Kathleen Murphy column: What’s in a car name? – Duluth Newsstand
Several decades ago, I bought my first car. It was a light purple station wagon – I don’t remember the make or model – and I thought it was unbearably cute. I pretended to have an idea of what the middle-aged chain smoker was talking about as she told me about the car’s maintenance history, but the truth is, I couldn’t get past the kindness. The $600 was as good as spent.
“Her name is Fiona,” the woman told me as I was about to leave. I had never heard anyone name their car before. I have to admit that I thought she was weird.
She was also dishonest, as the car’s engine blew up beyond repair two weeks later. The mechanic listed a litany of problems the car had, ending with, “Looks like you’ve been taken for a ride, sweetie.” Then he charged me $115.
I now have an innate distrust of chain smokers and strangers who call me “honey,” but I also got into the habit of naming my cars. The next car I bought (with the help of a friend who figured out the difference between a carburetor and an alternator) was called ‘Bertha’, which a month later turned into ‘Banged -up Bertha” when a newly licensed 16-year-old ran a red light and smashed through the driver’s side door.
I didn’t have the money to fix it, nor the experience to tell me how to navigate my car insurance, so the knocked-in door stayed kicked-in for the years I owned the car.
I also named each car Bertha’s name, but none came to mind until years later when I found myself transporting five children, their friends and the occasional pet. breeding. There was a lot to haul for a van, so I bought a white 15-passenger van instead – the kind churches use to pick up worshippers.
It was a terribly unsexy vehicle, but the first three letters of the license plate said “BMW”, so when people asked me what kind of car I drove, I always answered: “a Beemer”.
My family owned two matching black Volvo station wagons named Morticia and Gomez. My son drives a car named Higgens after the immortal Rex – a rusty bunch of Corolla that ran on a song and a prayer for six years – finally bit the dust. Another son drives a car called Tic Tac.
Why does my family love naming their cars so much? They are just machines, after all. Tools that get us from point A to point B. Our phones are arguably used more, but you rarely hear a person name their phone (although if I did, I’d call mine Sir Dialalot).
Our phones may be with us all the time, but our cars transport us to and from important life milestones. When we were teenagers, they represented freedom. As young adults, our car was probably our first major purchase – and our first taste of responsibility. We drove cars to our first day of college, our weddings, and to the hospital for the birth of our first child. Maybe our cars helped us escape a bad situation. Our cars are intimately linked to major events in our lives.
Of course, our cars also help us with the little things. Things of life. They take us to work, to school, to our doctor’s appointments. They kick in (usually) on cold winter mornings and provide a warm, familiar seat between the important places we need to be. This seat can be a respite, a place for quiet reflection and meditation, or it can be a place to blast your favorite 1980s headband so you don’t have to think at all. They make us live our day, every day, without complaining.
Well, generally without complaint. Since growing up in Duluth in the 1980s – a time when cars arguably had more personality and quirks than they do today – I’ve had to follow an elaborate and incredibly detailed ritual to get the old My parents’ 1979 Impala on cold winter days. She was temperamental, sarcastic and hard to please.
I called it “the boat” before realizing I was naming my cars, and spent many cold February mornings painstakingly going through its sadistic and complex demands while mumbling “Come on, fuck boat. Start”, then having to go through an entirely different ritual at each stop sign when she tried to take advantage of idling to crumble again.
Now I wish she had a name. She deserved one.
So go ahead and name your car. You might find that your car develops a whole new personality.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. You can reach her at