I’ve been driving cars around the block. Lots of them. I’m car shopping, looking to replace a venerable Suburu wagon that almost made it to 200,000 miles, but sadly stopped short of that celestial goal in a cloud of smoke a couple of weeks ago.
Accordingly (hey, that’s a Honda pun!) I’ve been studying the names of cars. For some, I can only scratch my head. The Dodge Avenger? What exactly are they avenging . . . and how do they plan to go about it? Should I be worried?
Or the Nissan Armada. Hey, didn’t the most famous armada, the Spanish Armada, end up being blown to bits by the English or running aground on the Irish coast, in one of the greatest disasters of all time? (And can a single vehicle be a whole armada? Isn’t that a little vainglorious? Does the SUV come with an admiral’s jacket with epaulets and a funny hat?)
Great car names? It’s the story of Marianne Moore (1887–1972), a celebrated American poet. (One of her great lines was to describe poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”) In a 1925 essay, William Carlos Williams wrote about Moore’s ability to capture the vastness of the particular: “So that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.”
In 1955, Moore was invited informally to submit ideas for names for Ford’s “E-car” (which stood for “experimental” car) project. Her poetic list included:
- “Resilient Bullet”
- “Mongoose Civique”
- “Varsity Stroke”
- “Intelligent Whale”
And the exquisite offering:
- “Utopian Turtletop.”
Ford, however, in its wisdom, went with the name Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, and slapped it on the car that would up up as perhaps the greatest marketing failure in American history.
Was it the lame name? Ford had also hired an ad firm to come up with a name. However, the ad agency’s report offered an astounding 18,000 possibilities. Wow, now that’s a consultant’s report! When pressed . . . they managed to trim the list to just 6,000 names.
The executives got an eventual 10 names to choose from, none of which they liked, so in a whim, someone offered the name of Henry Ford’s son. In that high-level committee setting, it must have seemed brilliant . . . or impossible to vote against.
Myself, I’d love to drive a Utopian Turtletop.
To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, what I’d like in a car is simply: “So that in driving some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.”
Such as a good speedy merge from an uphill ramp onto the freeway?