I just got this Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Joke!

I’d always assumed that Douglas Adams had conjured the name of his hitchiking alien researcher, Ford Prefect, out of thin air.

Imagine my surprise then, when I pulled into the parking lot of our neighborhood grocery store Sunday and noticed a small elderly 4-door sedan of a type unfamiliar to me (and I’m a car nut) parked near the doors.

Curious, I wandered over to take a look. On the trunk (or should that be the boot?) were chrome letters spelling “P R E F E C T”. On the front fenders, just behind the wheel wells were little triangular badges that said “Produced by the Ford Motor Company of England”.

I’d always thought the joke ("…he chose the name “Ford Prefect” as being nicely inconspicuous…") was that the “inconspicuous” name was odd enough to attract attention, while still managing to sound like a genuine name. Now I see that I’d missed the joke completely - not being English I’d never heard of the car before.

Gaps in my knowledge I guess. If he’d named the character “Morris Minor” or “Hillman Minx” I’d have gotten the joke immediately… :smack:

I thought this was explained in the book, though maybe it was one of the sequels - he initially thought the dominant form of life on the planet was automobiles.

One of the books (I am almost certain it was the first one) does mention the bit about assuming automobiles were the dominant life form, but without the foreknowledge that the Ford Prefect is an English car the connection would be hard to make.

In fact though I recall both of these parts of the book I never actually made the connection until about 30 seconds ago when I read your post. When I first read the book I assumed as the OP does that Ford Prefect was just an oddly conspicuous name, when I finally found out about the English car I never thought back to make the connection there.

It’s a joke that didn’t make it across to the US, alas. They probably should have renamed him “Ford Escort” for US consumption.

It’s a shame that Ford was just a generic humanoid-type alien. Had he been a shapeshifting mechanical alien, it would have been a different story altogether.

Heh heh … when I read the book in sixth grade, I thought it was a play on the popular software package, WordPerfect.

Also, I don’t remember the bit about him thinking automobiles were the dominant lifeform from the books – I thought that was from the movie. I just looked through my books and I don’t see it; if somebody can find it and let me know where it’s at in the books, that would be great.

I have an omnibus edition of the first 4 books, and in the foreword Adams mentions that this was a joke that missed American readers completely. Without his explanation I don’t think I’d have had any way to realize the Ford Prefect name was a joke.

I’m pretty sure that’s correct. The only thing the books say about Ford’s name is:

That’s in the first chapter, but I’m not sure what page.

So what model is the Harrison Ford?

I also would have liked to see him name his character “Fnord Prefect”, but that’s just me.

Although there is a footnote in both the Radio Series Scripts and the first novel which gives some vague explaination as to why Ford selected that name (in essence, he thought that it would be “nicely inconspicuous” owing to his failure to do much in the way of preparatory research, but Adams fails (in the text) to expound upon the joke, no doubt feeling that a) giving a complete explaination would ruin the joke and turn it into a large shaggy dog story, b) there was insufficient time in a 30 minute episode to elucidate on the origin of the name, and c) the few dozen people who were the only likely audience for a small, off-beat radio programme about a silly little sci-fi comedy story were likely to be residents of the UK and would understand the cultural reference without any expository matieral. As it turned out, the public appetite for his radio show, series of best selling novels, TV miniseries, interactive text adventure, more novels, supplementary publications, feature movie, towel, et cetera extended considerably beyond the London suburbs (in part due to the waning fortunes of the British Empire, but mostly because it was effing brilliant), and thus, certain cultural references were lost upon less metropolitan readers/listeners/viewers.

In Adams’ own words:

Had he been referred to as “Ford Escort” (as he apparently was in the French translation) then Americans would have gotten the joke immediately, but it would have lost its particularly English flavor, rather like rewriting Wodehouse characters to drink vodka gimlets rather than gin and tonics. Adams explained this again and again in various media, but if you’re the sort–and let’s face it, many Americans, raised on a litarary diet of Robert Ludlum and Danielle Steele, are–to jump forward past all of that boring introductory bit and right into the explosions and sex and drug abuse, you’ll never catch the joke. (The essence of the joke being, of course, than humanity isn’t immediately obvious as the top candidate of intelligent life-form. I enjoyed Adams deeply entrenched cynicism almost as much as his humorously tortured prose.)

There’s a gag in the film with Ford Prefect trying to introduce himself to a, er, another Ford Prefect (from which Arthur saves him) but like many of the novel-inspired gags in the film the actual punchline is lost, and it is entirely unclear why Ford is standing in the middle of the road, and so it comes off to non-readers as a pointless scene, and to Hitchhiker literates as a missed joke. Oh well, at least Zooey Deschanel is pleasing to look at.

There are a number of jokes in the film that, while not absolutely requiring a knowledge of quantum physics, information theory, social psychology or evolutionary biology, are considerably enhanced by such knowledge, re: the Infinite Improbability Drive, Deep Thought, the life cycle of the ratchet screwdriver, the Somebody Else’s Problem Field, et cetera. Rereading the novel through my sophomore year of university, while I was going through introductory modern physics and gaining a much more comprehensive understanding of QM was revelatory, and I gained an even greater respect for Adams ability to combine humor and science together. His narrative skill was still pretty weak–though it matured with the Gently novels–but the Hitchhiker’s stories actually benefitted somewhat from the sporatic, seemingly disjointed storyline, and Adams was great at (apparently retroactively) picking up dropped threads and reintegrating them into the final story in a way that was decidedly clever, i.e. the Golgafricham “B” Ark crashlanding on prehistoric Earth and replacing the native cavemen (“They don’t live in caves…”) with advertising executives and television commercial producers.

Good stuff, and too bad Douglas couldn’t maintain that kind of output throughout his sorrowfully short career and life.


In the BBC TV miniseries, when the narrator is reciting the bit about him choosing his name, the animation shows a list kind of converging on Ford Prefect. The only one I remember is Ford Consul; but according to a friend of mine, there were a few other models of Ford cars, too.

I thought this thread was going to be about “what’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

There is a famous Rugby Football player in the UK called Austin Healy (I hope you’ve heard of that car !)

The explanation about Ford’s thinking that the automobile was the dominant form of life on Earth is not actually in any of the books as such. It is in the forward to the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide collection, and may be in the forwards of other versions as well.

Ask a glass of water.
The “dominant lifeform” explanation is also in the foreword to the hardback compilation edition of the first four books of the trilogy (plus an odd short about a young Zaphod).

You ask a glass of water. :stuck_out_tongue:

Same here. That joke whooshed over my head for years. At first (in my defense, I was quite young when I read them) I thought it was something along the lines of the glass of water being depressed because being drunk involved alcohol, so the water felt left out (again, I was young). Then it was just one of Ford’s idiosyncratic non-sequitors.

It did eventually sink in, and I got a double dose of laughter: half from the joke itself, and half at myself for missing it all that time.

I think that’d be a hard pun to translate outside of English.

Sadly, I only finally got that about a year ago. (I first read the books in the 80s).
I just wasn’t forming the right mental picture.

Sheesh. I didn’t get this joke until NOW! :smack: :smack:

Heh heh … when I read the book in sixth grade, I thought it was a play on the popular software package, WordPerfect.

Also, I don’t remember the bit about him thinking automobiles were the dominant lifeform from the books – I thought that was from the movie. I just looked through my books and I don’t see it; if somebody can find it and let me know where it’s at in the books, that would be great.

Whoops. Sorry about that double post. My connection to the board was bad earlier and I had no idea it had actually gone through. Perhaps a moderator could delete that second one for me. And thanks, Q.E.D. and Stranger, for expounding on the whole “he thought automobiles were the dominant life form” thing. I think I’ll go listen to Douglas Adams read the series again, and then listen to the radio shows too. Hearing him read the audiobooks really makes me sad these days, though. :frowning: