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For Every Model a Name



It began, as many idle thoughts do, at a red light. Cars of many colors, changing lanes, coming over, started to clot up. A white-on-white Mazda Miata cut off a red Chrysler LeBaron, which caused a lime-green Hyundai Elantra to stop short and nearly get buried by a rusty Chevy Avalanche.

Then it came to me, as conversion comes to a worn-out sinner.

We have too many cars. Not only in the number of cars, but makes of cars and models of those makes.

And for every model a name.

Take the old Ford-versus-Chevy dichotomy. Ford Contours, Crown Victorias, Escorts, T-Birds, Tauruses, Rangers, Lariats, Tempos, Explorers, Windstars, Aerostars and only auto-geeks know what else. And Chevy Camaroes, Caprices, Cavaliers, Impalas, Corvettes, Converts, Malibus, El Caminos, Novas, Cheyennes, Silverwoods, Blazers, Tahoes, Suburbans and probably others.

And that's only Fords and Chevys. Add Toyotas and you've added Camrys, Corollas, Celicas, Avalons, Spyders, Sequoias, Tundras, Siennas, Previas and only an all-knowing god knows what else.

We could go on and on. Once it seemed there were maybe seven or eight makes of American cars and an equal number of foreign makes, though most of the latter were only vilified near-cars driven only by vilified college professors. Things like the Citroen, a car of such mind-numbing ugliness that it could only be an announcement that France detested the world of automotive design and would no longer play in it.

Still, the list -- Citroen to Cadillac Fleetwood -- was a relatively short one. Now it is a list without limit. A quick perusal of any listing will turn up at least 58 makes of car, including some -- Daewoo and Merkur come to mind -- of extremely uncertain origins. Multiply an average of a half-dozen models per make times 58 and you don't have to be a mathematician to come up with the right answer.

Too many cars.

Too many Tundras, Echoes, Supras and Solaras. An excess of Enthusiasts, Altimas, Sentras and Frontiers. Not to mention Intrepids, Neons, Lancers and Durangos.

Once upon a time, cars mostly differed in generic groups. There were coupes or sedans or convertibles mostly; oh, there was a 1928 Lincoln Dietrich (named for the designer) and a 1955 Chevy Bel Air and a 1957 Cadillac El Dorado. But mostly, a moderately interested party could learn the shapes, sizes and stylings of every car in every sales room with a slight effort and identify 'em all by mid-year.

That was then and this is now. Now is a time of never-ending novelty and eternal marketing and that means choices and that means names so you can tell your choices apart.

In my mind's eye, I see the corporate ants who come up with these names. Mostly liberal-arts types with a sprinkling of social psychology and plenty of sourcebooks of synonyms, euphemisms, slang and Esperanto. They must meet in a special room masked "Nonsensical Nomenclatures," smoke many forbidden materials and then play word-association for hours on end. How else did the folks at Nissan come up with the model names Armada, Quest or Murano, think ye? Do any of these suggest speed, like Impala, or function, like the Ford Explorer, or even ruggedness, like the Mercury Mountaineer?

No, no, no. But then again, there are only so many names to go around. So we get things like Saturn's Ion or VW's Touareg. Now you might note that these are smaller carmakers and thus have fewer spots in their "Nomenclature" departments or maybe inferior smoking materials. But how do you explain the Chevy Equinox or the Olds Cierra?

Many of these names seem to have no redeeming quality other than that they are nonsensical and end in a vowel. Presumably, this means that they sound inexplicably cool in a Latin way; among scholars this is known as the Italo-Iberian school of naming. This school helps to explain the Acura Integra, Pontiac Montano and Chevy Aveo or Nova.

Using these principals and any reasonably good dictionary, anyone can play the name game. Let's say we stick to the "AV" area. Aventura has meant "adventure" since the days of Don Quixote and has a nice SUV connotation. "Avicenna" is the Hispanic name for the Arabic philosopher Ibn Sina and suits a convertible. "Avella," "Avesta" and "Avenna" mean nothing, or as much as Aveo. If it's a German car, "Avenhaus" is a good possibility and solidly meaningless. And if the French ever repent the Citroen, they might consider a tail-finned two-seater called the "Avignon," due apologies to the 14th century papacy.

See? Once you get the hang of it, you too can contribute to the proliferation of car names. If you feel unsuited to the naming process, consider a career in Car Colors. These are the people who have come up with Mystic Sea, Reuter, Cashmere, Bamboo, Torch Red, Millennium Yellow and Flint Mica. To put a little variety in your life.

Me? I'm headed for Detroit, the Motor City. Got some naming ideas. For a rugged little hauling truck, how about the "Leafcutter Ant," after a remarkable creature that can lift five times its weight? And a sports car named the "Springbok"?

Though I'm a little worried if my car can make it all the way to Michigan. My 1958 Edsel Roundup.

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