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What inspired the names of classic cars?

The 1958 Ford Thunderbird was named the car

The 1958 Ford Thunderbird was named the car of the year by Motor Trend. Credit: Ford Motor Company

Over the years I’ve received more than a few letters asking me about the origins of the names of classic cars. And the truth is that I have absolutely no idea who came up with most of these names, or what inspired them to do so. But it has given me pause to think about the subject more often that I would care to admit.

There doesn’t seem to be any method to the madness of naming cars, at least back in the heyday of the classic car. I think Henry Ford had the right idea. He began by simply naming his cars after the letters of the alphabet. But maybe someone can explain to me why Ford, the genius who is widely regarded as the “father of mass production,” decided to produce the Model T before the Model A? MG also seemed to be alphabetically challenged because they produced the TD and TF before the A, B and C. Triumph kept it simple by numbering their cars in numerical order from the TR3 to the TR8, but in order not to be less confusing than everyone else, they left out TR1 and TR2 and mixed in the Stag and the Spitfire.

Somewhere along the way some advertising or marketing executive must have decided that a name, rather than a letter or a number, might be more appealing to people, and if so they might buy more cars. Ah, but what name?

How about the names of places? I don’t think I’d buy a car called a Seville, Eldorado, New Yorker, Parisienne, Savoy, Malibu, Montreal, Bel Air, Newport, Daytona, Monterey, Bonneville, or Catalina even if I’d been there and liked it. But then again, I might not buy a car named after a place that I didn’t like.

I happen to like animals, so I’m glad that there are a lot of classic cars named after them. I’ve owned a Cougar for over thirty years. I really like horses, so maybe that’s why I drive a Bronco, and I’ve owned my share of Mustangs and, dare I admit it, Pintos. I also like fish, especially the way they taste, which could explain my past ownership of multiple Barracudas, Sting-Rays, and even a Marlin. Ditto for birds such as a Falcon, Thunderbird, Lark, and Skylark, all of which have occupied my garage at one time or another. Just to be clear, I’ve never eaten one. Which makes me wonder why a car has never been named after a bird that most people do like, such as a chicken or a turkey? OK, never mind. I really don’t mind snakes. I’ve even held a few, but apparently I don’t like them enough to have ever owned a Cobra (at least not a real one) or a Viper.

Some animals are simply regal, so I can understand naming a car after them. I’ve owned Impalas, Jaguars, Stags, and Wildcats. I currently own a Road Runner but I doubt it has anything to do with the name. After all, a roadrunner’s only claim to fame is that it says “meep, meep” and can outsmart a coyote.

Did you ever wonder what was going through the mind of the very first person to look at a lobster and think “I want to eat that?” I wonder what was going through the mind of the person who decided to name a car the Hornet or the Honey Bee (Datsun, if you were wondering). Don’t we usually run away from those things? But there could be a flaw to my logic, because one of the best selling cars of all time was the Beetle. I guess that naming a car after a non-stinging insect is acceptable.

I don’t want a Maverick in my garage, but that’s more of a political statement. And for obvious reasons I don’t want a Gremlin or a Marauder anywhere near my other cars. Oddly enough I don’t have an objection to a Thing.

Some names, such as the Belvedere, just baffle me. Belvedere by definition means “a roofed structure, especially a small pavilion or tower on top of a building, situated so as to command a wide view.” Architectural terms? Really? Why not a car named a Gable, Stringer, I-Beam, or Foundation (actually that’s not bad). Hmmm…Ford Foundation has a nice ring to it.

But my all time favorite has to be the Ford Aspire. The name implies that it’s aspiring to be something, or something else. Is it aspiring to be a real car, or a better car, or at least as good as its competition?

In retrospect I’m glad that I don’t get paid to come up with car names. I can’t think of a single one that would be lofty yet classy enough to satisfy my idea of the perfect name.  

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