The car in front...

almost certainly has a meaningless name. But why? Jonathan Glancey explains all
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The Mondeo

Mondeo could be the name of a Scandinavian pop group with eyes on the Eurovision song contest. On the boot of a Ford, it is meant to suggest that you are on the tail of the world's No 1 car. However, that prize belongs to the Toyota Corolla.

The Shogun

Four-wheel drive jeeps with bull bars (and air-conditioning) are designed to match the machismo of rich, sad men who need ego-reinforcement. The original shoguns were Japanese military dictators. Enough said.

The Escort

The first Escort was a utilitarian Fifties estate car, revived in 1967 for Ford's dull but companionable saloon. When top cars were adorned with leather and "Ghia" badge, "Escort" had the ring of an 0860 calling card.

The Probe

What do you call a Ford coupe with sloppy handling and low performance, but with a long bonnet, aimed at the middle-aged man who imagines himself footloose and family-free? Probe fits nicely; who is the driver kidding?

The Safrane

Le quoi? A forgettable Nineties Citroen with an even more forgettable name. A misspelling of Saffron? A make of Gallic dishwasher? Who knows? It is continental all right, but about as comprehensible as Baudrillard.

The BMW 325i

BMWs are cars for control freaks, blondes with clipboards and anyone who likes lists. They need no name, just a number suggesting common sense. The richer you get, the higher the number.

There were times, not so very long ago, when you knew where you stood with the nomenclature of cars. A Morris, as any fool could tell you, was made in Cowley on the edge of Oxford, which is why there was a Morris Cowley and a Morris Oxford. There was even, for those with the ancient Egyptian, a Morris Isis, named after a river most of us know as the Thames - but Ford (who built cars 70 miles east along the same stretch of water) had already bagged the English name and given it to a droop- snooted lorry in the late Fifties.

But when, in the Sixties, Brits abandoned the Cornish Riviera and Kentish coast in favour of cheap package holidays, car makers followed suit. Out went Austin Westminsters, Devons and Herefords; in came the Ford Cortina, Corsair and Capri. And as trousers flared inexorably into the Seventies, motoring magazines sang the praises of the Morris Marina and Austin Allegro (which never quite lived up to its name).

Cars for professionals continued to eschew such common names. Jaguars were either Marks (Mk One, Mk Two), suggesting a distinguished lineage, or Types (D-Type, E-Type), one Mark or Type following the other along the fast lane of motoring history. Rover, a motorised drawing room for headmasters and county planning officers in the Fifties and Sixties, advertised either the power (adequate) or the size (sufficient) of its sturdy engines in the names it bolted to the front wings of its stalwart machines: 90 [bhp], 2000 [cc] and 3-litre.

Rolls-Royce, still a stylish car in the Sixties, stuck to a tradition that had begun with the Silver Ghost of 1907; the Sixties' cars were named Silver Cloud, Silver Shadow and Phantom V. There were Bentley Continentals and Flying Spurs for the more rakish, upper-crust motorist.

Over on the Continent, however, Germans and French, Italians and Swedes were characterised not just by runny cheese and funny accents, but also by naming cars by number. Mercedes-Benzes were 220SEs and 230SLs, BMWs were 1602s and 2002s, while Citroen had its 2CV and DS (although this was a decidely clever initialising of Deesse, or Goddess).

Aside from English manufacturers' obsession with holiday resorts where their cars were unlikely to be seen (would you have driven a Capri 1.3L to southern Italy, or dared to have turned up in a 1.2-litre Mk I Cortina Super at one of Italy's premier ski-resorts?),the balance between British names and foreign numbers is how the grammar (or mathematics) of automotive nomenclature stayed until the Japanese export drive of the Seventies and Eighties.

It was the Japanese who brought the utterly irrelevant, inappropriate or meaningless name to millions of cars. Enter the Datsun Cherry, which spawned the Nissan Sunny. Enter, too, such amusingly named cars as the Mitsubishi Colt Starion 2.6 (the second word was surely meant to be Stallion, but was lost somewhere in translation).

Today, Nissan offers the Terrana and Primera (Japanese beach resorts?) and Mazda the Xedos, alongside the MX-5 and the lightbulb. The Koreans (destined to dominate the world car market in two nano-seconds from now) have followed with the risible Daewoo Nexia and Hyundai Accent, Lantra and Scoupe. Give me a Hindustan Ambassador or Tatra 603 any day.

Realising that the motoring public is warming to motoring Pacific Rim- style, European manufacturers have worked hard to keep up with this Asian flow of obscurantist names. Fancy a Citroen Xantia? Impressed by a Vauxhall Frontera? And what about the Ford Mondeo?

The name Mondeo says it all. It is meant to suggest a car made for global consumption. The Ford Mondeo wants to be the world's best selling car, although with prices starting at pounds 11,495, or 100 times the average annual earnings in Bangladesh, it is unlikely to oust the Toyota Corrolla from the top global spot.

Sometimes, though, even the most pure-blooded manufacturer needs to think of how the names of its cars sound, or what they mean, in other languages. In the early Sixties, while planning the replacement for its swish Silver Cloud, Rolls-Royce came up with the name Silver Mist. In German, mist has an odoriferous meaning of the sort not to be trumpeted about in the rear compartment of any limousine.

So, as the car market becomes increasingly international, look out for the Ford Burger and Toyota Cola.

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