Automotive Logos: Hidden Symbolism of the Industry
While performance is king in the automobile industry, perception is a close second. Perception in the sense that the intangible elements of a vehicle are just as important as those we can see. Fuel economy is a major consideration but isn’t a desire that necessarily develops independently inside of you. These subconscious questions relate to how the car makes you feel and what you project to the world when you’re inside of it.
In such terms, the many manufacturers within the automobile industry have worked to create distinct logos/brands in an effort to not only identify themselves but to define the summation of their mission into a single image or icon.
Consider what first pops into your head when someone says “luxury automobile”. If you closed your eyes and tried to visualize the words, what kinds of cars are you seeing? Audi? Mercedes? Probably not a Honda Element. While the luxury aspect of these vehicles can be largely attributed to price point and the storied histories of the manufacturers, another undeniable aspect is tied to the symbol on the hood. We’ve all pulled up next to a Jaguar at the stoplight, with it’s proud chromed jungle cat standing guard at the forefront, and had the unexplainable urge to reach out and touch it. Does my obsession with the Jungle Book skew my opinion on the matter? I can neither confirm nor deny. Do I call the beat-up jalopy in my driveway, hand-painted with tiger stripes, the ‘Shere Khar”? Yes, yes I do. But I digress.
Touching back on the incorporation of the hood ornament, it was originally incorporated during a time when radiator caps were located on the outside of the car. Rather than having a plain cap on the hood, manufacturers took the opportunity to turn the cap into an emblem which would serve as the visual focal point of the vehicle. The most iconic of these designs were the aforementioned Jaguar, Bentley’s Flying B, and Pontiac’s Indian Chief. However, as time has progressed, it should be mentioned that studies have found that hood ornaments are actually (and quite obviously) considered to be counterproductive to the vehicle’s overall aerodynamics.
When looking at the automotive logos of makers that have been around the longest, you are actually, to an extent, viewing the origin history of the brand itself within the image. Bentley’s famous ‘Flying B’ is a callback to when the company was founded as Bently Aero, manufacturing rotary engines for planes during World War I. BMW shares a similar origin story, as the company found its roots in the ashes of Rapp Motorenwerke, an airplane manufacturer in the late 1920s. Audi’s iconic four silver rings represent the 1932 merger of the four oldest car manufacturers in Germany, who formed under the original name of Auto Union.
Most logos are based in symbolism, but the meaning of some of these symbols are less obvious than others. While many see the Toyota logo as an over-bloated letter ‘T’, it is said that the symbol holds much more intricate meaning. Take a closer look at the emblem, and you see two ovals overlapping. This overlap is allegedly meant to symbolize the trust between automaker and loyal customer, while the white space around the ovals is representative of the company’s future potential. All of this space is contained within a larger oval, which collectively represents the heart of the consumer, the vehicle, and the future opportunities that the brand possesses. All of the sudden, Toyota is sounding like your new-age uncle who only drinks kale smoothies.
Another symbolic logo that I personally found interesting was that of Subaru. The six stars contained within the oval of the emblem are meant to represent The Pleiades, a star cluster in the Taurus Constellation. These six stars were chosen for multiple reasons. First, because they are most prominently visible to the naked eye out of the constellation as a whole. Second, because Subaru found its roots in the merging of five separate companies into one. The five stars on the edge of the emblem represent each of these former companies, with the large central star represent the combined efforts of the merged companies as a whole.
Several logos also play into the idea of brand loyalty in the fact their emblems represent a coat of arms. Most notably, you can see this ‘family-crest’ style of imagery in brands like Ferrari, Cadillac, Maserati, and Lamborghini. Ferrari’s explanation borders on the mystical, as the equine symbol represents the Cavallino Rampante, or the “Prancing Horse” in Italian. At the time, this prancing horse emblem was considered a symbol of luck, relating to the use of the imagery as placed on the planes of fighter pilots in battle. The Cadillac emblem specifically is considered a recreation of the family coat of arms for Antoine De La Mothe Cadillac (whom I’ve discussed before in Cadillac: What’s Next for the Luxury Brand).
Lamborghini uses the bull as a symbol of both power and presence. Beyond the manufacturer’s brand, most of Lamborghini’s individual models have names relating to fighting bulls of the time and general bullfighting terms, such as Murcielago, Gallardo, and Aventador. Maserati’s logo has remained almost completely unchanged since it’s first appearance in 1926, when the company’s headquarters were located in Bologna, Italy, close to the ocean. Even today, the company’s statue stands in the same location, with Neptune, god of the sea, clutching his iconic trident scepter. The colors of this emblem relate to the official colors of Bologna, red and blue. These crest-style logos cater to the idea that you, the consumer, are getting more than a car. You are getting an invitation into an exclusive club, and the crest on the hood of your vehicle is symbolic of your acceptance into the order.
You can almost see a shift in design theory in the study of automobile logos. The oldest standing manufacturers almost universally have logos that would indicate something larger than transportation. As more manufacturers emerged, they attempted to inject this same idea of reverence in a more contained matter. In a way, it’s the new guy’s way of standing shoulder to shoulder with its older counterparts in terms of symbolic meaning, with an added touch of modern simplicity as to not shove the meaning in your face. Consider the Volvo logo. At first glance, it’s a pretty basic circle with ‘Volvo’ emblazoned through the middle. Yet, if you dig further into company’s history, the symbolism becomes obvious. Volvo stems from the Latin, “Volvere’, for ‘roll”. Volvo itself means ‘I roll’ and I really don’t think I need to point out the connection to rolling and automobiles. The circle containing the logo connects to the tires of an automobile rolling forward to propel the vehicle. When you add in the forward pushing arrow of the logo, combined with the circle, you get the symbol of Mars which, in mythology, is the symbol of the male sex and the chemical element iron. Given the time of its creation, it really is quite clever in its subtle nuance. By relatively subconscious means, the logo plays to our idea of tying automobiles to masculinity while simultaneously conveying the entire nature of the automobile, in its purpose (forward movement) and its composition (metal gears and frames).
I find the symbolism of logos fascinating and could ramble on for entirely too long, so I will force myself to stop there, as I think that, hopefully, you are getting the gist of it all. We have become so accustomed to seeing logos virtually everywhere that we often fail to remember that they were designed with a specific intent in mind. On some level, logos and emblems open a subconscious dialogue within the viewer, evoking guttural reactions that attach feelings or ideas to certain visual imagery. While there are those who can get through the day without being swayed by the implied symbolism of logos and branding, there remains a sect of the population that, whether they know it or not, are being heavily influenced simply by what they see. By no means should one conclude that this means that driving a vehicle that falls under a certain logo should mean they are either greater than or less than anyone else. However, it would be naive to assume that the branding of certain manufacturers wasn’t created specifically to project an internal sentiment to the outside world.
If you see the galloping horse of a Ferrari, you might think “that’s one lucky driver.” When a Lamborghini of any kind is seen rolling through a suburb, you might think “that’s a pretty bold statement.” To an extent, these are exactly the desired outcomes of the manufacturer, that were achieved through effective branding. Symbolism is everywhere and is proven to be massively effective in the marketing world. It is easier to evoke emotions from a consumer with an all-encompassing image that can be immediately connected with specific traits than it is to publish a twenty-page mission statement. After all, who needs to spend money on commercials when you can place a label on the hood that makes the vehicle, itself, a rolling advertisement?
What are some of your favorite automotive logos? Tell us in the comments below!
This is another article in our ‘Staff Picks’ lineup, an opportunity for our Staff Writers to offer personal insights regarding the automotive industry and beyond!
About the Author:
Flint is a web designer at Carsforsale.com, his free time is spent with a concerted focus on not only being so fresh, but also so clean. Currently, Flint can be found staring into the abyss and wondering if it’s his personality that is causing the abyss to not stare back.