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What's in a name?

Aircraft and cars share monikers

Some awful names have been affixed to vehicles meant to roll or soar: Nimrod (BAe), Probe (Ford), Lancer (Rockwell B–1/Mitsubishi), Cimarron (Cadillac), Swinger (Dodge), Hummer, and Airacobra (Bell) are a few that raise an eyebrow. And mention the name Fighting Falcon to a member of an F–16 squadron and you’ll be buying the first round that evening.

Some awful names have been affixed to vehicles meant to roll or soar: Nimrod (BAe), Probe (Ford), Lancer (Rockwell B–1/Mitsubishi), Cimarron (Cadillac), Swinger (Dodge), Hummer, and Airacobra (Bell) are a few that raise an eyebrow. And mention the name Fighting Falcon to a member of an F–16 squadron and you’ll be buying the first round that evening. They only acknowledge the airplane’s unofficial name, Viper.

There’s simply not enough magazine space to poke fun at all the horrid names of cars and airplanes of the airline, military, and GA ranks. So we limited this article to shared names of certified general aviation airplanes and automobiles.


Even though Piper’s Aztec is not the prettiest of airplanes, to discuss it in the same paragraph as the Pontiac Aztek is almost offensive. Introduced for the 2001 model year, the Pontiac Aztek is one of those automobiles that make you wince—like seeing Rocky Balboa’s face after a bout. Not surprisingly, the overly plastic-clad Aztek was widely panned for its styling, but not for its engineering. The Aztek was Pontiac’s first crossover SUV, a purpose-built vehicle, not just a wagon with a truck chassis. It debuted lots of practical features for General Motors, such as full-time all-wheel drive and four-wheel independent suspension. Unfortunately, the valiant engineering effort couldn’t overcome the Aztek’s aesthetics. Despite multiple attempts to tone down its looks, the model was dropped after 2005.

Piper’s Aztec is a heavy hauling twin that utilizes the same high-lift airfoil design used on the Piper Cub. It excels at hauling big loads out of short fields of nearly any surface. Unfortunately, these attributes make the Aztec favored by drug smugglers and many are stolen for that purpose. There are even some Aztecs on floats. Introduced for the 1960 model year, the Aztec, also known as Az-truck, was a more powerful follow-on to the Apache light twin, which debuted in the 1954 model year. The Aztec lacks the sex appeal and speed of Cessna’s 310 or Beechcraft’s Baron but earned a loyal following until its discontinuation after the 1981 model year.


The ground-bound version of the Citation, made by Chevrolet starting in 1980, was a front-drive design resulting from GM’s attempt to increase fuel efficiency in the wake of the 1970’s spike in oil prices. The Citation and its clones (Buick Skylark, among them) were to compete with foreign-made cars of similar design. The more compact design and use of four- and six-cylinder engines, instead of V-8s, shaved girth and weight from typical rear-drive Chevy designs, such as the Nova (a completely inappropriate name for anything with wheels that in Spanish means “don’t go”). Motor Trend named the Citation Car of the Year in 1980. The success was tempered after a series of recalls, which led to the creation of the Citation II (sound familiar?). There was also a souped-up Citation X-11. The Citation was dropped after the 1985 model year.

In the air, Cessna’s Citation series has proved to be a value and performance leader since its launch in the 1972 model year. The original Citations, starting with the Fanjet 500, were straight-wing designs meant to be easy to fly and enable use of short runways. Stretched versions were the Citation II and V. Later versions of the V were referred to as Encore, which was the name of a forgettable Renault car of the 1980s. Early Citations took a bashing for their slow cruise speed compared to other swept-wing designs that were about 100 knots faster. But, in true tortoise-versus-hare fashion, the Citation line had the last laugh. A large genealogy of Citations has been introduced, all with success. The swept-wing 650 series started in 1983 and spawned an entirely new line of Citations. Today, the Citation family tree is gigantic. It seems there’s a Citation to fit every mission and everything in between. Want a fast swept-wing jet? Get a Citation X. Want a straight-wing jet for the family? Check out the Mustang.


Speaking of Mustang, Cessna’s new Mustang light jet shares its name with the iconic Mustang originally built by Ford in model year 1964. The car was named after the North American P–51, and inspired the creation of an entire class of cars dubbed “pony cars.” Mustangs have come in various forms—some great and some horrific (remember the Mustang II?), but 45 years of continuous Mustang production have proved the lasting popularity of an American classic.

Cessna’s version of the Mustang is the smallest of the Citation line and is the most successful of the über-hyped very light jet (VLJ) craze that began this decade. Cessna was late to the VLJ party, yet got its Model 510 Mustang out of the gate first with deliveries beginning in November 2006. The 360-knot six-seater is eligible for single-pilot operation, as are all other smaller Citations. Don’t forget the rare Mooney Mustang built from 1967 to 1970 that featured a pressurized cabin and a turbocharged 310-horsepower Lycoming TIO-541—only 39 were made.


Chevrolet’s Malibu dates back to 1964 and has enjoyed massive popularity and success as well some missteps. The 1960s Malibus were versions of the Chevelle and were powered by some popular V-8 engines such as the 327 and big-block 396 for serious rubber-burning power. Typical of GM, the Malibu came in a variety of body styles ranging from convertible to station wagon. More forgettable third- and fourth generation models appeared in the early 1970s through 1983, thanks to the oil embargo and the need to reduce fuel consumption. Four-door Malibus of the early 1980s were common fleet cars for police and taxi cabs. The Malibu name was resurrected in 1997 and received a Car of the Year nod from Motor Trend, despite opinions that many would challenge. Most recently, however, the seventh-generation Malibu has been earning high marks for GM.

Piper’s Malibu has been the recipient of mixed attention as well. It debuted as a 1984 model with much anticipation and an eye-pleasing design. Its chief competitor was Cessna’s P210 Centurion, which was comparatively dowdy looking but nonetheless posted excellent performance numbers. The Malibu’s airstair door, sleek styling, and higher speed had the aviation press drooling, but a series of engine-failure-prompted accidents tarnished the brand. The engine problems were rooted in the recommended lean-of-peak (LOP) EGT operating mode that many owners weren’t familiar with. Piper’s promise of low fuel burn using LOP procedures without sophisticated engine instrumentation led unfamiliar owners to torch many engines in the process. A series of in-flight breakups prompted the FAA to conduct a special certification review in 1991. The review determined that the airframe design was not at fault—pilots were. Piper fixed its engine woes by switching to the 350-hp Lycoming IO-540 and renamed it the Malibu Mirage. The higher-powered Lycoming was substantially thirstier than the 310-horsepower Continental of the original Malibu, and range suffered. But the model has since prospered and continues on as the premier pressurized piston single. It also has spawned the successful Piper Meridian turboprop. Most recently, Piper introduced the Malibu Matrix as a lower-cost, unpressurized model that shares its name with a popular Toyota hatchback.


It’s possible that the general public is more aware of the Cessna Skyhawk than it is of the forgettable Buick Skyhawk of the 1970s and ’80s. The Buick Skyhawk first appeared in 1975 as a clone of the Chevy Monza, a rear-drive hatchback. That version lasted until 1980 only to be resurrected in 1982 using General Motors’ J-body (Chevy Cavalier, Oldsmobile Firenza). The Skyhawk received a lethal injection in 1989.

Cessna’s 172 Skyhawk is the world’s most popular airplane, with some 40,000 copies made. Introduced in 1956, the Model 172 (the Skyhawk name was added later) has matured into a thoroughly modern airplane with the same easy handling as the original (see “Happy Birthday, 172,” March 2006 AOPA Pilot). Skyhawks have always been known as airplanes that don’t excel in any one category, but they do everything well. It’s also a safe, economical airplane for a family. You won’t blister any paint with its speed, but it won’t bite back if you make a mistake and get too slow and cross controls. There’s a good reason that Cessna has created so many, and people keep buying them.

Like the Buick, Cessna dropped 172 production for a spell. Between 1986 and 1996, new Skyhawks couldn’t be found. During the hiatus, the existing crop of 172s started to wear out, with relief from product-liability suits, Cessna dusted off the tooling and resumed production. Today’s Skyhawk marries the tried-and-true design with a high-tech glass cockpit and autopilot to match.

Dakota (Charger and Pathfinder)

The Dodge Dakota, introduced in 1987, attempted to fill the niche between small pickups and the full-size behemoths that were then common. Dimensionally, the Dakota succeeded in its objective, but the base 2.2-liter four-cylinder was woefully inadequate. An optional 3.9-L V-6 solved those issues, and the Dakota became quite a popular seller. Later models added larger and more powerful V-8s creating a medium-sized truck that could haul a big load like its airborne cousin.

Piper’s Dakota is the more modern name for the Cherokee 235. The design was named Dakota in 1979 when the tapered wing started making its appearance on all of the Cherokee models. Like the Dodge Dakota medium pickup truck, Piper’s Dakota is a somewhat of a truck in the load-carrying department. It’s a true fill-the-seats-and-fuel-tanks airplane thanks to its 235-horsepower Lycoming O-540. Some refer to the Dakota as the low-wing alternative to Cessna’s 182. Unfortunately, the Dakota fell victim to the downturn of GA production in the mid-1980s and production slowed to a crawl; the model was dropped in 1994.

Other versions of the PA–28-235 also share names with popular cars. From 1973 to 1974, the airplane was called Charger like the popular Dodge of the 1960s and 1970s that was resurrected in 2006. Boys in the 1980s knew the car better as the often-airborne General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard television show. From 1975 to 1978, the PA–28-235 was known as the Pathfinder, as is the popular Nissan SUV introduced in 1987 and still in production today.


And then there’s Hyundai’s Excel, a first U.S. offering from the Korean manufacturer in 1985. The Excel could be had for the amazing low price of $4,995 new. In a classic case of “you get what you pay for,” the Excel was quickly panned by the majority of owners and critics. It was slow, unreliable, and made the name Hyundai synonymous with junky cars. Only recently has Hyundai reversed that tarnished image, and today it even has a high-end luxury model called Genesis that competes with Lexus, Mercedes, and BMW.

Cessna’s Citation Excel was introduced in 1995 and married a shortened Citation X fuselage to a straight wing. It boasts excellent runway performance for a mid-size jet, allowing its owner/operators to utilize airports that swept-wing jets can’t. It remains a tremendously successful design, most recently as the Citation XLS+.


The Dodge Caravan and Cessna Caravan were introduced at nearly the same time in 1984 and 1985, respectively. Both are boxy, utilitarian machines that brought practicality to the forefront of auto and airplane owners. Nobody wanted to be seen in what became known as minivans, but the enormous utility of these vehicles has made them a mainstay of families and small business owners all over the world.

Like the Dodge, Cessna’s Caravan isn’t the most glamorous of rides. But it, too, enjoys a loyal following among small-business owners who use the big Cessna to efficiently move people and gear to short-haul destinations. Bonus: The Dodge Caravan clone Plymouth Voyager shares a name with the Burt Rutan-designed Voyager, which made the first nonstop around-the-world flight in 1986.


We wonder if the designers at Piper collectively groaned when American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1975 named its egg-shaped hatchback Pacer. AMC, purveyor of other famously revolting cars such as the Matador and Gremlin, introduced the Pacer as a small car with large-car dimensions. The bulbous Pacer, also known as “fishbowl on wheels,” was basically the widebody of small cars. And with a greenhouse of glass some generously called the Pacer “futuristic.” Despite its girth, the Pacer was one of the most aerodynamically clean cars of the time, boasting a respectable 0.32 drag coefficient. Notice the lack of rain gutters and the doors that curve into the roofline like those of an airplane. But, like many airplane doors, Pacer doors tended to leak. In defense of the design, however, modern car doors are designed this way today for aerodynamic efficiency. Pacers are now more famous for taking up space on “ugliest” and “worst” lists or making appearances on TV and in movies as the car of choice for Al Bundy on Married, with Children and Garth Algar and his head-banging buddies of Wayne’s World.

Piper’s Pacer started out as an outgrowth of the PA–17 Vagabond. With four seats, the Pacer became an affordable airplane for a small family. The Pacer is a rag-and-tube design that combines pleasant looks and handling with a thrifty four-cylinder Lycoming. It was soon followed by the Tri-Pacer, which many thought destroyed the pleasant lines of the tailwheel Pacer. In fact, many of the tricycle-gear airplanes were converted to tailwheel Pacers. Owners thought it worth trading easy ground handling for the aesthetics and faster cruise speed of the tailwheel version.

Pete Bedell is a first officer for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172, Beechcraft Baron, and Subaru Legacy GT.


Other notables:
AMC/Mooney Eagle GMC/Beech Sierra
Buick/Cessna Skylark

Jeep/Lake Renegade

Chevy/Questair Venture Mercury/Grumman Cougar
Datsun/Cessna 210 310 Mercury/Cessna Bobcat
Dodge/Piper/Bombardier Challenger Mitsubishi/Aeronca Lancer
Dodge/Piper Colt Oldsmobile/Cessna Cutlass
Ford/Mooney Ranger Plymouth/Aeronca Champ
Ford/Dassault Falcon Saturn/IAI Astra
Ford/Ted Smith/Piper Aerostar Studebaker/Piaggio Avanti
Geo/Swearingen Metro Subaru/Embraer Legacy



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