Car brands: What's in a name?

2013-07-23 07:11

Earlier this month Wheels24 revealed that the Datsun brand will make its international comeback with the launch of its SA-bound Go hatchback. The model made its global debut at the Delhi auto show in India.

I hope the Japanese give sensible names to their models this time around. A few years Nissan, which owns Datsun, proudly announced the introduction of a luxury car called the Cedric. Can you imagine shouting out at the golf club bar: “Hi everybody, I’ve just bought a Cedric!”

Still, what do you expect of a company that had once introduced a sports car called Fair Lady.


Why bother even to dream up an image for your vehicle company when you can just give it a fancy name and hope it sells?

Could this be the thinking behind other manufacturers who have played on links with the aircraft industry, for instance (real or imagined) with names such as Beaufighter, Brigand and Blenheim (all Bristols), Spitfire (Triumph) and Viggen (Saab).

Rolls-Royce is a long-term adherent to ethereal themes: Silver Ghost, Silver Spirit, Silver Wraith, Silver Seraph and Phantom. Riley had a Sprite (also used by Austin-Healey), an Elf and an Imp (also used by Hillman which had previously launched the Minx), while from AMC came the Gremlin; from Gilbern the Genie; from TVR the Chimaera and Cerbera.

Lamborghini had a Silhouette and Mitsubishi a Mirage. Honda has given us the Legend, Cadillac the Eldorado. Opel had an Olympia and Leyland its Titan bus.


Success in motor racing has frequently led to commemorative names, sometimes as a special edition. Sunbeam's Alpine, Saab's Monte Carlo and Ford's Escort Mexico hinted at wins in those rallies. Marcos's LM500 had competed at Le Mans (as had Singer's Le Mans), while McLaren's F1 speaks for itself.

Cars named after racing circuits would have to include Riley's Brooklands (also used by Bentley), Austin's 7 Ulster, Alfa Romeo's 155 Silverstone,  Maserati's Kyalami, Sebring and Indy, Opel's Monza (also used by Chevrolet) and De Tomaso's Longchamp. Ferrari's 365GT was popularly known as the Daytona.

Winds have obvious connotations of power and speed: VW and Maserati favouring such names for their cars. Maserati had the Mistral, Ghibli, Bora and Khamsin but VW started their ball rolling in 1973 with the Passat; this name may have been chosen to indicate a wind of change, as this was the first true VW not to have been derived from the rear-engined, air-cooled Beetle.

Next came the Golf, which is the Germanic equivalent of Gulf (as in the Gulf air stream); however, in English-speaking markets (except the US where the car was known as the Rabbit) the name was inevitably associated with the game of golf, to the extent that later Golfs even came equipped with a golf-ball gear-shifter knob. The pick-up version was given the tongue-in-cheek name of Caddy.

After a small hiccough with the Polo (and its sedan derivative, the Derby), VW continued on its windy theme with the Santana, Jetta, Vento, Scirocco, Corrado and, more recently, the Bora (sold as the Jetta in South Africa).


Ford gave us the Zephyr, Corsair and Thunderbird and Chevrolet the Corvair, while from Oldsmobile we had the Tornado. British manufacturer Tornado gave us the Typhoon, Tempest (also used by Pontiac) and Thunderbolt, and Toyota the Blizzard, while Lister currently makes the Storm (a name previously used by VW on a version of the Scirocco and by US GM subsidiary Geo and Indian manufacturer San).

Jewel-based names are few, surprisingly. Austin had a run on them for variations on the 1920s/30s Austin 7, with Pearl, Ruby and Opal, and Ford used Sapphire for the sedan version of the Sierra. Meanwhile, Toyota gave us the Picnic and Suzuki the Cappucino, while Mazda brought out a special-edition MX5 called Merlot – a name that might well appeal to Capetonians!

Swedish manufacturer Saab got all poetic with its Sonnet sports car, as did Datsun with its Stanza. Honda has displayed quite a musical bent with its Prelude, Jazz, Quintet, Ballade and Concerto, as have Hyundai (Sonata), Nissan (Figaro), Mazda (Capella) and Austin (Allegro).

Cars were often given an air of importance (sometimes laughably) by having an aristocratic name or high-ranking title assigned to them. While Daimler probably got away with its 1950’s Majestic, Austin was ridiculed for its 1982 Ambassador.

Elsewhere, we had Ford's Consul, Opel's Diplomat, Senator, Commodore and Admiral, Humber's Imperial, Vauxhall's Royale, Reliant's Regal (also used by Buick), Renault's Dauphine and Mercury's Monarch and Marquis. Studebaker went a little overboard with Commander, President, Champion and even a Dictator in its 1930’s range. Nissan also had a President.


But the strangest name I’ve come across (and it’s recorded in G N Georgano’s "The Complete Encyclopaedia of Motorcars") is the American “Banner Boy Buckboard” microcar. Alas no picture accompanied the text but it was only built for one year (1958). Power came from a tiny Briggs and Stratton air-cooled engine and sold for $400 in kit form.

They say they don’t make them like they used to. In this case, thank goodness!

Ford Probe, Isuzu Mysterious Utility Wizard, Opel Adam... share your thoughts on the best and worst car names. Email us and we'll publish your articles on Wheels24.

  • Chez Kri - 2013-07-23 09:07

    And a friend from Bolivia laughed so much when he was in South Africa some years ago and saw a Pajero. In Spanish in means "wanker" (Sorry to all you Pajero owners out there!)

      Gwilym John Howes - 2013-07-23 11:32

      Yep. In their market it is badged Montero. Wonder why...

  • Riotous Ramohlale - 2013-07-23 09:52

    Ford in Brazil badged a some little car of theirs the Pinto which in the local lingo meant a small "drill." I think they speak Spanish in Brazil but the same meaning was attributable to the car in Portuguese speaking markets.

      Gwilym John Howes - 2013-07-23 11:32

      No Brazil is Portuguese speaking.

  • Resit Ray Asiroglu - 2013-07-23 15:01

    And the all time fail -Chevrolet's "Nova" which in Spanish means doesn't go - really bad sales south of the border.......

  • Wheels Fanatic-sa - 2013-07-23 15:32

    Other names are just difficult to pronounce: - Murcielago (Lamborghini) - Touareg (VW) - Huayra (Pagani) - Nürburgring (Opel)

  • Jon Low - 2013-07-25 11:29

    Mazda Bongo Brawny -- a kombi-van. Mitsubishi Starion (Japan's version of Stallion) and Emeraude (Emerald). Isuzu Mysterious Utility SUV. Pontiac's Strato-Chief.

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