Never mind 'Alice through the Looking Glass', this is 'History through the Rear-view Mirror'

Posted by on June 23, 2009

© THINKSTOCKBack when Henry Ford started mass producing cars, there was no need for clever names to differentiate them from the competition – there was no competition. ‘Model T’ worked, even if it wasn’t exactly exciting. Now, though, there are scores of manufacturers and hundreds of models, each with a name designed to make us want to buy; appealing to our nature and desires, or reflecting the mood of the day. What’s topical in one country, though, may not be in another, so manufacturers must fit names to markets. Looking back at those names can give us a peek into the zeitgeist of the time.

In 1960s and ’70s America, the hot topic was space exploration, and cars had names like Ford Galaxie, Plymouth Satellite and Mercury Meteor. In the UK, meanwhile, space had yet to grab the public imagination, and we had things like the Ford Cortina, MG Midget and Hillman Imp.

In the 1980s, as more and more Brits began setting their holiday sights abroad, manufacturers selling into the UK tried to appeal to that sense of adventure. Names like the Volkswagen Passat (from the German word for the ‘trade wind’ found near the equator) and Ford Capri (an Italian island) enticed us to buy through their subtle suggestion of escape from the daily grind.

Animal names have always been popular for cars, but compare the imagery of a small red-breasted bird, in Britain’s Reliant Robin (similar to Delboy’s famous yellow van in the comedy Only Fools and Horses), with that of the American Ford Mustang (a wild horse). It’s hardly surprising, that the ‘muscle-man’ of international politics should use power imagery on its vehicles, but some of the names could send shivers down your spine. Do you really want a Dodge Viper or a Buick Wildcat bearing down on you in your rear-view mirror?

European and Japanese manufacturers have tended towards ‘softer’ animals, like the Fiat Panda and the Nissan Bluebird – though I’ll admit Seat’s Leon (lion) doesn’t sound exactly cuddly – perhaps reflecting a more conciliatory stance on the world stage.

Choosing a ‘clever’ model name can sometimes backfire though. In January 2005, Toyota was reported to be dropping plans for a ‘Celica Tsunami’ – supposed to represent ‘the new wave of bold style’ – out of respect for what had happened in South-East Asia.

Perhaps it’s the desire to play it safe that has led some manufacturers to return to the travel theme – the Nissan Pathfinder or Chrysler Voyager, for example. But they seem so much more obvious than the old names. No more making the connection between an exotic weather system and the idea of travel – the name takes you straight there. Maybe, because the world is in such a state of fast-forward, manufacturers think we don’t have time for subtleties. Or perhaps a direct name is a reflection of a no-nonsense brand identity. Or maybe they just don’t think we’re clever enough to get it, which also might explain why other manufacturers are going back to basics, using just letters and numbers. For me, though, Citroën C4 just doesn’t sound as interesting as, say, VW Scirocco, named after a harsh Mediterranean wind that sweeps northwards, and which recently returned to the marketplace after a 15-year absence.

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