Automobile Logos and the History and Symbolism Behind Them

11 May Automobile Logos and the History and Symbolism Behind Them

You see them every day; whether staring at the vehicle in front of you or at your own steering wheel. Chances are you’ve seen them thousands of times, but never knew the meaning and symbolism behind them – I’m talking about vehicle manufacturer logos. Automobile manufacturer logos, or badges, are oftentimes like a companies family crest: they tell the story behind the name. The history of the car you drive might be more interesting than you know.



BMW, or Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (Bavarian Motor Works), began in 1916 when Karl Friedrich Rapp and Gustav Otto merged their German aircraft factories. They were a major supplier of aircraft engines to the German government during the World Wars and didn’t begin making cars until 1936. Their logo, or “Roundel”, reflects their aviation history. The circular segments of blue and represent the image of a white propeller spinning against a blue sky.



Another German company, Mercedes Benz, chose a three-pointed star to represent their brand. This symbolized their ambition to make vehicles for the land, sea, and air.


In keeping with the theme of threes, Mitsubishi’s logo of three diamonds is a combination of the Iwasaki family crest and the water chestnut crest of the Tosa Clan. The word “Mitsubishi” is an amalgamation of “mitsu” meaning “three” and “hishi” for water chestnut. Mitsubishi also played a role in the second World War as the manufacturer of the infamous Zero of the Imperial Japanese Navy. In addition to automobiles, today Mitsubishi companies produce everything from Kirin Beer to paper products.


The familiar and jovial lines of the VW Beetle seem anything but sinister, but you need not look any farther than the 1933 Berlin Auto Show to see things differently. Adolf Hitler spoke at the show of his idea to create a line of affordable cars, the people’s car, or in German: Volkswagen. Hitler instructed Ferdinand Porsche (we’ll talk about him in a minute) to design a car that would carry 2 adults and 3 children while still getting 42 miles per gallon. He also had one addition request – to design the car to look like a Maikaefer or May beetle, which the failed-artist sketched for Porsche’s inspiration. The iconic VW logo, however, wasn’t designed by Adolf Hitler, but rather a Volkswagen employee who entered it into a company-wide logo design contest. For his efforts he was given a prize of 100 Reichsmarks (about $400).


Soon after WW2, Ferdinand Porsche wanted to create a strong branding identity to represent this automobile company. He merged elements of the coat of arms of Stuttgart (a city which was founded as a stud farm and the home of Porsche manufacturing), the stylized antlers which represented his second home of Swabia, and the red black and gold of the German homeland. The final touch of the stallion rampant in the middle shield also pays tribute to the history of Stuttgart as well as the unbridled power of the automobiles they adorn.


Perhaps less regal, but by no means less enigmatic, is Chevrolet’s iconic “bowtie”. While everyone agrees introduced in 1913 by William C. Durant , the company’s cofounder, that’s where the consensus ends. While Durant himself claims to have torn a piece of wallpaper from the wall of a Parisian hotel for inspiration, his daughter maintained that he sketched the logo on a piece of napkin while eating fried chicken. Durant’s widow had an altogether different account when she said her husband was inspired by a coal advertisement seen while vacationing in Virginia. While the bowtie itself has undergone slight changes over the years, the same basic shape still trims Chevy cars and trucks today.


Our last logo discussed might not be as prevalent as the rest, but it’s history is without a doubt more epic. As legend has it, around the 5th century AD, a large man-eating serpent was terrifying the residents of Milan Italy. The beast was finally slayed by a man named Ottoni Visconti. His heroic act is forever remembered on the coat of arms of Milan and sits on the right side of the Alfa Romeo badging. If you look closely at the mouth of the snake you can see the torso, arms and head of a man being devoured by the monster. Like I said: epic.


Arguably one of the most recognizable graphic designers, Paul Rand (ABC, UPS, IBM),  said it best when he stated “A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it means is more important than what it looks like.”


So look around the next time you’re behind the wheel, logos and the meanings behind them are everywhere.