A Brief History
On January 23, 2018, not 1, but 2 car bombs were set off in Benghazi, Libya, killing at least 33 people, both military and civilians, and wounding dozens or even scores more. Not the proper use of an automobile! Normally, we love our cars and pick up trucks, SUV’s and the like, and do our best to keep them intact. Sometimes, people love their car so much they are buried in the car instead of a casket! Cars can be used as art, places to spoon with your sweetie, a comfortable seat to watch a drive-in movie from, a recreational vehicle, an excuse to blast your tunes, an investment, a hobby, a waste of money, rolling billboards and even to transport people and things around town. Americans love cars, and for that matter other motor vehicles as well. Today we take a look at some of the best animal/fish/bird/critter names for cars. What nifty car names would you add to the list?
1. Chevrolet Impala.
Probably the king of the American animal themed names, the Impala has been around since 1958, though with a couple of gaps in production of the nameplate. The 10th generation model is a front wheel drive full sized car with 4 doors and made its debut in 2014. In that year, it was rated by U.S. News & World Report as the #1 Affordable Large Car. Not only enjoyed by generations of American families, the Impala has also done yeoman service as a taxi-cab and as a police car. Despite an incredible run of sales success (close to 14 million!), the age of the American sedan is grinding to a halt, and so is production of the Impala (at least for now), with the last ones scheduled to come off the assembly line in February of 2020. Just under 45,000 of these classic Chevys were made in 2019, a pittance of what production used to be. The namesake of the car, the Impala, is a particularly graceful and elegant African antelope with beautiful horns. The uncle of this author had a gloss black 1959 Impala that was just about the coolest looking car ever!
2. AMC Hornet.
The biggest seller for the American Motors Corporation with nearly 900,000 sold, these compact cars replaced the previous Rambler nameplate in 1970 and were built until 1977 when AMC rebadged their segment with the Concord. Kind of a zippy name after a buzzy insect with a powerful sting, AMC was not the first company to use the Hornet as a model name. The predecessors of AMC, Hudson Motor Company and Nash-Kelvinator Corporation (which merged to form AMC) came up with a Hornet model in 1954 and sold them until 1957. Prior to that, Hudson built and sold Hornets from 1951 to 1954 and enjoyed great success with the cars at stock car races. (Win on Sunday, sell on Monday!) AMC was the largest American business merger in history at the time (1954), and the nameplate went under in 1987 when Chrysler bought out the company. Perhaps Americans were influenced by the historical fighting ships of the US Navy that bore the name, Hornet? Yes, Hudson also made a model they called Wasp.
An iconic British luxury sports car brand, the Jaguar name (pronounced in 3 syllables by British people and pretentious Americans, jag-yoo-ar) the company is now owned by Tata Motors of India! Say it aint so, Joe! Yes, this author owned (actually his wife did) a Jaguar X-Type, 2003 with all wheel drive and the 3.0 L V-6 engine (base engine was 2.5 L). Like all Jaguars, the reputation for a lack of quality or reliability got to this car, which in our case was limited to the tires wearing out in incredibly short order (expensive, low-profile high-performance tires, or tyres if you will). No amount of wheel alignment or any other solution would end this eating of rubber (and money). Anyway, Jaguars are some fine looking cars and always have been, especially the cool hood ornament known as “The Leaper” or the badge with a jaguar face known as “The Growler.” We insisted on “British Racing Green” as the only legitimate color for our car, but other colors look pretty good, too, whether in a 2 door convertible or 4 door luxury cruiser. Jaguar even makes a pair of SUV models now (doesn’t everyone?) and has been making some cars with aluminum (not “alu-mini-um”) bodies. Jaguar has historically made the 6 cylinder style engine ROAR! The namesake of the Jaguar is the largest feline in the New World, ranging from the Southern United States (until perhaps the past few years) through Mexico, Central America and South America. It is one of if not THE most beautiful of the big cats. (Tata Motors also owns Land Rover and Daewoo, as well as producing the ultra-cheap cars under their own name.)
4. Plymouth Barracuda.
No more AMC and no more Plymouth, either! The Barracuda came before the iconic song by Heart, but not before the slender predatory fish that streaks through the water like a missile and neatly cuts its prey in half with razor sharp teeth. Using Barracuda as a name for a sporty car is brilliant, as the name evokes a fast and powerful image. The original Barracuda was pretty quirky looking (to this author’s eyes) and was built from 1964-1966. The models that came from 1967 to 1969 were much nicer looking and the 3rd generation built from 1970 to 1974 were sisters of the Dodge Challenger, and as such were really good-looking cars. Although sporty cars, all 3 generations offered either a 6 cylinder or an 8 cylinder engine, and of course it was the V-8 models that were the true performance cars. The 2nd and 3rd generation Barracudas could be ordered with a 426 or 440 cubic inch V-8, serious muscle for its day with as many as 425 horsepower.
5. Rambler/AMC Marlin.
Another car named after a fish, this time a BIG fish, as Marlin can grow to well over 1000 pounds and with their sword like bill stretch as much as 16 feet long. A powerful and speedy predator, these sleek and beautiful fish make a darn good name for a powerful car meant to convey an image of majesty to its owner. Billed as a “personal luxury car,” kind of like a Thunderbird or something, the 1965 Rambler Marlin became the 1966 and 1967 AMC Marlin. The car was based on the 1964 concept car, the “Tarpon,” another athletic salt-water fish of legendary game qualities. The first 2 years of production were of a mid-size, 2-door fastback layout, but the 1967 saw an increase in size to a full sized platform with bigger V-8 engines available, but still with fastback styling. Not a particularly successful car, only just under 15,000 of the 1965-1966 model and just over 2500 of the 1967 model were built. The top engine was a 383 cubic inch V-8 that produced 280 horsepower.
6. Ford Mustang.
The first of Ford’s horse named cars (remember the Bronco and Pinto?), the Mustang created a new “Pony Car” segment when it was introduced as a 1964 ½ model. A compact, 2-door sporty car with a tight back seat, long hood and short rear deck, posers could opt for the straight 6 cylinder engine while driving enthusiasts chose the V-8 options. The public gobbled up every Mustang Ford could build, over 400,000 the first year, a record for a new model at the time. Within 2 years over a million were sold! To date, well over 10 million of these wild ponies have left the showroom for the wild road. Named after wild and highly spirited horses, free and untamable, the Mustang made their owners feel younger and spunkier than ever. The Mustang spawned imitators in the Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird (another “critter” name if you count mythical critters), AMC Javelin, Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Challenger and whatever, but the Mustang reigned as the original and still champion, until… The Mustang II! Noooooooooo……! In 1974 Ford did the unthinkable and ruined the Mustang model by making the unlamented Mustang II based on the Pinto platform and coming with an anemic 4-cylinder engine as standard (something like 85 or 89 horsepower). In 1979 the Mustang was back to its normal self, this time in Ford’s “Fox” platform and once again was not an embarrassment to drive. Since then, all sorts of high performance Mustangs have been produced, some costing many thousands of dollars. (Many, many, thousands.) This author’s wife had a 1968 Mustang convertible with a 302 cubic inch V-8, and later got a brand new 1985 4-cylinder model in bright red! Whether you buy a Mustang to dust off your buddies’ slow poke jalopies or just cruise to the local grocery store, you still feel like you are on the back of a free-range wild pony just waiting to gallop off into the sunset, leaving a bewildered memory and a cloud of dust for the unfortunates standing on the ground watching. Oh, and Mustang was the name of possibly the greatest fighter plane of all time! (Note: The Mercury Cougar, yet another critter named car, was the Mercury version of the Mustang until the Cougar later became a sister car to the Ford Thunderbird. Oh, and Thunderbird can almost be considered a critter name, once again, mythical.)
7. Ford Falcon.
In spite of the bird of prey name, the Falcon was not meant to be a ferocious and fast machine swooping down on unsuspecting commuters to be passed as if they were standing still. No, it was meant to be a “small” car, at least by the standards of the day when American Steel meant behemoths. Despite being marketed as a “compact” car, the Falcon, 1959 to 1970, was a 6 passenger family car with bench seats front and rear. Whether you got yours as a 2-door, 4-door, wagon or convertible, the only “cool” version was the small pick-up truck made-from-a-car model. The original idea must have been pretty good, as the initial model year was a big success. Ford tried to profit from the success of the Falcon name by also naming their passenger versions of their Van the Falcon. Ford also used the nameplate for cars produced in several foreign countries, not for the American market. The Falcon was discontinued after 1970 and replaced by the initially quite successful Ford Maverick (another horse named car). In fact, Ford has been incredibly successful over the years with introducing new nameplates, with models such as the Falcon, Mustang, Pinto, Maverick, Fairmont and Taurus taking the market by storm when introduced. (Explorer as well.) The Falcon bird the cars were named after are a family of Raptors that are particularly fantastic fliers, fast and highly maneuverable. Plus, they are the prettiest of the Raptors (according to moi). Even though the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 were far in the future when the Falcon was introduced, part of the idea behind the car was as an “import fighter” to defeat those pesky foreign cars that got better gas mileage than American whales. Thus, the standard straight 6-cylinder engines were labeled “Mileage Maker” by Ford, and the 2nd generation (1963-1965) Falcons were equipped with “Thriftpower” engines! Starting with the 2nd generation you could order your Falcon with a small V-8. While we did not have EPA MPG ratings back then, owners report about 14.5 mpg for the 1960 Ford Falcon, which in those days was great mileage!
8. Studebaker-Packard Hawk.
From the company that brought us idiotic names for cars such as Dictator, Conestoga, Light Four and Garford, came the surprisingly good model name, Hawk. Dreamed up in 1955, the Hawk became the niftier sounding Sky Hawk (later Buick used this name), Golden Hawk, Silver Hawk, Flight Hawk, Power Hawk and even Gran Turismo Hawk, with the last of the Hawk named cars being built in 1964. (Studebaker also built another bird named model, the Lark, from 1959 to 1966, but that name just does not grab us…) The Hawk family of birds are large raptors with keen eyesight and are powerful flyers, fearlessly diving down on their prey and killing it. The name evokes the feeling of power and speed, with a certain level of lethality to bolster the driver’s ego and self-image. Studebaker merged with Packard in 1956 and the 1958 Hawk was branded as a Packard. Studebaker’s financial woes were worse than Packard knew when the companies merged and dragged the merged company down into car making oblivion by 1966. Studebaker was a brand built in South Bend, Indiana and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Packard was Detroit based before the merger.
9. AMC Eagle.
Produced from 1979 (as a 1980 model) until 1987, the Eagle was based on the AMC Concord compact car and was when introduced the ONLY American made all wheel drive car. (Times have changed!) Buyers could order a 2-door, 4-door or station wagon style Eagle, with a variety of engine choices, including an AMC built 4-cylinder, a GM “Iron Duke” 4-cylinder, an AMC I-6, or even an Italian made I-6 turbo diesel! (By VM Motori.) In 1981 a smaller version was also offered with the Eagle name. When Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, the Eagle nameplate was transferred to a different brand of front wheel drive car entirely, not to be confused with this original AMC Eagle. The AMC Eagle was a decent looking car, with a jacked up ride height that let the observer know this was a special vehicle, not just a grocery grabbing econo-box. In 1988 the Eagle became the “Eagle Wagon” and was offered as a station wagon only. The Eagle is a majestic bird, so much so that many nations use a variety of Eagle as their national symbol. The American Bald Eagle is particularly striking in appearance. Eagles are the largest of the predatory raptors, powerful and masters of all they behold, a fitting name for a car made by a company with “American” in its title.
10. Volkswagen Beetle.
When we set out to list only 10 critter named cars, we knew we would have to omit lots of cool names, such as Tiger, Wildcat, Bobcat, Lynx, Stingray, Rabbit, Ram, Puma, Fox, Robin, Sable, Spider and on and on, but to round out our list we have to include the critter named car that outsold ALL the critter named cars, the lowly but beloved Beetle. Although there is nothing particularly exciting or attractive about the insect group known as beetles, (ok, some are pretty bizarre), the VW “Bug” does resemble something that scurries around on the floor when you turn the lights on. From 1938 to 2003 over 21 million of these econo-cars were built. The name, Volkswagen, roughly means “people’s car” in German, and Germany is where they came from, although many countries eventually had factories producing the ubiquitous autos. The original Beetle was powered by an air-cooled 25 horsepower engine and was designed for a top speed of 62 mph, but that was probably only attained going downhill. The Beetle was also by far the most successful rear-engine car, though the final models later incorporated front wheel drive and front mounted water cooled engines. Germans called the car Käfer, which of course means “Beetle.” What started out as The People’s Car became The Hippie’s Car and for many American kids, their first car.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite car or truck named after a critter? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Adler, Dennis. The Art of the Automobile: The 100 Greatest Cars. William Morrow, 2000.
Heptinstall, Simon. Cars: A Complete History. Thunder Bay Press, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a Chevrolet factory photograph of a 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1924 and 1977 without a copyright notice. See Commons:Hirtle chart for further explanation.