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 we 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 attempting to travel around the world in 80 cars
Alright… Maybe not 80, but 48 is surely enough, with apologies to Jules Verne for bludgeoning the title of his classic novel to fit my own dastardly needs.
The names of certain destinations can instantly evoke a detailed picture in your mind, and car brands have long been keen to wring every last drop of buyer cash out of that association.
Don’t believe me? Imagine living in cold, grey London in the 1960s. You’d do anything to escape that reality and Ford UK knew it when they coined the Cortina name, taken from an Italian ski resort popularised a few years earlier as the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics. Much prettier than the grey sludge Blighty calls snow!
Less snowy and more sunny is the Ford Capri, again Italian in its inspiration, but this time inspired by an island off the coast of Naples. Granada in Spain also provided the name for Ford’s European large car from the late 70s. Don't forget Escort either... Well not the Escort specifically, but rather the rally inspired Escort Mexico.
Much later British Leyland deployed a similar theory to the Austin Montego, which like the thoroughly mainstream Cortina, went exotic for its inspiration in the form of Jamaica’s sunny Montego Bay. British buyers must have been beside themselves at the thought.
Ford also took another shot when it launched the Sierra, Spanish for mountain range. In an SUV-obsessed era that seems like a strange choice for a car with no off-road aspirations, but given Ford’s massive presence in rallying at the time the connection still stands.
In the United States it seems automakers were less obsessed with showcasing the world and more keen on highlighting domestic locations, and why not – the USA is already home to a baseball World Series that doesn’t actually include the rest of the world.
One of the better known classic names belongs to the Chevrolet Bel Air, which takes its name from one of LA’s fancier neighbourhoods.
As California seems to be the epicentre of America’s car culture towns like Silverado, Sierra (as in Sierra Nevada, California, not the one in Spain – because America!) and Tahoe (the lake, that is) take care of the rugged side of things for Chevrolet and GMC’s trucks and SUVs but Yukon in Oklahoma also rates a mention (Edit: Derek Fung has tapped me on the shoulder with an atlas in his hand, pointing to the Canadian territory, not the Oklahoma town as the origin of the name).
Cadillac courted American destinations too, like Eldorado, specifically the Eldorado Country Club in California although the mythical Spanish lost city of gold, El Dorado is also cited as inspiration. There’s a Cadillac Seville too, but with a population of around 2000 people for the town in Ohio, Seville in Spain was the actual inspiration, although other places like St Moritz, La Salle, and Calais were also mooted.
Cadillac did eventually use Calais elsewhere, and Buick latched onto La Salle. Holden also nicked Calais from 1984 for its flagship short wheelbase Commodore evoking the French port town famed for being the narrowest point of the English Channel, and depending on where you stand can be quite picturesque or utterly industrial.
Holden did at least pick a few names closer to home, like Belmont. Although we asked for asked for confirmation on the origin Holden remained tight-lipped about whether the inspiration came from the Geelong suburb, the Perth suburb, New South Wales’ Hunter Valley town, or the outer Brisbane suburb. Perhaps a little mystery helps keep the interstate rivalry at bay?
Monaro also takes its origins from the Snowy Mountain region now known as the Cooma-Monaro Shire. That’s in stark contrast to Holden’s more contemporary efforts which include fully-imported names like Colorado and until recently Malibu, though in hindsight imagine the outcry if that steaming pile had’ve revived the Torana badge!
If you’re into motorsports then the Dodge Daytona is ready to take you to every left turn at NASCAR’s Daytona International Speedway, while Le Mans has been honoured by cars as diverse as Pontiac and Daewoo, neither of which ever officially raced there. Work that one out!
Bathurst gets a mention from time to time too. Toyota applied the name of Australia’s premier race circuit to the MR2 Bathurst which was sold in Australia, While Mazda honoured Mount Panorama with the RX-7 Type R Bathurst R which wasn’t officially offered locally.
Perhaps the biggest slap in the face of all was Vauxhall’s take on the name: applying it to a version of the HSV Clubsport (which is fine) but then adding a supercharger to the car which wasn’t offered locally in a factory package (which is less fine, really) and calling it the Vauxhall VXR8 Bathurst S.
Ferrari took the seemingly unusual step of naming its cheapest model the California, maybe as a way of acknowledging the importance of the United States to the company’s existence, but skewed the balance back toward the exotic with its successor, the Portofino, named after a resort town on the Italian Riviera.
Long before that happened though Buick had already snagged on Riviera, although GM’s American barge never really defined if that was the French or Italian Riviera… Or maybe the American Riviera, though one assumes they’d have simply settled on 'Buick Santa Barbara' if that were the case.
Hyundai’s littered a few Americano names though it’s range too, like the Santa Fe (New Mexico), Tucson (Arizona) and looks set to add Santa Cruz (California) to its roster linking three neighbouring South Western states in the USA.
Keeping that flow going with SUVs and it’s no surprise that rugged regions are used as the inspiration for cars that are supposed to able to go anywhere, with none more lofty (pardon the pun) than the Ford Everest.
Overseas Kia uses the Mohave name for its biggest SUV, inspired by the Mojave desert that spans California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona (I guess no one corrected them on the spelling) while more markets get the Sorento, which despite being dropping an ‘R’ pays tribute to the coastal city of Sorrento in Italy.
Toyota is particularly fond of a desert name too (in Australia, at least), with a version of the LandCruiser called the Sahara, and a Prado variant called the Kakadu. In the UK and Ireland the LandCruiser also carried the Amazon tag, but Volvo struck upon that one first with its mid-size sedan and wagon of the same name first launched in the mid-1950s
Both Ford and Subaru went for a more general approach with the Territory and Outback respectively, while the ill-fated Subaru Tribeca took a decidedly more urban approach, pulling its name from the Triangle Below Canal Street, or TriBeCa cultural district of New York City.
Alfa Romeo also avoided off road connotations for its first SUV, opting to apply the name of one of the most iconic, and impossibly twisty, stretches of road to its Stelvio high rider as a signal of intent. Though it may be a mountain pass, it's a slice of driver heaven.
Obviously there’s plenty more destination-inspired automotive badges too with some more exciting than others, be that up to the car or the city. Passports ready for inspection please as we pass through Kia Rio, Alfa Romeo Montreal, Pontiac Bonneville, Nissan Murano, Seat Ibiza, and Chrysler Sebring.
No worries if you don’t have a passport though, in some cases an Uber account could be all you need.
What did you think of our list? There's heaps more examples out there so go crazy in the comments and share your favourite location-based car names to complete the list!