On a single commute you probably see hundreds of car badges. Now find out the surprising origins and meaning behind the some of the most famous brands in all of automobiles.
You probably don’t give car badges more than a passing glance. Maybe you noticed when Hyundai recently updated theirs, maybe you didn’t. Some have steadily evolved over time to fit current tastes, while others have remained largely unchanged for decades. And whether you’ve given them much thought or not, the people who designed them put plenty of effort and ingenuity into their creation. We’ve going to dig into the stories, exploring the history and myths surrounding some of the most famous automotive badges.
Most people have been satisfied with the explanation that the BMW logo harkens to their roots producing airplane engines with the logo representing a white propeller cutting through blue sky. This was even the company’s own explanation going back to 1929. But the true origin of the logo likely goes back further to Rapp Motorwerke, BMW’s parent company. The logo plays off the Rapp logo (which featured a horse’s head inside a black circle) and replaces the horse with the blue and white of the Bavarian flag.
The six-star constellation in the Subaru logo is Pleiades. The cluster of stars represents the merger of the six companies which form Fuji Heavy Industries. Subaru means “to gather together” in Japanese and was a favorite word of the company’s first president. Pleiades also happens to be in the Taurus constellation. Too bad Ford got the rights to the name. I for one would’ve liked a Subaru Taurus (so many Us!), a name no less perfectly redundant than the Ferrari LaFerrari.
Speaking of Ferrari, Enzo Ferrari honored Italian WWI fighter pilot Count Francesco Barraca who had a similar horse emblazoned on his airplane. The SF at the bottom of the Ferrari badge is taken from the Scuderia Ferrari racing team. Scuderia also means stable in Italian and had been adopted by Italian racing teams to refer to their “stable” or garage of cars. The yellow in the logo refers to Ferrari’s hometown of Modena, Italy.
Ah, the bowtie … this badge was developed by Chevy/GM co-founder William C Durant. This logo’s exact origin is steeped in conflicting legends. One goes that Durant sketched an early version on a tablecloth at a restaurant, another has it that it was taken form a French wallpaper pattern, or from the cross on the Swiss flag or maybe it was taken from a newspaper ad. Whatever its actual provenance, the Chevy bowtie has become one of the most iconic of all OEM emblems.
The Rolls-Royce badge itself isn’t all that interesting as it takes the two Rs from Sir Henry Royce and Charles Stewart Rolls and intertwines them in an elegantly simple logo. The more compelling story surrounds the hood ornament known as “The Spirit of Ecstasy”. Artist Charles Sykes designed the sculpture for John Scott Montegu (later Count Montegu) who was a personal friend of Charles Rolls. The model for the sculpture was Montagu’s secretary (and possible mistress) actress Eleanor Thornton. Thornton was tragically killed aboard the SS Persia when it was sunk by German U-boats on its way to India. From the 1920s onward Thornton’s likeness, leaning forward with robes billowing behind her, has been a standard element on the hoods of new Rolls-Royce’s. Today new Rolls-Royces equip the hood ornament with anti-theft retraction.
The Porsche badge combines the coat of arms of Württemberg (a former German state of which Stuttgart was the capital) with the colors of the German flag. Stuttgart floats above the image of a prancing horse. Not coincidentally, Stuttgart translates to “stud farm” in German. There are two competing storylines on the origin of the logo. One goes that the logo was created over dinner at a New York City restaurant by Ferry Porsche and automotive distributor Max Hoffman. The other version has it that the badge was the product of Porsche engineer Franz Xavier Reinspiess.
In 1936, Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota, ran a contest to redesign the company’s logo. At the same time the company had changed the name from Toyoda to Toyota, trading a “voiced consonant” for a “non-voiced consonant.” Not only was it easier to pronounce, the spelling in Japanese characters was now eight strokes, a lucky and auspicious number. The winning logo used stylized Chinese characters inside a circle. In 1989, the logo was again redesigned for the company’s fiftieth anniversary. The three interlocking ovals represent the overlaps of customer expectations, the manufacturer’s commitment to excellence, and, finally, the global potential for expansion.
Ferruccio Lamborghini first devised his company’s logo while visiting the ranch of his friend Don Edwardo Miura, where the latter raised Spanish fighting bulls. Not only was the bull a symbol of power it also directly echoed bitter rival Ferrari’s logo with its horse and black and gold color scheme.
Right up there with Coca-Cola and Nike, Ford has one of the most recognizable brand emblems of any company in the world. The blue oval remains largely unchanged since its update in 1928. The earliest version was a far cry from the icon we see today. It featured a large crest and bold lettering spelling out “Ford Motor Co. Detroit Mich”. In 1907, the simpler cursive Ford was used, followed by the blue oval in 1928.
Perhaps the strangest logo on the list is Alfa Romeo’s. The Alfa is actually an acronym for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. On the left, the red cross in the badge is a common symbol for the city of Milan. On the right, the biscione, an image of a snake with a man in its mouth, is taken from the coat of arms of the house of Visconti. Legend has it that Ottone Visconti (later archbishop of Milan) fought in the Crusades and took the symbol from the shield of a defeated Saracen knight. Other versions hold that his son took the symbol from Germanic legends of the invasion Lombard in the eighth century. Either way the biscione became a common insignia for the city of Milan. The company claims the man in the snake’s mouth (definitely not a Muslim nor a child, as the biscione has been historically interpreted) is not in fact being eaten but is instead emerging from it reborn. The name Romeo was added in 1916 when Nicola Romero bought the company to manufacture military supplies during WWI.