In 1994, during Johan de Nysschen’s second year as general manager of Audi’s operations in his native South Africa, the carmaker introduced a new model naming system brilliant in its simplicity: the letter A (for Audi) followed by a single-digit number denoting a given model’s size and position in the overall hierarchy of vehicle offerings. Kicking off this new order were the A4 (a D-segment compact executive car succeeding the Audi 80/90), A6 (in a mid-life facelift and rebadge of the E-segment Audi 100/200 executive car) and A8 (an F-segment luxury car succeeding the Audi V8). Over time, the remaining numerical gaps were filled (and will possibly be extended upwards to an A9 four-door coupe if the rumor mill is correct), and alternate letter prefixes were put into use for S (Sport), RS (RennSport, or Racing Sport), Q (Quattro, for crossover/SUV) and R (presumably Renn, or Racing, for sports car) models.
Johan de Nysschen spent nearly 2 decades at Audi, having eventually risen to the presidency of Audi’s Japanese and, later, North American operations. In July 2012, he stunned the automotive world by jumping ship to Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury car brand, as president of its global operations. Clearly enamored of Audi’s model naming conventions, he instituted a very similar system at Infiniti, with a Q prefix for cars and QX to denote crossover and SUV models, followed by a 2-digit “tens” number (currently running 50 through 80, but slated to dip down to 30 sometime next year with the release of C-segment Mercedes-Benz A-Class and GLA derivatives). Two years later, de Nysschen made yet another unexpected corporate move, this time to General Motors’ luxury Cadillac division. As he did at Infiniti, he set in motion a new, Audi-inspired naming system for Cadillac.
So what does all this have to do with Lexus?
On Wednesday 24 September 2014, Cadillac officially announced that its new naming convention would be launched with a new, range-topping rear-wheel-drive sedan rivaling the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7-Series and Lexus LS. Its name? CT6, one that immediately made this author wonder if Cadillac wasn’t impinging on Lexus’ CT trademark for its C-segment hybrid hatchback.
As with many current automotive stories, there were a number of advance hints this was in the cards for GM, such as a blog entry by Mike Colias of Automotive News predicting this move 5 days before it was officially announced and a 21 July 2014 trademark filing for Cadillac CT6 and CT5, five years after Lexus’ July 2009 filing for CT 200h, CT 300h and CT 400h.
Toyota and the name wars
That shared used of the Q prefix by Audi and Infiniti we alluded to in the second paragraph of this story? It led Infiniti’s parent Nissan (which launched its flagship Q45 sedan in late 1989) to sue Audi on 22 March 2005 for trademark infringement over its planned 2006 thru 2009 launch of Q7 and Q5 crossover SUVs. In late November of 2005, however, word came that the two carmakers had reached a confidential settlement agreement that allowed Audi to keep the Q3, Q5 and Q7 model names, while Infiniti continued with all manner of 2-digit numbers to follow the letter Q. But will the general buying public confuse Q5 (Audi D-segment crossover) with Q50 (Infiniti D-segment sedan), or Q7 (Audi full-size SUV) with Q70 (Infiniti D/E-segment sedan)?
Toyota and its Lexus and Scion brands have also been at the center of a number of naming conflicts. Perhaps the most heart-stopping was the one over the Lexus brand name itself. Toyota officially announced its intended use on January 1987, but by October of that year, the Mead Data Central subsidiary of Mead Corporation warned Toyota that they felt that the Lexus name infringed on their Lexis (later LexisNexis) database service and, in April 1988, Mead sued Toyota. On Friday 30 December of that year, U.S. District Judge David Edelstein ruled against the carmaker. As Los Angeles Times writer James Risen recounts the decision:
Edelstein blamed Toyota for any disruptions his order might cause the auto maker, and admonished the company for apparently not taking the lawsuit seriously enough…He said Toyota had known for more than a year that Mead considered Lexus to be a trademark infringement, but had failed to come up with any alternative plans in case it lost in court…Toyota “has to a large extent placed itself in the precarious position in which it finds itself,” Edelstein wrote. “It could have made alternative arrangements or adopted a backup plan. Litigation is always a risk, and Toyota has been aware of the prospect of litigation for over one year, and yet, it has apparently made no effort to prepare for the possibility of an adverse determination.”
With the clock ticking against a Thursday 5 January 1989 unveiling of the first Lexus vehicles in Detroit’s North American International Auto Show and a Friday 6 January 1989 debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show looming, Toyota went for broke and on that Thursday convinced a three-judge panel in New York that the ruling merited an appeal. Fortunately for Toyota, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled later that year that there was little likelihood of confusion between the two products. In an admittedly funny “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat” move, this author vividly recalls a “Win an Infiniti from Lexis” contest LexisNexis held in 1990 with a Q45 sedan grand prize. In time, as Wikipedia‘s LexisNexis page informs us, Mead sold the company to Reed Elsevier in December 1994, and
Today, the two companies have an amicable business relationship, and in 2002 implemented a joint promotion called “Win a Lexus on Lexis!”
Roughly a decade later, Lexus was concerned over Lincoln’s use of the LS moniker for its E-segment rear-wheel-drive sedan. As Wikipedia describes it,
Lincoln originally intended to designate LS models as “LS6” and “LS8”, depending on the engine size option. Toyota threatened a trademark infringement lawsuit, due to the similar naming scheme used on the Lexus LS, while at the same time, Ford threatened a lawsuit regarding the Toyota T150 concept, arguing that the name was too close to that of the F150. Lincoln settled on designating the cars as “LS V6” and “LS V8” and Toyota changed the name of their pickup truck to the Tundra.
Toyota’s Scion brand also hit some stumbling blocks regarding its originally-intended naming convention. After the initial smaller xA and larger xB 5-door hatchbacks, the plan was for the next-in-line 3-door hatchback coupe to wear the xC moniker, but after Volvo complained due to its use of XC for both crossover SUVs and Subaru Outback and Audi Allroad-inspired raised-height station wagons, the Scion xC morphed into the Scion tC. And, even though the xA was succeeded by the xD, Jaguar effectively blocked Scion from further continuing the pattern with its forthcoming Lexus IS-rivaling XE and its Lexus GS-rivaling older big brother the XF.
Should Lexus sue to stop this potentially trademark-infringing move?
If I were Takeshi Uchiyamada, Akio Toyoda, Kiyotaka Ise or Mark Templin, I certainly would, especially given the parallels with the Lincoln LS6 nameplate that almost led Lexus to sue at the end of the last century.
Playing devil’s advocate, though, there may be more complicating circumstances in a case against GM’s Cadillac division. As their press release states:
The model name CT6 is derived from Cadillac’s use of CTS for its centerpiece carline… Under this strategy, familiar lettering like “CT” would be used for car models, with the number indicating the relative size and position of the cars in the hierarchy of Cadillac models.
And that CTS nameplate has been in continuous use by Cadillac since late 2002, almost 7 years before Lexus filed for CT. Further, InsiderCarNews.com‘s Justin Cupler maintains that
This is not Cadillac’s first time tossing around the CT6 name. It registered it as a trademark once in 2007 but abandoned the name in December of 2008.
Are those arguments enough to shut down any potential action by Toyota against GM? We wouldn’t dare predict one way or the other, since we don’t know all the intricacies of trademark infringement law, but we’ll sign off by saying that this story was brought to you by the letters C and T.