Why the Far East rules the world for silly car names

| 31 May 2013

I never was very good at geography, so forgive me the inherent ignorance that prompted the following blog. You see, I was stuck behind a car in a traffic jam the other day and was desperately trying to work out what its name meant.

Altea? Altea? All I could imagine was one half of the chart-topping duo that sang Uptown Top Ranking or, more likely, some future world where Jenny Agutter and Michael York live and where little rubies start flashing in the palm of your hand when you reach 30. Oh, and where a pathetically unthreatening robot that moves at a snail's pace somehow manages to catch and chop up 'runners' in the frozen zone.

Of course, the mental pictured conjured by this exotic name turned out to be miles off the mark and apparently Altea is actually a nice little bit of Spain on the Costa Brava.

But it got me thinking, yet again, about the age-old subject of car names.

I really don't want to retread the millions of words written about ones that mean unfortunate things in other languages or to repeat apocryphal – and often xenophobic – stories about how some cars got their model identities.

As a Jensen owner, however, I am well aware of the importance of a car name. After all, is there a less snappy, more unwieldy title than the four-syllable Interceptor? It made for a long, more-expensive-to-produce badge as well, so I am surprised they didn't shorten it to Inty or 'Ceptor and save a few quid, but somehow this name worked. Really worked.

No, while the whole car-manufacturing world strives, and brainstorms, and spends days locked in boardrooms sticking giant-sized Post-Its to the wall, just to find that name which will sum up the character of their car (or, more importantly, the character they would like the gullible public to think it possessed), I wanted to go to the other end of the scale.

That being the manufactures who have clearly not bothered at all or, if they have, veered off into strange absurdist realms – or are, I suspect, just having a laugh.

It turns out that the po-faced Europeans and comic-book-influenced Yanks aren't very good at this game. Sure, they can misspell simple words to try to suggest they are 'fun' or down with the kids, but generally the deadhand of a middle-aged marketing team convincing an even older board of the youthfulness of the name is as conspicuous as Thrust SSC at a soapbox derby. Worse than that, there are plenty of names that are so barmy you could almost forgive them, but the fact that they take themselves so seriously, or the names are so wildly deluded, means that you can't. Pontiac Parisienne. That's it, I need say no more on this point.

Once you get to the Far East in the mid-’90s, however, when some kind of weird collective lunacy descended over the region's car-namers, there are some corkers. While Renault was gleefully advertising (as if it was a good thing) the fact that it had used a computer to come up with the terminally dull Safrane – admittedly no worse than what 15 execs, a plate of sandwiches and a crate of Kronenbourg would have come up with – Japan was having genuine fun.

Here, super-dubious Nissan Pantryboy and Subaru Brat aside, are my top five bonkers Eastern car names, mainly novelty machines or attempts to make the mundane marginally more interesting by having a wacky moniker.

5. Daihatsu Hijet DumboSometimes you know a company is not taking itself seriously and, best of all, isn't expecting to be taken seriously by anyone else either. Few vehicles epitomise this like the Daihatsu Hijet Dumbo (above), a concept that appeared at Tokyo in 1989 and seems to have been named solely after its big wing-mirrors. Based on the well-known Kei trucks and minivans, with a sub-700cc engine, the Dumbo looked like an airport shuttle bus that had been through the hot wash, not so much designed using a set square as probably actually built from them. It's no Naked or Sneaker, but Daihatsu was on its game.

4.Honda Life DunkAnother Kei car (the tax-break, small-engined Japanese speciality), the Life (below) was originally popular in the 1960s. Honda revived the name in the 1990s and the Life Dunk was reserved for the turbocharged version. Honda, of course, has form with 'what-were-they-smoking' names including the That's, the Today and the City Pal.

3.Suzuki Mom's Personal WagonThis was a concept shown – without shame – at Tokyo. Not entirely surprisingly, the name did not make it as far as production even though the car did. Clever little thing it was, too. Rather like women can be he says (ironically, don't write in!), adopting the same patronising misogyny that Suzuki fell into with its naming policy.

2. Mazda Bongo Friendee City Runner NAVI EditionHow can something this cool not be number one? A compact MPV-based camper made of spam tins with not only Bongo in the name, but a made-up nonsensical variation on 'friend', too. Even its Ford alter-ego was called the Freda, but that just pales in comparison. Why is Bongo funny? I have no idea. Why does adding Friendee and a bunch of other words to it make it genius? Even less idea, but it is. Indeed, the only reason this doesn't claim the top spot is that the Bongo moniker has a rich tradition stretching back to the 1960s (above) and incorporating such wonderful variants as the Brawny as well.

1. Isuzu Mysterious Utility WizardSomewhere in Tokyo in the 1990s one of the following happened:a) Some people watched Scooby Doo and thought to themselves that the programme projected the image they wanted for their new vehicle but that The Mystery Machine wasn't a compelling enough name for modern-day Daphnes and Velmas so it needed sexing-up. One of those people had clearly just seen a new book from a new author called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and realised that wizards were about to go big. They then added the word 'utility' simply so they could paint most of them white with a clear conscience. b) Actually, scrap b). a) is want I want to believe happened, so I'll leave it at that.By James Elliott