Would you tell people you drove a Dodge Swinger? What about the AMC Gremlin, the Ford Probe or the Mitsubishi Lettuce?
Car companies spend hundreds of millions on the design and development of their cars, making sure they are just right. They spend similar amounts on marketing and PR, making sure that if you’re in the market for a new motor, you choose theirs over their rivals,’ and a fair chunk of that cash is given to trendy branding agencies to come up with a suitable name for the car.
The 30-page brief gives the beardy dudes and cool cats plenty of food for thought as to the company’s ethos and values, their ‘vision’ for the car, the intended audience and the market in which the car is to be sold. They then get their heads down, do some ‘blue sky thinking’ on bean bags in Shoreditch and finally send the car biz a list. Latin names are confusing, VW have the ‘call cars after winds’ corner on lockdown and Peugeot’s numbering is plain odd.
It’s a lengthy, often frustrating process and most of them do whatever they can to secure one of the coolest car names ever. But sometimes, it goes spectacularly wrong – costing the company a whole lot of money, stress and embarrassment.
Naming A Car Is Easy, Isn’t It?
If you’re BMW or Mercedes, yes. Beemers make it easy. Traditionally, a 325i is a three series with a 2.5-litre fuel injected engine. They have GT and Gran Coupe models but the essence has remained the same for years. Mercedes’ cars are allocated according to the class they find themselves in – A-Class, C-class etc. It’s straightforward to understand on a global scale.
Yet if we hark back to the raw, heady days of the 50s, 60s and 70s, automotive nomenclature was purer and much less contrived – Mustang, Corvette, Charger, Miura (the fighting bull on Lamborghini’s badge), Firebird, Stingray and Carrera (Spanish for ‘race’).
These names evoked passion, power and spirit. They were the kind of famous cars you saw on tv shows, and it’s entirely likely – although we don’t claim to be psychologists – that dynamic names are sales drivers, unlike the aforementioned Swinger, Probe and Gremlin.
Animals are popular – think Viper, Cobra, Jaguar and Colt (all worthy of getting into all-time iconic cars lists), as are racing circuits – Bonneville, Sebring, Daytona and Le Mans – as well as cities. SEAT named most of their cars after Spanish towns – León, Córdoba, Ibiza, Toledo, Alhambra – and you’ll also be able to take your Nissan Murano to Murano, your Hyundai Santa Fe to Santa Fe and your Chevrolet Bel Air to…you get the picture.
If a British car company did the same thing, would you be happy in a Lotus Burnley, a TVR Darlington or an MG Croydon? Probably not!
All these names, even translated, are good for all time zones. A viper is a scary, powerful snake in English or Spanish or Italian or whatever. Same goes for a Mustang and a Stingray.
But sometimes less care is taken on the naming convention – and its potential pitfalls – than the single-minded focus on getting the cars into the showrooms and onto the driveways of willing punters.
Naming A Car Is Hard, Isn’t It?
It can be. There are famous incidents of products entering specific markets and not selling while the manufacturers scratched their heads wondering why. They didn’t do their research and suffered because of it…
Perhaps the most famous example is the Chevy Nova, built for the best part of thirty years from the early 60s. The story goes that when Chevy tried to introduce the car to the Spanish-speaking market – predominantly into Mexico – no-one realised that ‘no va’ in Spanish means ‘doesn’t go’… While this is actually an urban legend that has since been debunked, it perfectly illustrates the dangers of not doing your research when diving headfirst into the international market.
It seems that quite a few of these car brand ‘fails’ are as a result of the many colloquialisms found in Latin American- Spanish and Portuguese, and their many dialects. Ford took their Pinto model to Brazil and wondered why no-one bought one. Then the penny dropped. ‘Pinto’ is a Brazilian-Portuguese slang term for a small male appendage.
Mitsubishi had a similar issue when they took their rugged off-road Pajero to Spain, not knowing that ‘pajero’ was a word used to describe ‘one who indulges in self-pleasure’. It ended up as the Montero. Exactly the same thing happened in French-speaking Canada (specifically in Québec) when Buick took their LaCrosse model north of the border. Unbeknown to them, a ‘lacrosse’ is the same as a ‘pajero’…
Staying with the Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, the Toyota Fiera wasn’t a massive seller in Puerto Rico because ‘fiera’ is a derogatory term meaning ‘ugly old woman’. Toyota didn’t fare particularly well in France either when the MR2 was launched. Say it quickly in French – Em-Err-Deux… Phonetically: M-err-de. Sound familiar?
Surely Audi, the dictionary definition of safe, well-designed, well-built and beautiful looking German efficiency couldn’t make such an elementary mistake, especially nowadays, could they? Well yes, they could. And they did. The all-electric e-tron based on the spectacular R8 was supposed to signify the future of driving, electric power and impeccable green credentials with the power of a small rocket but those green creds have, ahem, ‘browned’ a little. In French, étron is a slang word for poo.
What about Rolls-Royce, the bastion of luxurious Britishness? Guilty. Well, almost. They were about to launch the Silver Mist in Germany when at the last minute, someone pointed out that ‘mist’ means ‘animal manure’. It was hastily rebadged as the Silver Shadow.
There are also the car companies who have simply made up words to call their cars. There are millions of perfectly good words to choose from, why must people make them up? They mean literally nothing, like Kia’s Sportage and C’eed, the Oldsmobile Toronado, the Mitsubishi Starion and the Nissan Sentra…
Who knows what the next generation of cars will be called, we just hope that someone, somewhere does their research properly!