As a car manufacturer, you have spent literally thousands of person-hours engineering a vehicle that is not quite entirely dreamy nor utterly practical, but some magical balance of the two that should sell by the trainload. Small problem: the folks in marketing have decided to name the car the "Acquiesce," so chosen for its inability to offend anybody and its inference of agreeability. Turns out, nobody in the focus group had a thesaurus on hand; nobody took acquiescence for submissiveness.
These days, the naming process starts as soon as a new model car is proposed and is usually led by the marketing team. They start by looking at the car they are going to build and brainstorming words that reflect the character or perceived character of the car they eventually intend to sell. This is how Voyager came to be known as an abiding family road trekker while Ram emotes the ovine tenacity of a go anywhere pickup truck.
Back in the muscle car heyday, names like Mustang, Challenger, and Charger each conveyed a sense of power and kinematic strength. That was also the case with Chevrolet's "Camaro," though mainly for the way it rolled off the tongue, sounding all exotic and virile. The automotive press of the day - and Chevy's competitors, of course - were quick to point out that in antiqued French, Camaro simple meant "friend" or "chum" while old Spanish defined the word as "a small, shrimp-like creature." Chev's marketing team countered by loosely interpreting the word to mean "a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs."
As automotive lore has it, other Camaro names were also considered: Panther, Chaparral, Gemini and Wildcat. None of those stuck, obviously, though a couple did crop up on other cars later. Probably a good thing, for upon its release, people could only equate Camaro with "awesome" thereafter - it was (and remains) an archetypal pony car.
As you can imagine, dozens of names are considered in the rose-is-but-a-rose process; all but one are dismissed - but not necessarily because they're unsuitable. In some cases, an otherwise perfect car name might be trademarked. Cool as it'd sound, you won't ever see a Dodge Vader, a Chevy Skywalker or a Toyota Yoda - not until George Lucas decides he's milked enough out of Happy Meals, anyway.
And with the "small, shrimp-like creature" in mind, automakers also have to consider foreign language interpretations. While most of the English-speaking world equated "Nova" of Chevy Nova fame with "a pretty big bang" (or, questionably, a huge explosion), in Spanish it is suspiciously similar to "no va
," or "doesn't go." As irrepressible urban legend has it, the Nova was laughed out of Spain. This is not even close to true - the car did very well - but to this day the Chevy Nova is the poster child for lost-in-translation faux pas, mostly by people who don't do their homework, but a persistent thorn in Chevrolet's side nonetheless.
Carmakers also must consider language-specific slang. A new Chevy crossover meant to be touted as tenacious, productive, rugged, outdoorsy and hey, made-in-Canada, for example, simply would not be called the Chevy Beaver.
Besides which, animal names are all but played out, with the likes of Mustang, Ram, Impala, Rabbit, Viper, Barracuda, Stingray, Bronco, Skylark and a couple dozen other animals known for speed, agility, vigor or elegance pretty much spoken for if not totally cliché.
Of course, equines aren't the only metaphor for horsepower nor fangs for potency. A mere place can impart a sense of exoticism, as with the Alfa Romeo Montreal, Buick Lucerne, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mercury Milan and the new SEAT Ibiza. Meanwhile, it's clear nobody from Toyota has ever been to Tacoma.
A race in a place, meanwhile, can imply glamor and performance at the same time, which is why names like Daytona, Talladega, Brooklands, Bonneville and Le Mans can be found on more than one car from more than one manufacturer. Delivering on implied raciness is optional, of course, as evidenced by the Pontiac Sebring.
An increasing common car naming practice is to invent a brand new word altogether as Ford did with the Mondeo. Billed as Ford’s first "world car" (meaning it would be sold in all markets virtually unchanged), Ford merely fiddled with "Le Monde," French for "the world," until it sounded cool and worldly without actually meaning, uh, anything.
Similarly, Alfa Romeo recently paid homage to the factories that build its cars in Milan and Turin (Milano and Turino) by playing on both and ending up with the MiTo.
The Japanese take the cake when it comes to invented name, however. While a few North Americans would surely love to own a Mazda Bongo Friendee or a Honda Life Dunk as conversation pieces alone, we won't be seeing such nomenclature oddities over here.
Car name Factoid:
- The Porsche 911 was originally going to be called the 901, but Peugeot had already trademarked all the numbers with a zero in the middle.
- The Citroen DS was so called as in French it is pronounced ‘Day-Us’ or Deus which is Latin for God or Deity. Brassy.
- The De Tomaso Mangusta was so named in response to the Shelby Cobra. It's Italian for mongoose, the feisty marsupial known for its willingness to take on the deadly snake and eating it for lunch.
- Dino and Edsel are both cars named after the car company’s founder’s sons.
- The Lotus Elise was named after the granddaughter of the Italian chairman at the time, Romano Aritioli.
- Most car companies themselves are named after their founders: Ford, Rolls-Royce, Austin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Renault, Citroen, Honda, Toyota (Toyoda), DeLorean etc.
- Volkwagen has shown a penchant for naming cars with a play that meteorological constant known as wind: Bora and Scirocco for winds in the Mediterranean; Passat is German for "trade wind"; Jetta is a play on Jetstream, Polo for Polar winds and the Golf for the Gulfstream, not the sport.