Many of the corporate logos you see today are the end product of repeated discussion groups, multiple design firms, and heavy edits by trademark attorneys. They are designed to be simple, readable and as unmistakable as possible – leaving little room for raw artistic expression.
Most of today’s automotive logos were conceived over a century ago, when the founder’s beauty, heritage and vision came first. Many are even still open to interpretation, according to the automakers themselves.
So what car logo was inspired by the wallpaper of a French hotel? Which logo caused the founder to go “ballistic” and demand that they be removed from the cars immediately? Which car logo subtly features the carmaker’s ancestral enemy that was eaten alive and who gave Enzo Ferrari the idea of the black horse that rears up?
Let’s investigate how some iconic car logos came to be.
American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
The Acura logo is designed to look like a caliper. Not a brake caliper, mind you, but the precision shop tool used to measure the exact dimensions of small objects. According to Acura, “It’s the perfect symbol to communicate precision-crafted performance and our promise to aspire to a level of precision never before achieved in the industry, or anywhere else for that matter.”
But according to a former insider, the seemingly innocuous logo still had a rough start. In 1990, Acura began producing a version of the logo without the tiny crossbar that made it both an “H” for Honda and an “A” for Acura, symbolizing the unity of the two. By the time Soichiro Honda found out, hundreds of the new emblems had already been applied to new factory Acuras, including the prototype NSX. However, he “went ballistic” and ordered every emblem replaced.
Alfa Romeo’s iconic snake and cross dated back to the company’s founding in Milan, Italy in 1910.
According to Alfa Romeo, the pair of icons represent the two “traditional symbols” of Milan. The cross represents the municipality and the Visconti snake represents the Visconti family – a dominant political force in medieval Italy.
But the details are scarce there and open to debate from scholars and lunatics alike. Momentum Alfa Romeo speculates that the cross could be the Cross of St. George, a symbol of the Milanese soldiers who fought in the Crusades. Continuing this theory, the poor guy consumed by the Visconti snake is speculated to be a Moor or Saracen, the enemy of the Milanese crusaders.
The evolution of the Aston Martin logoAston Martin Lagonda Limited
Compared to the dark and complex origins of the Alfa logo, the Aston Martin fenders are blessedly simple and straightforward.
As you may have guessed, Audi’s iconic rings symbolize the unity of four separate entities into one.
Formation of the Audi logoAudi of America, Inc.
Despite record inflation during the Weimar Republic, Germany’s auto industry got off to a great start in the 1920s. In fact, demand was high enough to support healthy competition. In the German state of Saxony alone, there were four car manufacturers fighting for pole position: Audi, DKW, Horsch and Wanderer.
But once the Great Depression hit in 1929, demand plummeted and left all four companies in dire financial straits. So they merged into one, called Auto Union and instantly became the second largest car manufacturer in Germany after Daimler-Benz.
The companies have also designed a logo that doesn’t make one look bigger than the other: four simple rings, which Audi humbly calls “the most famous rings in the world – apart from the Olympic rings”.
As for how Auto Union became just Audi, that wasn’t really the automaker’s call. After Volkswagen acquired a majority stake in Auto Union in 1964, they opted to launch cars in the US under the more recognizable Audi name. Soon, it got stuck.
Bentley Winged ‘B’ logo. Bentley Motors
Bentley’s famous ‘Winged B’ may look simple – even artificial – at first glance, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
In 1919, WO Bentley hired legendary automotive artist F. Gordon Crosby to create a unique logo for his cars. According to Bentley, Crosby came up with the Winged B to “represent the excitement of the movement” as well as to evoke the founder’s experience as a fighter aircraft designer for the British in World War I.
Additionally, in a clever effort to fool fraudsters and expose cheap imitations, Crosby gave the original Bentley fenders a different number of fins on each side.
But in the 1930s, under Rolls-Royce, the Bentley logo was simplified to include 10 neat feathers on each side – a design that endures to this day.
The evolution of the BMW logoBMW of North America, LLC
In BMW’s own words, the truth behind its logo “has been a hotly debated topic for decades.”
“Many people think the BMW logo is a stylized propeller. But the truth is a bit different,” says Fred Jakobs, archive director of BMW Group Classic.
In reality, when BMW tried to register with the German Imperial Register of Trademarks in 1917, the young firm had to come up with a logo as soon as possible. It was imagined, hey, why not the flag of Bavaria – white and blue?
But this wouldn’t work because local trademark laws prohibited the use of flags, coats of arms, etc. in corporate logos. So the company reversed the order – blue and white – and put a black ring around it, which was in vogue for logos at the time.
Like Buick itself—which has gone from making Corvette-busting muscle cars to sensible modern crossovers—the Buick logo has an interesting, checkered history.
According to GM Authority, Buick’s first logo in 1903 was a depiction of a moon-sized Uncle Sam sailing the globe. The design was dropped within a year and replaced with plain gold text, then blue text and then a burgundy shield with the Scottish founder’s coat of arms.
The shield design stuck, and in 1960 Buick added two more shields to describe the model lineup at the time: the LeSabre, Invicta, and Electra.
Despite being one of the most prominent global symbols of American opulence and engineering, the Cadillac name and logo are very, very French.
In 1902, car entrepreneur Henry Leland decided to name his new car company after Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac – a French explorer who founded the city of Detroit in 1701.
Cadillac logo Cadillac
Clearly a fan, Leland also decided to design the Cadillac Crest using the explorer’s ancestral coat of arms. According to the GM, the crown or crown surrounding the shield symbolizes the six ancient courts of Franch. The shield, which resembles a design used by the Crusaders, symbolizes “the brave origins of a noble family”.
Finally, the colors inside the crest represent the following:
- Black and gold: wisdom and wealth
- Red: skill and boldness in action
- Silver: purity, charity, virtue and abundance
- Blue: chivalrous valor
Overall, that’s an impressive amount of medieval French heritage to pack into the grille of a CT5-V Blackwing.
Chevrolet bow tie logoGeneral engines
GM itself says the origins of Chevy’s iconic bowtie are “open to wide interpretation.”
One theory comes from The Chevrolet Story, an official company publication distributed on the occasion of Chevy’s 50th anniversary in 1961. It states that Chevrolet co-founder William C. Durant first saw the famous model of bow ties on the walls of a French hotel in 1908. Inspired, he tore off a piece of wallpaper to keep and treasure, telling his friends that one day it would make a great logo for a car.
But conflicting reports deepen the mystery, GM says. Durant’s widow, Catherine, said she saw the design in a newspaper in 1912. His daughter, Margery, said she came up with it randomly while eating fried chicken. Eventually, historian Ken Kaufmann published a theory that Durant “borrowed” the design from the Southern Compressed Coal Company, which ran an ad with an almost identical logo just nine days before Chevy introduced the their.
But regardless of its origins, the iconic Chevy bowtie has endured almost unchanged for over a century.
Ferrari’s Shaved HorseFerrari S.p.A
There is exactly no mystery surrounding the origin of the name Ferrari, which was given to it by its founder, Enzo Ferrari. But where did the rising black horse come from?
According to Ferrari Lake Forest, the black horse was a symbol of Count Francesco Baracca, a flying ace in the Italian air force during World War I, with an astonishing 34 victories over Italy’s enemies in the skies. But like many others of his age, Count Baracca died tragically young, shot down at the age of 20 just before the end of the war.
Five years later, Count Enrico Baracca and Countess Paolina Baracca attended the Savio Circuit in Ravenna, where they met an impressionable young racing driver who would have been the same age as their son. The driver’s name was Enzo Ferrari, and before the trio parted ways, the Countess suggested that Enzo paint a galloping horse on his race cars for good luck.
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