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The MGB Is One Of The Only Examples Of This Automotive Linguistic Fluke

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The way cars get named has its own subtle but powerful set of rules — rules that, like all good rules, are cruel and unforgiving and arbitrary. Mark Aronoff’s 1981 MIT Press paper Automobile Semantics defines the fundamentals, essentially breaking down rules that we’re all inherently aware of, which is why what I want to discuss with you now is so interesting and important. The MGB is the car I want to talk about, and, if you haven’t thought about it before, the name of that car is about as weird as three letters can be. Let’s look into why.

First, let’s use Aronoff’s paper to help us define how car names usually work, semantically:

The name specifies one or more of the following categories: year, make, line, model, and body type. When designating a car fully, all of these categories are specified in the order given:

(4) 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu sedan year make line model body type

Less specific designations can be made by using fewer than all five categories, again in the fixed order:

(5) Chevrolet sedan

Chevrolet Malibu

1972 Chevelle

As far as I can tell, all categories are optional, and the only restriction is that the year cannot stand alone: (6) Q: What kind of car do you drive? A: A Chevrolet; a Chevelle; a Malibu; a sedan; ??a 1972

This restriction is pragmatic; it can be traced to the fact that simply giving the model year of the car is not informative enough. We can therefore give the following phrase structure rule for American car names:

(7) car name -* (year) (make) (line) (model) (body type)

So, we all instinctively know this: It would sound weird if I told you that I still had the Beetle 1973 Volkswagen I’ve had since I was 18, for example, even though all of those words are the ones you expect. The order is important, as are the essential categories, and these are never deviated from.

Well, almost never. Sometimes, car names can eliminate the model category, but this really only works if the car company only has one self-named model. Think of the Gordon-Keeble (a fantastic British muscle car of which only 90 were made), or the LaForza, the strangely plain-looking Italian SUV sold in low numbers in the early 1990s (though that car outside of the US was called the Rayton-Fissore Magnum).

Also note that I called it the LaForza, because cars get an article when you’re talking about a specific model but no article when talking about the company. LaForza built and sold the LaForza. See?

Another example of this is how the Volkswagen Beetle (it gets the article because I’m talking about the specific model, see) was just referred to as “the Volkswagen” in many early reviews in America, especially before VW sold anything else. Here’s an example from a 1953 Mechanix Illustrated:

Sure, VW had the Bus since 1950, but it was still pretty unknown in America, so everyone just called it “the Volkswagen,” combining model name and manufacturer.

Carmakers have tried this self-naming gambit a few times since; recently, we have the Ferarri LaFerrari, which is pretty damn close to a double name, but not quite, and not quite as close as Chrysler of Australia, who sold a car they called the Chrysler by Chrysler:

Interestingly, this naming weirdness can’t function on its own, as it needs the preposition “by” to work at all. Chrysler couldn’t bring themselves call it the Chrysler Chrysler, because there are still some rules, dammit.

I don’t get the reasoning why a car maker would pick the Same Name by Same Name construction. Maybe they long for the simplicity of one of those one-car lineups? I don’t know.

Anyway, I bring up all of this as just to help get us all immersed in the framework of automotive nomenclature so you can appreciate the well-known example that breaks the rules: the MGB.

Well, really, the whole line of the letter-based MG names: MGA, MGB, MGC, and MGF. These are strange car names because they combine the company and model into one name, and even if some places may show these as an MG MGB, for example, that’s only so they can fit the name in some database or whatever, because nobody ever calls these cars an MG MGB or MG MGA or whatever. It doesn’t happen.

To make this more baffling, other letter-named MGs don’t fall in this same category, like the MG TD or TF. See? I called it a TF — no MG — because that’s somehow okay, maybe because these cars also had, at one point, the additional model name of Midget:

Also, they called it the “Series TF,” for example. MG did a lot of strange things with names.

Still, I’d never call an MGA an A, for example, unless it was in some really, really specific context where MGBs and MGAs and whatever had been discussed immediately before, or something like that. Otherwise, no MGA person says they drive an “A.”

A further example: Look at the MGB/GT, the hatchback coupé variant of the MGB roadster. The company and model are still combined in MGB, but then there’s a slash and the “GT” part. Again, we still have company name and model blended in an unholy fashion.

 

The only other car that comes close to flaunting automotive naming conventions like this might be the Jensen-Healey, but even then it’s not quite the same. Yes, Jensen-Healey is a model name that is sort of combined with its manufacturer name, as Jensen is the company and Jensen-Healey was the car, but the car was a special partnership between Jensen and Donald Healey (not Austin, sorry)— this is unlike MG, who was just doing that crazy shit on its own.

I’m not exactly sure what I’m hoping you’ll take away from this other than a bit of strange admiration for MG, the only carmaker that really managed to pull off a direct subversion of automotive naming conventions and just, somehow, get away with it.

Good job, MG. Way to keep it weird.

 

(thanks to the Bishop!) 

 

 

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71 Responses

  1. Eh, each designation is a subset of the previous one, and narrows the possibility. The year obviously includes many marques. If your marque is “MG”, calling model B “MGB” works, linguistically. If your marque name is clunkier/longer, not so much (“Chevroletchevelle” does not roll off the tongue). Though if the model name is sufficiently unique (e.g. “Pinto” or “Mustang” or even “Chevelle”), you may be able to drop the marque name and everyone will still understand. This does not work well for models whose name is some random combination of letters/numbers unless the context makes it clear (is a “404” a Peugeot, a Boeing, or an Internet error?) .

    1. “This does not work well for models whose name is some random combination of letters/numbers unless the context makes it clear”

      Absolutely true, even when the audience knows you’re referring to a car. My Volvo 240s were always “my 244” or “my 245” ’cause “sedan” or “wagon” only rules out the Nissans, not the Benzes, and calling my old 740 wagon a “745” didn’t do much to reduce confusion with old big Bimmers.

      My Yaris, refreshingly, is just a Yaris.

  2. Ah, Chrysler’s Chrysler by Chrysler. I’ll always have a soft spot for it, not least because it was built in my home town, but telling your audience that “this one costs more because we paid attention while building it” was, just as with Daimler’s Double Six, not something that made a prospective buyer confident about either it or the car it was based on.

  3. 1) this article is confusing, and
    2) I have an MG, and
    3) I haven’t been drinking.

    4) in groups of “old car people,” it is quite common to hear “is that your A?” “Did you see the chrome bumper B?”

    5) in groups of non car people, nobody really knows what an MGA or an MGB is. Sometimes a B will trigger a “I used to have one” or “my dad/uncle/cousin had one”. 99 out of 100 times mine triggers “what is that?” And I’ve learned to just say “MG.” Sometimes that triggers an MGB association but most times it’s just “oh cool”

    6) props to the neighbor who thought I had a classic Ferrari. Why should I disabuse someone of that notion?

    7). What was this article about?

    1. Yes to all of this!

      And add in that MG people call the late ones an RBB (Rubber Bumper B for the non-MG people).

      Should we also talk about the fact that the late 70’s MGB’s have a HP rating of 62.5? Yes, that half HP was thrown in the rating!

      I swear when non car people ask me what kind of car I have, MG or MGB means nothing to them. But it always gets compliments (probably because it’s small and bright red). Little do they know how cheap they are or that I’m rocking 62.5 HP under the hood. But they are fun horses…even that strange 1/2 a horse.

  4. Hey I Already have the repair manual I don’t need 1t pages. Just because you have unlimited space doesn’t mean you should copy and paste the entire history of cars. I bet you couldn’t pass a test on what your article actually says.

    1. Had a 1971… I referred to it as a Morris Garages MGB. (Problem solved.) From the MG Wiki:
      MG cars had their roots in a 1920s sales promotion sideline of Morris Garages, a retail sales and service centre in Oxford belonging to William Morris. The business’s manager, Cecil Kimber, modified standard production Morris Oxfords and added MG Super Sports to the plate at the nose of the car. A separate M.G. Car Company Limited was incorporated in July 1930. It remained Morris’s personal property until 1 July 1935, when he sold it to his holding company, Morris Motors Limited.

    1. That’s because essentially Mazda does the same thing MG did and just rams the model name into the back of the company name. Mazda2, Mazda3, Mazda6, and Mazda5 were all the same idea. Nobody says “yeah, I drive a 3,” unless of course you’re already on the subject of Mazdas.

      1. I think naming it Mazda6 (etc) was an effort to generate brand recognition for Mazda. A result of having mostly forgettable non-names here its entire history, based on numbers nobody associates with the brand like they do “Civic” with Honda, for example.

        Case in point, what is the most recognizable Mazda? Miata. Even when they officially changed it to “MX-5”, nobody calls it that. It’s the Miata.

  5. I owned an MGB back in the day. That little bastard had the worst personality, and I miss it terribly.

    It’s personality defects were probably a direct result of being made fun of by cars with normal names.

    1. I have one right now, a ’69 that hadn’t run since 1983 when I bought it. It has stranded me, temporarily at least, over 10 times. The ignition system and the stupid Lucas connectors have so many problems. It is a nightmare and never runs right for more than a week, but its so much fun when its working right.

    2. I had a friend who restored a MGB back in the 80’s (it’s always fun to talk about someone restoring a car that was only a few years old!). That persnickety thing drove him crazy. It was the ultimate object of frustration. One day some older ‘nice guy’ offered to buy it from him. He thought the guy was making a bad emotional decision and refused the offer. He tried to talk the ‘naive’ buyer out of it explaining what a handful the car was. The offer increased until he could not refuse. The guy who bought it was indeed a bit of a nostalgic type, so for a while he kept sending letters and pictures from his adventures with the car. Always running fine and up to the task.

      My buddy still refers to the MGB as a two timing bitch.

          1. I believe “an” is correct in this case because the a/an thing isn’t based on the first letter, it’s based on the first sound. Since Emm starts with an E you use “an”. Unless there’s a proununciation of MGB that I’m not aware of.

            Source: Am grammar nazi 😉

  6. One trip to pretty much anywhere in Asia will wipe your mind clean of any worries about model names. Relax.

    *Actually, I think Relax might be a trim level, not a model name. Or maybe it’s a manufacturer, or a dealer…aw screw it.

    *Wait, Screw It is definitely a trim level…

    1. Came here to say this. The Mazda6 would never be called the Mazda but, weirdly, it was never common to call it the 6. I don’t know whether it’s more impressive that they tried it or that it actually became accepted.

      Also, is the Mexican market Chevrolet Chevy any better or worse than the American market Chevrolet Chevy II or Chevrolet Chevette?

  7. I’d argue Mazda gets pretty close with their current numerical passenger cars- most systems list my car as a “Mazda Mazda2,” and I don’t think most people would know what I drove if I said I owned a 2 or 3 or 6 or whatever.

    1. My ex owned a Renault Le Car. I owned a Renault 5 Renault 5GTL if you want to be fussy). Funny the difference stickers and a badge make….

      Actually, I owned THREE Renault 5s (Fives?). You can think what you wish about that.

  8. I’ll chime in with a personal annoyance that is near and dear to my heart.

    The Nissan S-Chassis cars, though known by several wistful names in their home market and a few others (“Silvia”, “Gazelle”), have almost always used a very specific naming convention in North America and Europe, starting with the very first 200SX in 1976. Simply put, the name was based on the engine displacement, BMW-style. A 200SX used a 2.0L engine. In the case of that first S10-series 200SX, an L20B.

    For the next generation, the S110-series, the 200SX moniker was kept, which was appropriate in 1980-81 when the car used the 2.0L Z20E engine. The system started to break down in 1982, when displacement was increased to 2.2L without a name change. Sort of understandable, since little else changed that year and you don’t just throw away a model name that’s got some recognition.

    With the 1984 model year, the S12-series 200SX was introduced. The base model cars fit their name, using a 2.0L CA20E, but the turbo models used a 1.8L version of the same motor, and by rights should have been called 180SX (as their later descendants in Japan would be). By the same token, if Nissan stuck to their naming convention, the 1987-88 200SX SE V6 would have been named 300SX.

    With the advent of the S13 in 1989, Nissan restored balance to the American sector of the S-chassis universe and dubbed the car 240SX in America, where a 2.4L engine was used. European versions were badged 200SX whether they used 1.8L or 2.0L powerplants, and the JDM 180SX used a name-appropriate 1.8L motor.

    So Nissan continued the tradition of playing fast and loose with S-chassis naming conventions, then in 1995 they threw the entire idea of consistency into the dumpster and slapped a 200SX badge on the 2-door variant of the B14 Sentra in North America, most of which used 1.6L engines. Only the SE-R even had the correct displacement for its name, but still the wrong platform.

    1. Agreed! Always liked when the number in the name signaled the engine, like a Mazda B4000 has a 4.0L and an Infiniti J30 has a 3.0L engine.

      Now, almost none make any sense whatsoever. Infiniti and Lexus lost theirs, even Mazda’s overseas truck didn’t keep the faith.

  9. I am pretty good at holding the rictus smile whenever someone mentions that their old boyfriend/weird uncle/classmate/whatever “used to have one of those MGB Midgets. Do they still make those? You never see them any more.”

    1. LOL, that’s why I like the Austin Healey cousin, the Sprite. Then it’s all about the MK, unless you’re talking the MK I, then it’s a Bugeye or Frogeye, depending on the side of the pond you’re on.

      Of course the Midget/Sprite cousins are sometimes lovingly known as Spridgets. Or maybe that’s unlovingly…

      (Mainly I’m replying to see if my reply gets posted—I was never able to “get out of the grays” over on the founders of this site’s previous employer.)

  10. There is a thing I NEED you to look into. Why do automotive marketing types sometimes refer to a model name without ‘the’ in front of it? They will say some dumb shit like “We’re really excited about Mustang”. It should be ‘the Mustang’.

  11. Lead pict, same as my 67 B. Dad bought is 68, daily drove it until 81, gave it to me. I rebuilt the engine/trans, put in electronic ignition and re-upholstered it. Drunk driver rear ended me and totaled it in 83. Been looking for a low cost replacement the past few years. The prices on BaT are outrageous. BTW they have a JDM MG RV8 up right now. This is a really rare MG too, too bad about the mods.

  12. Just one more thought: Jeep its own naming weirdness in various forms:

    e.g.,
    1947-49 Jeepster (that’s it for the name) was weird 4wd car like thing based (CJ’s) on military jeep for the masses.
    It was made by Willys-Overland but later owned by Jeep, AMC, Chrysler, Daimler and on and on.

  13. “ The only other car that comes close to flaunting automotive naming conventions like this might be the Jensen-Healey…”

    Not flaunt. It’s flout, man – FLOUT!!!

    [flounces off]

  14. Pontiac was pretty bad with its 1000s series names in the 80’s.

    I was selling Pontiacs back then and I had a woman come in and wanted to drive a Pontiac GOOOLE (she pronounced it GOOOO LEEEEE). I nicely told her we had no such model, but she adamantly told me that she saw the label on the back of the car, and spelled it out for me.

    I looked across the showroom, and sure enough, there was a Pontiac 6000LE. Pontiac’s techno font back then made it look like G000LE.

    1. I’ve heard of kids calling them that.

      I always thought they should have named it Catalina, so each version of that car would start with a C: Catalina, Century, Cutlass Ciera and Celebrity. The 6000 was the only one that broke it up.

      The 6000 was probably my favorite behind the Cutlass Ciera. Never liked the Century or Celeb.

  15. “the only restriction is that the year cannot stand alone”

    I learned while I worked at AutoZone. When a guy slurps up his chew spit to tell you he’s got a ’97. It’s almost certainly a Chevrolet K1500 with a 350.

  16. Good piece. Semi-relatedly a pet hate of mine is when car/bike/bicycle makers drop the definite article when talking about their hot new product. E.g. “Mustang is an expression of raw power” as opposed to “the Mustang is…”. So pretentious!

    Btw, editor’s pedantry: “flouting” not “flaunting”.

    Keep up the good work, the new site is great.

  17. MG got here to Mexico about a year and half ago, and the brand is suddenly reborn and a success due to the fact that they are one of the very few brands with actual units available. So here is the lineup: MG ZS (compact SUV, got one for my wife), MG HS (bigger but compact sporty SUV), MG RX8 (big 3 row 4wd SUV; no Mazda RX8 got sold here ever). Here comes the good: the base sedan and cheapest vehicle es called “MG MG5”, and the newer sporty sedan just arrived and it’s called “MG GT”. So yep, they continue to bend the rules as they like haha.

    This aside, yes they are Chinese products? Yet the offer great price, guarantee, and service. So up until now I’m happy with the purchase. And of all the Chinese brands that are being sold in Mexico, I think design wise MGs are the best looking -not Chinese proportions- of the bunch!

    1. Relaunched MG are doing really well here in Australia too. Of all the Chinese manufacturers we’ve seen come and go, I think MG actually has a good chance of sticking around. My mate has the MG ZS EV (which just happens to be the cheapest new electric car in Australia). The build quality seems on par with other contemporary cars and he loves it.

  18. How about the DeLorean? Or is that too much a quasi-massed produced curiosity that doesn’t fit here?

    And for kinda a stretch…pre-internet era, and I suspect in the states only, Rolls Royce?

    If you saw one, talked about one, or somebody you knew actually owned one, it was always just “Rolls Royce” never “it’s a Rolls Royce Silver Spur” (at least not at first in the conversation).

    B/c of their rarity and associations, just calling whatever model a Rolls Royce was enough, or at least signaled everything someone needed to know.

    1. I believe that was the mistaken thought behind Lincoln going MK- everything a few years ago. They wanted people to refer to all of them as simply a Lincoln, so the model name was reduced to letters. At first, it was to represent “Mark”. So, Mark-Zee instead if EmmKayZeee. But, that sounds too much like a model name, so it went to EmmKayZee.

      By the time they figured out it was a huge fuck up, they’d bout lost any brand equity they had. To be fair, they’ve clawed some back with far better interior and exterior designs, and going with actual names. I’d still love to see a big RWD coupe based on CD6, but I don’t see it happening.

  19. There is an ongoing argument among GT owners as to whether it’s “MGB GT” or “MG BGT” or all run together as “MGBGT.” I don’t like that last one because my mind tries to pronounce it, and “magibbgit” just doesn’t roll off the tongue. (I don’t think anyone has included the slash since about 1968.)

    You can see who prefers what when you look at the entry placards at the All-British Field Meet every year. There’s a spot for make, model, and style. I settled on Make: MG, Model: B and Style: GT years ago, so it all lays out nicely on the card. Otherwise you get weirdness like “MG MGB GT GT.”

    The Triumph folks don’t know how lucky they are to avoid all this rigamarole.

    1. >>>There is an ongoing argument among GT owners as to whether it’s “MGB GT” or “MG BGT” or all run together as “MGBGT.”

      As a former owner of one of these cars, I can tell you that the answer (or my answer at least), was frequently “BGT”.

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