TCS Daily

Get Behind the Wheel of a Dictator!

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - February 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Yes, it was once possible to get behind the wheel of a Dictator -- a Studebaker Dictator. That's what the car was called, believe it or not, and it sold pretty well. More about that shortly. This all came to mind as I was reading over the names of the new cars introduced or specially touted at the auto shows in Detroit and Los Angeles in recent weeks.

There were a lot of the familiar names, of course -- Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo, Ford Mustang and Explorer, Volkswagen Jetta, Dodge Magnum, to name a few.

But there were new names, too, some edgy, some cryptic, some bewildering. I'm still coming to grips with the Chevrolet Avalanche, so I'm not sure what to make of the new Pontiac Torrent. I'm just thankful for the GM public relations guys that they didn't name it the Tsunami. That's not much of a stretch; Jeep is displaying a show vehicle called Hurricane.

Then there's the Ford SynUS, which looks a lot like a miniature Brinks armored truck. The name, despite the capitalization of the last two letters, still conjures for me some new medication for post-nasal drip. But then, it was Ford that brought us a small car called the Probe.

Kia has a new car called the Mesa. Mercury has one called Meta. Then there is the Infiniti Kuraza and the Nissan Azeal and the GMC Graphyte. Perhaps the closest to a more traditional sounding name is the exciting Jeep Gladiator pickup truck.

Many of the show car names continue the recent trend of crypto-techno numerology, with a smattering of letters and a continued obeisance to the mystic power of "X." In the Detroit show we have the Lexus LF-A, the Acura RD-X, the Suzuki Concept X, the Mazda MX, the Toyota FDSX, and, nudging close to X, the Cadillac STS-V.

What's in a Name?

The idea of giving cars model names beyond the brand name really began to take hold in the industry about 70 years ago. Up until that time, although there were notable exceptions, cars were usually designated by model numbers (Buick model 50, Locomobile Model 48), letters (Ford Model-T being the most famous example) or generic model names (sedan, club coupe, touring sedan etc.). Some were known primarily by their engines, like the storied Packard Twin Six, the Hudson Big Six or Super Six, and the Ford V-8.

Some of the exceptions were cars that quickly built legends around their names. The Stutz Bearcat is perhaps the best known. Others were the Jordan Playboy, a car whose aura long outlived it, and the very rare Pierce Silver Arrow, one of the earliest American streamlined cars.

Another popular way of differentiating models within brands was the use of "quality level" designations like standard, deluxe, special deluxe, super deluxe and custom, to name the most common ones.

But in the 1930s, as the American auto industry pushed its way out of the Great Depression, the idea of evocative names for various models began to catch on. Chevrolet was one of the first to try this by meandering through an exercise in stodgy history and civics searching for an identity. In 1930, it was the Chevrolet Universal. In 1931 it was the Independence (a typical model that year was an "Independence 5-passenger Special Sedan").

In 1932 Chevrolets became Confederates. I'm not kidding. The whole Chevy model line consisted of cars like the "Confederate Deluxe Sport Roadster" or "Confederate Deluxe Landau Phaeton." It's not clear whether or not this designation helped sales in the south, but the next year all Chevys became Eagles or, believe it or not, Mercurys (Ford had not yet pinned down that name).

This name game ended in 1934, when Chevrolets became either Standards or Masters. Soon it was felt that Standard sounded, well, too standard, so the Chevy line consisted of Masters and Master Deluxes. In 1940, at the higher end of the Chevy line, the Special Deluxe came into being. Ford answered Chevy by calling its top line cars Super Deluxe.

In the early '30s Chrysler dubbed most of its cars Model "70" or "77" or "New Eight," but it called its top line cars Imperials. In 1933 it added Royal to the line, then Airflow and Airstream (read about the innovative but ill-fated Airflows in an earlier TCS article "Ahead of the Curve"). Eventually there came the New Yorker, Saratoga, Windsor, and in1941, the famed Town & Country. All the names aimed at a certain upper crust aura for the cars.

But it was Buick that really established the name trend with the wholesale redubbing of its models beginning with the 1936s. That year its model lines -- previously designated as Series 40, 50, 60 and 90 -- became the Buick Special, Century, Roadmaster and Limited. These names, with an added one, Super, would serve Buick into the 1950s and some would be reintroduced in later years.

Studebaker Nomenclature

As interesting as Chevrolet's brief romance with the Confederacy was Studebaker's experience with model nomenclature. The President of Studebaker in the 1920s was a man named Albert Russell Erskine, who had started out as an accountant with the venerable old firm (a wagon maker long before cars came into being). In the late '20s, he named a car after himself. But the Erskine did not sell well. Even today it has a sort of Edsel sound to it. Then he named a car the Rockne, after fabled Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, one of the most famous men in the country at the time. Like the Erskine, it was underpowered, indifferently built, and lasted only a couple years with dismal sales.

By this time, Studebaker models were designated as Commanders, Presidents and, yes it's true, Dictators. The company had chosen the name well before the advent of a certain Adolf Hitler in Germany, and although Benito Mussolini had established himself as dictator of the new Italian "Corporate State" in 1925, the world was still not quite sure what to make of Il Duce.

Then, too, Studebaker did place both its President and Commander lines above the Dictator models, thus giving the nod to the superiority of democracy. The Presidents and Commanders were eight-cylinder cars, the Dictators, sixes.

But the Dictators were pretty good cars and they sold well for Studebaker, far outdistancing the Presidents. Even after Hitler came to power in 1933 the name persisted and flourished (by Depression sales standards). In 1936 more than 50,000 Dictators were sold. For under $800 you could get behind the wheel of a big brand new Dictator St. Regis Cruising Sedan.

In 1937 more than 90,000 Studebaker Dictators were sold, but by this time, as Hitler loomed ever larger on the world stage, whatever imagined cachet the name might have held was fading fast. Dictators disappeared from the 1938 Studebaker line, as the company introduced a new Raymond Loewy-designed body in the teeth of a recession. Dictators were replaced by State Commanders.

One of the other model names from the 1930s that always struck me as odd was the Hudson Big Boy. Big Boy! Since I am inevitably influenced by that fat kid in the checkered pants holding up the hamburger, I'm not sure what the name was intended to conjure in the late '30s when it was introduced. Hudson's line then was an interesting oddment -- Deluxe, Pacemaker (that wouldn't work today) and Country Club. And there among them was this big six-cylinder "commercial" sedan (and a pickup) called the Big Boy.

Ah, well, no time to go into all the nomenclature of the flamboyant fifties, when even stodgy Dodge came out with models like the Custom Royal Lancer Hardtop Coupe, and Buick had its Century Caballero Station Wagon. Studebaker, long past the age of Dictators and in fact on its agonizing way out of the car business, came up with a car called the Scotsman, a dreary, barebones, uncarpeted, unsoundproofed exercise in miserly minimalism that appealed to a handful of economy-minded buyers. In one way it was a forerunner of today's cars. Its bumpers were painted instead of chromed.

I'll just close by noting that some names -- Cadillac Eldorado, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette -- achieved immediate and lasting places in our automotive hearts because the cars themselves were great. And in that connection, it still bothers me that Acura, which now calls its cars by uninspiring techno names like 3.2TL and 3.5RL, has abandoned one of the best names ever -- of the car that really started the small luxury sedan craze, the Legend. There's a name that begs to be revived.


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