How a jumble of numbers and letters came to convey fanciness, while cute names came to mean value.
See if you can guess which of these cars is a luxury car and which is a cheaper, mass-market car, just by the name:
ES350 A8 Yaris LT200 Spark Velozes C300 Fiesta
Chances are, you picked the alphanumeric names as the luxury cars and the name-names as mass-market cars. You did this even though there are at least two cars in there you’ve never heard of, because I just made them up.
How did this happen? Why do alphanumerics read “fancy” to us, when applied to a car? Why do the least appealing names refer to the theoretically most appealing cars?
In the early days of gas-powered automobiles, many used either alphanumeric names or extremely literal names. The alphanumeric names weren’t meaningless strings of letters and numbers, not at that point; they could refer to all kinds of things. Ford, for example, created the Model A, then the Model B, and so on down the alphabet until they came to the most famous of all, the Model T. (Not all of those models became anything more than prototypes, but still.)
Other cars were simply named with the make of the car and then a word like “Sedan,” “Touring,” “Roadster,” “Coupe,” or “Delivery.” These might seem more like name-names than alphanumeric names, but in fact the baldly descriptive titles are actually in the same family as the C300. Alphanumeric names generally, up until the 1980s, served as a sort of spec sheet: they described the number prototype the car was (Model T), or how many horsepower it put out (Flanders 20), or some other description of the car’s internals (Packard Twin 6, named for its dual six-cylinder engine).
“In the 1910s you started seeing more cars with brand names, especially in the luxury sector,” says Andrew Beckman, the archivist at the Studebaker National Museum in Indiana. Studebaker was emblematic of this sort of incremental change: Studebaker produced a number of cars with “Six” in the name, indicating a six-cylinder engine, but after Big Six, Light Six, Special Six, and a few others, basically ran out of adjectives. The Big Six, in 1928, was renamed the President.
As World War II approached, the American carmakers began shifting to more name-names, partly to differentiate their models in the marketplace and partly because name-names can be modified in all kinds of ways to give off the kind of vibe you want your customer to get from your car. By the 1930s and 1940s, the American carmakers were going for a kind of regal-airship tone: “You had the Commander, the President, the Continental, the Zephyr, and, in what would prove to be a poor choice a few years later, the Dictator,” says Beckman.
The American cars stuck with names moving forward, adjusting with the times. In the 1960s, the jet age and space race led to all sorts of astronomical names, like the Galaxie, Comet, Meteor, and Satellite. Shortly after, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, came an explosion in Spanish names: Eldorado, El Camino, Bronco, Cimarron, Caballero.
But while the American carmakers were insisting a car could be called the Dodge Dart Swinger, the European carmakers had never abandoned alphanumeric names. There are exceptions, but much of the prestige of the alphanumeric name can be traced back to one of the oldest car companies in the world, Mercedes-Benz. Karl Benz is widely credited with having created the first automobile that can recognizably be classified as such, with an internal combustion engine, in 1885.
The first cars under the Mercedes-Benz name came out in 1926, and the company quickly became a legend in auto-racing as well as somewhat more questionable industries. Hitler drove around in a Mercedes-Benz 770K, named for its gigantic 7.7-liter engine. The majority of the European carmakers didn’t cross the Atlantic into the U.S. market until after World War II, but they came in rapid succession beginning around 1950. Jaguar and Alfa Romeo came in the late 1940s, and the Germans came in soon after: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen.
Studebaker was initially the key distributor of Mercedes-Benz cars in the U.S., but by all accounts bungled the job pretty solidly; the cars weren’t like American cars, they had weird old-timey alphanumeric names, and the salesmen didn’t know how to convey how good these cars were to American buyers. (Clark Gable seems to have liked them, though. He drove a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, which sold a few years ago for $1.85 million.)
In 1965, Mercedes-Benz decided enough was enough, and bought out its contract with Studebaker, establishing dealerships, a home office in New Jersey, training schools, and a new ad campaign pitching Mercedes-Benz cars as something different than Americans were used to—something better. The new strategy worked. “Mercedes in particular and European brands in general are kind of the progenitor of alphanumeric names,” says Beckman. “As their prestige rose in the market, I think other companies tried to emulate them.”
By the late 1970s, Mercedes-Benz was nudging European cars into competition with Cadillac for America’s favorite luxury automobiles. BMW, Audi, Volvo, Saab, Jaguar, and more performance-luxury cars like Ferrari and Porsche followed. All used alphanumeric names either primarily or exclusively, which helped alphanumeric names come to be associated with luxury for American buyers.
In the mid- to late-1980s, a trio of Japanese carmakers decided to all get into the luxury game. Honda, Toyota, and Nissan were making serious inroads into the American mass-market sector, but none could ignore the success of the European luxury brands. In 1986, Honda launched Acura (which took a few years to switch from name-names to alphanumeric names), and 1989 found the creation of Lexus (from Toyota) and Infiniti (from Nissan). I couldn’t get anyone to precisely confirm this, but everyone I talked to agreed that the naming strategy of those three brands was heavily influenced by the European brands. And it wasn’t only the Japanese brands. In 2000, Cadillac scrapped most of its cars and began using alphanumerics; current models include the ATS, CTS, and XTS. Chrysler, after it was torn down and hastily reconstructed following the 2008 economic crash, started selling luxury sedans like the 200 and 300.
Today, all 10 of J.D. Power’s list of the 10 most popular luxury cars in the US come with alphanumeric names.
But why? “Many luxury carmakers focus on their parent brand to carry a lot of the equity, the cachet, and sort of the lifestyle badging that is associated with many luxury brands today,” says Penelope Davis, a senior director at Interbrand, a brand consultancy company. Davis helps manage the naming practice at Interbrand’s New York office; she asked me not to reveal specifics, but she and her team has had a hand in coming up with quite a few car model names you’d recognize.
The idea with alphanumerics is that it’s the make of the car, and not the specific model, that matters. It’s a Mercedes; whether it’s a 300 or a 350 is less important than the fact that you own a luxury German automobile. And it’s also a bit more subtle, a very specific listing of a car’s specs that doesn’t try to hammer you over the head with trends or cutesiness the way a Toyota Yaris or a Smart ForTwo does. In general, Mercedes-Benz’s car naming scheme gives you information, not a vibe: it tells you the displacement of the engine, the level of trim on the car, the body style, and as of 2014, what kind of drive style it has (electric, gas, diesel, hybrid). “It’s a very clean and efficient and sleek way of helping people choose,” says Davis.
And alphanumerics don’t age. They don’t capture the imagination the way names like Mustang or Explorer or Camaro did, but they also won’t seem horrendously outdated like the Zephyr. Alphanumerics aren’t memorable, which means you’ll neither regret them nor remember them fondly.
At this point, there are car-enthusiasts who are screaming at their computers or smartphones while reading this. There are many, many exceptions to these rules. Rolls-Royce has always used name-names like the Silver Shadow and Phantom. Same with Bentley (Flying Spur, Continental.) Porsche sells the 911, but also the Carrera. Some of the bigger Italian makers use name-names, including Bugatti, Lamborghini, and Maserati. (Ferrari is still a mix.)
“One of the big philosophies in naming is that that name helps me make a choice, and says something about me,” says Davis. It’s sort of obvious, but any choice of naming scheme is done to try to convey something about the company and the product, and to imply that any purchaser of that product will attract some of that something by osmosis. If a buyer wants to think of themselves as classic, opulent but conservative—maybe a Rolls-Royce Phantom. A Lamborghini Aventador indicates flashy, attention-grabbing exoticism.
A Lexus LS500 or a Volvo S90 or a Mercedes CLS550? Nothing insane, nothing even especially exotic, but nice. Fancy. Those names indicate precise Teutonic luxury. Even though only one of them is actually German.