I happily admit that I’ve also given a car a nickname before now. “Laubfrosch” (Tree Frog) was the name of my first car, back in the mid-1990s. It was a Japanese-made compact with 54 hp, air conditioning when you rolled down the windows, and navigation courtesy of a well-thumbed Shell road atlas. It probably got its name from the combination of dark green metallic paintwork, a modest length of 3.53 meters, and a natural all-wheel drive system.
About cars that bear a name
This article was originally published in the Daimler blog.
There are more oddly dedicated days than there are days in the year. Today in the USA, it’s time to celebrate “National Name Your Car Day.” In pole position in the US ranking of favorite car (nick)names is “Baby.” According to a current survey, one fifth of drivers in Germany have given their cars a name. And in the history of Mercedes-Benz there are models, entire model series even, that also bear a name alongside the star. That’s reason enough to dedicate my post to this phenomenon.
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The car-naming phenomenon
A non-representative survey of my colleagues and acquaintances also brought some named vehicles to light. A smart responded to “The Beast,” a Vespa to “Donatella Vespachi,” and an Opel Corsa to “Biri.” The latter has nothing to do with transporting beer; instead, it refers to the letters on the license plate of the Birkenfeld district in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
The Internet is another copious source of creative car names. For example, a Swiss website recommends “Schätzi” (Treasure), “Ageberli” (Show-off) — with a touch of self-irony — or “Fröschli,” the Swiss German variant of my own Laubfrosch. Today named cars from film and TV history are part of our collective memory — just think of the Beetle called “Herbie,” “K.I.T.T.” from the US series “Knight Rider,” and “Lightning McQueen” from the Pixar production “Cars.” But what is it that drives us to give names to our four-wheeled friends, as if they were made of flesh and blood?
Anthropomorphism is the scientific name of the phenomenon — a coinage from anthropos for “human being” and morphē for “form.” The naming tendency is triggered when an object reminds one — even distantly — of a face. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that the dot, dot, comma, dash that we know from children’s sketches is also reproduced by the front of a car. That’s no surprise, because designers make conscious use of this mimicry to arouse emotion. Headlamp, headlamp, radiator grille, bumper — and there’s the face in the car. The range of mimicry can extend from cute — which is usually met with in the form of compacts with saucer-eye headlamps — to aggressive in masculine sports coupes with an angry glare.
The anthropomorphization continues
It’s not only human features that make us transform a car into a companion. We communicate with modern cars in the same way we do with people: through language. And thanks to systems like MBUX, they even understand us! J Language adds a new dimension of human characteristics to our cars. A car is considerate when “Hey Mercedes” turns up the heating after you say, “I feel cold.” It’s humorous if it hears you ask, “Hey Mercedes, what do you think of BMW?” and jauntily answers, “They look pretty good. But only in my rearview mirror.”
Mercedes: From a girl’s name to a brand name
A century before MBUX entered the cockpit and #NameYourCarDay turned up in social media, there were Mercedes-Benz models that bore a name. That also applies to the brand name “Mercedes” itself. The name’s history began in 1889 with the birth of Mercédès Jellinek. Her father, the diplomat and businessman Emil Jellinek, entered an auto race in Nice with a Daimler vehicle in 1899, under the pseudonym Monsieur Mercedes. Three years later, the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft registered “Mercedes” as a protected wordmark. That’s how 12-year-old Mercédès lent her name — though only indirectly — to the most valuable premium automobile brand in the world today.
The pioneer among automobiles is also the pioneer of NameYourCar
And that’s how Emil Jellinek became the father of the best-known — though not the first — girl’s name bestowed on a car. The first of these name-givers was the man whose surname completes the Mercedes-Benz trademark: Carl Benz. As early as 1893 he christened a car with the fine-sounding name “Viktoria.” According to legend, he chose this name as a memento of his metaphorical victory over the model’s steering problem.
Here’s the back story: The first automobiles didn’t have a steering system that could cope with the vehicles’ high speeds. Benz invented a vehicle steering device with steering circles arranged in a tangent to the wheels, registered a patent for it in 1893, and installed it in the Benz Viktoria model. Plausible as this explanation may sound, it’s even more likely that he simply took the established term for a two-seater carriage. Other designations were also borrowed from coachbuilding: coupe or Landaulet, for example.
Our Top Five in #NameYourMercedes
Mercedes and “Viktoria” show that automobiles with names are a tradition at Daimler. So it didn’t take much digging through the archives to come up with many more cars with the star and a (nick)name — whether individual vehicles, model series or entire vehicle families. Spoiler alert: Race circuits in particular seem to be a fruitful environment for creative naming…
1. The White Elephants
The “White Elephants” were first sighted at Mercedes in the 1920s. Their preferred habitat was the Green Hell. As you know, we’re not referring to pachyderms in the African jungle, but to the legendary S-series and the Nordschleife (North loop) of the Nürburgring. The S for the W 06 with the Types S, SS, SSK, and SSKL stands for Sport. They were given the respectful nickname “Elephant” due to their beefy stature and the distinctive sound of their compressors: A tooting that would cause any elephant to pull in its trunk. But why WHITE Elephant? The answer is simple: Until the 1930s, white was the customary racing color of German marques.
2. The Silver Arrows
“Silver Arrow” has been the synonym for the Mercedes-Benz racing team’s cars for more than 85 years. According to legend, the name was born at the Nürburgring on the night between June 2 and 3, 1934. The new Mercedes W25 was due to participate in the 750-kilo class at the International Eifelrennen (Eifel races). The cars, in their German Racing White paintwork (see White Elephants) were driven to the circuit and successfully completed their training laps. Then, at the weigh-in, came the rude awakening — two kilos overweight. But necessity is the mother of invention. Overnight, the mechanics scraped off the paint. The following day, three Mercedes W25 cars in an uncoated aluminum look started the race. The Silver Arrows were born.
3. The Pagoda
For many classic car fans, the most beautiful Mercedes of all time is the “Pagoda” of the W113 model series — built from 1963 to 1971. It’s true to the dictum “Name follows form”: The slightly concave roof of the roadster’s hardtop is reminiscent of Far-Eastern temple architecture. And that’s why the car had its name before it had really hit the road. It was especially popular with the rich and the beautiful: Both on the screen and in real life, movie stars such as Doris Day and Sophia Loren liked to present themselves at the wheel of a Pagoda. Most of the just under 50,000 Pagodas were exported — to the USA rather than the Far East.
4. The Red Sow
In 1971, a 300 SEL AMG 6.8 sparked a furore at the 24-hour race at Spa. The fire-red sedan was affectionately christened “Red Sow” by journalists due to its martial appearance. Not without reason: At Spa it took second place in the overall classification and first place in its class. It was a sensational success for the AMG company, which had only been established in 1967. Many say that it was the company’s breakthrough. The red racer from Affalterbach was even featured on the premier German national TV news program, and in daily newspapers in China. The irony of the story is that the original Sow has been lost. That’s why people at AMG couldn’t resist constructing an exact replica of the original red racer for its 40th anniversary.
5. The Baby Benz
Smaller, lighter, younger. we’re talking about the “Baby Benz.” In the long run, the “Type 190” designation was a little too Spartan for a car that was intended to launch a new era for Mercedes. Bruno Sacco’s design was meant to attract those customers who found the previous model series too large, too expensive or just too staid. What’s more, the nestling scored with its high level of passive safety, state-of-the-art chassis technology, exemplary aerodynamics, and intelligent lightweight engineering. The idea paid off. Today the Baby Benz — known as the C-Class from its second generation onward — is the highest-volume car with the star.
But is it still nameless? The car name generator comes up with a suggestion…
Today, I also drive a C-Class (W 205) — you could say it’s the great-great-grandchild of the Baby Benz. And despite all the nostalgic glorification of my Laubfrosch, which was rejected as unfit by the TÜV — the German technical inspectorate — in 2010, I don’t miss it. Why should I? The only thing that my C-Class might be missing on this #NameYourCarDay is a nickname. But help is at hand from a car name generator on an English-language website that I came across while researching for this story. Once I’d answered six questions, the generator came up with the suggestion “Olive.” That brings us back to the Laubfrosch, at least in terms of color, but I don’t find it convincing in the long run. Regardless of #NameYourCarDay, I like my car. Even if it doesn’t have a name.