It’s nice to believe that cars are purely about performance — that what matters is track times and vehicle specs, not superfluous details like the assembly of letters that make a name. But it’s not. The automotive world works on many levels, even those that can be the most superficial. Every car bears a name and every brand has a badge. And that name and badge make a difference.
Behind the creation and evolution of automotive emblems there’s often tradition, folklore and mystery. So we’ve compiled a bit of history on the most famousautomotive emblems — from A to Z. We can’t cover every car brand, but we can give you the skinny on the major names. True identification in the sea of cars on the road is what every automaker wants, so let’s shed some light on how identification is best achieved.
One of the more intricate and dramatic automotive emblems, Alfa Romeo’s is rife with Italian tradition. The original was created by Romano Catteneo, an Italian draughtsman, and the emblem employs Milanese elements, including the Biscione (shown on the right side of the emblem), which signifies the house of Visconti, Milanese rulers in the 14th century. The left side shows a Milanese red cross on a white background. In 1918, the badge was changed to include a dark blue surround ring with the words “Alfa-Romeo Milano”, along with two Savoy dynasty knots for the kingdom of Italy. In 1925, it underwent further change to include laurels that signify the Alfa P2’s win at the Automobile World Championship, and in 1945 when Italy’s monarchy ended, the Savoy knots were removed. Though at first glance it appears that the crowned serpent is shooting red flames out of its mouth, it’s actually a man being swallowed. This part of the symbol has been very controversial, seemingly symbolizing the Crusades, wherein the Christians defeated the Moors. Suffice it to say the folks at Alfa Romeo don’t much talk about that part.
Carmakers love wings, and Aston Martin is no exception. The British carmaker was founded in 1913 by two gents, Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford. While they were selling Singer cars out of their Bamford & Martin shop, they came up with the idea to produce their own vehicles. Some years later, the name transitioned from Bamford & Martin to Aston Martin Motors, born from Martin’s name and the Aston Clinton Hillclimb in Buckinghamshire, where Martin would drive from time to time, no doubt spiritedly. The logo itself denotes speed (hence the wings), but it has evolved over the decades from simple superimposed A and M letters within a circle to, in 1927, a V-shaped winged logo and then, in 1987, to what is essentially the modern version. The emblem today employs straight wings and the Aston Martin name front and center, and it’s one of the more elegant brand emblems in existence today.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Audi has anything to do with the Olympic Games. The four silver rings symbolize the 1932 merger of the four oldest car manufacturers in Germany: Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer. These four companies formed what is known as the Auto Union, and initially, only Auto Union-specific cars bore the four-ringed badge, while the individual carmakers used their own logos. In 1985, the Auto Union name disappeared forever and the Audi name (a Latin derivative of founder August Horch’s last name, meaning “to hear”) carried forth the same German auto-making spirit. It also carried forward the iconic emblem that lives on today, largely unchanged. Rumors have floated around claiming that the emblem symbolized four driven wheels from the Quattro all-wheel-drive system, but that claim has no historical merit. Still, Audi occasionally has made reference to the connection, capitalizing on a bit of synchronicity.
There are few names in the automotive industry that carry as much panache and gravitas as the British manufacturer Bentley Motors. The emblem shows a bold “B” surrounded by a set of spread wings. The hood ornament is similar, with a large capital B and aviary wings that flow backward. The significance of the emblem is the “B” reflecting the Bentley name, after Walter Owen Bentley, who founded the company in 1919. The winged design links to the original company name, Bentley Aero; the company originally manufactured rotary engines for planes during World War I.
Among Bimmerphiles, the meaning of the BMW Roundel — as it’s officially called (BMW Car Club of America’s magazine title carries the same name) — stirs up a bit of controversy. The latest interpretation (latest being the 1920s) is that the emblem signifies a propeller against a blue sky, representing BMW’s early history of making airplane engines. As attractive as this explanation is, the truth behind the Roundel is far different. When Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (Bavarian Motor Works) was formed out of Rapp Motorenwerke airplane manufacturing in 1928, the emblem reflected the BMW name within a black outer circle, and the blue-and-white Bavarian flag’s panels were placed within a concentric circle at the center. It’s evolved somewhat over the years, but the changes have been minor — font, font color and the appearance of relief in the Bavarian flag checks at the center.
Ettore Bugatti’s initials live on today in his emblem, though an independently held Bugatti company died along with Ettore in 1947. Buggatti was born in Italy, but started his company in 1909 in the Alsace region in France. His cars evoked deep and fluid sculpting, fitting for the Bugatti family’s artistic leanings. After Ettore died, there would be no successor to carry on his name due to the earlier death of his only son. Fewer than 8,000 Bugattis had been built, but the name would not only stand in the record books, but also be revived by Volkswagen, who have since built some of the most exotic automobiles ever made, like the EB110 and the insane Veyron hypercar.
The Cavallino Rampante, or “Prancing Horse” in Italian, is the proud icon of one of the most prolific performance automobile manufacturers in the world, Ferrari. And, in good form, the story of the emblem’s creation is nearly as exotic and storied as the carmaker itself. Enzo Ferrari, the namesake, told a story of his victory at the first Savio circuit, where he met Count and Countess Enrico and Paolina Baracca, parents of an Italian fighter pilot who had flown with a prancing horse emblazoned on his plane. The son had passed, but Enzo was told the symbol would bring him luck (talk about prescience). The horse was adopted and a yellow background was used to represent the town of Modena, the Ferrari factory’s location. But the emblem could not be used for the cars, initially — it was seen only on Ferrari’s publications and papers since Alfa Romeo technically owned the cars. The shield emblem debuted in July of 1932 at the Spa 24 Hours, and in 1963, Ferrari also began to utilize a relief version of the Prancing Horse, which you still see today.
The Ford Motor Company’s emblem hasn’t gone through too many changes since 1903, as they’ve stuck with the Blue Oval from 1927 to now. The original emblem was busy and bore the entire “Ford Motor Co. Detroit, Mich” wording in an amorphously shaped black-and-white background. The script, which has stood the test of time, was penned by Ford Chief Engineer Childe Harold Wills in 1909. The Blue Oval was added nearly two decades later, making the badge what it is today.
The Jaguar emblem began with a nod to the Swallow Sidecar Company, who produced the SS Jaguar in 1935. The emblem featured the characters “SS” in a hexagon on top of an eagle’s wings and tail. The leaping cat emerged in 1945 and hasn’t changed much since then. There’s nothing mysterious or multi-layered about its meaning. The use of the Jaguar cat is meant to convey power and agility, and Jaguar has done an incredible job of communicating that ethos to the automotive world, especially with cars like the new F-Type.
Lamborghini’s logo traces back to founder Ferruccio Lamborghini’s 1962 visit to Don Eduardo Miura’s ranch, where fighting bulls were bred. So heavily influenced by the power and presence of these animals, Lamborghini adopted the bull as the emblem for his cars. Soon after, he began to use the names of fighting bulls and bullfighting terms for his cars (except for the Miura, which was named after the breeder). Names like Islero, Espada, Urraco, Jalpa, Diablo, Murcielago, Gallardo and Aventador evoke the snorting bull emblem. We’re still trying to figure out the Countach, however.
We’d love to elaborate on the meaning of the Lexus emblem, but due to the company’s somewhat limited history (Toyota’s luxury brand made its introduction to the world in 1989) and the simplicity of the emblem, there’s really not much to tell. There was initially some speculation behind the Lexus name, claiming that it stood for “Luxury Exports to the US”, but the truth is that Lexus is derived from the name Alexis, which was the originally planned name. It eventually morphed into “A Lexus” and then just plain “Lexus”. The emblem itself is just a stylized “L” within an oval, nothing more to tell.
Lotus cars, founded by Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman (British enough for you?), had their start as racing and road cars. Chapman’s initials are found on the Lotus emblem, which has been essentially unchanged since 1952 when Lotus Engineering Ltd. was formed. The Lotus name’s origin is unknown. British Racing Green (BRG) is found in the background, largely due to the color’s popularity during Chapman’s era. The surrounding yellow embodies the sunny perspective that Chapman saw for his future. Lotus cars achieved much fame, especially in Formula 1 racing, but the company struggled in the ’70s and early ’80s, then was rescued by the sale of the famed Lotus Esprit Turbo in the US market. Sadly, Chapman died at the early age of 54; but his company, after changing hands a few times, now produces some of the best-handling cars around, namely the Elise, Exige and Evora.
The Maserati Trident logo has remained largely unchanged since it first showed up on the 1926 Tipo 26. The iconic statue of the god of the sea stands in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, Italy, where Oficine Maserati was first headquartered. Neptune stands atop a fountain, powerfully wielding his famous trident scepter — and the statue served as inspiration for the emblem along with Bologna’s colors, red and blue.
Mercedes, a division of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), needed a trademark back in the early 1900s. DMG founder Gottlieb Daimler had passed in 1900, and his sons Paul and Adolf used their father as inspiration — calling upon the star symbol on Gottlieb’s home that represented future prosperity for his growing company. The symbol was well received by the board at Daimler in June of 1909, and both the now-famous three-pointed star and a four-pointed star were registered as trademarks under the Daimler name. It’s the three-pointed star that survived, representing Daimler’s goal of using their motors to power vehicles on air, land and sea. In 1916, the star was centered within a circle and has undergone only small changes, ending with its current silver star in a silver circle.
Nissan’s current logo is a chrome badge with simply “NISSAN” in a silver rectangle centered on a silver circle. Its origins began with the Nissan’s control of DAT Motors, formerly Datsun. The Datsun logo utilized the Datsun name in a blue rectangle over a red circle — Japan’s “Rising Sun” symbol, which appears on the national flag. The existing Nissan logo came about in 2001, utilizing a more modern interpretation of the original emblem, with chrome representing sophistication, modernism, creativity and perfection in Nissan’s products.
It would be hard to find a more attractive emblem than the famous gold, black and red Porsche crest. It is easily one of the most enduring emblems in automotive history, barely changing since its introduction in 1952 when Ferdinand Porsche set out to create an iconic emblem. Its most obvious connection is with the city of Stuttgart, where Porsche is headquartered. The city originated on a stud farm, hence the centrality of the horse. The antlers and the red-and-black stripes in the surrounding quadrants of the shield represent the Kingdom of Württemberg, a former state of the Federal Republic of Germany (Stuttgart is the capital). The unchanged appearance of the Porsche crest over the past several decades is consistent with the enduring legacy of its most iconic model, the 911, where the crest is displayed at the tip of its legendary flat nose.
All of these companies are icons around the world. The badge is more than just a name, it’s a story, it’s their history, and most of all it’s their legacy to drive forward.