Shortly before April Fools’ Day, Volkswagen announced that it was changing the name of its electric car division to “Voltswagen.” It didn’t, but that started me thinking about unusual names to come from the world’s automakers, so let’s take a look at some of the more interesting make and model names, beginning with some from General Motors.

Ten years after its 1953 introduction, Chevy’s fiberglass sports car the Corvette, which was named after a type of ship, also acquired the name of a fish. The car was called the Sting Ray from 1963 through 1967. After taking a year off, the name would reappear on the fenders of the 1969 model, but this time as a single word: Stingray. This time the curvy car’s fishy name would endure for another eight years before going away again only to reappear on the Corvette’s base model (along with a chrome “Stingray” emblem) beginning in 2014.

In the late 1950s, Chevrolet introduced the El Camino, which some people said was a car and others insisted was a truck (I contend that it was a car because it’s always been a modified station wagon). The other challenge with Chevy’s car/truck was that no one knew what “El Camino” meant unless they spoke Spanish (it translates to “the way” or “the road”).

Also around that time, Chevrolet introduced the Corvair, a car that Chevy hoped would prove sporty and economical enough to compete with VW’s Beetle (a name bestowed upon it by The New York Times in 1938) and British sports cars of the day.

The Corvair would soon be done in by its poor initial performance and Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” leaving people precious little time to wonder where the car’s name came from. Most experts say that it was a mash-up of “Corvette” and “Bel Air,” because of its sportiness and full-size roominess, while others say the name was supposed to have been “Corsair,” after the fighter plane, but was misspelled. I contend the car’s name came about because of its air-cooled, rear-mounted engine.

For 1967, Chevy finally came up with its answer to Ford’s groundbreaking Mustang. During much of its development period, GM’s new pony car had gone by the code name “Panther” before someone (or more likely a committee of someones) decided to call the thing the Camaro. “But what is a Camaro?” people asked. At first Chevy played it straight, saying the name was a French word meaning “little friend.” The suits in marketing quickly countered, declaring that a Camaro was “a small animal that eats Mustangs.” (Presumably just the Ford ones.)

The new Camaro shared its underpinnings with the ’68 Chevy Nova, which General Motors considered such a star that most of its other divisions would end up producing clones of it. Oldsmobile called its copy the Omega, while Pontiac and Buick named their versions Ventura and Apollo, respectively. It’s easy to recall all the model names by remembering that the first letters in the names of the four corporate cousins spell “NOVA.”

Next week we’ll finish our look at some unusual American car names and then move on to some interesting auto monikers from overseas.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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