As a kid, cars gave me goosebumps and filled my head with thoughts of incomprehensible adventures. Names like Countach, Testarossa, Charger, and The Machine would force emotional bonds between us before they were ever seen in person. Over the last decade, though, it seems the passion behind the name has been lost, with alphanumeric monikers like QX50, CT6, and G70, as well as others, taking their place on automotive decklids the world over. And while the vehicles themselves are all quite good, their model designations could have just as quickly been assigned to a cyborg in a James Cameron movie with the public being none the wiser.
So why does this matter? It matters because, in the world in which we live, name recognition is everything. We see it on cars, businesses, and social media.
There are, however, exceptions, like the Porsche 911, where a recognizable numeric tag works. Other companies like BMW, whose naming hierarchy starts in the basement and then progresses upwards (3 Series, 5 Series, 7 Series and so on) is meant to give buyers a sense that the higher the number, the better the car. This, too, is becoming saturated, as it’s a luxury brand strategy that has been in use for over 80 years.
When it comes to brands like Lincoln, Infiniti, and Lexus, where model designations seemingly change with the tides, the only thing that seems to happen is confusion amongst consumers coupled with a few vacant stares.
Back in the day, the name of a car meant something. It told a story and represented what the vehicle stood for. The AMC Gremlin not only had a great name, but also a fantastic, whimsical logo that told you it was supposed to be approachable and fun. The Looney Tunes-inspired Road Runner logo was a playful foil for what was otherwise a car with a bad attitude. Same for the Super Bee, which was a pissed-off bumblebee complete with goggles, a crash helmet, cheater slicks, and headers. You don’t see that on mainstream cars too often today, although Shelby’s cobra snake, Dodge Hellcat’s screeching feline logo, and the Dodge Demon’s horned monster convey a certain menace that really works for those vehicles.
Take the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud that was produced between 1955-66. If there was ever an opulent vehicle, this was it. The name alone transports one to a place of wealth and high society. The Silver Cloud not only painted a picture of what your life could be, but more importantly, it painted a description of how the rest of the world would see, and envy, your life from afar. Talk about brilliance.
In 1986, Mercedes-Benz and AMG did something similar for the performance segment with the legendary AMG Hammer. In the literal sense, a hammer is defined as “A tool with a heavy metal head that’s mounted at right angles at the end of a handle, used for jobs such as breaking things and driving in nails.” Talk about a mental carnival ride of an automobile. Breaking things and driving nails? I doubt anyone could have topped “Hammer” as the perfect descriptor for a German muscle car.
In their purest form, names are also a way to communicate a lot—or a little—information to whomever their audience may be. For example, NV200 is a designation that tells me absolutely nothing, about anything. There’s no sense of identity, nor does it make an effort to describe that it’s actually attached to a practical compact cargo van from Nissan. In all honesty, I’m not sure why Nissan chose to go this route, and in my research, I couldn’t find anything that would help me, the consumer, to relate to it. This is a missed marketing opportunity if there ever was one. At least the Ford Transit makes sense. And in France, there are both the Renault Kangoo and the Peugeot Bipper vans. Even if they mean nothing, those names stick in your head.
Automakers aren’t stupid, but do at times stray from traditional methods in hopes of creating a trend that will ultimately sell vehicles. Sometimes it works, other times it does not. What they have done, and have always known, is that the right name and imagery, attached to the right vehicle, can be a branding success.
Few vehicles illustrate this better than the Ford Broncos that were built between 1965-96. By itself, the Bronco name brought to mind thoughts of the outdoors, rough terrain, and the old West. It was also pure Americana, and as such, struck a chord with anyone who wanted to venture out beyond where the pavement ended. The real key, though, was that from a performance standpoint, it delivered and ultimately lived up to what the name had mentally promised. More than 30 years of production also allowed the Bronco to amass vast amounts of brand equity, as the vehicle itself was always a hit with buyers. Thus, when a new Bronco concept was revealed, the Internet went crazy with the hope that an icon from the past would be returning to pick up where its predecessor left off. We’ll see, as the revived Bronco is set for release in the 2020 model year.
Fortunately for us, other manufacturers are following suit with FCA’s sub-brand Dodge acting like the frontrunner. Names like Super Bee, Demon, T/A and even Dart (well, maybe not the Dart), have all returned to rave reviews from brand loyalists. Heck, even Lincoln, one of the biggest offenders of the last decade, is moving away from alphanumeric titles and replacing them with more traditional ones that are centric to the brand. For example, the MKX crossover has just been renamed Nautilus for the vehicle’s mid-cycle refresh.
If you work in the automotive space or are just an enthusiast, then you know that there are literally hundreds of model names that have left an impression over the years. The right names have the power to motivate, to make you laugh, empower you, and at day’s end, keep you firing on all cylinders. Sure, some have failed or have been misappropriated at times, but they’ve all come to us with a singular goal—to get you to go out and drive. Thankfully, automakers are once again realizing this with the beneficiaries being we, the consumer public. My only hope is that they continue with their market research so they can keep creating vehicles with names that inspire us.
Now, before you go, I’d like to ask for a favor. Post up a list of your favorite automotive names along with an explanation of why they appeal to you. For nothing else, maybe some of the automakers will pick up on them and take to heart just how vital a name really is.
AUTHOR: Mike Musto