How The Honda Passport Got Its Name
It ceased being fun working at American Honda around the summer of 1993. Most of our senior managers in the sales division had recently been fired. In May, the New York Times published the first story about our executives soliciting bribes from dealers. The Justice Department was snooping around our US headquarters in Torrance, CA. The year before, our geniuses in Japan had dropped the ground-breaking CRX two-seater and stuck us with the dull del Sol. Over at Acura, our Honda Division castoffs were busy trying to figure out why the tepid 5-cylinder Vigor was not selling.
We were still stuck in the Civic-Accord-Prelude-del Sol mode. “We will never build trucks,” our execs had often proudly proclaimed. Now we found ourselves caught flat-footed as we followed the success of the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner SUVs. We needed a sport-ute yesterday, and it would take us a minimum of four years to develop one. We did what any self-respecting, high quality, loved-by-its-customers car company would do in this situation.
We called Isuzu.
We made arrangements with Isuzu to sell their Rodeo SUV in America in exchange for Isuzu rebadging some of our small cars in Japan. “Hello, Burger King? This is Lawry’s Steakhouse. We want to put our name on one of your sandwiches and sell it as our own,” said one of my co-workers in Honda’s advertising department. That may have been a little harsh, but there was a genuine lack of enthusiasm internally for the General Motors-powered Rodeo that we had code-named the “Hodeo.”
We had no time to hire a consultant to make up a moniker, as we had done with the brand name “Acura.” Instead we dug into the Honda motorcycle/ATV parts bin to come up with three potential model names already licensed to us.
This was not the first time we had used a tag from our two-wheel division: before it was an Acura, the Integra was a V-Twin sport bike built in the early 1980s (and the name was resurrected in 2007 and continues today as a scooter.) The cycle division had some really cool names. Heck, if Honda ever built a V-8 version of today’s Ridgeline pickup they could call it the Honda 305 Scrambler.
So armed with the names Elsinore, Odyssey and Passport, we headed off to test the SUV and the proposed names in a consumer focus group. We had a Honda-badged Rodeo and a half-dozen competing SUVs lined up in a warehouse in Culver City. The attendees were primarily SUV-owning men, as we were concerned that we were becoming a bit too much of a chick car company. My boss, Dave the National Advertising Manager, and I watched from behind a one-way mirror but were under a time crunch: thanks to NBC, we had great seats to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup featuring the LA Kings and Wayne Gretzky taking on the Montreal Canadiens, with faceoff being 45 minutes away at the nearby Forum.
The original Honda Passport
The group first reinforced our internal concerns when asked their first impressions about our new SUV, (“It looks like that Suzuki or Isuzu.” “It IS that Isuzu.” “Why would Honda sell an Isuzu?” “It won’t have the same quality.”) Undaunted, the moderator from our advertising agency proceeded to ask the attendees what images the proposed names conjured up.
We started with Elsinore. The Elsinore was a 1970s Honda dirt bike named after Lake Elsinore, an area known for a legendary off-road motorcycle race. Movie star and motorcycle racer Steve McQueen rode an Elsinore. What could be a more rugged and manly name for the Hodeo?
Rugged and manly attendee Bob, a Chevy Suburban owner, asked, “Why would you name a truck after the castle in “Hamlet?” Amazingly, others agreed with him. Elsinore was out.
Next up was Odyssey, a name used for a 1970s/1980s Honda dune buggy. The attendees were confused. (“So this means you can travel long distances in an Isuzu?”) I think Bob mentioned Homer. Odyssey was out but would be used on Honda’s first minivan the following year.
The name Passport was used in the 1980s on a variation of the venerable Honda Super Cub motorbike. The group liked it far better than the other two names. That was enough for Dave and me: we decided that our first-ever SUV would be called the Honda Passport. We excused ourselves and headed to the Forum. The naming process took less than ten minutes.
The Passport ended up selling pretty well initially thanks to our strong brand image and the usual hilarious commercials produced by the legendary Larry Postaer, creative director at our advertising agency. The Passport would be dropped in 2002 and eventually be replaced by the Honda-built Pilot, named after another Honda off-road ATV.
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