Monday, March 6, 2017

What Were They Thinking?

By Mike Nettleton 

I’ve always loved words. After all, without them we’d have a rash of head-on collisions between various types of punctuation. (In fact, I witnessed a gruesome semi-colon—question mark—em dash pile up the other day that tied up traffic in my word processor for hours).

My love of the language probably doesn’t surprise anyone who knows me. From the seven year old tottering up the long hill home from the downtown Bandon library with his seven books (the legal limit), to the 43 year semi-professional radio pronouncer who became the author and co-author of a number of amusing but terminally unimportant novels, I’ve wallowed in words for as long as I can remember. In fact, I’ve spent much of my retirement as a part-time librarian, helping others find reading matter and brushing up on the Dewey decimal system. (For the unacquainted, that’s not a moist form of mathematics.) I’ve also stumbled across works I would have never considered reading until the title leaped off the shelves and grabbed me. “Quantum Physics for Dummies,” “The Amish Biker Mama Who Married a Duke” and “Sex for One,” are three that come to mind. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the names of automobile models. I wonder, if at each and every car manufacturer’s headquarters, there’s a room that houses the creative minds that assign new names to soon-to-be-released gasoline slurpers. Where do they come up with their inspiration?

Some names appeal to the common sense, community spirit and thrift of the consumer about to buy the car. The Ford “Econ-o-line”.  Has to be easy on the pocketbook, right? Family car that will efficiently and cheaply move the family from point A to point B. If you don’t believe me, listen to Nancy Griffith’s song of the same name. On the flip side, I have memories of waiting for the tow truck to show up (again!) and my wife doubled over with laughter beside me. It’s possible she enjoyed the irony of my car being a Plymouth Reliant more than I did. And for the ultimate in down-to-earth respectability, how about the Honda Civic? Not only gets good gas mileage, but does charity work in its spare time. 

Another favorite is critters, both real and mythical. Ford seemed to favor horse names. Now in the case of the “Mustang”and the “Bronco”, this has worked out pretty well. Not so much with the “Pinto”, which tended to explode when tapped too firmly on the rear haunches. Big cats play well too, like the Mercury “Cougar” and “Bobcat” and the Buick “Wildcat”. Other animal names implied speed, agility and physical grace like the Chevrolet “Impala” or the Sunbeam “Gazelle”. I wonder if the goof in the room at the naming session who suggested they call their new model the Hippo or Musk Ox found himself collecting an unemployment check later that day. Although, personally, I would have snapped up the new 1978 Plymouth “Yak”. I also think other drivers would think twice about encroaching into your lane if you were driving a shiny, new black and white Oldsmobile “Skunk”.

Namesters have also drawn on mythology with models like the Pontiac “Firebird”, The Dodge “Aries” and the Buick “Apollo”. I would love to drive a car with a name drawn from my favorite poem, The Jabberwocky. Imagine tooling through the mimsy borogoves in a sparkling new Toyota Frumious Bandersnatch. 

Sex is a recurring auto-name theme. From the Ford “Escort” (you’ll have a good time but pay dearly for it) to the manly and suggestive “Hummer” and the most directly sexual model name, the Ford “Probe”. Was one of the creative team an amateur gynecologist? When I was still doing yawn patrol radio I was given a sporty new Ford Probe to test drive and ad-lib testimonials for on-the-air. My wife took great pleasure in telling people I was driving a 1986 “Shlong.” The Probe by the way was a great handling little car. Not it’s fault they gave it a name ripe for cheap shot humor. 

 Cars are sometimes named after California cities or locales thought to be glamorous and exciting. “Malibu”, “Bel Air”, “Monterrey”, “Tahoe”, and the like. Other locales have had vehicles names after them like “Denali” and “Monte Carlo.” It’s a little hard to imagine the session where everyone signed off on naming a vehicle after “Tacoma”.  Probably disappointed the guy who was holding out for “Bakersfield.” 

 I think some of the car names came from the state of mind of the creative team as they faced an impending deadline. How else could you explain names like the Plymouth “Fury”, Jeep’s  “Scrambler” and my personal favorites the Dodge “Rampage” and “Avenger.” They see you pulling into the company parking lot in either one of those, and the building goes into immediate lockdown. I’d also avoid getting into a road rage situation with anyone driving a Chrysler Crossfire.

A final question. Why would the big brains at GMC pick the name of a destructive and deadly rolling wall of snow, ice and rocks that kills everything in it’s path to festoon one of their heavy hauling pickups? Maybe they thought it implied something unstoppable. But if the unfortunate events mother nature creates becomes a trend in the car-naming universe, I’m holding out for the 2025 Subaru Sink Hole. Or maybe this baby . . .

1 comment:

  1. Hilarious, Mike! My mind is reeling. Had never given car names much thought. My first was a Ford Maverick which conjures up for me the sound track of the Magnificent Seven. Then there was a friend's car in college I believe called a Fuego(?) which meant "fire" in Italian. Ironically one frigid Midwestern day the engine blew up and fire department was called. Great article!Susan