Car companies put a lot of time and effort into the names of their vehicles. Some are overnight successes, while others are more of a slow road to success and others still are just plain embarrassing.
There’s no doubt some car names have become icons unto themselves to the point where they almost overshadow the brands they come from. Take Mustang and Corvette for instance, which have broken the bonds of their Ford and Chevrolet parents and grown into brands of their own.
But naming a car isn’t easy. Imagine trying to devise a name that comes up clear of other registered trademarks, sounds good, and is free from any kind of misinterpretation. It’s a lot harder than it seems, which probably explains the rise of meaningless alphanumeric naming conventions, particularly amongst prestige manufacturers.
In an attempt to clarify the bedlam that is the automotive name game, let's take a look at the myth, mystique and madness behind some of the cars we know so well, and even some of the ones we don’t.
This week we’re taking a look at naming conventions
Before the wild niche-filling expansions of brand portfolios, a few automakers tried to keep things neat and simple by applying linked naming conventions, the remnants of which still exist today.
It’s easy to overlook now, but Toyota, obviously with market dominance on its mind, tried to set its passenger-car range up with a somewhat monarchist twist. You might miss it at first glance, but the Japanese brand’s core range is mostly named after regal headgear.
The Japanese-market Crown is the obvious example, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find Corolla is a rough translation of ‘small garland’ from Latin, and Camry is a westernised version of the word kanmuri – Japanese for crown.
Going back further, the pre-Camry Corona is fairly self-explanatory, although not quite as obvious as some versions which were named the Toyota Tiara. Even variants of crown-named cars take the theme further: in Japan you could buy a Camry Sceptre, while Australia’s Camry Atara models pull their name from the Hebrew word for crown.
Perhaps unintentionally, Toyota’s marketing department even took some inspiration from the brand’s nomenclature strategy. Although LandCruiser is in no way crown-related, for a while Toyota marketed it as “king off the road” – a title that no other manufacturer would dare consider.
Honda also likes a family resemblance, although it splits its conventions into groups.
Civic and Accord apparently reflect the brand’s desire for everyone to get along, while the City, which slots in beneath the Civic, creates an urban theme. Those are only bit-players in Honda’s naming scheme however, with Honda taking most of its inspiration from music.
That’s most obvious with the Jazz, but also applies to Prelude (a short piece of music), Concerto (a solo piece accompanied by an orchestra), and its predecessor the Quintet, which describes a five-piece band or ensemble.
Honda fans will also point to the Japanese-market Beat roadster, and the short-lived Ballade sedan, French for ballad. This brings us neatly back to the Accord, which apart from its English meaning of agreement correlation, happens to be French for chord.
Neat segues aren’t only Honda’s thing, though: Volkswagen seems to do it better than almost any other company, but I’ll get to that in a second.
Ford earns a mention for giving most of its passenger cars names that start with F, and cherry-picking the best of what’s available here and overseas you can walk into a Ford showroom and select from Fiesta, Figo, Focus, Flex and Fusion. In the past, you could also choose a Five Hundred, Falcon, Fairlane, Freestyle, Festiva, or Fairmont.
Nissan doesn’t hold as firmly to any specific naming convention these days, but in the '50s and '60s, quaint British-sounding names populated the range on cars like the Cedric, Gloria, and Silvia.
A contact at Nissan’s head office in Japan tells us “people in Japan had admired western culture, western technologies and craftsmanship, and imported products. This tendency was far stronger back in the 1950s or 1960s, compared to now. It is therefore natural that Japanese people liked western names of the car in those days.”
In later years Nissan turned to fast animals like the Gazelle, Leopard and Cheetah – though not always applied to fast cars.
Okay, back to Volkswagen… You might want to grab some popcorn and a comfy seat for this.
In 1973, Volkswagen launched its family car entrant, the Passat, which borrows its name from one of the planet’s network of 'passatwinde', or trade winds.
The devil is in the details, of course, as while the Passat winds are predominantly subtropical on either side of the horizon, they blow globally, much like VW’s aspirations for its then-new model.
From there, Volkswagen went to work crafting perhaps the breeziest of all naming conventions.
While native English speakers might more readily associate Volkswagen’s iconic small hatch with the pursuit of hitting a small dimpled ball around a well manicured green, the name Golf is actually derived from the German term for oceanic Gulfstream currents – which isn’t a wind, but close enough, right?
But hang on, isn’t Polo also a game of limited spectator appeal involving the impracticalities of chasing a small ball around a manicured lawn? Well, yes, but it also happens to be the Germanic version of ‘polar’, in this instance referencing the Northern Polar wind.
The two sports-themed names are a happy coincidence for English speakers, but Scirocco, Bora, Vento and Jetta all subscribe to the wind theory – in various languages – while others like Corrado head off on a different tangent with everything from the Spanish term ‘to run’, to 18th century Italian rococo painter Corrado Giaquinto mooted as potential inspiration.
Volkswagen doesn’t just blow hot air, though: the Wolfsburg-based company also happens to have a fondness for applying names that fit the ‘Wolf Castle’ theme imparted by its city’s coat of arms.
Most recently that applies to the Amarok, which means wolf in some Inuit dialects. Before that the small Lupo city car also carried the honour of Wolfsburg, though confusingly by using the Italian word for wolf.
Just like the lawn sports subtheme, Volkswagen has also dallied with animal names in the past with the Lupo’s predecessor, the Fox, and the US-market Golf wearing Rabbit badges at various stages.
Veedub isn’t done there, finally turning to ancient Greek mythology for cars like the Phaeton, named after the god Phaethon who nearly pranged the chariot which pulls the sun across the sky (clumsy lad). And then, that’s not the same Phaethon who claims to be the son of Eos, VW’s now discontinued hardtop convertible.
Eos was the goddess responsible for opening the gates of heaven to let the sun pass through, which makes sense for a convertible I suppose, and was the other Phaethon’s aunt into the mix, although she appears to have a cleaner driving record.
Finally the American-market Atlas SUV also hits on the mythology theme, named after the poor bloke who was tasked with holding the sky up for all eternity. That’s got to ache after a while.
What did you think of our list? Let us know in the comments – and as there's so many more examples that we didn't get to touch on, share some of your favourite car name conventions.
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