit it when they rely on meaningless strings of letters. "I am totally unimpressed at slapping a few letters onto an existing name, and saying that's a new version," says Steven Rivkin, founder of Rivkin & Associates, a marketing and communications firm in Glen Rock, N.J. "But I will grant you that when Mercedes first brought out the S-Class and BMW brought out the 3 Series, that had meaning."
There is a rich, somewhat bizarre, and mostly untapped potential source of car names beyond the Pacific: the faux Americanisms sometimes found on Asian cars marketed outside the United States. Once a poorly understood set of U.S. terms goes into the Orient's great linguistic Mixmaster, the result is rarely pretty. The Mazda Proceed Marvie, the Subaru Gravel Express and the Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear are some examples.
One that inexplicably made it back through U.S. Customs was Daihatsu's mini-car, the Charade, which Frazier describes as one of the "classic clunker names of all time. If you look it up, it means 'easily perceived pretense.' Boy, do I want a car that means that!"
It's still possible to find a perfectly good existing word for a model, but only barely. Saturn managed to do it with the Saturn Sky and Ford with the Ford Edge. But many of the most evocative words have already graced sheet metal at one time or another in the last century, usually putting them out of reach.
"The SUVs and some of the other vehicles have taken all the Wild West names, all the mountainous names, and all the names with any similar connotation," says Jim Singer, president and creative director at NameBase, a name development company in New York. "Most of the good animals have been used, and only the minor ones are left."
Weasel and marmot haven't had takers, at least not yet. Singer says it's too bad the Thunderbird name is taken, as it would definitely fly today. "Thunderbird, Falcon and Sting Ray -- those are the great, exciting names," he says.
Thunderbird, the creature responsible for wind and thunder in Native American mythology, seemed to imbue Ford's sports car with animate qualities. Giberson was very familiar with the myth, and it's not hard to trace the exact bolt from the blue that led to the name: He had a coffee cup emblazoned with a thunderbird constantly sitting on his drafting table.
Animals, both real and imagined, are a natural metaphor for cars. "Car reviewers refer to cars in animal terms," says Michael Downing, a novelist who teaches creative writing at Tufts University. "And if you watch people with their car, you can see them be tender with it. They'll trace a line with their fingertip. They don't do that with their television sets."
With many great names unavailable, companies can coin completely new words or turn to other words languages and place names, sometimes changing them slightly. Mitsubishi bet on the Spanish word for diamond for the Mitsubishi Diamante, and Nissan made a slight modification of an English word for the Nissan Maxima, Rivkin notes. "There is nothing wrong with an invented name," Rivkin says. But the creative process should start out with a word that already has meaning. Consumers have no trouble whatsoever understanding the Acura as a name conveying quality and precision, he says.
Singer's NameBase helped Kia name the Kia Sorento SUV, the Kia Rondo crossover and the Kia Picanto small car. Sorento comes from an Italian city, minus an "r." Rondo is a real word, defined as a recurring musical movement, and Picanto suggests the model's "spiciness," Singer says.
If consultants' creativity were ever to fail them, there is little doubt that consumers would jump into the breach with their own car names. "I have had a number of people tell me that they gave their cars the names of their childhood pets," Downing says. Out on the road, people get lonely, and their car becomes a companion akin to the cowboy's horse, he says.
In turn, when the time rolls around for that cowpoke to name another horse, he can always name it after his car. The poor animal can only hope he isn't driving a Suzuki Every Joy Pop Turbo.