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Published: Tuesday, 5/16/2006

Evocative car names yield right of way to letters, numbers

By some estimates, there will be a billion cars and light trucks on the world's highways within the next 15 years, or maybe sooner.

That scenario presents all kinds of problems. Is there enough fuel for that many vehicles? Will our highways be dangerous with that many vehicles and drivers? And what will they call all these vehicles?

Already, it appears, manufacturers are running out of good names. Many of the great old names have been used - such as Roadmaster, Eldorado, Crown Victoria, Bel Air, New Yorker, Thunderbird, and Fury.

Studebaker Hawk Studebaker Hawk
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How are the Chinese going to top those?

The car makers are resorting to alphabet soup to put respectable names on their vehicles. But that isn't working too well, either. They're suing each other.

Honda Motor Co.'s Acura division recently sued Ford Motor Co. because Lincoln's MKX sounded to some like Acura's MDX. And BMW sued Nissan's Infiniti over the use of the letter "M" - as in BMW's M3 and M5 and Infiniti's M45.

They never had problems like that when Ford cranked out 15 million cars known simply as the Model T, or when Packard called its cars the Six, the Eight, and the Twelve.

Dodge Viper Dodge Viper
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Or when Detroit's automakers started naming their many makes and models after birds, beast, fish, insects, royalty, mythological characters, and celestial bodies.

But even decades ago, there was some competition for names. For example, both Mercury and American Motors Corp. had a Matador model, and AMC and Ford's Edsel division had a Pacer (radically different cars, but same name).

The LeBaron model name was used over the years by Lincoln, Packard, and Chrysler. Both Ford and Chrysler has 300 series in the 1950s - Chrysler continued its 300s into the 1960s and brought back the designation in 1999 (with the 300M and its more recent 300C).

Detroit came up with some very memorable model names. Ford had Fairlane, Thunderbird, and Mustang; Chevrolet gave us Bel Air, Impala, and Caprice; Buick the Roadmaster and Riviera, and Pontiac the Star Chief, Bonneville, and Firebird, for example.

AMC Hornet AMC Hornet
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The biggest proliferation of car names probably came from animals: impala, cougar, mustang, colt, bobcat, lynx, etc. But there are a lot of birds memorialized in car names, too - Firebird, Lark, Hawk, just to name a few. There's even a snake or two, the Viper and the Cobra, and several insects such as the Hornet and the Wasp.

But there also were models named for exotic, or at least memorable, places: Malibu, Daytona, Monterey, New Yorker, Fifth Avenue, Le Mans, Monte Carlo.

And those named for royalty, or other powerful images: Windsor, Regal, Imperial, Monarch. Studebaker had all bases covered: Champion, Commander, and President, and even (for a while) Dictator.

Sometimes, mere numbers would suffice. Oldsmobile did just fine with its 88 and 98 models, its F-85, and its Cutlass 4-4-2 (that stood for four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission, and dual exhaust).

Of course, some names are more or less permanently retired - Pinto, Vega, Gremlin, Corvair. And entire nameplates are likewise history that won't be repeated: Edsel and Henry J just to name a couple.

I hope the Chinese and the people of India enjoy their automobiles as much as we American do, or at least did. Whatever they call them.



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