4 September 2006

The Name Game

GTO, aka Gran Turismo Omologoto. The name makes perfect sense for the Ferrari that bears it. It is after all, a grand touring car, homologated for racing eligibility. How it came to refer to a variant of the Pontiac LeMans (and later Tempest) Sedan, is a matter of brilliant marketing. After all, what name implies of performance better than that of a world-famous race car? Though the name was originally borrowed from Ferrari, the letters GTO almost always now refer to the Pontiac.

The tired question “What’s in a name?” is too obvious here. But really, does a car’s name matter? The major automotive manufacturers who put untold amounts of time and money into hatching the perfect monikers for their products might argue that the right name can either doom a car to failure or begin its legacy.

After the exterior design, a car’s name is for many consumers the initial attribute that define the perceptions that surround it. It’s the language with which an automaker conveys what they would like you, the consumer to think of their car. Is it an elegant luxury cruiser like the Park Avenue, Continental or Calais. Or is it a fire-breathing track-day screamer, such as the ’Cuda, Mustang, Cobra or Diablo. For an automaker, the stakes are high: Choose the right name and a car will market itself. The wrong one and…that’s why there are advertising and marketing departments.

Of course, there is the option of choosing a relatively obscure name and letting the car itself build the name into legendary status. The word “corvette” is the name for a relatively small naval vessel. In 1953, the mind of Harley Earl made it so much more. In what was perhaps a nod to the returning GIs who would comprise the car’s target market, the first truly American sports car would carry this decidedly martial name. The Corvette name was ascribed by Ohioan photographer, writer and Soap Box Derby inventor Myron Scott. Ask anyone today to describe a Corvette, and he’ll likely begin talking fiberglass and horsepower without once mentioning a sail.

There are those marques that have the luxury of avoiding the name-game headache, not concerning themselves with model names at all, but instead utilizing the perception of their brand to market cars. Mercedes-Benz and BMW are most notable in this respect. Like BMW, Mercedes-Benz has avoided the difficulty of capturing a vehicle’s “essence” in one word, by utilizing combinations of numbers and letters denoting engine displacement and body-style (even though this system isn’t exactly accurate today.) Recently born “prestige” brands like Audi, Lexus, Infinity and Acura have copied what has been a very successful strategy for the “old guard” German companies with even Cadillac joining this group of automakers in recent years.

Perhaps the most celebrated of German automakers, Porsche, has made an automotive icon of the numbers 911 and 356. Their tradition of naming by number began as it did for many automakers: The number 356 was simply the car’s internal design number. Interestingly, when Max Hoffman (the man behind the post-war flood of imported European vehicles into the American market) decided to bring the Porsche 356 stateside, he was firmly of the belief that Americans would be slow to buy a car without a conventional name. He had the little cars badged “Continental,” and shortly thereafter, “European” after drawing complaints from Ford Motor Company.

When Porsche discontinued the 356 in favor of a new model, which would for the first time bear little similarity to the VW Beetle designed by Ferdinand Porsche, the company planned to use the internal design number 901. When the 901 was unveiled at the Frankfort Motor Show, Peugeot claimed ownership of the three digit model name whenever the second digit was 0. Porsche simply changed the model number to 911 and the rest is history.

Recently, Porsche has chosen to give each new model a proper name – every new model since 1996’s Boxster has borne a name beyond its numerical designation. 

There are other strange things happening with the auto classification system, however. Not since AMC chose the name of a mythical imp renowned for causing dangerous mechanical failures for the namesake of its successful Gremlin have we experienced such questionable judgment in naming automobiles. Some automakers have so exhausted their company-issued dictionaries that they’ve begun inventing names on their own. Such mysterious appellations as Lumina and Alero spring to mind first, but the most confounding have sprung from the East. For a time, many Toyotas carried names that aren’t actual words in any language. But even the names Camry and Celica have started to make sense when judged alongside the newest Toyota, the Yaris.

If there is one universal truth when it comes to naming a car, it’s that a great car will always overcome a poor name. It’s the engineer and the designer that make the car desirable and eventually collectible, not the ad agency or the marketing wizards. When a word like Corvette can come to mean so much to so many people, maybe the name isn’t that important after all. While many automakers spend millions on consultants and focus groups seeking names that define their cars, rarely are they able to build the car that comes to define a name.


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