An Irishman's Diary

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 00:00

The case of the Kia Provo reminds me of another unfortunately-named car that never made it to these shores: the Pontiac Banshee. Built in several versions between 1964 and 1988 by General Motors, the Banshee was also a “concept car”: the catwalk model of auto-engineering, which appears in motor shows but may or not be mass-produced.

It was sleek, sporty, and very fast. And if there was any logic to the name, it must have related to the high-pitched wail the Banshee produced when revved. It can hardly have been part of the concept that, wherever the sound was heard, there would be a death in the neighbourhood.

But as it happened, Irish people never had a chance to be offended. Mass production of the first Banshee was vetoed by GM. Not because of sensitivity to people called O’Neill, O’Brien, or O’Connor: traditionally among the families most affected by banshee issues. Rather the car was just seen as a threat to an existing GM brand, the Chevrolet Corvette. So the first and the later models were limited to influencing the redesigns of other vehicles.

The man behind the 1960s Pontiac, by the way, was a certain John De Lorean, whose name is now forever associated with that small-but-tense interface between Northern Irish politics and new-car production.

Produced in Belfast during at the height of the Troubles, his gull-winged DMC-12s looked like a big success story for the benighted North. Then the dream car turned nightmare. Having already cost taxpayers millions, De Lorean was exposed as a conman whose design had nothing like the quality or orders claimed for it.

The name was the least of the car’s problems. Like many upmarket brands, it eschewed words altogether in favour of alpha-numerics, apparently considered classier. Even so, I believe that too was a mistake. From an era that produced the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and the Maguire Seven, the DMC-12 will always sound to me like the result of a miscarriage of justice.

Yet another Provo

The other thing the Kia controversy reminded me of, oddly, was Donny Osmond. And not just Donny, but also Marie and the other Osmonds. Photographs of whose teeth – invariable exposed by smiles – were among the bright spots of the grim 1970s in which I grew up.

It’s true that their songs had a very high saccharine content – I think that’s why they had to brush their teeth so much. But they also had a big hit with one called Crazy Horses, which was a radical departure from their usual style. By Osmond standards, it was heavy metal.

What most people at the time probably didn’t realise, however, is that Crazy Horses was also a protest song. A protest song about cars, no less. In the US, at least, this was still the era of gas-guzzling Cadillacs. The impending age of environmental consciousness had not quite dawned yet.

So the Osmonds were ahead of the curve with their (admittedly-mild) critique of America’s addiction to horse-power. No doubt their Mormon upbringing, and its insistence on clean living, gave them special insight.

But the other – and main – reason I was reminded of the Osmonds is that they are by far the best-known residents of a city called Provo, Utah. A city that, even by Utah standards, is famed for traditionalism. In a recent survey, it was declared “the most conservative city in the US”.

It follows that there are a lot of Republicans in Provo, although not of the kind found in West Belfast. Indeed, I believe many citizens of Provo would be highly offended if they knew their city’s name has been so long usurped here as an abbreviation for a leftist paramilitary group.

The city is called after a French-Canadian trapper, Etienne Provost, who explored the area in the 1820s. Ditto the Provo river (which, incidentally, doesn’t run free – it’s dammed in two places). So Utah’s copyright long predates the Provisional IRA.

That’s why, if I had been in Kia’s PR department this week, I would have told the DUP where to put its demands for an apology. I would have suggested that the new car, with its combined sportiness and fuel-efficiency, including electric-only propulsion at low speeds, was dedicated to Provo’s most famous family, which had long campaigned for such a vehicle.

And while I was at it, I might also have counter-demanded an apology from Northern Ireland for decades of misuse, by both communities, of an entirely innocent name.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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