We Name Things We Love

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When someone says they once owned a Corvair – or a Corvette – a story almost invariably ensues, prompted by fond or at least some memories about the car.  These often have a flavor that is similar to that of stories recounting old friends – even exes – now gone, but never forgotten.

It is easy to forget the new XYZ 2.0T – or whatever the alpha-numeric designation of the last transportation appliance you owned was. Who remembers the model number of their last microwave? Who even knows the model number of the microwave in their kitchen, right now?

After all, it’s just an appliance.

And so have cars become.

Not all, not yet. There are still a few – that are new – that have names. Not coincidentally, they are the only ones with personality – and thus deserving of the individuation that comes with naming a thing as opposed to categorizing it.

Mustang, for instance. Say that name and everyone knows what you mean – irrespective of the particular model. The same goes – well, went – for Beetle. Say that name and practically everyone has a story, a memory.

It is hard to remember where you parked your XYZ 2.0T – especially if it is painted appliance white. There are so many just like it. Probably why, at least in part, the push-button key fob was invented. Not so much to unlock your appliance but to help you find it, among all the others.

Naming cars was once a big deal, even though less attention was not infrequently paid to the naming than should have been. Even as regards some of the great names, in terms of the automotive Hall of Fame.

Nova, for instance.

That was the name of Chevy’s new (at the time) compact (mid-sized, by the standards of our time) economy car, which made its debut in 1962 and became as common a sight on American roads  back in the ’70s and ’80s as XYZ 2.0Ts are on our roads, today. The problem arose when the Nova was exported to Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, because Nova sounds a lot like no va, which means (roughly) it doesn’t go.

Then there was Banshee – a Pontiac that never made its debut, because GM higher-ups weren’t about to let Pontiac offer a two-seater with gull-wing doors that looked a lot like a Corvette take away any Corvette sales. So the Banshee was shelved, which avoided what would have been a big problem if anyone decided to look up the meaning of that name. It means harbinger of death in old Irish idiom.

Some names were just numbers. Z28, for instance. It had emotional mojo as much as Trans-Am, another name almost everyone remembers even though no Trans-Ams have been made in the last 20 years. Both worked because each was individual. Chevy never intended to use “Z28” as a car name. Rather, it was – originally – the ordering code that people in the high-performance know used to spec out a Camaro with an ensemble of road-racing equipment, which was what the original Z28 (in 1967) was all about. As word got out – and lots of orders were being placed – Z28 became a name rather than a number.

Trans-Am was a name that became a car.

A car named after a racing series – one it never campaigned successfully in. But it was extremely successful on the showroom floor – and on the silver screen. There was a time when Pontiac sold as many Trans-Ams as Toyota sells Camrys, today. And maybe people buy Camrys – and Accords – in part because they, too, have names.

One almost inevitably gets attached to things that have names, because by naming them they subtly become something more than just things. This is probably why people who raise animals for food generally don’t name them. It is easier to eat a thing than it is to eat Bessie.

It is also very easy to not get attached to an XYZ 2.0T. To regard it dispassionately, as the appliance it is. When viewed as such, only the metrics matter – as they would when shopping for a new microwave oven. How many watts is it? How big is the touchscreen?

Does it have all the very latest “technology”?

You don’t care much about its looks – so long as it looks more or less the same as the others of its type. You care more about what it costs vs. the others of its type, whether it has a better or worse warranty. You do not care much, if at all, about it – the thing itself.

Because why would you?

It would be weird to get attached to a microwave. To know – by memory – what its model number is.

It is perfectly understandable that people quickly forget the latest XYZ 123 2.0T – if they even had any memories of the thing to begin with.

. . .

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  1. To be fair, it needs to have personality to have any kind of relationship with it. I picked up a roached out PT cruiser a few weeks back. Petey is rusty, clunky, and obviously not an expensive car. But having a real 5 speed, the impetus for bidding it up at auction, turns it into an entirely different animal than the run of the mill PT with slushbox. The Automatic one is boringly slow and gets surprisingly bad mileage. Petey feels “sporty” and actually pulls well from 3000-5500, also is light and nimble (at least as well as worn out shocks and struts allow).

  2. I know of a neighbor that gets a couple of steers every year. They name them – “Beef” and “Burger” so the kids ,well, just know 😉

  3. I immediately thought of my Dad’s 49 Ford.
    On a frosty morning he’d talk softly, c’mon Betsy as he worked the choke and gas pedal.
    That was after clearing the windshield with a bottle of Coca Cola. We saved the RC for drinking!

  4. I have a 73 Toronado. My kids and I call it the Tory. They will have memories of it forever. Guaranteed.

    Too bad most of those old boats were crashed in derbies up until 2010 when everyone realized they were ruining valuable things.

    • I was wondering that recently. How many old gems have been destroyed that way over the years? Countless numbers, I would think.

  5. You can still name your food animals, just call them by their proper names. When we realized this years ago we stoped calling our chicks Dot, Feather, Snowball, and Red. Changed names to Cashew, A-la-king, Parmesan, and Keeeev.

    • In parts of PNG (Papua-New Guinea), when it comes time to eat a pig, they just swap pigs with a neighbouring village.

      As for car naming causing sales trouble, in December, 2013 I posted the following at https://www.ericpetersautos.com/2013/12/04/dead-pool-ii/#comment-126818:-

      My father told me that, when our family was in Iraq in the 1950s, Saabs didn’t sell well there because “Saab” is Arabic for “difficult” or “nuisance”. It’s a bit like the story of the problems that Rolls Royce had selling the Silver Mist in Germany because of what the German word “mist” means.

      Off topic, a few years ago I saw someone in a restaurant who had the Arabic lettering for “Saab” tattooed on his arm. I asked his girlfriend if he knew what it meant. She said it meant “hard”, in the sense of “tough”. I didn’t have the heart to clarify that it only meant “hard” in a different sense, but I suggested that they consulted someone who spoke Arabic.

      • Good stuff, P.M.!

        Of course, the Top Prize may have to be awarded to the Ford Probe. Women loved that one… and I suppose, some men as well!

  6. One of the worst names Ford named for a car (besides the Edsel) was the Probe. And many felt that after they bought one.

    • Hans,
      I’d imagine they named the Probe what they did so that it could compete with the Mazda Meatus as the vehicle of choice for urologists. 🙂

    • It also came out about the same time as the movie “Joe vs. the Volcano” where Tom Hanks worked at a miserable, depressing factory that made the “rectal probe”. So that’s what I called the car, every time I saw and/or worked on one, lol!

      • ‘Joe vs. The Volcano’? I wanna see ‘Joe Biden vs. The Volcano’. I’ll be rooting for the volcano, of course.

  7. Names are rassis!


    Remember that Pontiac was a tribal chief. Jeep used to have a pickup called The Comanche.

    In fact there’s a whole bunch of stuff specifically named to offend liberals…

    I’m descended from Germans, French and English (and likely some Irish too). I’d be fine with a car named the Burgundian. In fact it might be a great way to tell the world about the history of northern Europe.

  8. Nobody remembers their Pontiac T1000 or 70’s Oldsmobile either. I agree with you that lots cars are now boring and appliance-like, but those existed in the past as well. Today, if someone says they drive an STI or a BRZ or Miata or a Wrangler, you can still think of stories that those people have. I don’t think it’s all that bleak yet.

    What I find depressing, though, is that the death of the combustion engine will mean the death of useful cars. We might actually get some really cool, differentiated cars, but they’ll all be electric and won’t be very useful for their primary purpose. I’ve seen some future roadmaps for automakers whom I shouldn’t mention, since I work in a related industry, but it’s terrible – giant SUV’s, most electric, some deep hybrids with 0.9L 3-cyl engines.

    • OL,
      The things I remember most about my 1989 basemodel gray Chevy Celebrity was it’s wallowing handling and wimpy iron duke/automagic trans combo. The interior was equally featureless. Everything was square and monochrome. A rectangular speedo and gas gauge and a smattering of rectangle idiot lights. Boring featureless bench seat. The fanciest bit was the GM AM/FM cassette. Whoever designed that car must have got their inspiration from a prison cell of similar dimensions.
      For all the Celebrities pokey blandness I’d take one in a heartbeat over ANY electric vehicle. To me a car with no engine is like a person with no pulse.

      • Hi Silver,

        I’ll second that – and raise you! Yes, cars like the Celebrity were boring in terms of styling and (of course) performance. But they weren’t alienating things they way new cars are, with all their “advanced” (read, peremptory) “safety technology” that relentlessly interferes with your driving. At least with a car like the Celebrity, you controlled the thing – not some got-damned “programming.”

        • The Celebrity wasn’t alienating to operate or care for either. A metal key for the doors and a key for the ignition. Unlock the door (no beep-boop buttons) hop in and with the twist of the ignition and a yank on the column shifer away you go. No press the brake to start OR shift out of park. No mashing of buttons to disable ASS and TC. No DING DING DING DING FASTEN SEATBELT nagging. And a simple lazy 4 or 6 rather than the overstuffed “2.0T” reamed into a too small engine bay. It didn’t make me feel like a celebrity but it owed me nothing. We really lost something special when basic cars got regulated to extinction.

          Now go give the Pumpkin a rip before the flakes start flying!

  9. I believe the Nova started out as the Chevy II, with Nova being the top trim package. Then later the Chevy II name was dropped and they were all Novas.

    To reinforce the headline of the article: In some parts of the country it used to be common for people to give their individual cars their own names. In the late 1970s, a couple I knew from upstate New York had a dinged-up silver VW Scirocco that they called “Rocky.” It was perfect.

  10. I’ve never loved a thing in my life. Not since I gave up my teddy bear, named “Smokey”. I’ve dearly loved using a number of them. I’ve dearly loved some one making them available to me. I’ve dearly loved the memories of using them. But never the object itself. I loved driving Miatas for 20 years, having owned four of them. And would still be driving one, If I was able to since last Fall. I did not love any of them. As witness, I sold them all. As far as naming them goes, Miata is probably one of the worst choices for a car name ever. Which it overcame by being one of the best cars ever. To my knowledge, still the best selling two seater in the world. Cheap, and very well engineered. What more could one ask?


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