James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Driven to distraction

Inspired by a new automobile model – the Chevy LaCrosse – I have decided to launch a new career.

I saw the LaCrosse advertised somewhere and wondered aloud whether it was named for the game or the Wisconsin river town.

Of course, having spent all of my adult life in newspapers, magazines and suchlike, I know full well that auto model names are chosen for their sound and look and for the "feel" the name (with luck) evokes in the thoughtless consumer. In many cases, the real meaning of the word, if there is one, doesn’t matter in the least.

Some of the names are made up of whole cloth, so to speak (the Altima, the Aveo), some are misspellings of real words that cannot rationally be connected to automobiles (the Infiniti), some borrow the names –and, the manufacturers hope, the romance – of places admired by people who have never been to those places or much of any place more romantic than Toledo (the Malibu, the Monte Carlo, the Yukon). Rugged and racy animals (the Mustang, the Impala) also are popular. Some manufacturers use real words that, should you happen to think of it, are utterly ridiculous as names for cars (the Cobalt, the Uplander, both from Chevrolet, a leader in the use of absurd names).

I toyed idly with such thoughts for a couple of minutes, and then it occurred to me that I might have stumbled upon a new way to enhance the ol’ bank balance. I am, by profession, a player with and manipulator of words. I decided that for as little as – oh, let’s say, $50,000 -- per moniker, I might be willing to sit home for minutes at a time and create names for new car models as they roll off the designers’ drawing boards.

Oddly enough, roughly 18 hours after having come to that conclusion, I found among my email messages an "action alert" from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That august body noticed that the Auto Alliance, the lobbyist organization for most major automobile manufacturers, has begun a new ad campaign that claims that "autos manufactured today are virtually emission-free."

Clearly, the automakers have learned from the Bush Gang they so generously support. If you want to con the public, do it blatantly. Lie your head off. Lie big and lie often. Do not let anything approaching truth to seep into your message.

Of course, what works for the crooks and scam artists in the White House does not necessarily work for a more openly commercial enterprise.

So, in the interests of pursuing my new-found calling, I’ve come up with a twist: Name cars honestly, but with words that the public will not grasp. If some state attorney general or consumer group exposes your vehicle as an over-priced, fuel-guzzling, fire hazard with a tendency to roll over in a light breeze, you can say that you didn’t try to fool anybody – you were so upfront about the vehicle’s rotten performance that the very name is a warning to potential buyers.

(OK, so somebody beat me to it -- "Hummer" is an archaic word for a cheat – but the technique is not yet in general use. It is, in fact, likely that the Humvee manufacturer got caught with its dictionaries down.)

So here, mighty moguls of the automotive industry, are a few samples of my work to whet your appetites. Remember, I name to order.

My first creation is the Boondoggle, which should be appended to one of those behemoths almost too big to be classified a Sport Utility Vehicle. The Boondoggle is guaranteed to destroy any ordinary vehicle with which it collides and to kill the driver and at least two of three other occupants of the average sedan it rear-ends at a stop light. It also breaks down every 1,200 miles, and no part costs less than $45, with an average of $327. The vehicle is guaranteed to get no more than 7 miles to the gallon of premium gasoline. A favorite of macho film stars and professional athletes.

The Nobbler. A shoddy little vehicle aimed at the 24-year-old first-time new-car buyer. Although small, it gets only 14 miles to the gallon, will show major rust within three years, and has an exhaust system that is likely to asphyxiate its driver any time after the first six months of use. Will not start in temperatures below 34 degrees Farenheit.

The Finagle. A small SUV produced to sell to the suburban Bush voter whose credit card balances never go below $12,000 and who will be bankrupt five months after losing his/her job. It’s chief attributes are a narrow wheel base combined with a center of gravity approximately eight inches below the roof line. Four lads from the defensive line of the high school football team, working together, can blow it over from a distance of five feet.

The Bunko. Created to attract the 30ish heavily-tattooed and pierced worker with no decent job prospects, the dead-ender guy or gal looking for a vehicle that gives an illusion of sportiness and power, like the Pontiac Firebird but even phonier. Comes with standard noisy exhaust system that emulates quick acceleration without actually providing it. Also comes with a "Support Our Troops" ribbon as part of the factory paint job. It’s sound system is more powerful than its engine, but not all that much noisier.

The Guile. Designed for the would-be corporate ladder climber whose real prospects top out at $55,000 a year. It’s logo is cleverly designed to be mistaken for the BMW symbol at 20 yards, and its styling also is similar, although the vehicle provides the general performance of a Yugo. One week’s toxic emissions from a single vehicle would be sufficient to wipe out the entire population of Dallas should it collect at ground level. The car also comes with a "Support Our Troops" paint job and a fish with a cross in its belly embossed on the bumper. The biggest seller among the Guile variations is the four door look (although only the two front doors and the right rear door actually open; you save a buck where you can).

The Humbug. For the sport with a bad toupee and a pot belly, a peddler of something like essentially worthless sales incentives. In style the car is a ripoff of Audi’s ripoff of the Porsche, also built on a Volkswagen platform, with a 65 horsepower engine. It’s front end will crumple up to the windshield if you accidentally tap a barrier in a parking ramp. Turns its owner into a more nimble driver through the basic fact that any collision with another vehicle is likely to kill the driver. A Bamboozle can squash it like an overripe tomato.

Well....That’s enough. Don’t want to give away all of the wonderful ideas at my command. If you believe that today’s autos are "virtually emission-free," you’ll want one of the cars I name. If you are an auto company bigshot, you want me. American manufacturers will have to deposit my fees in escrow accounts with my bank before I give them the superb names for their new vehicles. For now I’ll trust Asian and European manufacturers to some degree; it’s my understanding that they still pay their suppliers more or less on time.


For a take on Dan Rather's retirement that is different from any you've seen so far, and some thoughts on where Rather fits in the history of broadcast news, read Jim Klobuchar's latest piece on http://www.jimklobucharwrites.com