Where have all the car names gone? I looked into my driveway recently and saw a Cadillac XTS, Scion FR-S and Jaguar XKR-S. When I got past marveling at how lucky I am that I get to test new cars for a living, I wondered: Don't we use names anymore? Is this the best we can do?
Jaguar has an excuse. It has used strings of letters and the occasional numeral rather than names for its whole history. If you built the XKE, you've earned a lifetime supply of alphabet soup.
But why do so many automakers copy Jaguar? The collections of letters littering the trunk lids of many new cars are inherently, intentionally meaningless. They surrender any hope of capturing the magic and music of the perfectly chosen word.
If an automaker's sales and marketing staff doesn't have an actual idea, it can fall back on letters. Everybody does it. It's a no-risk non-decision. At one point, at least three different cars sold in the U.S. were called the LS, with or without accompanying numerals.
But letters are lame. They betray a bankruptcy of imagination.
Dodge executives, bless their hearts, dug into the archives and revived "Dart" for the name of their excellent new compact.
They ignored the worrywarts who said the Dart hadn't been a great car. They embraced the reality that just about nobody buying a small car in 2012 had a license, much less first-hand experience with the car, when the last Dart was built in 1976.
When Ford was at a loss for names in the 1950s, the company asked Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore to create some names for a new brand of cars.
"We should like this name to be more than a label," Ford executive Robert Young wrote to Moore, according to the website listsofnote.com. "Specifically, we should like it to have a compelling quality in itself and by itself. To convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design. A name, in short, that flashes a dramatically desirable picture in people's minds."
The job description itself almost qualifies as poetry. It elicited these suggestions, and more, from Moore:
The Ford Silver Sword
The Resilient Bullet
The Intelligent Whale
"Utopian Turtletop." Can't you smell the upholstery? Don't you hope you live to see the day one motors past you? There's magic in a good name.
Alas, Ford rejected all those names for the cars that would make up its short-lived brand called Edsel.