Drive Flashback: The quirky stories behind some of the world’s biggest car brands’ logos


Story first published in Drive, 11 July 2008

There aren’t many people who worry quite as much about their image as car makers. So it’s curious to discover the bizarre stuff that’s going on in their badges. As one gets deeper into this subject the weirdness just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Admittedly, lots of badges date from simpler times but some of them would strike even Billy Durant as questionable. He was the man who started General Motors and his middle name was Crapo.

So let’s play 20 questions and see if you can get into the brains of the car guys.

Whose badge shows a serpent swallowing a man?

Easy one to start; Alfa Romeo. The red cross on the left is from Milan’s coat of arms, the man-eating serpent on the right is from a Milanese heraldic icon. By combining the two, Alfa hoped to convey locality and invincible power. Alfa badges from earlier, politically incorrect times show the struggling man in far greater detail.


Which British supercar included a tortoise in its badge?

In the 1960s Jim Keeble and John Gordon created the Gordon Keeble GK1, a two-door four-seater with a great, walloping V8 giving it a top speed of about 220km/h. As well as having far too much money they had senses of humour and adopted a badge showing a tortoise in a laurel wreath. Slow and steady did not win their race; Gordon Keeble went bust after just 99 cars.

Which Italian supercar got its badge from a branding iron?

Alejandro de Tomaso was an Argentinian who set up a race-car workshop in Modena, Italy, in 1959 and built his most famous car, the de Tomaso Mangusta, in 1966. The badge is a vertical Argentinian flag backing the brand used on stock on his family estate at the foot of the Andes. With licensing deals, the symbol found its way onto some unlikely cars, including a special edition of Daihatsu’s Charade.

Which brand’s original badge represents a belching smokestack on a factory roof?

Only in South Korea. The badge was used on early Kias and has since been quietly superseded.


Why is Holden’s lion rolling a rock?

This may shock some Australians but Holden did not invent the wheel. In 1928, sculptor George Rayner Hoff designed the lion and the rock inspired by a legend about the wheel’s invention resulting from an Egyptian watching a lion rolling a stone.


Which two car makers use a mythical creature called a griffin in their badging? And which two chose a Viking longboat?

The half-lion-half-eagle was adopted by the struggling Saab in 1987 to mark its merger with cashed-up truck maker Scania, which used it because it represented the Skane district of Sweden where it was based. Saab’s griffin wears a crown but Vauxhall’s griffin grasps a flag. It came from a 1915 company-wide logo competition in which the lucky employee submitting it won two guineas.

As for longboats, Rover used one viewed from the front, the Russian brand Lada shows one from the front three-quarters. Rover had it first.

Why does an Eastern European brand have a badge representing Native American headdress, complete with feathers and arrow?

Skoda’s owner, Volkswagen, spins the Czech Republic car maker’s badge as representative of technical progress, quality, vision, yada yada yada. Actually it was created about 1920 by an executive who needed a new logo for the then machinery and armaments company and looked to his Native American family servant.


Which badge is based on the mapping symbol for iron, which also happens to represent the male gender?

Hooray for Volvo, superimposing its name over a circle with an outward-pointing arrow at its top-right corner. Volvo wanted to suggest tough cars made from quality Swedish steel (the iron bit) to cope with crook roads. Disenfranchising half the world’s car buyers was regrettable.


The interlaced Rs of the Rolls-Royce badge changed from red to black to mark the death of Henry Royce. True or false?

False. The change in 1930 was purely aesthetic; black did not clash with any body colours. Royce’s death didn’t happen until 1933.

Trivia: in 1910 Royce’s partner, Charles Rolls, became the first Englishman to die in a plane crash.


What’s the difference between a leaper and a growler?

Jaguar presents the big cat in two ways. The leaper, the familiar profile of the South American feline mid-pounce, is on the bonnet while the growler is the full-on, snarling face used on the steering wheel boss and wheel hubs.

BMW’s circle has two blue quadrants and two white. They represent what?

The pub arguments this starts in Bavaria! In 1916, BMW made aircraft engines and pilots said they could see alternating blue (sky) and white (cloud) through the propeller. The badge appeared a year later but was said at the time to be derived from the Bavarian flag. So, flag or propeller? It depends on who you talk to at BMW but numbers favour the propeller.


It’s debatable but one thing’s certain; it wasn’t Benz. The Benz Patent Motorwagen of 1886, the world’s first car, didn’t have any badges – in fact, the famous three-pointed Mercedes-Benz star didn’t appear on radiators until 1910. Before that, Benz had used a cog in a wheel from 1903, replaced by a laurel wreath surrounding the name Benz in 1909.

In 1889 Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor acquired exclusive French rights to Daimler’s internal combustion engine and built their first car in 1890. Their “PL” monogram inside a circle was attached to the radiator and is believed to be the first badge ever used on a car. Citroen took over Panhard-Levassor in 1965 and the brand disappeared two years later.


Trivia: Rolls-Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy, the world’s most famous radiator ornament, appeared in 1911 and was created to discourage owners fitting their own. Black cats, devils and even tiny policemen had appeared atop Rolls-Royce radiators and Henry Royce was incensed.

What’s the world’s worst example of badge engineering?

Badge engineering (the rebadging of one product) started in 1946 when Rolls-Royce sold identical cars as Rolls-Royce Silver Dawns and Bentley Mk VIs. Since then we’ve seen Fords masquerading as Nissans, Nissans sold as Holdens and Holdens wearing Toyota badges.

The worst example had to be in 1965 when the British Motor Corporation sold an identical car as an Austin, a Morris, a Riley, a Wolseley, a Vanden Plas and an MG.

Morris’s badge is a visual pun for … what?

Oxford, the city where the company was based. It’s an ox crossing a ford.


What’s the derivation of Ferrari’s prancing horse?

Enzo Ferrari had lots of female friends. The pilot son of the Countess Paolina Baracca used the rearing black horse as a talisman on his World War I plane but was killed anyway. The countess persuaded Ferrari (somehow) to adopt it and it worked much better on cars.

Trivia: Porsche also uses a rearing black horse, the symbol of its home town of Stuttgart.


So Ferrari and Porsche have rearing horses. What about flying horses?

The flying horse appeared on the Pagaso (from Pegasus, the mythical flying horse), a supercar built by a Spanish truck manufacturer to show off the country’s design capability. It was unveiled at the Paris motor show in 1951 to great excitement, but the two Pagasos entered in the 1953 Le Mans 24-hour race failed to start; in a 1954 pan-America race another one caught fire. Production was halted in 1958 after 100 had been built.

Trivia: Mobil’s original symbol was also a flying horse.

Who included his initials in the company badge?

Do egos come any bigger than this? Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, the Lotus guy. Nope.


What has Neptune’s trident got to do with Maserati?

Not a whole lot since 1937. Maserati was started in 1914 in Bologna by six motorsport-crazed brothers (their first car arrived in 1926) and for its first 20 years built nothing but race cars; by 1934 it achieved the strange status of being the world’s largest maker of single-seat cars. The trademark was inspired by the fountain of Neptune in Bologna’s Piazza del Nettuno, which features a bronzed Neptune brandishing his trident. In 1937 the company moved 60 kilometres away to Modena.


Where do Citroen’s chevrons come from?

Citroen is a giant company and has one of the most widely recognised trademarks in the world. Andre Citroen started it with the money he made manufacturing strong, silent gear sets with double-helical teeth. The chevrons represent those double-helical teeth.

Trivia: one of Citroen’s gear sets was used to steer the Titanic.


So, who has the most pretentious badge?

We keep coming back to the Americans. As well as a naked archer (the model was a reluctant office boy), Pierce-Arrow had a coat of arms with helmet and bluebirds.


Cadillac’s included mythical legless, beakless birds called merlettes, a crown and pearls; Packard’s, a gold coat of arms and a helmet topped by (ahem) a pelican.

Oldsmobile started out with a shield and went on to include a winged spur, three acorns, oak leaves, a “lamp of knowledge”, a micrometer and a set square. It then went to a world globe and finally settled on a rocket taking off. Then it went out of business.


Your score? We’ll put one or two correct answers down to dumb luck but if you got three or more, you’re bordering on tragic. Even car enthusiasts will find you hard work. You can find better things to do.

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