One of the biggest problems manufacturers face has nothing to do with designing or building a car. It’s deciding what to call it. A name may be glorious, or it may be ridiculous, or it may already have been used by someone who isn’t prepared to give up the rights. The whole business is a minefield.
Some manufacturers play it safe, which is why we have the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes E-Class and the Mazda 2, 3 and 6, among others. Others are more adventurous, which is why things can go either very right or very wrong.
Any article on this subject – and there have been many – has to deal with two major sub-topics, so let’s get them out of the way before we go any further. The first is that a car name which works in one language may, hilariously, not work in another.
A popular claimed example of this is that the Vauxhall Nova sold badly in Spain because no va is the Spanish for “it doesn’t go”. This isn’t actually true. To begin with, the Nova was only ever sold in Spain as the Opel Corsa. Also, Spanish people would say something like no marcha rather than no va.
Most damning of all, General Motors also built a car called the Chevrolet Nova. It was never imported to the UK, but Chevrolet did market it in Spanish-speaking South American countries, where it was quite popular. No one there had any problem with the name.
Toyota had more difficulty with the MR2 sports car. Its name is perfectly innocent unless you’re French, in which case it sounds a bit like an impolite word for excrement. Toyota marketed it in France as the MR instead, though there is a French MR2 owners’ club which uses the original name quite happily.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Buick has a large premium car called the LaCrosse. This works well enough in most of Canada, where in 1994 lacrosse was officially declared the national summer sport (hockey being the national winter one), but in Quebec it’s sometimes used as a euphemism for self-generated enjoyment possibly leading to eyesight problems.
Many Canadians don’t seem to know about this slang reference, and it doesn’t appear to have affected sales, perhaps because LaCrosse owners have put that sort of thing behind them.
The same activity is implied by the word pajero, which Mitsubishi uses for the large SUV sold in the UK as the Shogun. Pajero is a very flexible word which can also mean liar, idiot, plumber or straw seller. Mitsubishi wisely avoids it in countries where confusion with any of these might occur.
Renault has usually been able to avoid trouble with car names, but it caused outrage when it announced in 2009 that its new electric car was to be called the Zoe. Renault chose it partly because it reflects “values of femininity” and partly because it refers to zero emissions, but Zoe was also at that time the 17th most popular girl’s name in France.
A gentlemen called Sebastien Mortreus said that using a girl’s name for a car was a “scandal” (though it was hardly the first time this had happened) and set up a petition to force Renault to change its mind. Renault paid no attention, and the Zoe has since become one of the best-selling all-electric cars in Europe.
The other thing articles like this have to mention is the Japanese habit of choosing names which sound English to them but weird to English speakers. Hence the Mazda Bongo Friendee (a large MPV sometimes seen on UK roads), the Mitsubishi Lettuce, the Mazda Titan Dump and the Suzuki Every Joypop Turbo.
The Mitsubishi Carisma, officially sold in the UK around the turn of the century, was a perfectly reasonable model, but its name wrote a cheque the car couldn’t cash. British motoring journalists could hardly help themselves from writing about how uncharismatic the Carisma was.
A generation earlier, Mazda marketed what was elsewhere called the 626 as the Montrose in the UK, a rare case of a car being named after a town on the east coast of Scotland.
There are some wonderful Chinese examples too. At the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, a company called Tang Hua displayed concept cars called the Book of Songs (lovely) and the Detroit Fish (less lovely).
Italian manufacturers have the advantage that their language contains some magnificent words for very ordinary things. I think you’ll agree that Maserati Quattroporte, for instance, sounds much better than Maserati Four-Door, which is what the name means.
Similarly, when Fiat created a hot hatch version of the Tipo with a 16-valve engine, there was no attempt to give it a dramatic name. As far as the Italians were concerned it was just called the Tipo 16-valve, but to British ears the term Tipo Sedicivalvole sounded almost as exciting as the engine itself did.
Many years ago, French speakers took the easy option of naming cars after themselves, sometimes with spectacular results as in the case of the Théophile Schneider. The Swiss company Piccard-Pictet got its splendid name (often abbreviated to Pic-Pic, which is pretty good too) from the fact that its founders were called Paul Piccard and Lucien Pictet.
The same thing has happened in America. Bob Riley and Mark Scott may have had quite ordinary names, but each of the race cars built by the company they created in 1990 was called Riley & Scott, setting them well apart from their rivals.
Two personal favourites to finish. One of the finest names in the industry was Deep Sanderson, used for a series of single-seaters and a rear-engined Mini-based sports car.
There are several explanations for it on the internet, most of them clearly wrong. The correct one is that it was derived from a 1920s jazz hit called Deep Henderson. The second word was replaced with Sanderson, the maiden name of founder Chris Lawrence’s mother.
I would quite like to own a Deep Sanderson just because of what it’s called, but I think I’d prefer a Brasinca Uirapuru. This Brazilian sports car, powered by a Chevrolet truck engine, bore a suspicious resemblance to the British Jensen Interceptor but was in fact discontinued the year the Interceptor was launched.
Uirapuru is a municipality in Brazil, but the car is believed to have been named after a wren native to the Amazon region.
For me, Brasinca Uirapuru is the most fabulous name ever given to a car. Do you agree, and if not, what do you think is better?