Wordplay has always fascinated me. It’s partly the reason why I’ve been typing out stories here for the past few years…it’s not like I’m racing every weekend or building show cars. Words are forever linked to ideas, thoughts, and emotions, and if you are a manufacturer selling a car, words are a make-or-break decision. The right model name or trim name can be the difference between selling and bombing. Some names earn a reputation, while others are winners from the moment they are unveiled. I’ve put together a list of eleven model names that I feel have significance beyond their initial intent. Some, like the Nissan GT-R, have a legendary aura, while others, like the Mercury Cougar Eliminator, completely changed the feel of the car. Check out the list…do you agree? Disagree? Think I need mental therapy? Feel free to comment below!
11. “GT-R”, Nissan, (1969-73, 1989-2002, 2007-present)
Acroynym: Gran Turismo-Racing
Impact: Nissan’s three-letter notation for the performing version of the Skyline has been THE reason to fear the Japanese on racetracks the world over. Whether you are looking at the early hakosuka and kenmeri versions of the 1970s or the rightfully named “Godzilla” R-32, this is the Nissan that doesn’t require respect, it will get it…even if it has to stomp a mudhole into your chest to earn it.
10. “Firebird”, Pontiac (1967-2002)
Reference: The General Motors Firebird concept cars of the 1950s
Impact: John Z. DeLorean was acutely aware that he was being screwed over when the Banshee concept series was shot down in flames by GM leaders. Instead, he had to make a Chevrolet
Panther Camaro into a Pontiac on a shoestring budget in short order. The answer: bring an image that evokes power and mysticism and give it a pointy nose. Job well done. Thirty five years later and millions of Screaming Chicken decals on, the Firebird finally got put to rest for good.
9. “Power Wagon”, Dodge (1946-80, 2005-present)
Origin: Unknown, but likely originated from military slang for the Dodge WC series
Impact: Power Wagon. Those two words simply evoke images of something mechanical working hard, don’t they? In the case of pretty much every Dodge truck that has had the name associated with it, that’s the intent. From the original military-style WC trucks to the example you can buy off of the lot right now, this is a truck you put to work knowing it’ll handle it. It’s assurance in two words.
8. “Marauder”, Mercury (1963-65, 1969-70, 2003-04)
Definition: A person who roams around, raiding and plundering at will.
Impact: Mercury wasn’t one for angry names normally. Instead, they focused on locations or images of luxury, but there are two exceptions that really stand out. The first is Marauder. These were the go-fast barges, the big hitters from Ford’s kind-of twin brand. It’s not that the cars were that exceptional…it was that the name grabbed you over other cars on the Lincoln-Mercury lot. Think about it: Comet, Marquis, Park Lane, Marauder. Just stands out a bit, doesn’t it?
7. “The Machine”, American Motors Corporation (1970 on Rebel, 1971 on Matador)
Origin: a 1968 concept Rebel two-door that was trimmed out like early Road Runners – all go, little show.
Impact: American Motors’ wordplay when it came to names was always interesting and entertaining, but “The Machine” is so simple for a performance car that it almost went against the grain a bit. Instead of going straight for an X-designation or something really wild, they stuck with “The Machine”. What was it? Blunt-force-trauma performance from the Rebel and Matador. What was the car? The machine, man.
6. “Fury”, Plymouth (1955-78, 1980-1989 in various trim designations)
Definition: Wild and violent anger.
Impact: How Plymouth turned the word that would suit a musclecar best into a top-tier semi-luxury, semi-performance model is beyond us, but look at how they scripted early versions of the emblem: it had class! You would expect a car called Fury to be a barely-controllable shot of adrenaline, but most Fury models were either taxicabs or loaded-up top of the line cars. There were several versions of the Fury to generally fear, though: the 1950s cars were runners, the Max Wedge era cars really moved, and surely you know why people were scared of a black-and-white Fury, right?
5. “Cutlass”, Oldsmobile (1961-99)
Definition: A short sword with a slightly curved blade, favored by sailors.
Impact: If anybody paid any attention to what the word “Cutlass” actually meant, they were one of the rare ones. Oldsmobile instead found a name that just flowed well and proceeded to give it a great run…right before they ran it through the ground and halfway to hell. The Oldsmobile Cutlass was often a best-selling car, and the rear-drive versions are very nice cars to be in. Then the 1980s hit, front-drivers aplenty with “Cutlass” on them somehow appeared, and the last model was a sad-ass rebadged Chevy Malibu. Oh, how the mighty fell.
4. “Eliminator”, Mercury (1969 and 1970 Cougar)
Definition: kind of obvious, isn’t it? The one who eliminates competition.
Impact: The second hitter from Mercury, “Eliminator” enhanced the Cougar’s “fluffy Mustang” image into that of a full-fledged bright color and sticker musclecar that had sincere teeth to it. A regular Cougar was bought by a junior executive who liked performance, but wanted an air of class. The Eliminator was bought by someone who wanted to go kick the ass of the kid in the Camaro who couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
3. “Grand National”, Buick (1982, 1984-87)
Reference: The NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National racing series
Impact: This is a case where the car really made the name stand out. Referencing NASCAR isn’t anything new and has continued on past the GN’s time in the sun, but the hot-rod turbo Buick from hell was a swift kick in the berries to everyone who thought performance was dead and couldn’t exist without old technology. 231 cubic inches and a good amount of cooled, forced air did wonders for Buick’s reputation as an ass-kicker. Shame after 1987, the company went back to making Laz-y-boy recliners with wheels and taillights. Nine for ten, nobody thinks of NASCAR when you say Grand National now.
2. “Cobra”, A.C., Shelby American and Ford (1962-present in various platforms)
Reference: venomous snakes in the genus Naja, known for their display “hoods”
Impact: The cobra…the snake to fear. Be it on a radically overpowered British roadster with an American heartbeat, a musclecar, a Mustang, whatever…wherever the snake goes, performance follows. And yes, that does count the 1975-81 models. Whatever the year, this was the hot ticket to get.
1. “Challenger”, Dodge (1958-59, 1970-74, 1978-83, 2008-present)
Definition: the person in a contest who is attempting to achieve a goal instead of defending a position
Impact: Challenger brings up images of a fight. In one corner you have the established, the one who has already proven themselves and now simply enjoys the limelight. Then you have to have a challenger, the one who is climbing through the ropes, hungry, ready to prove that they are worthy. It’s a word that implies aggression from the first utterance…and maybe a little violence to go along with it. And unlike some cars sold throughout the years, it didn’t need a character to grab the attention of the buyer. Just the word was enough.