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If Detroit Comes Back, Will It Bring Better Car Names?

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by Howard Baldwin

If Detroit Comes Back, Will It Bring Better Car Names?

It makes me sad to find myself in traffic behind a Kia Sedona or a Hyundai Santa Fe. How can it be that the fine tradition of naming cars after evocative places has fallen to the South Korean automobile manufacturers? When I was young, Detroit did that better than anyone.

There have actually been several phases in automotive naming, as I see it. In the nascent days of the industry, cars were usually named for the men that built them. Most people remember Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, Ransom Olds, and Walter Chrysler, but there was also David Dunbar Buick, Andre Citroen, Armand Peugeot, Ettore Bugatti, and Enzo Ferrari, among others.

Several siblings teamed up to make cars as well: John and Horace Dodge, James and William Packard, and the five, count ’em five, Studebaker brothers. There was the famous partnership of Stewart Rolls and Henry Royce. Only one car was named for a woman: Mercedes was the daughter of a man who worked for Karl Benz.

Of course, one of the most recent auto manufacturers to name a car after himself was John DeLorean, and you know how that turned out. I’m frankly surprised that Henrik Fisker has been bold enough to put his own name on his electric car company.

Then there were the 50s and early 60s, which besides coinciding with my childhood,  were Detroit’s heyday. Each division of a car company targeted a specific income level, and each division had gradations within it. In order to show your upward mobility, you moved from a Dodge to a Plymouth to a Chrysler to a DeSoto. And frequently, the gradations evoked associations with exotic or wealthy place names: Chevrolet Bel Air and Biscayne. Chrysler New Yorker, Newport, Saratoga. Packard Caribbean. Lincoln Capri. Cadillac Biarritz. Buick Riviera. Mercury Monterey, Montclair, and Montego. Pontiac Catalina. Dodge Monaco. Those were cool car names.

About the same time, the NASA space program spawned a cluster of names: Plymouth Satellite. Mercury Comet. Ford Galaxie. And then, although Jaguar had been around a while, muscle cars ushered in an animal phase: Ford Mustang. Plymouth Barracuda. Corvette Stingray. Buick Wildcat. AMC Marlin. Corvair tried to have it both ways, with the Monza Spyder (Monza is in northern Italy). Just as Delorean killed the tradition of using founders’ names, I believe the Pinto killed the animal phase.

Nowadays, manufacturers have resorted to boring model numbers and inscrutable wordplay. What the heck is a Camry or a Passat? If the Acura is supposed to connote accuracy, what should Integra connote? Did Lexus steal one of Rolex’s syllables to establish a connection? Does Infiniti refer to how long you’ll be making car payments? Do you really want to be caught in a Crossfire?

There remain feeble attempts to bring back evocative places for car names, but they’re doing that all wrong. Kia itself misspelled Sorento (the Italian town has two r’s). Is the Dodge Durango named for the Mexican city or that cute little town in southwestern Colorado? Had anyone at Toyota ever actually been to Tacoma before they named their pickup? Why aren’t there cars named for Bermuda or the Bahamas, or Hawaii, or French Polynesia? Wouldn’t any thinking person prefer a Toyota Tahiti to a Toyota Tacoma?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to return to those materialistic days when people could tell that by spending another $500 or $1000, you were rich enough to move from a Chevrolet to an Oldsmobile to a Pontiac (an Indian chieftain) to a Buick to a Cadillac (the founder of Detroit), when the number of taillights on your car or the height of their fins indicated your income. But if I’m going to be stuck in traffic, I would like the name of the car in front of me to transport me somewhere else.

Tags: names boomers cars transportation manufacturers life changes

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