Here’s something that divides opinion. Do you name your car? Would you buy a car that someone else had named, to the extent of painting that name on the bonnet? For me, it’s a firm ‘no’ in both cases. But then I don’t hold with calling cars ‘she’ either. I even struggle to do that with boats, where it’s been the accepted norm for centuries. But they’re objects, not living things, and we are not French.
I can think of cars we’ve had in the family that were called something other than ‘the car’ or ‘the Volvo’ or ‘that bloody Alfa’. But it’s always been related to the registration plate. For instance, a car known as Woff had WOF as the first three letters of its plate, and a car known as Oddball had ODD as the first three. Just occasionally we’ve gone further, with a vast, dark-blue, long-wheelbase Mercedes S-class christened The Whale by my kids for obvious reasons, and because it’s quicker to say than The Mercedes.
The problem, for me at least, comes when you make that leap to giving it a proper boy’s name or a girl’s name. It seems to happen with cars that provoke an emotional response in the way kittens or rescue dogs do. Small things like Minis, Minors, 2CVs, Austin Sevens and Nissan Figaros. It also occurs with very old things, like Austin Sevens (again) and other pre-war cars, perhaps more often at the accessible end of the market. You are more likely to find a Bullnose Morris called Evelyn or Bertie than you are a Hispano-Suiza.
And that’s another symptom…the names seem to be age appropriate, as though the owner were casting their own role-play episode of Downton Abbey. A pretty little MG PA Midget might be called Gloria or Cissie, while a sturdy Austin 12/4 saloon would be Archibald or Neville. You never see a Riley Monaco called Darren.
The usual appearance is one of these period-specific handles painted in curly script (it’s always old handwriting, never Courier Bold) on the side of the bonnet. And that really puzzles me…if you want to call your car Miss Haversham, then go for it. Refer to it by name when you speak or write about it. But why paint it on there? Do you paint ‘Dodger’ onto your dog, or tattoo ‘Smudge’ into your cat’s ear? With a yacht or a ship it’s pretty much compulsory; the name forms part of the vessel’s identity in law. But nowhere on your Wolseley’s V5C does it say ‘Basil’.
Buying a car with a name painted on it would make me feel uncomfortable. I would wish to paint over it, but that would feel strange, partly from a superstitious sense akin to re-naming a boat and partly because you’d be removing some of the car’s history acquired during previous ownership, possibly decades old. Rather silly history, but part of its story nonetheless.
I’d feel much less bad doing it on a younger car. Peeling off self-adhesive Comic Sans lettering from a BMW MINI or an MX-5 to stop it being known as Pixie or Zippy is an act of kindness and nothing else.
And yet I have to finish this with a confession – I did indeed own a car with a name, and it was my very first car. A 1975 Vauxhall Viva SL known as Theakston, after the brewery. I’m not convinced I’m the one who gave it the name; there were many beery friends who may have suggested it. And it was only known by its name some of the time and with certain people. Otherwise it was just called The Viva or occasionally The Sex Leopard, from our presumption of what Vauxhall intended the SL to stand for.
And I never, ever painted its name on the bonnet.