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Names Named – Designating a Motorcycle

What does the Z in Kawasaki’s ZX-10 mean? Did BMW want us to think of scarves or carving or carving scarves when it called the F650SC the Scarver? And what the hell was Kymco thinking when it unveiled the Grand Dink?

Motorcycles have almost since their beginning been labelled using alpha-numeric codes denoting their engine size and function, or named after powerful forces of nature. Less commonly, motorcycles have names bequeathed upon them by studious marketing gurus who have carefully layered meaning into every letter and sound. So why are most motorcycle names so forgettable?

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, according to marketing and business experts. The science of naming a product is crucial to planting it into the minds of potential customers. It makes sense, since humans are hard-wired to remember names and associate them with individuals. And inanimate objects, it turns out. A recent study by eBay found that 40% of Millennials give their cars human names, while other research has indicated people respond more favourably to products with names that suggest their function or what makes them better. Cognitive scientists tells us that acquiring language, and assigning proper names to things and people, was a key evolutionary advantage. We are Homo Nominatio … the naming man.

Motorcycle culture is, contrary to popular belief, extremely conservative, change-averse and self-absorbed. It follows that names within the culture and industry stick with the before-mentioned tried and true formula. But that’s a shame, because car culture and internet culture have radically changed the way brands and products are named. Consumer tastes have matured, and product names require sophistication to be memorable. Fitbit sounds fun, and suggests what it’s for. 300 XC-W does not.

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It’s a Numbers Game

There are all those endless numbers. Nominally denoting an engine displacement, the figures are, if anything, nothing more than suggestions. It follows that the number 500 is a lot cleaner and easier to remember than 471, which is the actual displacement of the Honda CB500F, for example. The nomenclature in motorcycles has preferred rounding up or down to the nearest 50cc for more than a century, mostly to make model-to-model comparisons easier. However, there have been exceptions, and there is a very real marketing value in doing so.

With the most iconic motorcycles, the precise displacement becomes synonymous with their identity. Think Ducati 851 or 916. Or KTM Duke 390. Even Honda has done it, with the 919 Hornet. If you remove those odd numbers, those models disappear from our consciousness. The specificity of the displacement becomes the key identifier of the bike, something unique in its DNA like a fingerprint.

The Japanese have always had a penchant for meaningless letter/number names, preferably using as many letters from the back of the alphabet as possible. The function of those letters was immaterial. Did an X serve as a prefix code denoting a certain technology or lineup? Not really. Sometimes, as in the R-series for Yamaha or Z prefix on Kawasaki sport models, a letter meant something. Other times it’s just a letter. A Yamaha YZ250 and YZR250 are wildly different machines with nothing in common other than displacement and brand, but to any observer they sound as though they ought to be related.

Other than being racing machines, the Yamaha YZR250 (left) and YZ250R (right) have nothing in common.
Other than being racing machines, the Yamaha YZR250 (left) and YZ250R (right) have nothing in common.

In Japan, model names are created like this: a man takes a Scrabble set, places the first and last five letters of the Roman alphabet into a cup, shakes, and spills them into a table. Then a small bird, usually a black-faced spoonbill specially trained by Shinto monks, randomly pecks at three or four characters. Those are carefully placed aside as the new model name.

Or maybe they just have a random name-generating algorithm. I honestly don’t know. But after working inside the Yamaha organization for many years, I can confirm that there is literally no style guide or even loose nomenclature associated with the brand. Names just happen, like clouds on a hot day.

When European brands name bikes, a little more thought goes into it. A BMW K-series is always a motorcycle with an inline engine. A K75 is an inline 750cc, while a K100 is obviously an inline 1000cc. But even Teutonic name logic falls off the rails from time to time. During the apogee of the K-series in the 1990s, the brand sold a K1 alongside the K100, which was confusingly also an inline 1000cc (the same engine, in fact). One presumes that BMW wanted to elevate the flagship model with the naming suffix of “1”, but it still didn’t make much sense. Other than the engine, the bikes were wildly different animals.

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Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

When it comes to proper names, the motor vehicle industry has not been particularly creative, leaning heavily on names of animals and natural phenomena analogous to power, speed and violence. Sometimes they are memorable, like Vincent’s Black Shadow, a name that evokes fear and mystery. Most of the time, it’s just juvenile. Hurricane, Ninja, Heroism, Cobra Racer, and Fireblade all sound cool if you are 13.

After every aggressive predator and natural disaster name was exhausted, the best the industry has done is to make things up, which is fine, but it has seldom led to good ends. What is one meant to imagine when introduced to the Versys or Dorsoduro? What precisely did Yamaha want consumers to conjure up in their minds when it presented the DragStar?

The Japanese are the worst at this. What with that country’s love/disgust with western culture, it is difficult to understand why Japanese brands continuously, hilariously, label the fruits of their considerable labours with truly appalling English names. Cringe-worthy examples are plentiful. In the car world there were gems like the Isuzu Light Dump and Honda Life Dunk. In motorcycling we got the Yamaha Thundercat and Thunderace, which sounded more like characters from a 1980s Bandai cartoon than flagship superbikes.

It is hard not to snigger, despite the technical and styling sophistication of the Kymco Grand Dink.
It is hard not to snigger, despite the technical and styling sophistication of the Kymco Grand Dink.

How can anyone at Suzuki Motor Corporation take themselves seriously after introducing to the market a sporty motorcycle called Goose? I was told by a Japanese former colleague of mine that it was named after Gooseneck Corner on the venerable Isle of Man TT course, but even if true that forgives nothing. A goose is a fat, waddling fowl that’s easy to catch, hardly a synonym for speed and grace in motion. Suzuki also sells an Intruder, Shooter and Young Star, which sound more like motivational words from an ISIS recruiting poster than names of desirable motorcycles.

The same man who illuminated me about the Goose also told me that the Yamaha RoadStar was actually a mistaken spelling of the word roadster. But the name stuck, and eventually evolved to justify the separate Star Motorcycles brand in the US market (created to separate the Japanese origins of Yamaha cruisers to US customers). The unfortunate DragStar was meant to hint at the macho pursuit of drag racing, but instead was mocked by the British press who took the name to mean something about men wearing dresses. The bike’s reputation never recovered.

Meaning in the face of Meaninglessness

Motorcycle names can be memorable and effective, like Ducati’s Monster, memorable because they just sound funny like Honda’s Scoopy, or they tend to be tedious, abstract designations. What is always the case is that motorcycle marketing departments and the people who own and ride bikes dive deep to reveal, or make up, layers of meaning in an attempt to add depth to the product.

Yamaha spent millions trying to persuade North Americans that Star Motorcycles was an authentic cruiser brand that spoke to its customers’ values. The word “star” was added as a suffix to action words like Venture and as a prefix to valorous nouns like Warrior. Advertising literature and pictures supported a narrative of friendly but rugged individuals experiencing motorcycling bliss in the sun-drenched American West, with chrome stars shining all over the place.

The Yamaha VX1300 Royal Star Venture... a compound name so prodigiously devoid of meaning that it must be the result of a random name generator.
The Yamaha VX1300 Royal Star Venture… a compound name so prodigiously devoid of meaning that it must be the result of a random name generator.

But it didn’t work, because definitions for the word “star” have literally nothing to do with motorcycle culture. The brand name was meaningless, and the compound word names created for the individual bikes were childish and absurd. No one unfamiliar with the products would ever connect Star Motorcycle with words like “cool”, “authentic” or “desirable”.

Star sold well because of another, completely different word association: Yamaha. Consumers looking at a Star Motorcycle in person saw the Yamaha name, a brand synonymous with performance and quality, and connected those positive values with the bike. The very name the company was trying to erase from the product was in fact the strongest selling feature.

Motorcycle names matter because, unlike most man-made things, motorcycles engender strong human emotions. We like to name things and creatures in a way that reminds us of what they are, and how they make us feel. Shouldn’t motorcycle names therefore, do the same?

3 thoughts on “Names Named – Designating a Motorcycle”

  1. Yamaha should be thankful for that misspelling. “roadster” conjures up all sorts of imagery, none of them motorcycles. Maybe they should start naming their bikes after sunspots.
    An informative read, I had no idea so much of this basically was done at random.

  2. Great read! I often wonder how much some of these names are lost in translation? (or cultural differences?)
    If a name here is odd, or boring, is it actual something cool the the country it originated in?

    For instance, if you translate thunderace back into Japanese, does it have a more culturally significant meaning? Like how hayabusa is a falcon that dive bombs and preys on blackbirds…

  3. Keeping track of Harley nomenclature and model designation is tedious at best.
    I expect at some point we’ll get a Deadbob Wankerglide Limited Edition FLXDOATCD…. 🙁

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