A manufacturer may well spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing a new range of cars but if they choose the wrong name, it could destroy that new car on launch day. Considering how important it is, there have been some brilliantly terrible car names such as the ‘Isuzu Mysterious Utility Wizard’ (a Vauxhall Frontera in the UK), ‘Mazda Bongo Friendee’ and Nissan Cedric (named after the character in the novel Little Lord Fauntleroy). The Mitsubishi Starion was, apparently a poor translation of Stallion.
Probably the weirdest potential set of names is from the USA where, in the mid-1950s, Ford was planning to create a new division to plug a perceived gap in their marque portfolio between Ford and Mercury/Lincoln. They consulted various focus groups and individual wordsmiths one of whom was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore. She produced a list that, wonderfully, included the social class inclusive ‘Utopian Turtletop’, as well as ‘Intelligent Whale’, ‘Pluma Piluma’, and many others. Unable to find a name that gelled Ford, in the end, chose to honour their founding family by creating the Edsel Division, named after Henry Ford’s son. It lasted less than three years.
The VW Group has form in this area as well. The original Audi quattro (and yes, it is a lowercase q) was going to be called ‘CARAT’, an acronym for Coupé All-Rad-Antrieb Turbo. There was, however, already a perfume with the same name, which was why engineer Walter Treser’s suggestion, quattro, prevailed at the last minute. VWs had always been officially sold with simple names such as VW 1303, Beetle was really a nickname that was later adopted, but the first car to break from this tradition was the Passat, which is a well-known trade wind.
During the build-up to the new range of cars that would take VW out of the air-cooled era, a German magazine ran a story saying that both the new hatchback and its simultaneously developed sibling coupe, which became the Scirocco, were slated to be called VW Blizzard, which loosely continued the newly formed ‘wind ’theme. At the time VW denied it although a company making Ski equipment under that name was spooked enough to register it as a trademark very quickly after the magazine was published. Later research showed it had at least a grain of truth in it and it had been in the running. They also considered Caribe, which actually became the car’s name in the Mexican market.
It’s also long been believed that ‘Golf’ was a sort of ‘not quite a wind but near enough’ in the form of the differently spelt Gulf Stream, an ocean current. That is also incorrect, the Golf was actually named after a very specific horse, a horse called, unsurprisingly, Golf. The horse in question was a Hanover gelding owned by VW’s then Head of Purchasing, Hans-Joachim Zimmermann, a keen rider and long-standing chairman of the Reit- und Fahrverein Wolfsburg (riding and driving club). Golf (the horse) impressed then VW Chairmen Horst Münzner during the summer of 1973 when he rode the animal one weekend. Zimmermann revealed this story when visiting the Stiftung, AutoMuseum Volkswagen, saying, “My horse was the inspiration for the Golf’s name, it stands for top-class, elegance and reliability. May the Golf have a long history of success. My horse got to be 27 years old, and in human terms, that meant it reached the ripe old age of 95. That is a pretty good omen!” Zimmermann donated a painting of the horse to the museum.
In the 1970s VW America was obsessed with continuing the ‘Bug’ theme so tried to give all their cars animal names so the Golf became the VW Rabbit in the US market. VW’s analysis team described their findings for the name Rabbit as ‘not a racy elegant animal, but a lively one to love and stroke’. Yes, VW actually spent quite a lot of time and money doing research on what the word Rabbit meant to the average American, proving a successful car name is often more human inspiration than focus group-developed science.