Naming In The News

Motorcycle Names Aren't Just Alphabet Soup

Evoking the open road in three syllables or less

By Paul Duchene
Special to the Tribune
Published April 30, 2006

Names are one of the most evocative aspects of motorcycling. They are the starting point for every 6-year-old's dream.

If the 6-year-old was in the U.S. in 1911, he might have admired an orange Flying Merkel Vtwin. If he was in England in 1930, it could have been a Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sport. By 1960, it would have been a BSA Gold Star cafe racer and in 1969, Peter Fonda on Capt. America, the classic Harley chopper. By 1985, it would have been a Suzuki GSX-R750 or a Yamaha V-Max.

Today, any number of bikes would capture a young boy's–or girl's–fancy.

And despite the seemingly confusing jumble of letters and numbers and monikers, there is a rhyme and reason to motorcycle names. Just about every motorcycle racetrack has a bike named for it: Triumph Bonneville, Daytona and Thruxton; Ducati Montjuich; and Moto Guzzi Le Mans, among them.

Others are more ethereal.

Jon Row, press manager at American Honda says the RC 51 V-twin sportbike was named by a designer who just liked the sound of it.

"The average American dictionary has 80,000 words and in any given year, there will be 240,000--280,000 trademark applications," says William Lozito, a founder of Strategic Name Development, a naming company in Minneapolis.

Clearly, names are in short supply, unless you can find one in a different field, so there won't be any confusion. Honda's Row says for a long time, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office has utilized product categories, to keep things simple for consumers.

"You can have an Interceptor stereo, carrot juice and motorcycle and the likelihood of confusion is minimal. But car and bike confusion has to be avoided," he says.

Row recalls that when the Honda introduced the V-4 Interceptor in 1983, the name had been used by a snowmobile company that had since stopped production. The only current user was a bicycle maker in New York City, with whom they reached agreement.

Another solution is to go alpha-numeric with letters and numbers. With "26 letters and three or four integers and you can see the possibilities," Row says.

Some companies snatch foreign names. Suzuki's Katana is named for a sword; the Hayabusa is a hawk that dives at 186 M.P.H., about as fast as the bike. There are pitfalls in foreign names, however. Nighthawk and Caliente are slang for streetwalkers--in Japan and France, respectively.

Some companies simple invent words: Yamaha's iconic V-Max, Harley-Davidson's V-Rod and Suzuki's V-Storm.

"The advent of computers created a whole range of new names," says Row, who remembers what he calls his Rand McNally system, where he'd combine good words in different order, like a city-to-city chart.

Then it gets down to the nitty-gritty with all cycle manufacturers. Lozito calls it "brand architecture," or grouping motorcycles in different categories with prefixes.

Take Honda. Gold Wing is synonymous with luxury touring and a perfect example of name branding, dating 30 years. The Hawk is also a longstanding Honda name from the 1960s.

Off-road, the CR prefix indicates a lightweight motocross bike, XR a dirt bike and XL a streetlegal dual-sport. On the street, CB means city bike, the suffix R is replica and RR is race replica. VF signifies V-four as in the VFR800. ST means sport touring as in ST1300.

Among the Honda V-twin cruisers, the Shadow range has several styles with names such as Sabre, Spirit and Aero. VLX means a luxury cruiser, and VTX stands is V-Twin Extreme. The last letter of the model name--a VTX1800R, for example--describes the style. R is retro, S is classic, F is sport cruiser, C is performance.

BMW has four basic classes: F, H, K and R. The F650 series encompasses three, single-cylinder dual-sport bikes, the H is a twin-cylinder version. The K series are 4-cylinder bikes, which include the GT (sport touring), LT (touring), R (naked) and S (sport). The R series is the biggest group: the horizontally opposed twin "boxer" with naked, sport, dual-sport and sport-touring versions.

Yamaha has expanded its heavyweight V-twin Star range to 14 models. Royal Stars, Stratoliners, Roadliners, Road Stars and V-Stars offer different styles and levels of equipment.

Super Sport Yamahas have been prefixed YZF since 1994, but are mostly known by their last initials: R1 or R6 (1,000-cc or 600-cc). The FZ1 and FZ6 are less extreme. YZ signifies barebones motocross bikes and an F suffix--YZ450F, for example means it has a four-stroke engine. WR and TT models are more moderate off-roaders.

"We try to give cruisers a name as opposed to number because the customer wants a personal connection," said Derek Brooks, Yamaha's product planning manager. "We come up with 30 or 40 ideas, get them down to 15 or 20 then start searching trademarks and that's where the fun begins."

Brooks recalls that the YZ dirt bike prefix came into use "because they were the last two letters in the alphabet--literally the last word."

V-Max was condensed from "Velocity Maximum" and Virago, dates to 1981, is a case of how a name sounds, rather than what it means (a quarrelsome woman), Brooks said.

Harley has four basic lines, the V-Rod, Dyna, Softtail and Touring but there are many subsets, says Bob Klein, manager of corporate communications.

"The Sportster is our oldest line and goes back to 1957--the V-Rod is the newest and that comes from our signature V and hot rod or street rod heritage," he says.

The Sportster has four models of 883-ccs including the Low, Custom and Racing styles. There are four Dyna: Super Glide, Super Glide Custom, Street Bob and Low Rider. The Softails are Night Train, Springer, Deuce and Fat Boy, the VRSC models are V-Rod, Night Rod and Street Rod and the Touring bikes are Road King, Road Glide and Street Glide.

Klein explains the alphabet soup on each name.

"The sportster family was given the letter X to identify them--so XLCH, XLCR and so on. The FL letters apply to the touring bikes and go back to the Electraglide in 1965. The FX models appeared in 1971 with the Superglide; they had the forks of a Sportster and the back of a Touring."

With Softails, FX means cruiser and FL is touring. So an FLSTF would be a Softail touring with the last F meaning Fatboy. An FXSTD would be a Softail Deuce cruiser. "If there's an `I' it means injection," he says.

At Kawasaki, the Vulcan series features bikes from 500- to 2000-cc, with a Nomad tourer and Mean Streak, Drifter and Classic cruisers. The Ninja sportbike name survives, still with a ZX prefix, which dates to the Z1 of 1973. ZZs are sport touring. KLR means dual-sport, KLX is offroad and KX is bare-bones motocross.

Suzuki has combined all its cruisers under the Boulevard label with styling and equipment variations. The Hayabusa and Katana sportbikes are Japanese Kanji names and the V-Strom is a big dual sport with a V-twin engine and the "strom" from maelstrom.

The GSX-R (which could mean Grand Sport Extreme-Racing, though it's not defined as such) is turning 20. The SV650 (Sport V-twin) range is expanding to a V-Strom and a naked street bike.

Ducati continues to name its bikes for engine displacement. So the 999 is 999-ccs, R is racing and S is sports. The Multistrada (many roads) is a big dual sport, and the Monster is a barebones streetfighter. The suffixes S and ST followed by number 2, 3 or 4 indicate the number of valves per cylinder.

If you're numbed, here's a bright moment in conclusion. Left in the dust of motorcycle history was an eccentric Japanese-American corporation based in Athena, Ore. The company was Hodaka; it sold dirt bikes from 1963 to 1978. Who can forget their Super Rat, Dirt Squirt, Road Toad and Combat Wombat?