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What's in a trademark? Sometimes, the next iconic car name

Thu, 07 Aug 2014

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is a treasure trove for auto enthusiasts, especially those who double as conspiracy theorists.

Why has Toyota applied to trademark "Supra," the name of one of its legendary sports cars, even though it hasn't sold one in the United States in 16 years? Why would General Motors continue to register "Chevelle" long after one of the most famous American muscle cars hit the end of the road? And what could Chrysler possibly do with the rights to "313," the area code for Detroit?

There are a lot of possible answers to these questions, since automakers apply for trademarks for a variety of reasons. While a filing can be the first sign of a new model – or the return of an old favorite – moving to secure a trademark can just as easily be a smoke signal. Frequently, it's just a routine legal procedure to maintain rights to a famous name so it can be used on t-shirts and coffee mugs.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is a treasure trove for auto enthusiasts, especially those who double as conspiracy theorists. Though there's strong circumstantial evidence Toyota may in fact be working on a Supra-successor, for now the name is simply a filing that's weaving its way through the federal bureaucracy. Toyota has let the Supra trademark lapse in the past before reapplying for it. On the other hand, if anyone had been looking closely on May 27, 2010, they would have seen Toyota filed for the FR-S trademark. It meant nothing then, but four years later those three letters are the calling card for one of the purest driver's cars on the market.

Filing for a trademark can be a delicate maneuver. It's a public act, and the records are accessible to anyone. But, companies don't want to wait too long and risk losing a potential name. An early filing can give a firm a "priority date," which can be used as a defense should a mark be contested, said Christine Lofgren, Toyota's trademark lawyer.

Once a company gets rights to a mark, it then has to demonstrate use. That can be accomplished by actually building a car using the trademarked name, or at least using it on replacement parts. Even used cars can show use of a name. Automakers can also trademark a name specifically for use on clothing, accessories or toys.

"You just never know. At some point down the line you might want to keep a vehicle name in play." – Mike Palese

The process can take a while – spanning years – which is a reason companies will file for a mark, then file for extensions, and ultimately never actually register it. Chrysler filed a new application for Barracuda in January 2012, and more than a two-and-half years later, has filed four extensions to show use. In case you haven't noticed, there are no new Barracudas on the road.

"You just never know," Chrysler spokesman Mike Palese said. "At some point down the line you might want to keep a vehicle name in play."

Plus, it takes time and money to build fresh name recognition among consumers. Even cars like the Ford Taurus and Dodge Dart, which had mixed reputations at the end of their original lives, have made comebacks since their awareness levels were still so high among car buyers.

"One of the things that comes into play is the investment it takes to launch a new name," said Mike Michels, Toyota's vice president of product communications.

Eventually some trademarks lapse, which is usually an intentional maneuver when a company no longer needs them. The Electra, for example, was a large, well-appointed Buick built from 1959–1990, but apparently there won't be another one with that name: GM abandoned the mark on July 28. Remember the Furia concept from the 2013 Detroit Auto Show? It previewed the next-generation Corolla, though obviously Toyota wasn't about to ditch one of its most-recognized names, and the Furia name was officially back on the market as of July 14.

"You can't maintain it forever if you don't use it," Lofgren said.

Rapper Eminem's record label had filed an application for "8 Mile" weeks before Chrysler.

More intriguing, however, are names that might end up on future sheetmetal. Toyota filed for the RC 350 trademark for its upcoming sports coupe with a 3.5-liter V6 engine in 2012. Interestingly, Toyota has also applied for the RC 200t trademark, perhaps signaling a turbo variant could be in the works. And yes, paperwork to secure Supra was filed on February 10.

Beyond car names, Chrysler, which famously used "Imported From Detroit" as its advertising tagline (and trademarked it), has also tried to secure rights to other Motor City-related features. In June 2012, it applied for the term "313," which is the area code for Detroit and some of its surrounding areas. Later that year, the company tried and failed to get the rights to "8 Mile," one of Detroit's landmark roads. In this case, like Toyota's Lofgren noted, timing mattered. Another entity called Shady Records – better known as the rapper Eminem's record label – had filed an application weeks earlier.

Finally, what about Chevelle, one of the beefiest muscle cars of all-time? Yes, GM still holds some trademarks for the name. It's fully registered for exterior badges, t-shirts, hats and toys. But like the actual car, the trademark for motor vehicles is dead. The original, registered in 1964, expired 20 years later, and the most recent attempt to re-file was abandoned in 2010. While trademark fillings can have hidden meanings and foreshadow future products. Sometimes, like in the case of Chevelle, it really only is for sweatshirts.

By Greg Migliore

See also: New version of Toyota FT-1 Concept gets racy for Gran Turismo 6, GM SUV window switch recall urges owners to park vehicles outside, Lexus launching new Crafted Line special editions at Pebble Beach.