Monday, 14 February 2011

What's in a Name?

On the subject of famous female American poets, I came across this curious and enlightening piece of information.

Apparently, the Ford Edsel -- a car produced in the United States from 1958-60 -- is pretty much synonymous with "design failure" in the USA, in the same way as over here we would refer to the "Sinclair C5" (or even just "the British car industry"). No-one seems quite sure why, though I imagine it was probably a piece of crap, poorly manufactured and marketed, "the wrong car at the wrong time". The Austin Allegro, but without the stylish square steering wheel.

What is interesting, though, is that poet Marianne Moore was invited to submit suggestions for the name of the vehicle while it was under development. I don't know how difficult it can be to come up with a suitable name for a car, though some Far Eastern manufacturers clearly could do with a helping hand. Apparently the name "Edsel" (Henry Ford's son) came up early on, but Henry Ford II said that he didn't want his father's silly good name spinning around on hubcaps, thanks all the same.

According to Wikipedia, "Ford also ran internal studies to decide on a name, and even dispatched employees to stand outside movie theaters to poll audiences as to what their feelings were on several ideas. They reached no conclusions. Ford hired the advertising firm Foote, Cone, and Belding to come up with a name. However, when the advertising agency issued its report, citing over 6,000 possibilities, Ford's Ernest Breech commented that they had been hired to develop a name, not 6,000."

So, someone thought to ask Marianne Moore for some suggestions, the thinking being, "who better to understand the nature of words than a poet?" Indeed. Here are some of her suggestions (there were rather fewer than 6000, I think).

Andante con Moto
Mongoose Civique
Resilient Bullet
Silver Sword
Utopian Turtletop
Varsity Stroke

I think the "Ford Resilient Bullet" has a certain ring, don't you? It would certainly appeal to the Far Eastern market. But the "Utopian Turtletop" is a name that leaves me speechless with admiration. I'd drive one.

Moore, incidentally, as well as having a wooden ear for car names, was a dedicated wearer of idiotic hats. Check her images on Google. Classy! I had always assumed that the daft "highwayman" number she is often pictured wearing was the academic dress of some venerable American university. Nope. She just liked wearing a tricorn hat in public. With a cape. Well, wouldn't you, if you could get away with it?


Poetry24 said...

I guess a Silver Sword would be handy for carving other drivers up?

Mike C. said...

[Cymbal crash]... Thank you, Mr. H., I don't wish to know that!

Actually, it's a mark of MM's utter car-blindness, that she would suggest a "Silver ..." anything, Rolls Royce having bagged that pretty comprehensively by the end of the 50s.


Jack said...

Hiring a firm named "Foote, Cone, and Belding" to come up with a name would seem to be obviously a bad idea.

Mike C. said...


Yes, it's all too good to be true, isn't it? Of course, as my research goes no deeper than a bit of Googling, maybe it isn't...

Interestingly, it turns out I'm not the first blogger to pick up on this. I guess that combination of high culture, the car industry, and silly names is hard to resist.


Dave Leeke said...

I must admit that the name "Utopian Turtletop" jumped out from the list immediately. I can imagine Ry Cooder eulogising its passing in that lovely lugubrious Californian drawl.

Ah well, at least names were given and, to be perfectly honest none are sillier than some of the names for cars around nowadays. Nobody pronounces "car" for Ford's "Ka" surely? Where's the exclamation mark?

Mike C. said...


I blame international capitalism (for most things, really). Camera names in an international market can get really strange, for no apparent reason. The camera marketed in the UK as the "Canon 450D" is the "Digital Rebel XSi" in the USA, and the "Kiss X2" in Japan. Uh?

The worst camera name decision of recent years was Pentax's first foray into the DSLR market, the "*ist D" -- too clever by half, it seems they assumed the core market would be computer programmers or DOS/Unix shell users, to whom "*" naturally means "anything". They forgot people would have to pronounce the name ("asterisk ist D?", "star ist D?", "anything or everything ist D?"). Of course, proper programmers call "*" a "splat".


Graham D said...

The 70s Fiat Strada (the one first built by robots) was originally going to be called the 'Rustica' until the british distributor pointed out how this would be mocked in this country. Similarly, Vauxhall's small car name 'Nova' was not adopted pan-european as 'No va' does not have the right connotations in Spanish. I think the time will come for the Utopian Turtletop...

Mike C. said...

Graham D,

Excellent -- in a similar vein I seem to remember that "Silver Mist" was mooted and abandoned by Rolls Royce, "Mist" being "dung" in German.

I used to have a Nova, the version with a boot, and it was a great car. My kids loved it and insisted I kept the number plate when it finally lived up to its name and was towed away, after an MOT too far.


Martyn Cornell said...

About six or seven years ago a giant advertising sign came down temporarily from the side of a building in Twickenham that had obviously been a car showroom in the 1930s. Underneath on the wall was a 70-year-old painted list of vehicles the showroom had sold. They included, I was stunned to see, the Terraplane, as sung about by Robert Johnson: it appears the Terraplane was manufactured under licence for a few years in Chiswick. Still think that's the best name ever for a car. Even if "the motor's in a bad condition, I gotta have the batteries charged."

Mike C. said...

Ah, that's it, Martyn, thanks! I knew there was some "strange American car names" association I had missed, and that's it -- the Johnson 12 string Terraplane.

How curious, though, that Chiswick should have a role. Your story reminds me of the once extremely upscale garage in Llandrindod Wells that has an embossed frieze in large Art Nouveau letters, reading "MOTOR VEHICLES AND AIRCRAFT". Aircraft?? It's been a while since you could walk into a showroom and pick out a Sopwith biplane...