Trying to park the other day, I was elbowed out of the way by a towering 4x4 called, suitably fascistically, the Daewoo Musso. The Musso! What can they have been thinking of, out in Korea? Are they expecting it to end its days hanging from a lamp-post by its back wheels? (It would, if I had my way.) But then again, why should a load of 30-year-olds in Seoul be expected to know about 20th-century European history? You'd think they might have asked around.

Boobs of this sort are not uncommon. Car marques are sold worldwide, and any name is liable to touch the wrong nerve somewhere. The Chevrolet Nova bombed in Spain because Nova in Spanish means "won't go" (no va). The Fiat Rustica, rural in Italy, hit Britain at a moment when Fiats, designed for sunny Italy, were notoriously dissolving into rust in the rain. It swiftly turned into the Panda, which, being furry, has no rust problems.

Ford was particularly prone to naming disasters. When they marketed their Caliente in Brazil, they learned, too late, that this was the local term for a prostitute. They didn't do very well with the Probe, either; it sounded too rude. "What's your new car?" "A Probe." No, you couldn't say it. And nobody wants to buy a joke.

The biggest Ford disaster of all was the Edsel. Some 16,000 names were considered, including several from the poet Marianne Moore, whose proposals included Utopian Turtletop, Intelligent Bullet, and Mongoose Civique (the inspiration for the Honda Civic?).

But Ford, rejecting all of them, decided to call its new 1957 model after Henry Ford's son and heir. It was a bad omen: Henry despised Edsel, whom he harried to an early death. Although the public was probably unaware of this, it could never take to the vast Edsel car, whose door-handles tended to drop off, and which had push-button gears on the steering-wheel hub. Even if people managed to open and shut the doors, they couldn't believe it was possible to operate the gears independently of the steering. The Edsel duly became one of the greatest auto flops of all time. With a name like that, it was fated.

These days, nearly all positive-sounding names (about 1,000 new ones an hour) have already been registered and trademarked, in hopes that you'll alight on theirs so they can sue. Still, you do wonder about the discussions that go on inside auto companies.

How about something light, bright and sassy? Yay, the Sassy! No, "sassy" has been registered. How about gassy, then? Too abstract, but perhaps we're on to something ... Oxygen - no, too medical.

Something inoffensive, eye-catching, commercial - how about neon? And lo - the Dodge Neon. And how about the Datsun Cherry? (Any colour, as long as it's red.) Were they planning a whole line of fruit? What happened to the Pear and the Pineapple? Was it the Banana that put them off?

With all these difficulties, it's not surprising that more companies, in desperation, just put together a few more or less euphonious-sounding syllables - the Acura (which of course may mean something in Japanese), the Primera, the Frontera (vaguely sherry associations there). Or they throw in the towel and simply give their cars numbers. Peugeot does it (will you have a 205, a 306 or a 407?), and so does Mazda, as does BMW, of course. Beware initials, though. There's quite a bit of competition putting appropriate words to them. Thus, GM translates as Generally Miserable; BMW, as Big Money Works or, alternatively, Broke My Wallet; Audi - Another Ugly Deutsche Invention; MG - Money Guzzler.

Still, we progress. In 1955 Dodge marketed an all-pink-and-white model called La Femme. I somehow can't see anyone buying that now.

Ruth Brandon is the author of 'Automobile - How the Car Changed the World', published by Macmillan

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