A picture may paint a thousand words, but the iconographs that identify car brands go even further. At the blink of an eye they associate lumps of alloy, steel, leather and rubber with not only a brand’s life-story but also a whole swag of ideals, values and lifestyle associations.
The stories behind these brand icons have taken on a life of their own. So much so, that some have become urban myths. After all, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Arguably the most identifiable of all automotive brand symbols is Mercedes-Benz’s three-pointed star. Supposedly the three-pointer was meant to symbolise the founder Gottlieb Daimler’s ambition of “universal motorisation” in the air, on the water and, of course, on the roads of Europe. The truth of the choice of the tristar potentially has much more prosaic origins.
The company’s official history states, when searching for a trademark for the already successful company, Paul and Adolf Daimler (Gottlieb’s sons) remembered that their late father had once used a star as a symbol.
As far back as 1872 Gottlieb had “marked a star above his own house on a picture postcard of Cologne and Deutz, and had written to his wife that this star would one day shine over his own factory to symbolize prosperity”.
The tristar was registered (along with a four-pointed design) in 1909, then in 1916 a band joining the tips was added, in which four small stars and the word Mercedes were integrated. The finished object, still very recognisable as the symbol today became a registered trademark in 1923.
Rolls Royce has a very recognisable double-R badge but the story behind that is nowhere near as interesting as that behind the brand’s other enduring symbol, The Spirit of Ecstasy.
The Spirit is also known as The Whisperer, a nod to the fact the statuette was the celebration of a secret but ultimately tragic love affair between a British aristocrat and his secretary. The story has even been turned into a film.
The who were Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Eleanor Thornton. The when was the turn of the 20th century when accounts say Montagu fell in love with ‘Thorn’ when she started work for him on his magazine, The Car Illustrated.
The symbol that tops the radiator on (almost) every Rolls Royce depicts Eleanor “in fluttering robes, pressing a finger to her lips to symbolise the secret of their love”, official histories state.
Montagu’s wife knew of and condoned the affair and even became friends with Thornton (who would also have Montagu’s child) but the whole arrangement was kept secret from all but a very small circle of friends.
The tragic end came during WWI when the ship Montagu and Eleanor were travelling on was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Though he survived, the love of his life went down with the ship.
We think of ‘manufactured’ brands as a modern invention but the Swedes did it with their national treasure many, many decades ago. No, not ABBA, Volvo!
When it came to a symbol the marketeers wanted something strong, masculine and Swedish. Their choice was the ancient chemical symbol for iron – a circle with an arrow pointing diagonally upwards to the right.
Sweden was one of the pioneers in complex metallurgy and the icon also symbolised the planet/god Mars in Roman mythology – hence the masculine overtones.
Ironic, now, that Volvo is one of the auto brands that boasts the highest percentage of female purchasers worldwide.
Archrival BMW also registered a circular icon in the open decades of last century (1917) – very recognisably linked with the blue and white ‘Roundel’ that is still used today.
Many would have that the logo is a representation of a spinning aeroplane propeller but this is one of those urban myths. In fact, the truth is as simple as BMW’s name, Bayerische Motoren Werke [Bavarian Motor Works].
The blue and white are drawn directly from German state Bavaria’s flag. They are reversed in position as it was then illegal within Germany to use national symbols in a commercial trademark.
Real BMW aficionados suggest the idea that the badge symbolised a spinning prop comes from a 1929 advertisement which featured a biplane with the image of the roundel in its propeller. That timing corresponds with the company gaining the rights to build Pratt & Whitney aero engines under licence.
Closer to home Holden’s lion badge has a long history that reportedly dates back to 1926 when the company (then a body builder) commissioned a new logo based on the ‘Wembley Lion’.
Egyptology was all the rage then and the lion was the symbol of London’s 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition. Added to it was reference to the fable that ancient man came upon the idea of the wheel after observing a lion rolling a stone. Both the lion and the stone can be seen – even in the most modern iteration of the Holden badge – one that will see out the local production of cars wearing it.
Two of the most iconic automotive badges are, legend suggests, inextricably linked – those of Ferrari and Lamborghini.
The Ferrari ‘Cavallino Rampante’ badge is linked to the symbology used by an Italian WWI airforce ace, Count Francesco Baracca. Accounts say a young Enzo Ferrari met the flyer’s parents who ‘bequeathed’ the symbol to the young racer as a good luck totem.
It should be noted that Baracca’s good luck ran out before this point – he’d been shot down and killed.
Still, Ferrari made the symbol his own by keeping the black stallion but adding the yellow of his Modena hometown to the background.
Nearly half a century later one of Ferrari’s best customers, Ferruccio Lamborghini, fell out with the notoriously cantankerous Enzo to such a degree he decided to start making cars in competition.
Another urban myth suggests that Lamborghini’s first move was to poke serious fun at the iconic Modena brand’s logo. His choice – a rampant yellow bull on a black background…