From Plymouth’s not-so-legendary version of the Suburban to a look at the “original” Mustang (not by Ford)…Readers so much enjoyed Glenn Arlt’s look back at his favorite “reused” old model car names that we decided to ask Hagerty’s favorite historian to give us a few more. Read on.
Originally manufactured by Ford of Britain, the Zephyr (1952-1972) never actually made it into American production. But the word used to describe a “soft gentle breeze” was already familiar in the lexicon of locomotion, thanks to the Pioneer Zephyr—a Denver-to-Chicago diesel streamliner passenger train built by the Budd Company in 1934. History has it that company owner, Ralph Budd, was looking for the perfect “Z” name to symbolize the notion that his train be “the last word in passenger service”. One can only guess, but perhaps Ford automakers here at home tapped into that logic when naming the original Lincoln Zephyr (1936-1942) and, later, the Mercury Zephyr (1978-1983).
Here’s a curious and little-known tale for anyone who thinks they know everything about the iconic Ford Mustang (1964 ½ to present): Ford’s version wasn’t actually the first automotive incarnation that used the name. That honor goes to a Roy C. McCarty, a Seattle-based Lincoln service manager who in 1948—and despite no prior car manufacturing experience—convinced 200 dealers in Washington, Idaho and Oregon to underwrite production of a strange looking, rear-engine “streamliner” he called “Mustang.”
Depending on the source, McCarty had anywhere from one to 12 prototypes built. Only one is known to still exist. Automotive historians who consider McCarty an automotive visionary insist that his whale-shaped brainchild was essentially the first “mini-van.” But jut like another famous automotive visionary—Preston Tucker—production of McCarty’s Mustang was ultimately stalled by a government investigation of his financing. McCarty was ultimately found innocent of all wrongdoing, but the legal fight left him broke and ultimately stalled any dreams he had of bringing “Mustang” to the car buying masses.
Today, when you think of cavernous SUVs, the Chevrolet Suburban (1935-present) is the first that comes to mind. But over a half century ago, the name was something of a generic term in in auto-making circle, a name used to describe an everyday car used by millions of American families for most of the twentieth century.
Most early “suburbans” were stations wagons, and no less than five automakers used the name (some of them concurrently) during the 1940s and ’50s. After the GMC Suburban (1937-present), came the Plymouth Suburban (1950-1962, 1968-1978 (Sub-series 1950-1955 and 1971-1978, series 1956-1962 and 1968-1970) and, finally, the Dodge Suburban (1954-1958)
Honors for the coolest “suburban” of the era is a tossup when you remember that both Nash and DeSoto offered their own distinct versions. The “woody” four-door Nash Ambassador Suburban (1946-1947) is a sedan coveted by many modern collectors. The DeSoto Suburban (1946-1952) was an extended length nine-passenger sedan that many will remember as the first family car shown in the popular and long-running television series, Happy Days.
Car companies battling each other in court for dominion over trademarked brand names is nothing new. But a car company being sued by an aircraft manufacturer!?
Back in 1955, the release of the Packard Clipper Constellation resulted in some ringing phones at the law offices of Lockheed Corporation attorneys. The problem, according to a few Lockheed executives, Packard was clearly infringing on the name of their Lockheed Constellation aircraft that saw service in military and civilian circles since 1943.
Lockheed Aircraft eventually sued Packard over the matter. But the case was ultimately thrown out when Packard’s lawyers produced a joint color magazine advertisement previously done by Packard and Lockheed, showing the aircraft and the car sharing the same name. Clearly, some Lockheed execs were left out of the loop on that one. Ultimately, the four-prop Constellation ended up as obsolete in as the Packard did. Both ended production of their respective Constellations (along with every other model, in the case of Packard) in 1958.
Studebaker Wagonaire (1963-1966) and Jeep Wagoneer (1963-1991). Granted, they aren’t exactly the same name, but they are extremely similar—for a reason. Both Studebaker and Kaiser-Jeep (as the Jeep company was once known) employed famed industrial designer Brooks Stevens when concepting and, presumably, naming the vehicles. The design similarities of the two vehicles are pretty clear in early models and, especially, in the “faces” of the 1966 Wagoneer and 1966 Wagonaire.
When Lincoln released the Premiere (1956-1960), the company opted to go with the French spelling of the word in what some historians believe was an obvious bid to make the massive, clearly American “land-yachts” seem more exotic. This is slightly ironic when you remember how the French manufacturer Renault (then part owner of American Motors) planned to debut their version of a car called a Premier in 1986. But after Chrysler’s sudden purchase of AMC (and Jeep) that same year, the company hurriedly rebadged the vehicle as the “Eagle Premier” (1987-1992)—a change that happened so quickly that a few early production model Eagle Premiers actually made it out got out into the real world with Renault diamond symbols on the steering wheels.
The original fastback Dodge Charger (1966-1978, 1981-1987, 2006 to present) was a bid to capture a sporty-car market, in a similar way as the Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda and long forgotten Rambler Marlin. When Chrysler’s mid-sized fastback failed to excite the buying public, they went back to the drawing board and produced the second generation Charger (introduced for 1968 and made famous as the “General Lee” in the long-running Dukes of Hazzard television program), which was more of a muscle car.
Australian carmakers were looking to emulate the success of Dodge. But owing to their much smaller manufacturing ability and buying market, our friends Down Under were forced to do a downsized version. All things considered, the Australian Chrysler Valiant Charger (1971-1978) was a formidable car. A lot of Aussies loved it, for good reason: while it definitely lacked the power of a Dodge, it definitely looked like a Charger on the outside.
The oil embargo of the early 1970s explains the return of the Charger name on a very small, 4-cylinder, front wheel drive fastback 2+2 for the 1981 model-year in North America. Like the Mustang many decades before, the car was based on the bones of a humble economy car (the Dodge Omni). This car, available with a turbocharged engine and even sold in “Shelby” form, proved successful.
Some 20 years after these “tiny Chargers” came the family-sized, four-door version. Powered by an optional Hemi V8, the new Canadian-built Charger had plenty of old school style and rear-wheel-drive-handling muscle. Props to Chrysler for being able to change with the times and continually recycle a name that evokes sportiness and performance, no matter the continent. It’s one of the few recycled car names that has done well in every generational incarnation.
The release of the Dodge Matador (1960) was met with so little enthusiasm, the car didn’t return for a sophomore season. AMC did slightly better (though not by much) with their version found on American roads from 1974 to 1978. Built of AMC’s Ambassador platform, the Matador became AMC’s largest automobile. It was a popular police vehicle for a time and was featured in many television shows and more than a few movies during the 1970s.