It all started with the Volkswagen spare parts bin. Seriously.
Most cars are not named on a whim or a flight of fancy. Marketing teams put in tons of time coming up with and testing out model names. At least that’s how it’s done nowadays. 50 or so years ago it was much easier to name a car. Don’t believe me? Take the Porsche 911 for example. Have you ever stopped and wondered where those three numbers came from? You probably haven’t which is a shame as the story is damn interesting and involves a spat with French automaker Peugeot and a last-second judgement call that would turn out to be one of history's best.
Unlike the new Porsche 718 Boxster, the origin of the 911’s name doesn’t involve racing. It’s not glamorous at all, actually. In 1959 work began on what would eventually become the 911. Only the car wasn’t initially called that. Instead it was the 901 with a four-cylinder variant dubbed the 902. These numbers weren’t arbitrarily chosen but they also don’t carry any significant meaning. At the time Porsche was thinking of its future working relationship with Volkswagen and as such it had to take into account the latter’s spare part numbering plan. The 900 range of numbers was free so Porsche pounced. The 901 made its debut at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show.
It took another year for the 901 to see production and in that time Peugeot created a problem for Porsche. Hot on the heels of the 1964 Paris Motor Show in September—which the production 901 attended—Peugeot filed a complaint about its name. Now despite the number being somewhat randomly chosen Porsche had indeed done its due diligence. Only one German truck company used the name 901, which obviously wasn’t seen as an issue. However, Peugeot had been using a three-digit naming scheme with a zero in the middle for its cars since 1929. Indeed, many classic Peugeot models carried the name, including the 202, 302, and 402 from the 1930s along with the 403 which was driven by TV’s Columbo.
The Porsche 901 was launched in October of ’64 but couldn't be sold in France due to its name. That was obviously a big problem for Porsche. In November of that year, Ferry Porsche (son of Ferdinand Porsche) made a call that would go down in automobile history. He decided to rename the 901 the 911 for convenience sake. Repeating the number “1” was easier as a new typeface wouldn’t have to be designed for a new number. The old one for the “1” could just be duplicated, making life easier for everyone from the marketing department to the folks at the factory. However, a total of between 49 to 82 901s (the exact number is unknown) did make it off the line with the original name intact.
Peugeot’s complaints affected the Porsche 904 and 906 (homologations) as well. The two became the Carrera GTS and Carrera 6, respectively. The only cars with names that weren't changed were racing cars. Peugeot didn't use its patented naming scheme for its racers so the names of Porsche's cars remained unchanged. It's difficult to measure the impact of a name, especially one that is just a number. The 901 likely would have been just as successful as the 911. Still, the latter is one of the most important names in the entire auto industry. As for Peugeot, well the world is still waiting on the French company to finally roll out its own 901 model. Any day now, guys.