By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Ford introduced the now-unnamed Futura midsize sedan at the New York International Auto Show, even though it does not go on sale until next year. The car is to offer an optional gasoline-electric powertrain.
The Ford GT concept car was originally called the GT40, but Ford lost the right to market the name.
Ford GT loses 40
The Futura setback is the second time in two years Ford has lost the right to use a famous name from its past. In 2003, the company had to change the name of its new 500-horsepower super sports car from GT40 to GT. Ford made the name famous in the 1960s with the GT40 racer, but a company that makes build-it-yourself vehicle kits has laid claim to the name since then.
The Philadelphia-based Pep Boys auto parts chain, which uses "Futura" on some of its tires, sued Ford over the name.
DEARBORN — Ford Motor Co. will have to come up with another name for its new mid-size family car sedan after a federal court ruled the Pep Boys auto parts chain owns the name “Futura.”
Ford hoped to revive the badge, which dates back to the 1950s, with next year’s rollout of the new sedan. Now the automaker will have to sell consumers on a new, yet-to-be-announced name.
The new car, to be built in Hermosillo, Mexico, is the eventual replacement for the venerable Taurus and is critical to Ford’s fight to regain U.S. market share.
But Philadelphia-based Pep Boys, which currently uses “Futura” on some of its tires, sued Ford over rights to the name. A U.S. District Court judge in Detroit recently ruled in Pep Boys’ favor, saying that Ford abandoned the trademark years ago with no intent to ever use it again.
It is the second time in less than two years that Ford has lost the right to use a famous marque from its past. Last year, the company was forced to change the name of its new 500-horsepower super sports car from GT40 to GT. A company that makes build-it-yourself vehicle kits had laid claim to the name that Ford made famous in the 1960s with the GT40 racer.
The disputes underscores the challenge facing automakers searching for memorable vehicle names that will resonate with consumers who have more vehicle choices than ever. Many of the most attractive, most meaningful names are already taken. At the same time, the global nature of the auto industry means that companies have to worry about how vehicle names translate in foreign languages.
General Motors Corp. had to scrap the name LaCrosse for a new sports car last year after discovering the name also was teen-agers’ slang for masturbation in French-speaking Quebec.
Expect to see more trademark litigation such as this, said Michael D. Fishman, a Detroit-area trademark lawyer with Rader, Fishman and Grauer, which handles automotive industry cases in North America and Japan. “Trademark controversies have become more prevalent because competition has become greater.”
Under trademark law, it is assumed that the owner of a trademark has abandoned rights to it if it is not used for three consecutive years, Fishman said. The burden is on the owner to show that marque was not abandoned and that there was an intent to use it again.
With Futura, Ford failed to convince the court that the automaker had plans for the name all along.
While it’s unlikely that the now-unnamed Ford sedan will suffer lost sales when it launches next year, Ford still must deal with the “embarrassment factor,” said Burt Alper of California-based Catchword Branding, a consulting company that specializes in brand name development.
“It’s a big slap in the face to have to take something off the market like that,” Alper said.
Ford revealed the name Futura last year at the New York International Auto Show, although the car does not go on sale until next year as a 2006 model.
Such high-profile exposure, coupled with expectations that the car will eventually replace the legendary Ford Taurus as the automaker’s stalwart sedan, likely caught the attention of car buffs, Alper said.
“Those are probably the worst people to shake up like that,” he added. “They were expecting something. Now you’ve got to give them something else.”
Fiascos such as this underscore the importance of doing the homework when researching vehicle names, a process that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Alper said.
Ford has no plans to appeal the Futura decision, said spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes. But the automaker will work to ensure that other names from its past, such as Continental, don’t fall by the wayside.
Volkswagen AG’s ultra-luxury brand, Bentley, has been selling a Continental since the early 1950s — about 10 years after Ford’s Lincoln brand introduced its Continental. The two cars coexisted — albeit in different markets — until 2002, when Lincoln phased out its Continental because of poor profit margins.
“It’s an important and historical marque for Ford Motor Co. and we don’t plan to abandon it,” Vokes said, offering no specifics about how it plans to protect the name.
Meanwhile, Ford — in keeping with its strategy to christen all Ford brand products with a name beginning with “F” — must come up with another name for its new midsize car.
Records with the United States Patent and Trademark Office show Ford has registered names such as Finalist, Faction and Four Hundred.
“Maybe they should call it Famous,’ ” Alper said, “because (the lawsuit) put it on the map.”