Chicagoland MG Club: Driveline October 2008

Jim Evans The Steering Column
Left Hand Drive

from our President

This October marks the 32nd anniversary of the founding of the club. The automotive world was certainly a different place back then. MG was into their second full year of attempting to cope with government dictated bumpers, catalytic converters, lowered emissions and the like. The “Big Three” American manufacturers were still offering a fairly complete line of cars from starter level “eco-boxes” up to top of the line luxury models. I’ve sometimes wondered “what went wrong” with the transition in time from then to now that resulted in the closure of Oldsmobile and Plymouth along with numerous factories and subsidiaries of the US manufacturers.
I’ve heard all the theories…unfair currency supports, ridiculous government regulation, naïve consumers, the illusion of a superior foreign product and the like. I have my own theory…it goes like this:
Last spring, I found myself in need of a different pickup truck. My 1994 Dodge Dakota had rolled up about 180,000 miles and, although there were no immediate issues, common sense called for a replacement. Yes, this may surprise some readers who think only import vehicles have long term reliability, but it’s true that American vehicles are generally as good as imports regardless of the smoke and mirrors of critics. Now, a pickup truck has been part of the family fleet for some years and is used for – dare I say it? – “manly” activities such as transporting MG engines and transmissions, dirt, heavy furniture items, etc. So as I began shopping I thought to seek out a substitute vehicle that would meet that “manly” requirement. Sure enough, I found that I could not only buy a different Dakota (hmm, reminds me of subzero temperatures on barren plains – clearly a “manly” connotation) but I could also buy a Tundra (pretty “manly” there), or a Yukon (wow! that’s even colder than the Dakota territory!). Also available in that segment was a Tacoma – isn’t that the place where people drink unmanly drinks such as latté’s? Probably to wash down their quiche: how could I consider that for carrying greasy car parts?
So you get my point…car names used to convey some image of a place, person, or the like that registered an appeal with the buyer. Back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, General Motors offered cars with names that conjured up images of power, prestige and exotic places: people bought Impalas, Bel Aires, Bonneville’s, Catalina’s, El Dorado’s, Seville’s, and more from GM. How about these names: Starfire, Rocket 88, Cutlass, Coupe Deville, and Cheyenne. And how about Barracuda, Roadrunner, Charger and Challenger? And Mustang, Thunderbird, and more? Wow! Those names said something about the car and – maybe – its owner. Well, along came the Japanese and the Europeans and – frankly – they just didn’t seem to get it for a while. Why would you buy a Golf or a Rabbit, when you could get a Mustang or Maverick or Pinto instead?


Why buy a car with an alphabet name like “SEL” when you could get a Toronado or Riviera instead?
To their credit, the Japanese seemed to play this game well in some instances: my all time favorite for seducing the consumer with a name goes to Nissan with their lineup of “Sentra”(a sentry who looks out for you), Maixma (maximum, the most) and Altima (the highest): too bad the products didn’t deliver on the promise of the name for many buyers. Honda did well with Accord (agreement) and Acura (I don’t even need to explain this one) and some of their later models, such as the Pilot MPV.
There have been some notable misfires in the naming game, examples that leave you wondering who fell asleep at the switch. If a name is supposed to convey some positive attribute, how can you explain Chrysler Cirrus (i.e. citrus), Mercury Mystique (i.e. mistake) or Hyundai Accent (i.e. accident). Live and learn, I guess. And if you are currently in the market for a new car, you may ask yourself just what the heck is a Tiburon, a Murano, a Yaris, or a Versa?
My all-time award for naming misfires goes to Toyota for a long string of bizarre names: what is a Cressida? A Camry? A Celica? Are they animal-vegetable-or mineral? Is a Corrola different from a Corona? And, finally, how could anyone proudly place the letters “TRD” prominently on their product?
So I see that in 1976 GM was selling some of the old with some of the new: Seville and deVille with a here-and-gone Cimarron; Nova, Malibu, Impala and Monte Carlo with the here-and-gone Chevette; 88 , 98 and Cutlass; Catalina, Bonneville, Ventura, Grand Prix and the here-and-gone Astre. Ford featured the Pinto, Maverick, Thunderbird, and the Granada. Chryler fielded the Newport, New Yorker, Town & Country, and also the Dodge Dart, Coronet, Charger, and others.
And now, GM offers, thru Chevrolet, the Impala and Malibu (hurray!) along with something called an Aveo (hmm, is that something you eat with Cressida?); through Pontiac we still have a Grand Prix (inexplicably, a four door car) and others not worth naming; and the same with Buick. Well, no wonder there’s a problem here. And Ford at least still has the mustang and Taurus (strong like a bull) but has also veered from the path with the likes of Fusion, Flex, and Focus. I wish them well with this self imposed challenge. Chrysler at least still has a 300, Town & Country, and a sexy newcomer named Crossfire.
And so my theory is that the “name game” is important in the automotive field in producing a successful sales record, and that domestic companies have veered from the true path and this explains – at least some of – their decline. I have yet to reconcile this theory with the alphabet-soup nomenclature of British car model names and their checkered success but will save this challenge for a later column.

Safety Fast, -- Jim Evans

The Club welcomes all MG enthusiasts to call on its gatherings. Please call any person listed above for more information.

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On the cover: Motoring on down the roadways during the Wine, Cheese and Beer-chitecture Tour. The top left picture is Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

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