Where do those logos come from?
A logo is the foundation of a brand's identity. The term brand comes from livestock branding, something we're familiar with from the old west in America, but dates back to the ancient Egyptians. Like a cattle brand, a modern car badge conveys ownership and is a visual representation of the company behind the product. It has to be eye-catching and memorable. On top of that, many car logos and badges go back hundreds of years and are full of meaning.
Certain automakers like Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen, and Ford, have simple badges that deliberately remain so. However, even the most simple looking of logos have a story to tell. These are the more interesting ones.
Volvo began as a company manufacturing bearings, which is why the name was created by conjugating the Latin word volvere to mean "I roll." The name was trademarked in 1911, but the badge has even older origins. The circle with an arrow pointing outwards references an ancient ideogram chemical symbol for iron and not, as some assume, the astronomical symbol for Mars and the symbol for the male gender. Volvos's founders, Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson wanted a strong symbol for the brand and were inspired by their time working for a Swedish steel company.
BMW's logo is an iconic piece of design. It's stark and simple, and well known for representing a spinning propeller in front of a blue sky as a reference to BMW's origins as an airplane manufacturer. Except, according to BMW, it doesn't. The quarters of the inner circle on the BMW badge display the State of Bavaria's official colors. However, in a heraldic sense, the colors are reversed from white and blue to blue and white. Local trademark law at the time didn't allow symbols of sovereignty on commercial logos. The propeller myth comes from a single print ad in 1929 featuring an airplane with the BMW logo transposed over the rotating propeller. BMW didn't discourage the mythology and even played into it with more propellor based advertising for its aero engines.
The emblem Porsche uses is based around the coat of arms for the Free People's State of Wurttemberg. However, its origin isn't absolutely confirmed. There are two stories about its creation. One claims Porsche engineer Franz Xaver Reimpies designed it, and the other says it comes directly from the hand of Ferdinand Porsche's son, Ferry. According to legend, Ferry Porsche drew the logo on a napkin while meeting with the legendary American importer, Max Hoffman. What's most likely is that Ferry Porsche brought it up as an idea for a quality stamp of approval.
It's clear that the logo is based on Wurttemberg's coat of arms, and we know the horse was added as Porsche's headquarters was built on a horse-breeding farm in Stuttgart, and Stuttgart's seal features a black horse.
The Rolls-Royce emblem is self-explanatory; however, the Spirit Of Ecstasy hood ornament isn't. Rolls-Royce cars didn't have an ornament until the politician Baron John Montagu commissioned Charles Robinson Sykes to create a personal mascot for his 1909 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Montagu was having a secret love affair with a British actress called Eleanor Velasco Thornton, so Sykes created an image of her with robes fluttering behind as she put her fingers to her lips. The figurine was named The Whisper, and only a few were made.
Figurines on the hood of cars became fashionable, and Rolls-Royce noticed that some of its customers were fixing what the company considered inappropriate ornament to its cars. Rolls-Royce contacted Sykes to create something graceful that would convey the spirit of Rolls Royce motor cars. Sykes used Thornton as his muse again and made the modified version of The Whisper he called The Spirit of Speed, and that we know today as The Spirit Of Ecstasy.
Sykes describes the figurine as: "A graceful little goddess, the Spirit of Ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight and alighted on the prow of a Rolls-Royce motor car to revel in the freshness of the air and the musical sound of her fluttering draperies."
The Cadillac badge has had close to 30 different variations over the last 100 years. However, it has always been based around the family coat of arms of the French adventurer, Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. It's claimed that la Mothe (his title was adopted from the French town of Cadillac) founded Detroit, but history doesn't support the idea he did much more than explore the area.
Ferrari lore says the prancing horse logo directly references the Italian fighter ace and national hero, Francesco Baracca. Enzo Ferrari later met Baracca's mother after his death in 1918 and told Ferrari he should paint the pilot's famous horse emblem on his cars to bring good luck. Ferrari did that and added the color yellow to represent his home city of Modena. The badge's shape has changed back and forth over the decades, but the prancing horse logo has remained the same.
Subaru is the Japanese name for Pleiades star cluster, also known as Messier 45 or Seven Sisters (even though the naked eye from the earth can see up to 14 stars). That explains the stars in the logo, but, as the name suggests, there are seven stars in the cluster. However, the original Japanese name is Mutsuraboshi, which means six stars. From earth and by the naked eye, up to 14 stars in the cluster can be seen, but the idea of six stars comes from Japanese myth that one of the Seven Sisters stars is invisible. It's also said to allude to the five companies that formed together to create Fuji Heavy Industries, which gave birth to the Subaru car company.
It's impossible to pin down exactly how the iconic Chevrolet bow tie logo came into being. The most often repeated story is that Louis Chevrolet's co-founder, Billy Durant, liked a pattern in some hotel wallpaper so much that he tore a piece off with to replicate it for the logo. Another story, from Durant's wife, claims it comes from a newspaper advert for stove coals. A third legend suggests that Louis Chevrolet designed the logo as a tribute to his parents and their homeland of Switzerland.
Surprisingly, one of the most recognizable car brand logos only came into existence in 1989. It took five years to develop and was designed to help Toyota establish a strong identity in markets outside of Japan. There's a lot of marketing speak about the design representing things like the inner ellipses symbolizing the merging of the hearts of customers and the company, or the ellipsis representing the three tenets of Toyota's culture being freedom, team spirit, and progress. Of course, the shapes do form a T, but the logo's clever aspect is that you can trace every letter of the Toyota name in the logo.
In 1899, German engineer and automobile pioneer August Horch founded Horch & Cie in Cologne, Germany. In 1909, he left the company after a dispute and formed a new company using the latin version of Horch, Audi Automobilwerke GmbH. In 1928, Jorgen Rasmussen, owner of the Dampf-Kraft-Wagen (DKW) car company, acquired the majority of shares in Audi. All three companies, Horch, Audi, and DKW, were merged with another vehicle manufacturer called Wanderer in 1937 to form Auto Union AG. Until World War II, all the companies used their existing names and logos. Auto Union used the four interconnected rings emblem on its race cars to reflect the four company's connection, and in 1969 the company's name became Audi NSU Auto Union AG.
Audi's history is a complicated one, and we go more in depth here.