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What's in a Name?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

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What's in a Name?

Bill Crittenden
November 27, 2007

Names of luxury cars sold in America, over the last few decades, have made a slow but steady shift from actual names to an alphabet soup of acronyms and letter series/engine size codes.

It doesn't really have a start point, because manufacturers had been doing it since the beginning of automotive time.  After all, Cadillac started out with names like "Model A" and "Series 852."

After World War II, the American automobile industry came out with car after car with high style and a stylish name to match.  The Lincoln Continental and the Cadillac Eldorado the are just a few examples.  There were exceptions, notably the Chrysler 300 series.

European cars, however, especially the higher-end European cars, were already a mix of codes and numbers, with early legends such as the Jaguar XK 120, BMW 2002 and the Mercedes-Benz 300SL.  Ferraris came with both names and number designations.  Lamborghini was a notable exception, however.

Thus the stage was set for a dramatic shift.  Acroynm and coded names were found on high-line sports and luxury cars, regular names were found on family sedans.  It wouldn't take long for American and Japanese car companies to try and freshen their lineups' images with letter-and-number names.

One of the first to try it was Lexus.  Toyota's Lexus was the second Japanese luxury brand created (Honda's Acura was the first) to try and sell luxury cars to Americans that normally wouldn't pay big money for a Honda or a Toyota.  Lexus came with models such as the ES250, LS400, GS300.  More would follow.  These cars all had "normal" names in Japan and elsewhere, but when they were sold as Lexus they shed those names in favor of a code:  letters for the model line, numbers designate engine displacement.  For example, the Toyota Altezza with a 3-liter engine became the Lexus IS300.

Acura eventually dumped their Vigor and Legend names in favor of names like the CL and TL.  Eventually even the Integra became the RSX when it was redesigned (it's still the Honda Integra in Japan).  Infiniti was Nissan's version answer to Lexus and Acura, and came with their own model-line and engine displacement name scheme, spawning models such as the G35, M45 and Q45.

It wouldn't take long for the American luxury brands to follow suit.  A fresh new image to help American buyers forget their stodgy old country-club images was just what was needed to get potential buyers in the showrooms.

Cadillac retired the legendary Eldorado and Fleetwood in favor of three-letter names such as the CTS, SRX and XLR.  There was some continuity, as the STS and DTS names had previously been used as trim level designations on the Seville and deVille, respectively.

Lincoln has also gone the way of the three-letter name with the MkX and MkZ.  The MkZ actually replaced the resurrected Zephyr name, a moniker from Lincoln's storied past that came back...for just one year.

The shift to these types of model names has filtered down to the common car now.  Pontiac had toyed with numeric designations back in the 80's with their 1000 and 6000, and have returned to the alphanumeric with the new G5, G6 and G8.  Scion's entire short existence has been with the models xA, xB and tC.  Chevrolet's SSR roadster truck and the retro wagon HHR also join the group.

The momentum is towards even more letter-and-number names in the future.  But all is not lost for the automobile name, because just as luxury car names are evolving, other cars are resurrecting the storied names of the past.  While the legendary Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette have survived the decades, others from the glory years of American muscle are making comebacks.  Pontiac sold a new GTO from 2004-2006, and Dodge brought back the Charger and Magnum.  After a short hiatus the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable names are back, which shows some recognition of the power names have in selling a vehicle.  The Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro are next up for resurrection.  The Chrysler 300C straddles both trends, being both a numbered car and a returning name from one of Chrysler's all-time best cars.

Bill Crittenden is the owner of The Crittenden Automotive Library at CarsAndRacingStuff.com



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