Nameplate Prostitution

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “heritage” as 1. Property that is or can be inherited; an inheritance. 2. Something that is passed down from preceding generations; a tradition. 3. The status of a person acquired through birth; a birthright.

Heritage is a big deal in the automotive world, yet none of these definitions really hits the mark (or marque, as the case may be) so I’ll define automotive “heritage” this way: history that was/is made while pursuing a specific objective, and then remaining true to that pursuit through current and subsequent generations of production and/or competition. In other words, after the original goal was (or was not) achieved, the company remains faithful to the spirit of what they originally intended/accomplished.

These days numerous marques dip into their heritage by naming current cars after icons from their history. When this happens, I always want to compare the new car to the model they are referencing to see how true it is to what they originally made.

In other words, is using the nameplate authentic, or is it nameplate prostitution?

The Ferrari 250 Spyder California is an all time great of automotive history. Just 104 were made in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cars ever. Equally at home on the street or the track, the “Cal Spyder” may have represented late 1950s la dolce vita better than just about anything else. These reasons and more are why it’s one of the most sought after collector cars today.

When Ferrari launched their new California in 2008, the press material said, “While the Ferrari California is an extremely innovative car, its philosophy echoes the spirit and emotions of a great Ferrari of the past, the 250 California of 1957.” That statement threw down a serious gauntlet (especially by including the word “spirit”), so I went and got the exact car they spoke of (the prototype 250 Cal Spyder, the only Cal made in ‘57), and brought it and a new California together for a DNA comparison test, which was published in FORZA magazine.

Alfa Romeo's brilliant Giulietta brought 100 mph motoring to the masses in the mid-1950s. The Bertone coupe came first, followed by the just as luscious Pinin Farina Spyder several months later. What Alfa is calling a Giulietta today is NOT anything like this.

Alfa Romeo’s brilliant Giulietta brought 100 mph motoring to the masses in the mid-1950s. The Bertone coupe came first, followed by the just as luscious Pinin Farina Spyder several months later. What Alfa is calling a Giulietta today is NOT anything like this.

After spending several days with the two Ferraris, was there any truth to their declaration? As much as I hate to say it, the single word answer is “no.” In fact, if an automotive Geiger counter existed with a dial that had a “1” on the left side and a “10” on the right, and a current-day Mercedes SL is the “1” and the 250 California is the “10,” the new California registers right around 3, maybe a 4.

The real disappointment in this is the new California is absolutely brilliant, a great addition to Ferrari’s product line; it’s just not a Ferrari California by the standards Ferrari themselves set—back in the day and by their definition in the press material. Why they didn’t call it something else I still don’t understand and haven’t yet found out, especially when owners of the current car I spoke with say the “California” name didn’t have a single thing to do with their purchasing decision.

And the fact that Ferrari made their version of an “SL” isn’t troubling in the least. After all, that is basically what the other California in their past was (the 365), albeit an SL with four seats. It is too bad they didn’t reference that ultra-rare car (14 made) instead of the 250, for then they would have been true to their heritage.

If I am being hard on the boys in Maranello, it’s because Ferrari is close to my heart and I expect more, but they aren’t even in the ballpark for the name prostitution game crown. When Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta debuted in 1954, it was as earth shattering as Jaguar’s E-type was seven years later. Its beautiful fastback coupe design, sparkling road manners and an absolutely mesmerizing all-around personality caused Road & Track’s November 1954 report to lead off with this line: “The modern Juliet is a wench to win the heart of any motor-minded Romeo before she even gets out of second gear.”

Alfa came out with an equally brilliant sports sedan shortly after that (the Giulietta berlina), so what did Alfa do a year ago? They chose the iconic Giulietta moniker for its new amorphous blob of a shape that shares nothing in common with its namesakes except a manual transmission, four wheels, four-cylinder engine and a triangular grille. I’ll guarantee you won’t see an opening sentence like that R&T review in any new road test or video on the current version, for the car is far from icon status.

And here is the proof. This is a nice sporty compact from Alfa, but in no way is it a "true" Giulietta. The original was a ground-breaking car in terms of design, performance and cost; this is not.

And here is the proof. This is a nice sporty compact from Alfa, but in no way is it a “true” Giulietta. The original was a ground-breaking car in terms of design, performance and cost; this is not.

Amazingly, the Giulietta doesn’t take the “King of Heritage Prostitution” cake, for the crown goes to Lancia. At this year’s Geneva Motor Show they pulled two names from their past, Flavia and Thema, and pasted them on “new” models. Both offerings are realistically nothing more than current Chrysler products (the 200 and 300 respectively) with slight cosmetic modifications, so why not give them names that represent a new era beginning—the alliance between Chrysler and Fiat? Instead, there sits Lancia’s rapidly dwindling customer base, listening to the carnival barker tell them the noodle-armed 150-pound man standing next to him is the second coming of Mike Tyson.

Should Lancia and Alfa (let alone their overlords at Fiat) wonder why sales of these “new,” iconically named models aren’t taking off, next time, spend a week with the original before product development starts. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn—beginning with how the public is not as easily duped as you think.

I’d also suggest Lincoln and its overseers at Ford do the same thing. Until Lincoln gets its own, truly unique design language, and chassis or undercarriage components, its cars will only have slightly more authenticity than those “new” Lancias.

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