Naming Vehicles

Naming Your Wheels
Do you give names to your vehicles? As a more basic level, do your personify them as male or female? I am just sure there is a doctoral thesis in psychology waiting to provide the definitive answers to these questions, but would we want to read it?

I noticed this a few years ago when son Will purchased his first motorcycle, a Triumph Bonneville “Basic Black” that fairly glowed in – er – basic black. It was a fine steed, and well suited to his tastes and riding preferences. I noticed he always referred to “her,” and that gave me pause, because in decades of driving and buying and selling vehicles with various numbers of wheels, I could not recall referring to any of them as male or female, nor had I named them. What does this mean? I do not believe he gave her a “name,” but I have known many people who have done so.

For sure, many people, and I will lump them into that broad (snicker pun) category we call “women,” have purchased cars and given them names that fell under a very large umbrella called “cute.”

These days it is much more complicated. For one thing, women now constitute a healthy and competitive minority of Indy car racers. Those of a sexist bent can scoff and mutter dark imprecations about trust fund babes and marketing shortcuts and on and on – until a woman actually won an Indy car race. Women are also an important and rapidly growing demographic in motorcycles, and so it is no longer fair, if indeed it ever was, to lump the personification of vehicles by giving them names as a female pursuit.

We also now have the category of “art cars,” where people – many of a creative bent for clothing and lifestyles, make their vehicle a moving canvas, if you will, gluing on pennies, art prints, found objects, et al to the exterior and interior of the vehicle. Many of these creations are given names. Motorcycle and car shows have seen the rise of “rat bikes” and “rat rods,” where the intent is to create functional vehicle that appears to be a tacky blend of rust and junk that has not moved in years since abandonment in a swamp. Many of these are also named.

There are shortcuts. A Corvette becomes “the Vette,” a Thunderbird a “T-Bird,” or if you are really into them, a “Square bird,” “Rocket bird,” “Retro bird,” and other variations of automobile plumage in metal. Many motorcycles lend themselves to this as well, and are given appellations by both the manufacturers and the end users such as Gixxers, Ninjas, Rockets, Wideglides, Road Kings, 8 Balls, Goldwings, and many many more.

Attend a drag race and you will find that most of the “serious” cars have been given a moniker of some sort, usually a simple pun or variation on the name of the car or the intent. I am always astonished at the rampant creativity using only variations of basic words. Things like “Blue By You,” “Drag Gone,” “Color Fast,” and such.

Your choice to name or not a stock vehicle may go back to when you first became enamored of vehicles, if in fact you did. I would opine that many people who name their vehicles do not understand vehicle design and probably do not want to. The dubbing of an expensive and mystifying device with a common name makes it easier to deal with.

History tends to corroborate when you look at adventures initially undertaken primarily by men, where anything that was complicated and dangerous and hard to understand was given a female name, out of the abject failure of most men to understand that which they most desire – most women. Thus you have ships that were given female names and usually a female form on the bow. In fact, for centuries it was considered bad luck to allow a woman on a boat – a boat which had a female name and a female likeness on the prow. We be complex creatures. Hurricanes were routinely given only female names until fairly recently, where now they alternate male to female – a sop to the terror and destructive force of men, after all.

In the early days of cars men, once again, were the predominant operators. Early cars were complex (compared to a horse, although pretty simple compared to cars of today, where most of us have no idea how things work or how they could be repaired), dangerous, and unreliable. No wonder the Model T was usually referred to as a “Tin Lizzie.”

As to whether a vehicle is male and female, the choice we make speaks, I think, more to the spirit of the vehicle. My son felt the Bonneville to be beautiful (which it was) so referring to it as female made the most sense to a heterosexual male.

For me, vehicular lust was ignited early in life by parents who were (both) sober-sided engineers and (both) as close to car nuts as they would allow themselves to be. Under their tutelage I became engrossed in the history of both design and styling, so referring to them exactly as what they were seemed natural and correct. Vehicles were products of a creative engineering and art combined, possibly the finest amalgam of those two disciplines available for everyday use. Thus, the 1959 Hillman I was allowed to drive in high school when I needed a car was simply “the Hillman.” My parents purchased their first sports car long after their first desire for one, but the Sunbeam Alpine was never referred to other than as “the Alpine.” When we purchased our 1958 Corvette as newlyweds (for $800 – thereby hangs a tale) it was shortened to “Vette,” but I would have been appalled to give it a name. It was also neither male nor female – it was a car. Again, this probably speaks more to background than to what is right or wrong.

I owned a 1977 Yamaha XS 750D for 22 years, and it was never anything other than “the Yamaha,” even though I lavished lengthy and pleasant periods of time keeping it utterly pristine at all times. Our 1975 Porsche 911 S Targa was a Porsche, although in retrospect, while psychologically beating myself severely for a monumental lapse in judgment and anything approaching good sense, it could have been termed “the money pit,” or for those fond of the harsh – “the fright pig.”

It’s interesting to consider the sexualization of cars by country. To do so you have to tread carefully across perfectly pedicured toes, as sexism gets snarled with history, and what was true then may not be now, and may have been a product of sexism, or not. For each country, it is simplest to consider only the “halo” cars. Every country makes shed loads of cheap and cheerful cars and motorcycles that serve yeoman duty for years, but what you think of for each brand are the products that are not necessarily expected to sell well, or much at all, but to sit in the showroom as a “halo” that will draw others to the light.

Probably the best example of a halo car today is the Cadillac station wagon with the 550hp engine and a 6 speed manual transmission. The number of people who have 80k and a desire to own such a beast could probably be counted by the late Michael Jackson during a gloved performance. I want one, of course, but I am about 100k shy of the required 80k. A magazine writer of a similar economic position opined to a Cadillac design engineer that they would be lucky to sell 6 of them, and the engineer responded, probably not entirely in jest, that the sales goal was 4. That is a halo car.
For Italy you think of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Maserati, and Ferrari, and all Italian cars seem to be female. Gorgeous, defined by sinuous forms, and perhaps temperamental– yes, female.

German cars? Audi? Mercedes Benz? BMW? Male cars to the last wheel nut.

American cars with our predilection for enormous horsepower and relative lack of concern for whether or not it can be put to the asphalt efficiently – oh yeah – male.

The British are all over the map. Maybe there’s a connection here to their seemingly endless penchant for finding humor in men dressing in drag. What is up with that? When watching British comedy, don’t you wonder sometimes why they cannot seem to get past the concept? In such a fashion a Jaguar XKE is probably one of the most female cars ever designed, while a Bentley is self-assuredly male.

And what of the East? Perhaps time is required, but when I think of Japanese cars I don’t get a male or female feeling particularly. You? Now that the Koreans and (next) Chinese are rushing into automobile manufacture and speeding from one level of sophistication and performance to the next with the speed of a Bullet train (the Koreans now, the Chinese in the next 20 years) will they eventually produce cars which as a symbolic representation of their source country can be seen as male or female?

I have omitted small manufacturers in other countries, cruelly denying both the Israeli Sabra and Volvo Sonnett sports cars their brief nanoseconds in the sun, because this analysis has already strained the bounds of credulity, and may have burst through them.

Where do “vanity” license plates fit? I was an early adherent of vanity plates for our vehicles. Here was a way to support “non-game” wildlife in the state by offering up $30 a year (now $50 it seems) to personalize your car. Some personalized the car while others touted some personal trait, quirk, or hobby. I rode motorcycles with two friends for years and due to a number of mild misadventures we referred to ourselves as the “3 Geeks.” A Yamaha 750 is a triple, so “GEEK 3” was a good vanity plate. The friend with the Moto Guzzi – a V twin, purchased “GEEK 2.” The perfection of the idea was marred by the 3rd friend who hated vanity plates. It seemed he had one of the very first ones, adorned with his initials. In his single years, Girlfriend A spotted his car parked outside the apartment of Girlfriend B, and the ensuing gefuffle turned him off the idea of making his car more noticeable.

I liked “GEEK 3” and the responses it created so much that we purchased “3 GEEK” for the Porsche – a matched set! At the same time, our Volvo station wagon was decorated with “TEACH 2” to represent our careers. When the children became of driving age, I purchased a spotless AMC Concours (you snicker, I can hear, but it was the ideal car for teen drivers) our daughter paid for “STGEFRT” to represent her drama involvement, (“stage fright”) and son later changed that to “BAROOF,” an alias he created for his writing efforts. For some time we were feeding a lot of wild animals!
There are some cars and motorcycles that seem to cry out for a name or a vanity plate. Our new Fiat 500 Sport really needs such a plate. With a nod to Eddie Izzard, we tried for “Ciao” but that was already gone. Same for “Bella.” However, as I write this the “Con Brio” plate is being manufactured, I hope.

And yet – a trace of wistfulness remains. In the early days, vanity plates in this state were an eye-popping day glow yellow with green letters. They really stood out. Later the State Patrol had the color eliminated, arguing that it faded. I found that hard to believe, as most people with such plates cover them with a clear shroud and wash and wax them frequently. Now they come in a variety of plainer styles, and are no longer stamped but merely painted. They are fine, but a little less flamboyant. So am I, so perhaps all is well.

Today we have storms and ships and cars and whatever else that are given male and female names, and I wonder what the garage universe will look like in 25 years or so. Teens getting into driving today have grown up in what is arguably the least sexist culture in world history. Note I did not say it was not sexist. Women as athletes, race drivers, scientists, and astronauts are not even topics for discussion for the young. Even Presidential candidates, and all for the good. But how will these people approach vehicles? Will they even be thought to have personality, or just another electronic app to be downloaded to your life?

Whether or not your vehicle of choice is male or female, and carries a name you have applied or goes by the model designation, the real issue is probably that of personality. If you open the door to the garage and the vehicle does not “talk to you,” I think you should not have purchased it. Why drive something that is merely transportation? There is so much more available! If your vehicle has personality that lends itself to a sexual identity, or even a name – then go for it.

Much better than a “transportation app.”

Copyright Dave Preston 2011

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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