A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do car makers come up with so many meaningless car names?

December 3, 1982

Dear Cecil:

You probably saw the ads on TV for the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. The foreign language department of the public library tells me the name Ciera is not in any of their dictionaries for Romance languages. What does it mean?

Cecil replies:

As you might have guessed, it doesn't mean anything. The name was chosen, if you can believe the folks at Oldsmobile, after a two-year search in which hundreds of other names were considered, most of them equally meaningless. Ciera was chosen on the basis of its alleged "appeal," which I guess means that it sounds vaguely Spanish in a watered-down, Californiaesque sort of way. In a similar vein GM has also given us Toronado, Catalina, Seville, Silverado, and so on (although admittedly some of these actually do signify something). The ultimate expression of this line of development, to my mind, was Ricardo Montalban, the premier example of a marketing concept made flesh. Exotic but accessible. Dangerous but cuddly. If he were a car they'd have sold a million of him.

Where the trend toward meaningless car names got started nobody knows, but it seems to have gotten a big boost in 1964 when Pontiac came out with the GTO. Pontiac pilfered the name from a race car made by Ferrari. The letters origianally stood for Gran Turismo Omologazione, which loosely translates from the Italian as "approved grand touring car." Omologazione is not a word that trips lightly from the tongue, so after some hesitation Pontiac decided not to bother explaining to its American customers what the letters meant. As it turned out, most people didn't really care. This has given rise to the present situation, in which car makers and other makers of consumer products feel free to flood the nation with names that are total gibberish.

The advantage of nonsense names is that you can create a brand name that has no secondary meanings that might distract from its impact. For this purpose foreign words are often as useful as nonsense words. Pontiac, for example, came out with a car for the 1984 model year called Fiero, which supposedly means "very proud" in Italian. The only problem, it seems to me, is that the name is uncomfortably close to Ciera, not to mention Fiesta, the name of a Ford product. And GM already makes a line of trucks called Sierra. Clearly there is a certain poverty of imagination in an industry that cannot think up another letter pair besides "ie" to put in its product names. No wonder the Japanese are killing us.

POSTSCRIPT

I see that for the 1998 model year Toyota has introduced a line of vans called Sienna--proof that they've finally come down to the American carmakers' level. Can it be long before the door handles start falling off?

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