Can you guess which of these cars is a luxury car and which is a cheaper, mass-market car, just by the name? ES350, A8, Yaris, LT200, Spark, Velozes, C300, Fiesta
Chances are, you picked the alphanumerical names as the luxury cars. You did this even though at least two of names are made up. How did this happen?
In the early days of gas-powered automobiles, many used either alphanumeric names or extremely literal names. The alphanumeric names weren’t meaningless strings of letters and numbers, not at that point; they could refer to all kinds of things. Ford, for example, created the Model A, then the Model B, and so on down the alphabet until they came to the most famous of all, the Model T. Not all of those models became anything more than prototypes, but still.
Photo: Jaguar XK140 convertible. Si Griffiths/CC BY-SA 3.0
Other cars were simply named with the make of the car and then a word like “Sedan,” “Touring,” “Roadster,” “Coupe,” or “Delivery.” These might seem more like name-names than alphanumeric names, but in fact the baldly descriptive titles are actually in the same family as the C300. Alphanumeric names generally, up until the 1980s, served as a sort of spec sheet: they described the number prototype the car was (Model T), or how many horsepower it put out (Flanders 20), or some other description of the car’s internals (Packard Twin 6, named for its dual six-cylinder engine).
“In the 1910s more cars with brand names were seen, especially in the luxury sector,” says Andrew Beckman, the archivist at the Studebaker National Museum in Indiana. Studebaker produced several cars with “Six” in the name, indicating a six-cylinder engine, but after Big Six, Light Six, Special Six, and a few others, basically ran out of adjectives. The Big Six, in 1928, was renamed the President.
As World War II approached, the American carmakers began shifting to more name-names, partly to differentiate their models in the marketplace and partly because name-names can be modified in more ways. By the 1930s and 1940s, the American carmakers were going for a regal tone: “Commander, the President, the Continental, the Zephyr, and, in what would prove to be a poor choice a few years later, the Dictator,” says Beckman.
The American cars stuck with names moving forward, adjusting with the times. The 1960s led to astronomical names, like the Galaxie, Comet, Meteor, and Satellite. Shortly after, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, came an explosion of Spanish names: Eldorado, El Camino, Bronco, Cimarron, Caballero.
But while the American carmakers were insisting a car could be called the Dodge Dart Swinger, the European carmakers had never abandoned alphanumeric names. There are exceptions, but much of the prestige of the alphanumeric name can be traced back to one of the oldest car companies in the world, Mercedes-Benz. Karl Benz is widely credited with having created the first automobile that can recognizably be classified as such, with an internal combustion engine, in 1885.
The first cars under the Mercedes-Benz name came out in 1926, and the company quickly became a legend in auto-racing. The majority of the European carmakers didn’t cross the Atlantic into the U.S. market until after World War II, but they came in rapid succession beginning around 1950. Jaguar and Alfa Romeo came in the late 1940s, and the Germans came in soon after: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen.
Studebaker was initially the key distributor of Mercedes-Benz cars in the U.S. The cars weren’t like American cars, they had weird old-timey alphanumeric names, and the salesmen didn’t know how to convey how good these cars were to American buyers. (Clark Gable seems to have liked them, though. He drove a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, which sold a few years ago for $1.85 million.)
In 1965, Mercedes-Benz decided enough was enough, and bought out its contract with Studebaker, establishing dealerships, a home office in New Jersey, training schools, and a new ad campaign pitching Mercedes-Benz cars as something different than Americans were used to—something better. The new strategy worked. “Mercedes in particular and European brands in general are kind of the progenitor of alphanumeric names,” says Beckman.
By the late 1970s, Mercedes-Benz was nudging European cars into competition with Cadillac for America’s favorite luxury automobiles. BMW, Audi, Volvo, Saab, Jaguar, and more performance-luxury cars like Ferrari and Porsche followed. All used alphanumeric names either primarily or exclusively, which helped alphanumeric names come to be associated with luxury for American buyers.
In the mid- to late-1980s, a trio of Japanese carmakers decided to all get into the luxury game. Honda, Toyota, and Nissan were making serious inroads into the American mass-market sector, but none could ignore the success of the European luxury brands. In 1986, Honda launched Acura (which took a few years to switch from name-names to alphanumeric names), and 1989 found the creation of Lexus (from Toyota) and Infiniti (from Nissan).
In 2000, Cadillac scrapped most of its cars and began using alphanumeric; current models include the ATS, CTS, and XTS. Chrysler, after it was torn down and hastily reconstructed following the 2008 economic crash, started selling luxury sedans like the 200 and 300.
Today, all 10 of J.D. Power’s list of the 10 most popular luxury cars in the US come with alphanumeric names.
But why? Alphanumeric names don’t age, but may not be as memorable. There are exceptions. Rolls-Royce has always used name-names like the Silver Shadow and Phantom. Same with Bentley (Flying Spur, Continental.) Porsche sells the 911, but also the Carrera. Some of the bigger Italian makers use name-names, including Bugatti, Lamborghini, and Maserati. (Ferrari is still a mix.)
“One of the big philosophies in naming is that a specific name helps me make a choice, and says something about me,” says Davis. The naming scheme is done to try to convey something about the company and the product, and to imply that any purchaser of that product will attract some of that “something” by osmosis. So, if you want to convey opulence, fancy, conservative… What car would you choose?
Nosowitz, Dan (2017). “Cracking the Secret Code of Car Names”. Retrieved from http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-cars-get-named.