Automobiles

Ranger, Bronco, Blazer and Supra prove old names are the new hotness

Automakers are reviving long-dormant names in droves, including the LA Auto Show's Jeep Gladiator and Honda Passport. But why?

Chevrolet

Ford Ranger and Bronco. Chevy Blazer. Toyota Supra. When it comes to new model names, golden oldies are proving what's old is new again. After years of obsessing over developing new nameplates and fumbling around with alphanumeric designations, automakers are giving in to unbridled nostalgia. 

Even lesser-known appellations are being exhumed and given a second chance. At this week's Los Angeles Auto Show, Jeep will renew its Gladiator moniker for its long-awaited Wrangler-based pickup, and a new Honda SUV will dust off the Passport appellation. Jeep hasn't used the Gladiator name since the company's J-Series pickups changed names after 1971. "Passport" was a more memorable name than the short-lived, badge-engineered Isuzu SUV that wore it in the mid-'90s. 

Jeep hasn't used the Gladiator nameplate since the early '70s.

Jeep Gladiator Forum

So what's driving car companies to look in their rearview mirror for historic names like this?

Here at Roadshow -- and seemingly across much of the auto media community -- these old names have resulted in web traffic bonanzas. There's a lot of search engine value built up around powerful, decades-old names like Ranger and Supra. The internet seems positively hungry for the stuff. That high level of digital traffic, of course, points to strong consumer awareness and interest, and automakers are avid consumers of such data.

But it's a lot more than that.

Cost and timing

Establishing a new car name in the eyes of consumers is very expensive. According to Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at auto advisory firm Navigant Research, "There is indeed a significant marketing cost associated with establishing a new brand [name] ... the common rule of thumb is indeed in the $100-to-$200M range." 

In other words, if you're an automaker, it can make a lot of sense to capitalize on whatever latent awareness and goodwill you have stored up in old model designations, because it will likely save tens of millions of dollars -- if not more.

The industry's retro naming shift may also be a question of timing. As Ed Kim, vice president, industry analysis for industry research firm AutoPacific, noted in an email to Roadshow, "Many of the revived nameplates date back to the '80s and '90s, a time where many of today's older Millennials and Generation Xers spent their formative years. Names like Blazer, Supra or Bronco bring back all kinds of memories (look at the Radwood phenomenon), and now many of these older Millennials and Generation Xers are at a life stage where they can afford new vehicles." 

Alphanumeric soup

For well over a decade, the auto industry had been trending toward alphanumeric or two-or-three-letter naming structures that echo those made popular by luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Marques like Acura and Lincoln made expensive wholesale changes to their naming hierarchy based upon that underlying strategy, only to struggle for consumer mindshare. Part of the reasoning behind the industry's shift to alphanumerics was that such names tend to be easier to trademark, and international models are less likely to run into problematic translations in various languages. 

There has also been the argument that alphanumeric names sounded more upscale and modern. But David Placek, founder and creative director of Lexicon Branding, the naming firm that helped create car names like Honda Ridgeline, Subaru Outback and Lucid Motors, doesn't buy that argument. "There's the false assumption that those [alphanumerics] create a contemporary feeling, appeal or imagery that appeals to younger audiences. The research we've done has not found that at all."

"There's no chance of building a brand with a two or three letter name. Not in a two- or three- or five-year period. If your numbering system is forgettable, you're going to lose in the marketplace," he told Roadshow via phone. 

For a time, Navigator was the only Lincoln model without an alphanumeric name. Not anymore.

Lincoln

Perhaps some automakers are learning Placek's lesson too late: Lincoln, notably, appears to be moving back to conventional names, albeit new ones. For a time, the brand's best-known model was the only one without an alphanumeric name: Navigator. For its part, Land Rover recently dumped its 'LR' scheme in favor of returning to legendary family names like Discovery

Abuelsamid concurs: "I think the single biggest factor here [in recirculating retro names] is a move away from alphanumeric nameplates, at least by some brands ... it has actually proven difficult to come up with [alphanumeric] nomenclature that was more meaningful than confusing."

AutoPacific's Kim thinks this naming trend is the right move for the industry. "Our research has shown consistently that a good name is more effective and emotionally engaging than alphanumerics... as long as the name in question is a good one. It was baffling when Lincoln and Cadillac, for example, went alphanumeric when both brands have an extensive back catalog of wonderful names."

Word of caution

Is there a danger in taking old names and applying them to new and sometimes very different models? While the Ford Ranger appears to be a somewhat larger but straight-ahead thematic update of the small pickup truck that last roamed Blue Oval showrooms in 2012, others seem to be taking a bigger risk: 

Take the Chevy Blazer, for instance. The all-new 2019 model is clearly a unibody-based crossover that looks very different from the truck-based SUV that last graced Bowtie showrooms in the mid-2000s. There's not an inch of retro Blazer flavor to its bodywork -- if anything, it's heavily Camaro influenced.

2005 Nissan Pathfinder

Back in the mid-2000s, Nissan's Pathfinder was still a rugged body-on-frame SUV.

Nissan


Nissan made this same car-like leap with its Pathfinder previously -- what was once a rugged, utilitarian ladder-frame pickup-based SUV has since morphed into a softer, almost minivan-like three-row family crossover. Ford made a similar but less radical transition with its Explorer even earlier. 

Both the Nissan and Ford have enjoyed relatively successful transitions to today's station-wagon-like crossover genre, but they did have to weather some consumer criticism in the process. Judging by early Blazer enthusiast forum chatter, Chevy may be in line for the same sort of reception. 

Perhaps most radically, Mitsubishi rankled self-anointed purists and the Internet commentariat when it chose to recycle the Eclipse name on its newest crossover, putting a more SUV-like spin on the end, calling the model Eclipse Cross

"Carmakers do need to take care with how they use old brands, though. Familiarity can both help and hurt," argues Abuelsamid. "Eclipse Cross is a good example of using a nameplate that hasn't been out of use that long for a completely different kind of vehicle. People that know Eclipse, know what it is supposed to be, a sports coupe, something the new vehicle most definitely is not." 

It's early in the 2018 Eclipse Cross' life, but through October, Mitsubishi has only sold around 6,700 units since January -- far fewer sales than the company's aging Outlander and Outlander Sport SUV lines.

Other possibilities

Today's auto marketplace offers more choice than ever, with car companies establishing niches within niches looking to fill every bit of model "white space." Not only is there a need for more names, there's a greater need for names which resonate. "Consumer loyalty is declining -- not because people are disloyal, but because we have so many more choices and more information," notes Lexicon's Placek.

"I think in some situations, let's look at the trend of SUVs [that are] growing in popularity ... I think there are brands like Bronco that fit into what people are looking for. There's an emotional value to that [name], an associative value, a 'Western' [value]," said Placek. Certainly, a nostalgia-soaked name like Bronco is more intrinsically evocative than a serial-number-like alphanumeric designation.

It's also true that today's car market is changing far more radically than it has in many decades. The industry's march toward electric cars -- and eventually self-driven ones -- makes this a singularly exciting time in the business. However, it's also possible that some shoppers are at risk of feeling alienated by the pace of this transformation. Although there's not yet research to support this, reviving a familiar name could help engender consumer warmth.

2016 Dodge Dart

Dodge's Dart only lasted a few years before motoring into the sunset. Bad car, problematic name, or both?

Dodge

That said, while speaking of the short-lived Dodge Dart, Placek expressed the need for particular caution when exhuming a dormant nameplate and applying it to a new or very different kind of vehicle (as would necessarily be the case with an electric or autonomous model). "My advice to any manufacturer would be to make sure that before they make that decision, is to do some research with consumers and draw some continuums about not just how reliable those [old] cars were, but also how innovative and trustworthy and iconic they were. That would allow them to make that leap into the future [branding]," he said.

In the end, this retro naming trend may just be a natural next step, given what's going on in America's wider culture. As AutoPacific's Kim notes, "Nostalgia is all the rage, both within and outside of automotive. Think of the countless reboots of old movies and TV shows. Nostalgia consistently sells, so the retail universe loves it."