What's in a name?

Dear reader,

Every month I read a lot of club magazines, both car and motorcycle, apart from the glossy comics about the old vehicle world. In the 750 Bulletin, the official magazine of the long-established Seven Fifty Motor Club, which the editor of MOTOR SPORT in 1939 proposed as a club for impecunious enthusiasts, formulated around the Austin 7, there is always something interesting to read. It can be anything from touring Scotland in an Austin 7, to controlling the bump-steer on your racing single-seater for one of the many formulae supported by the 750 club.

In a recent issue an article that caught my attention was entitled, like this letter, What’s in a Name? The writer was Neil McLeland and he was asking about why many cars were given pet names by their owners, and how the name evolved. He wrote: “I have often wondered why people call their cars names (affectionate ones that is). I understand why cars are sometimes called unflattering or even offensive names when the misbehave badly! But it seems strange that grown-up, intelligent human beings have to give their machines pet-names. Over the years I have had many cars ranging from the mundane to the exotic and I don’t think it was until I got into Austin Sevens that I started to associate a car’s character or identity with a name. Prior to this I had always referred to my cars by their make or model or even their registration plates.

“Austin Sevens, and cars I have owned since, seem to have changed my feelings towards them and now a name will sometimes come to mind just by looking at a newly acquired vehicle. My first two Austin Sevens, a Box Saloon and a Swallow, didn’t seem to have this affect on me, they were referred to by their model names, just like their predecessors. Then along came our Rosengart, this was immediately called ‘Rosie’, not very original and imaginative I must admit, but it suited the car and has stuck with it. Then my Special came along and became known as ‘Stinker’, a bit more original this time.

“Other members of our club have given some, not all, of their cars pet-names. There’s Henrietta the TopHat saloon, Rupert the Ruby, Lucy the Box Saloon. None of these car’s number plates give a clue to their names and yet the names seem right for them. So where did the names come from and why were they chosen?

“It also seems that a car’s character is different to some people than it is to others. For instance, I had a vintage Hillman 14 a few years ago that, to me, seemed like a grand ‘Old Lady’, yet it had previously been known for many years as ‘Boris!’

“Although I have had my Austin Chummy for some years and have driven it many thousands of miles, and although I feel I know it inside out and love it dearly, I do not think of it or refer to it by a name. I have tried to think of something suitable, but so far nothing has stuck.

“My latest purchase is an Austin Heavy 12 Clifton tourer, which doesn’t have a name either although I believe that some years ago it was called ‘Emma’. Before I knew this I regarded the car as a big brother for the Chummy! How do you tell the sex of a car? The Seven Chummy and the Twelve Clifton look related, there are numerous similarities, only the scale is different. I feel they should have names to cement their personalities. ‘Little and Large’ or ‘Winkle and Whelk’ come to mind. It’s a fascinating business.”

This article by Mr McLeland struck a strong cord with me, and I am sure with many other readers. While I quite like the idea of personalised names for cars I have never been able to think up any for my own. One of the first cars I bought had been known as ‘Frederick’ to the previous owner, but as soon as I acquired it that name was dropped and I merely referred to it by its registration plate number. When I got involved in sprinting and dragracing I entered the world of names for cars, but I was always at a loss to think up suitable ones for my vehicles. Looking at those around me I was quite envious of the imagination behind some of the names in use. There was a collection of big powerful 1000cc motor bikes, all with fascinating names. ‘Thor’, ‘Satan’, ‘Rumblegutz’, ‘Gungadin’, Jindivik’ and, the most famous of them all, ‘Nero’ and its successor ‘Super Nero’. Even ‘Mighty Mouse’ seemed applicable.

A lot of fairly standard sports cars carried names over the years, given to them by their owners, and though they seemed meaningless to me they obviously came from affection and attachment of the owners. When I built a sprint special from bits from six different makes I racked my brain to think of a suitable name, but failed miserably. Friends building similar specials would think of an appropriate name as they were building it. It used to drive me mad!

Specials are a natural subject for a pet-name, either affectionate or with a meaning or a message. Cars built for the Land Speed Record, which are invariably specials have names that have remained, which sum up the whole character of the vehicle. ‘The Golden Arrow’, ‘Silver Bullet’, ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘Goldenrod’, ‘Blue Flame’ and ‘Thrust’ all speak for themselves. It is the simple name for a simple car that I find intriguing, things like ‘Percy the Pop’. Why not ‘Peter the Pop?’ The owner will say, “Just look at it, you can see my Ford Popular is a Percy, it can’t be a Peter.” But why is his Ford masculine, why not Priscilla? As Mr McLeland asks, “How do you tell the sex of a car?”

I rather like the idea of a cornbined name for two cars. There are a lot of possibilities there. The only snag would be that you would be forced to sell them as a pair. Now there is a good idea for bright Herberts in the used car trade. This whole affair could get out of hand. Perhaps we should stick to something simple like AX93/VR750. At least we can look it up in the index.

This month’s Memorable Moments (they are still coming in) are from Godfrey Hebdon:

I. In 1962, aged 16, I was not able to attend actual race meetings and had to rely on the BBC. I was a Graham Hill/BRM fan and memorable for me was the radio commentary on the last laps of the International Trophy race at Silverstone, when Hill caught Jim Clark on the last corner.

2. In 1973 I was in a position to attend the British GP at Silverstone and I had a grandstand seat by the start/finish line. Jody Scheckter came past us at the end of the opening lap, on the grass and spun, causing that monumental pile-up. The real moment was a lap later when Stewart re-appeared round Woodcote, in the lead, to see the red flag. I just could not believe the incredibly short distance in which he slowed from high speed to a stop, thus avoiding piling into the wreckage.

3. In 1976 I was at Brands Hatch for the British GP when there was a pile-up at the first corner and the race was stopped. There followed a great argument as to who was to be allowed in the restart. James Hunt was excluded and, while the storm raged in the pits, about 50 per cent of the huge crowd, who were Hunt fans, started a rhythmic slow-handclap to voice their disapproval of officialdom. It was effective and it was a memorable moment for me to have been a small part of that orderly demonstration.

Yours, DSJ.