History, Miscellaneous, Technology

Gentlemen, Start Your Bloomin’ Engines!

Well, here we are just a few days from the start of this year’s Indianapolis 500, and the delivery of the famous exhortation to begin. From 1977 to 2017, the phrase was amended to include “Ladies” as well, if there was one or more competing. Such a rational response in this day and age that it almost boggles the mind. However, in 2017 political correctness and inclusivity caught up with Indy, and the phrase is now an anodyne “Drivers, start your engines!” I have no idea what they’ll do when the first self-driving car muscles itself into the pole position. No doubt their highly-paid consultants and lawyers will think of something.

But since it seems that the actual wording of the phrase is fluid and can be altered at will, and because this is May:

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!–Thomas Dekker, 1572-1632

I thought I’d add my own variation to it and see if I can squeeze a little something about flowers into what might otherwise turn into a (very short, although I did take a Powder Puff Mechanics course in high school, many decades ago) disquisition on the internal combustion engine.

“And . . . She’s Off!”  Whoops. That’s horse racing. Apologies for the mixed metaphor already.

Shortly after Mum and Dad got married, they bought their first car. It must have been 1951 or so, and they had purchased, for £1,800, the freehold to a little cottage on the grounds of what used to be the stately home of the Pakington family, Westwood House. (At one time, it was the gardener’s cottage, right next door to the dairyman’s cottage). They held onto it all their lives, through all their peripatations around the globe, and in the face of various offers to buy the place, and the advice of numerous family members to sell it. As it turned out, real estate prices in the UK being what they are, the investment paid a handsome return when the family eventually did put it on the market in 2009.

My parents kept this car until 1963, so I remember it well from our trips back to the UK when Dad was “on leave” from the Colonial Service. It was utterly undistinguished, even in its color, which was more-or-less battleship grey, and I remember it being hard to start, and cantankerous (I suppose some of that may have had to do with the 12-18 months at a time it “sat” in the garage at Westwood waiting for our next ascent from the tropics. So perhaps not entirely its fault.

It was a Triumph Mayflower, and I see now that it was quite “posh” for its time, although it didn’t seem particularly special to me. It looks as though a lot of thought was put into its stylish exterior, with a view to establishing itself as the poor man’s Rolls or Bentley. (Uncle Bert had a Bentley. Lovely car. Uncle Barry had a Sunbeam Alpine. And we had . . . a Mayflower.)

Regardless, (or irregardless, as the case may be) of the care put into its design, and the clever engineering that gave it a top speed of 62.9mph (0-50 in 26.6 seconds), it seems the Mayflower failed to impress. Not many were sold at its list price of £500, and it was off the market the year before I was born.

I haven’t thought about the Mayflower for years, and I don’t know what brought it to mind (it’s not as if I can’t think of other things to write about, trust me on that). But the other day a memory of it popped, not all that welcome, into my head, and I began to wonder what other cars have been named for flowers, and how successful they were. Here is the result of my research–a short list (form following function, because it seems the list is short):

The Daf Daffodil–It should surprise no-one that an automobile company from the Netherlands named a car after a Spring flowering bulb. But I was mildly surprised as to which one it chose. (I guess the manufacturer, DAF, used it as a play on its name, which, after all, might have been TUL, but wasn’t.). It was manufactured and sold from 1961-1967, and although Wikipedia states that “the Daffodil name worked well in some markets,” in Germany it was called the DAF 750 and the DAF 30. By 1963 its name had been changed to DAF 31 and DAF 32, to be followed, not long after by (pay close attention, there’s a quiz later), the DAF 33. So, not all that popular then.

Its performance was even worse than the Mayflower’s with a top speed of 65mph, and acceleration from 0-50 in 29 seconds, and its only claim to fame seems to be that it was the first car with a continuously variable transmission system. The description on the Wikipedia page is actually quite interesting, and was clearly innovative for the time. My favorite part is that early models allowed the technology to work fully both in both forward and reverse, so that the top speed could be achieved going backwards as well as forwards. For some reason (which I can perhaps imagine), subsequent models locked the transmission down at a lower speed in reverse, which was probably a lot safer, but can’t have been nearly as much fun to drive.

The Nissan Laurel–This car was hugely popular in Japan, going through eight generations of production between 1968 and 2002, and although it was occasionally marketed outside the country, the name was usually changed when it was. (It made an appearance as the Datsun Laurel in Chile and Panama in the late 70s, and as the Laurel Altima in the Bahamas. That model never made it to the States, although the Altima name ultimately did.) Along the way, Nissan introduced an electric version in 1974; it was not a success, and it was twenty-five years before Nissan would attempt manufacture of another electric vehicle.

The Mitsubishi Rosa–This Japanese minibus has been manufactured since 1960, and production shows no sign of slowing down. It comes in three body lengths, and can accommodate between sixteen and thirty-three passengers. It’s a big seller in Japan, Asia, the Middle East (where it’s manufactured in Egypt), and South America, but has not cracked the US or European Markets.

There are a couple of honorable mentions on my list, the Nissan Leaf, and the seemingly-ageless Toyota Corolla, but a leaf isn’t really a bloom, and a corolla is only part of a flower, so we’ll leave it at that, and move onto the last one, in which the flower name is actually that of the car company, but is often used interchangeably for the cars.

No one knows exactly why Lotus Engineering Ltd, known today as Lotus Cars, chose the name. Like many idiosyncratic companies, formed for idiosyncratic reasons by idiosyncratic individuals, the reason has been lost in the mists of time, and a mythology has grown up around it. Some think Hazel Chapman, the widow of one of the founders, might know, but if she does, she’s not telling. Theories abound–it was named for the fruit described in the Odyssey, the consumption of which rendered the eater dreamy and lazy and removed from the world. Or, perhaps it was named for the beautiful flower, symbolic in Buddhism and Hinduism. Maybe it’s a reversal of “Us Lot,” supposedly one of Colin Chapman’s favorite phrases (this isn’t as bonkers as it might sound. “You lot,” is a pretty common British expression, a bit like “y’all,” only perhaps more dismissive, and often shouted, as in “Oy, you lot! What the hell are you doing?” Perhaps “Us Lot” was something of a cognate for Chapman). However, a book about Honda’s Formula one Grand Prix activities tells the following story, which does seem to line up with the “lotus blossom” theory:

It was summer of 1963 when Honda was looking for a partner in Europe to join F1 Grand Prix Circus as an engine supplier in the 1964 season. Then Team Manager Yoshio Nakamura was visiting Cooper, Brabham and Lotus to talk about a possible partnership. After Nakamura has gone back to Japan, Colin Chapman visited Honda in Tokyo and agreed to use the Honda engine for his team’s second car next year.

After discussing the plan, Nakamura invited Chapman to a night club for a drink, where Chapman explained why he had named his cars “Lotus.” He said he was interested in Asian Philosophy when he was in college and knew Lotus flower is a symbol for Nirvana in Buddhism. (A statue of Buddha usually sits on a Lotus flower.)

But the truth is, no-one (except perhaps Hazel Chapman) really knows.

Be that as it may, Lotus’s current racing models include the Elise (top speed 140mph and 0-60 in 3.9 seconds) and the Evora (the fastest model of which tops out at 174mph, 0-60 in 3.6 seconds). In addition to its racing models, the engineering side of the Lotus house has worked with numerous other automobile manufacturers in specialty areas: Aston Martin DB9 chassis, Chevrolet Corvettes, The Delorean, and several models by Kia, Jaguar, Hyundai, and Toyota. (You might be driving a vehicle designed with some Lotus input, and not even know it).

That just about wraps up my short list of cars with flower names. Do you know of any more? Have I missed any?

I can’t but think that floral names really don’t work for cars. Maybe it’s a guy thing. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of square pegs and round holes–flower names just don’t seem right somehow, they don’t seem to “fit,” and they don’t seem to market all that well, at least in the West. The best known of the four listed above may not be named for the flower after all, and there’s nothing in the logo or the marketing that plays on its horticultural potential.

Or, perhaps they’re just doing it wrong. Perhaps I could do better. Let’s see . . . what about the Buick Bat Plant? The Chevrolet Corpse Flower? The Suzuki Skunk Cabbage? I think I may have found my new calling!

Of the cars described above (the real ones), only one, unsurprisingly, has won the Indianapolis 500, and that not since 1965. “Team Lotus” has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the company, and hasn’t raced since 2015.

For those of you who are interested, the green flag drops on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 12:45PM Eastern this coming Sunday, May 26. As far as I can see, there isn’t a single “flower car” in the starting lineup. Sigh.

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