The other day at a red light, a Cadillac Escalade SUV sat in front of me, looming over the Toyota Cressida to its right. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had no idea what either “escalade” or “cressida” meant.
Maybe someone thought that “Escalade” suggested escalate and escapade simultaneously. “Escalate your escapade in your Escalade.”
When I was a kid, I could find car model names in the dictionary. An impala was a leaping African antelope; a corvette a fast fighting ship.
Some models adopted racing names. Both Studebaker and Dodge used “Daytona,” hoping drivers would associate “Daytona” with racecars and the Florida sun. Pontiac tapped auto racing tradition with its LeMans, Grand Prix and Bonneville models.
I never bought a Bonneville. The Bonneville Salt Flats yield record times but wouldn’t want to live there. Other models evoked ritzy locales. Dodge Monaco, Chevy Monte Carlo and Buick Riviera were geographic neighbors. Drivers who preferred prestigious American addresses could drive a Chevy Bel-Air, Buick Park Avenue or Chrysler Newport. Ford invited buyers out to Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s estate. Perhaps inspired by the old Four Preps hit record, automakers twice swam 26 miles across the sea, once with the Pontiac Catalina and later with the Toyota Avalon. Avalon is the town on Santa Catalina.
Where the heck is Camry? Over by Elantra?
We could float along in our Lincoln Zephyr or Plymouth Breeze or feel free as a bird in our Lark or Hawk (Studebaker), Thunderbird or Falcon (Ford), Eagle (AMC-Chrysler) or Firebird (Pontiac). I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel in a Sephia.
Americans like sharp cars with “sharp” names: Olds Cutlass, Buick LeSabre, Dodge Dart, AMC Javelin, Plymouth Arrow, Plymouth or Dodge Lancer. You could look sharp as a stinger in your Hudson Wasp or Hornet. Perhaps Ford, the same company that reportedly chose “Edsel” over 6,000 other names, thought “Probe” sounded sharp. To me, “probe” conjures up anything but a pleasant experience.
Packard’s ad slogan was “Ask the man who owns one.” If you did, he might vouch that, appropriately, the Packard Clipper felt as big as a boat. On the other hand, let’s file model names like the Studebaker Dictator and Dodge LaFemme under “What Were They Thinking?”
In the early days, hundreds of car companies competed for the growing automobile market. Like the Silicon Valley of the 1990s, valuable employees hopped from job to job or went off on their own. For instance, when Charles Nash, who later headed Nash Rambler, was president of General Motors, he hired a railroad man, Walter P. Chrysler, to help out at Buick.
Though I can’t keep up with today’s cars, I’m in peace and harmony with the auto world so long as my Accord starts in the morning. Harmony, peace — accord. It’s in the dictionary under “A” along with (Rambler) Ambassador, (DeSoto) Adventurer and (Willys) Ace. But don’t bother to look up Altima, Acura or Alero — they’re not in there.
Where did I leave that Mirage?
Right next to the Mercury Mystique.