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Jebediah Wilbury: Smell On Wheels

(Editor's note: this is part of a series of postings written by "The Bloggering Wilburys." See this article for details.)

The car business is big business. Making something that you expect folks to fork over five or more figures for, and then trust themselves, their lives, their family's lives, and their public image to is hard work.

And even if you make a great car, you gotta give it a great name. You could make the best car in the world, but who the hell would ride around in a Honda Hemorrhoid?

So the carmakers put a lot of time and effort into naming their cars. And it don't always pay off.

There's an old story that Henry Ford wanted a whole new line of cars. He was stuck for a name, though, so he hired a bunch of people to suggest names. One poet gave him over a hundred, and the best of the whole sorry batch was "Utopian Turtletop." Old Henry took the list, tossed it in the circular file, and named the whole shebang after his late son.

Edsel Ford.

Anyway, there have been some really dumb names for cars. I guy I know has a new Chevy Cobalt. It's bright yellow. And a while ago, Chrysler put out twin cars, the Dodge Shadow and the Plymouth Sundance. Those names aren't so bad, but when they decided to make a convertible out of one of them, which do you think got the clip job? Here's a hint: it wasn't the one people might associate with Robert Redford.

And I'd like to take a brick to the heads of some people at Chevrolet. A "caprice" is a whim. It ain't got no business on the ass end of the car that wore it -- ain't nothing whimsical about a car that comes in on the high side of two tons of steel and glass and plastic.

Ford once put out a roller skate with baby-stroller tires. It was a version of a tiny Mazda, and they called it the "Aspire." Like it hoped to some day be a real car.

Ford also once put out a little sporty thing they hoped would appeal to women. They called it the Probe -- nothing too Freudian there. I was waiting for Mercury to put out a version they could call the Speculum.

And just to kick Ford once more, they once they had a great idea and named a car after the ships that hunted and sank submarines during World War II. After all, it worked great for the Corvette. They kinda overlooked that in the decades since the war, the term "Escort" was now more associated with prostitutes.

Sometimes the names are too damned good. Acura had a great car with a great name in the Legend. But then the marketing weenies got nervous that more people knew the car name than the brand name, so they killed it. In fact, they killed the whole name business and replaced them with random letters and numbers. The Integra became the RS, the Legend the RL, and they just haven't been the same.

Cars used to have great names. Nowadays, the only ones that have any real life in them are the ones still left over from the old days. Most everything else is a made-up word, a misspelled word, or some unpronounceable mixture of letters and numbers. (Yeah, Mercedes, I'm looking at you. BMW, Jaguar, Volvo, Infiniti -- don't look too smarmy. The shoe fits you, too.)

Wanna know why you're in the toilet, Detroit? This ain't the reason, but it's gotta be a part of it.


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Comments (25)

I wish the American compani... (Below threshold)

I wish the American companies also put some time in making cars that held together.

I'd love to buy an American car, but I need something that will just run when I need it. Especially if I'm borrowing $20,000 ish for a new one.

Toyotas are little tanks that keep going forever.

Then GM also keeps making gas-guzzling SUV's in the face of a clear and constant rising gas price. Toyota clobbers them with lower gas mileage and then totally shafts them with a hybrid...meanwhile GM has freakin' electric cars that they refuse to sell or even lease any more...sigh.

I love my little Mazda 3 to... (Below threshold)

I love my little Mazda 3 to death, but I have no idea why it was named as such... So far as I can count, it has either more or less than 3 of everything.

The all-time worst car name... (Below threshold)

The all-time worst car name was the Chevy "Nova" because they intended to market it all over Mexico and Central and South America without realizing the name translates loosely into "Won't go."

The "Monza" and the "Fairlane" also sucked as names, but there were some dandies, too - "Comet," "Thunderbird," "Maverick," "Barracuda," "Fury," "Trans Am," "Electra 225," and "Coupe de Ville."

Here's mine:<a hre... (Below threshold)
Son Of The Godfather:
Years and years ago I used ... (Below threshold)

Years and years ago I used to drive a Ford Cyclone :)

Jim Addison:<b... (Below threshold)

Jim Addison:

The "Monza" and the "Fairlane" also sucked as names, but there were some dandies, too, "Comet," "Thunderbird," "Maverick," "Barracuda," "Fury," "Trans Am," "Electra 225," and "Coupe de Ville."Add to the dandies the Olds "Cutlass". I learned to drive in a '76 model, and that thing was like a Sherman Tank!

One month into having my Drivers' License, I lost control of said car on a rain-soaked expressway. I took a walloping in my right rear quarter-panel (no jokes, please!) from a Mack truck. The truck had its fender wrapped around the left front wheel, badly enough that he had to be towed, while I drove home.

Good Times!

>Then GM also keeps making ... (Below threshold)

>Then GM also keeps making gas-guzzling SUV's in the face of a clear and constant rising gas price. Toyota clobbers them with lower gas mileage and then totally shafts them with a hybrid...meanwhile GM has freakin' electric cars that they refuse to sell or even lease any more...sigh.

typical liberal, bad at math and believes in mythology....

The extra capital outlay for a Toyota vs a Chevy will never be made up by better mileage. Gas doesn't cost that much.

I'm a Toyota guy but I don't tell myself I'm saving money because it gets better mileage. I wouldn't insult Brahmagupta that way.

The Toyota TOC is lower but the fuel is only one part.

Jim: Chevy Nova's an old<a... (Below threshold)

Jim: Chevy Nova's an oldurban legend.

Part of the problem with na... (Below threshold)

Part of the problem with naming your car, or, indeed, with naming anything, is that so many of the good brand names are already taken. If you slap the same (or a similar) name on your product, you can risk a trademark suit or unwanted associations between your product and another company's.


I was old enough to notice ... (Below threshold)

I was old enough to notice and laugh when GM (John DeLorean) floated the "Banshee" name. Someone bothered to look it up I guess, because it came to market as the Firebird. Better than "a harbinger of death" for a nameplate.

RRRoark:All's wail... (Below threshold)


All's wail that ends wail.


In Japan, they name cars us... (Below threshold)

In Japan, they name cars using english words that would never go here. Example: Daihatsu markets a Naked.

I was walking through a parking lot near Tokyo with a collegue when I spotted one. I told my colleague, "I want a naked, man!"

My friend hadn't seen the car and started looking at me really funny. I quickly showed him the car and explained to him the importance of punctuation!


Yeah. Whew. Brilliant pos... (Below threshold)

Yeah. Whew. Brilliant post. Toyota is totally going down the tubes building cars with dopey names like "Prius" and "Camry."

They'll probably file for Chapter 11 next month.


Jay, great great piece here... (Below threshold)

Jay, great great piece here. The ill-fated contest to name the Edsel is the story of legends. It is highly likely that the old Hornet nameplate from Hudson and AMC will be revived for the third time since the 1950's by Dodge next year to be used on a Chinese built small car.

I've always had a special place in my heart for many AMC cars like the Gremlin, AMX and Javelin. I'm sort of glad to see the old Hornet/AMC nameplate get one more go round. I miss the Studebaker/Packard cars myself as well. The 1958 Packard looked aggressive enough to start a war all by itself, with a cool extended nose and supercharged engine. I've tried to buy a 1952 Henry J Kaiser car to make a hot rod before. Those were way cool cars. And a Ford 351 Cleveland motor makes a great mate to these.

My personal love for both cars and motorbikes is nearly equal. Those old Indian bikes were really special.

The US automakers have 3 pr... (Below threshold)

The US automakers have 3 problems. Their Marketing Departments (which is abysmal), their Styling, and their perception.

Their quality gap with the japanese has been closed. Their fuel economy for same size car is competitive.

Their Styling issue may depend on personal taste, but I'd believe its valid fault often.

However, their public perception is their biggest problem to overcome. I mean what would you think about someone who bought a Japanese car over an American car if the American car was equal or even better? Nobody wants to admit to being that person, so what Japanese car buyers say about quality and performance 'gap' won't change no matter how much it actually has.

I still love my 1973 Ford B... (Below threshold)

I still love my 1973 Ford BRONCO!!! Nothing else like it!

pennywit Do I det... (Below threshold)


Do I detect some Rand humor here? Would would Howard drive?

My Chevy Cobalt is BLUE! A... (Below threshold)

My Chevy Cobalt is BLUE! And I love it!

"Most everything e... (Below threshold)
"Most everything else is a made-up word, a misspelled word, or some unpronounceable mixture of letters and numbers."

Maybe the Big 3 should hire some of the people who make up the brand names of prescription drugs.

Who's gonna drive a Viagra?... (Below threshold)

Who's gonna drive a Viagra? ;)

"I'd love to buy an America... (Below threshold)

"I'd love to buy an American car, but I need something that will just run when I need it."

"The US automakers have 3 problems. Their Marketing Departments (which is abysmal), their Styling, and their perception"

The problem IS perception. People think that American cars are of poor quality recalling the mid 70's to mid 80's when that WAS the case. It no longer is and hasn't been since the mid 80's but that mindset is deeply engraved into Americans. They made their bed, crapped in it and now have to sleep in it.

I have a Mazda Mazdaspeed6.... (Below threshold)

I have a Mazda Mazdaspeed6.

Going to get it registered was a fun endevour. It went something like this.

"What kind of car is it?"

A Mazdaspeed6.

"A Speed 6?"

No, a Mazdaspeed6.

"I understand it's a mazda, it's called a speed6?"

No, it's a Mazda Mazdaspeed6.

"A Mazda Mazda Speed 6?"

Yes, a Mazda Mazdaspeed6.

(by this time she started looking at me like I was retarded).

I ended up just giving her all my paperwork, and hoping for the best.

They made their be... (Below threshold)
They made their bed, crapped in it and now have to sleep in it.

They didn't make that bed. Firstly pre-mid 70's cars were easy to maintain by yourself. And pre mid 70's families only had one primary wage earner. So you could repair cars on your own and had the wife's car as a spare if necessary. In fact, you could be looked down upon if you didn't your own maitainance. And if it needed repair, the spouse had time on his/her hands to take care of it at the local mechanic.

That dynamic changed in the late 70's onward as both parents started working and the wife (or husband) no longer stayed at home or held a dispencable part-time job.

So previously people wanted cheap cars. As cheap as possible. And if quality caused it to have some issues, you would fix it yourself or have the spouse take care of it. That changed to both members needing their cars and having a lot less time to spare for the car's upkeep. Its also why the quickie lubes sprung up at that timeframe.

That was one change that automakers could have kept up with. But it wasn't the only one.

In the late 70's, the US makers got slapped with emissions requirements and safety requirement and fuel economy requirement/oil embargo all about the same time. The timing to meet the requirements was much shorter than automakers traditionally took to design, develop and bring a car to market. It's like being told to bake a cake in 30 minutes when your recipe calls for 60 minutes.

So quality went down trying to meet the shift, the emission, safety and fuel economy requirements.

However, the Japanese were making cars that were close to meeting those requirements. Why? Because they were already making small & light cars for their marketplace. They just had to make more of the same with small changes.

Essentially the US marketplace changed to better align with the Japanese product line in a time period shorter than the US makers had to do a heck of lot more to meet that new marketplace than the Japanese makers.

I'm not one much for conspiracies, but the kicker is that the heads of the various agencies that responsible for the requirement pretty much got jobs representing Japanese interests after the Carter Administration. The EPA head especially. Not to mention Carter earned a cool 20 million from the Japanese on a speaking tour shortly after leaving office.

Later Japan's currency fixing in the 80's helped it maintain an advantage while shrinking marketshare and the legacy of the cluster trying to keep up with the changing marketplace added an additional burden to US makers.

Just announced this morning... (Below threshold)

Just announced this morning, Chrysler is hiring the former successful head of Toyota's North America operations. This should prove that it's not only the products you sell, but your marketing ability and management style that indicates whether you have success or failure in business.

Unfortunately, the low qual... (Below threshold)

Unfortunately, the low quality of American cars over time is still an issue, according to all car magazines and also the non-profit Consumer Reports. I know this, 'cause I've been looking into buying a car recently...

No doubt the quality gap between American and foreign cars, especially Japanese cars, has been closed somewhat. But it still seems to be there to some degree.

BUt whatevah...on the plus side, cars do keep getting both safer and better, from all companies. Innovation does continue. I'm looking forward to ever better cars in the future.






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