How Car Companies Pick Names

Think it's easy to name that new car? Think again.

Imagine that you are an auto executive who has just overseen the spending of a couple of billion bucks on a brand new model. Now you must select a name for it; it's your baby, after all.

Do you think you might aim for a name that made sense? A name that owners could utter with pride at cocktail parties? Sure you would, but look at the long list of existing model names, and you will inevitably conclude that they came from a lunch that lasted two hours too long or were drawn from a hat by a blindfolded marketing executive.

The Acura TL? The Hyundai Elantra? The Chevrolet Sonic? A kid with a set of alphabet blocks could replace nine marketers at Acura, and Elantra sounds like one of those drugs on television that comes with "minor side effects such as frequent vomiting, loss of hearing, and leprosy-like symptoms." The Sonic, which replaces the Aveo, at least breaks some ground; it is the first car to be named for a chain of drive-in restaurants.

It is obvious even to the comatose that not enough thought goes into most model names despite there being some truly unforgettable ones−consider the Emotional Liter Car (Nissan, years ago) and the Mysterious Utility Wizard (Isuzu, more recently). But, God knows, it is not easy to get a good name through fifteen layers of terrified executives.

About a century ago, when I worked for Ford's advertising agency, I participated in the naming of the Taurus. The process involved repeated and lengthy meetings between the agency and the Ford marketing and advertising folks. I've never liked meetings, particularly ones unlikely to produce a concrete result, and at one of the Taurus gatherings, in frustration and as a joke, I put forth the name Howard. The ad manager, a true gentleman named Doug McClure, responded by suggesting that we resurrect the name Edsel.

McClure even suggested a slogan: "This time we're really serious."

Taurus had been Ford Engineering's project name for the car and, as things turned out, became the actual name. It worked out far better than Edsel or Howard might have. We all ultimately settled on it simply because it sounded right.

How a name sounds, to my mind, is as good a way as any to decide what you're going to call a new car. Take the new Buick compact recently shown on the show circuit. It's called the Verano, a nice enough sound. The word, in Spanish, means summer and begs the question whether Buick will call subsequent sedans the Otoño (fall), Invierno (winter), and Primavera (spring).

Naming its sedans after the seasons would imply a dedication to nomenclature consistency on Buick's part, something I don't look for. We'll be left with Verano, LaCrosse, and Lucerne−a season, a sport, and a Swiss city. Throw in the Enclave SUV and you have a fine mess equal to anything Laurel and Hardy ever came up with.

Ford, doing its part in the odd name sweepstakes, has showed what is surely the new Escape, but the Blue Oval labeling mavens call the concept Vertrek, a name that looks like leftovers from a Scrabble game. Oh, I suppose that a dedicated wordsmith could extract "trek" from the name and somehow associate it with off-pavement travel, and he might get an ecobuzz with "vert," the French word for green, but doesn't all that sound just the tiniest bit convoluted?

What should a name do for a car?

For one thing, it could carry on a consistent theme of some sort. Look at BMW with its numerical appellations for its cars: 1 series, 3 series, and so on, until the prospective buyer reaches the top-of-the-line 7 series. The bigger the number the bigger the car; an idiot could absorb that system, which is a good one.

Mercedes-Benz has almost as good a system, using letters with the word "class" instead of "series," but the company has complicated things with a double handful of models ending in LK and LR and beginning with S and C.

Ford once sought consistency by announcing that it would use only names beginning with an F. That was hailed internally as marketing savvy of the finest kind until the realization that no sane marketer would change the name of the Mustang to Fireball or something. Moreover, there was a strong likelihood that Crown Victoria owners were too set in their ways to accept a new name.

Another thing a name might do is communicate the personality or performance of a vehicle. That's if you don't have a BMW- or Mercedes-type system in place. This approach goes way back. No potential buyer ever thought that the Apperson Jackrabbit or the Stutz Bearcat was a slug. Thunderbird was a great name (which ultimately lost its meaning), and you'd have to go some way to beat Corvette Sting Ray or Plymouth Fury. The Hudson Hornet sounded mean, and was.

A name does not, of course, have to hint at horsepower if the vehicle that carries it is intended to project luxury. Rolls-Royce names such as Silver Wraith, Silver Cloud, and Silver Ghost did not make an overt statement, but you knew when you heard them that you were not talking about some high-mileage low-dollar econobox. Ditto the Buick Roadmaster, the Chrysler Imperial, and the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.

Speaking of hearing, the manner in which a name strikes the ear can be enough to carry the day, never mind how nonsensical it may be. The Chevrolet Bel Air and Impala could be placed in this category. They just sounded right, never mind that one was a sniffy Los Angeles suburb and the other an obscure African antelope.

Which brings up the subject of foreign names. Like it or not, most Americans are uncomfortable with foreign pronunciations. Lincoln-Mercury actually had to generate sales material that told people how to pronounce Merkur (MAIR cure), and when Dodge named the Plymouth Volare, the badge read Volaré, incorrectly indicating that the final syllable was to be accented. I cannot bring myself to discuss the incalculable number of ways that the Pontiac Le Mans has been mispronounced.

If you must use an overseas name, be careful. I thought that Kia had named one of its products, the Sorento, after a city, until I realized that an "r" was missing.

Silly me. The town in Italy is spelled Sorrento, while Sorento I believe to be a cold preparation that may cause frequent vomiting, loss of hearing, and leprosy-like symptoms.

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