VW Mascot: Fierce and Hardy Desert Nomads

By PHIL PATTON, June 13, 2004

For its first S.U.V., Volkswagen borrowed the name that Europeans gave to a group of nomadic traders in North Africa. While largely unfamiliar in the United States, the Touareg - more often spelled Tuareg in Europe - are as well known among Europeans as, say, Eskimos are among Americans. The people in question, desert traders so ancient they were mentioned by Herodotus, call themselves either the Imouharen or Kel Tamashek, which means "people who speak Tamashek.

The name is pronounced several ways in Europe. None of these is "toe rag," as witty ads from VW's agency, Arnold Worldwide, have pointed out. But the usual pronunciation in Europe and Africa is TWAR-egg rather than the TOUR-egg that VW suggests in the United States. It is usually not a good sign when a company must use its advertising budget to explain a product name; indeed, American dealers lobbied against Touareg as confusing and hard to pronounce. Some reports attributed the choice to VW's former chief executive, Ferdinand Pich, who, the story goes, had a soft spot for the nomads dating to an incident years before. When he was Audi's engineering director, he reportedly had a breakdown during the Paris-Dakar rally, and the tribesmen rescued him.

Steve Keyes, a spokesman for VW of America, said the tale had never been confirmed by top executives. Pronunciation is not the only problem. The Touareg traded salt and slaves into the 20th century, historians say. Like Native Americans who did not accept the idea of land ownership or political boundaries, the Touareg have fought colonial powers since the 1890's. In the 1980's, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya recruited young Touareg for his revolutionary training camps and sent them back to Niger and Mali to stir up trouble. Today, the tribespeople are in demand as experts on the desert. On an expedition to Niger last year to study tribal artifacts and ceremonies, Christopher Mount, a design historian and former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, had Touareg guides. "The camel is their currency," he said. "They drive only Toyota Land Cruisers, which they maintain scrupulously."