What's in a (car) name?


Have you ever driven a Ford Hep Cat or a Chevrolet Panther? No? That’s because those monikers never made it to the showroom floor. Hep Cat was one of 5,000 names considered for the 1955 Thunderbird; Panther was the code name for the 1967 Camaro.

Chevy’s planned reintroduction of the Stingray name for the 2014 Corvette, last used in 1976, got us thinking about how car names are chosen—a job that is equal parts art and science.

Susan Pacheco, director of global advanced product marketing for the Ford Motor Company, led us through Ford’s naming process. A team from the company’s marketing, design, and communications departments comes up with, say, 150 suggestions, considering the images and feelings each evokes. Contenders are checked for inappropriate or negative meanings. (Life Dunk, a Honda van sold in Asia, would not have worked in the U.S., for instance.) External brand-naming companies are sometimes used, and focus groups may provide feedback on how likable a name is and whether it “fits” the car.

A winnowed list is submitted for legal and trademark clearance. (This stage can be tricky, as Ford has learned. The Mustang was originally sold in West Germany as the T-5 because an industrial equipment company held the rights to the Mustang trademark.) Last, the name is approved by Ford’s CEO.

Sometimes a car name isn’t a real word but is chosen for its sound and connotation, such as Lexus, which, a Toyota rep told us, “combines word roots evoking images of luxury and technology.” Volkswagen’s Routan, says a company rep, is “a play off of other multipurpose vehicle names in the VW brand globally: Sharan, Touran … Routan." Jetta was named for the jet stream, and Passat is the German word for trade wind. If a “name” is an alphanumeric stew, as is the case with BMW and Mercedes models, it still must be easy to pronounce. Another challenge is to have a name that works internationally. The Ford Focus and Fiesta are each known by a single name around the world, but the Fusion and Escape are Mondeo and Kuga in Europe and elsewhere.

“There’s no limit to the places we can use for inspiration, including other languages, astronomy, and mythology,” Pacheco says. Astrology can come into play, too. The Ford Taurus was named for the sign of the wives of two company executives.

Mark Dziewit, Chevrolet’s global product manager, says he maintains a database of about 750 names, narrowing the list to six to 10 for a new car. In the end, though, the quality of the car is what matters. “The product makes the name,” Dziewit says, “not the other way around."

Proposed . . . and picked

Match the suggested name to the final choice:

A. Lafayette

1. Ford Edsel

B. Panda

2. Dodge Dart

C. Pegasus

3. Plymouth Barracuda

D. Utopian Turtletop

4. Pontiac Fiero

E. Zipp

5. Ford Mustang

Answers appear below.

A: 5
B: 3
C: 4
D: 1
E: 2

Copyright © 2006-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.