Before brand management and public relations and marketing and advertising firms dominated the process of creating company logos, there were family crests and city flags and mistresses to draw inspiration from. Here’s a look at the history of some of the world’s most iconic car logos.
No, that’s not a weird cowboy hat on the front of that Camry. In 1989, to mark the company’s 50th anniversary, Toyota redesigned its logo, incorporating three overlapping ovals, with the inner two forming a stylized T and a steering wheel, as well as representing how the “customers' expectations [horizontal] and car manufacturer's ideal [vertical] . . . are firmly interlocked to form the letter T," according to the company. The outermost oval represents the world embracing Toyota.
There is also a hidden meaning inside the logo. Popular theories say that owing to the company’s founding as an industrial loom maker (Toyoda Automatic Loom Works), the inner oval is actually a needle, leaving space for an invisible thread to pass through. The internet is also full of claims that you can spell out Toyota using just the logo.
The American luxury takes its name from French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit, and the company crest is based on the Cadillac family coat of arms (which the explorer may have invented himself). The symbols included three colored bands (representing boldness, virtue and valor), a crown, a wreath, and several small Merganser ducks. Earlier versions of the Cadillac logo included the ducks, which have since been removed.
Like many automobile manufacturers, Audi consolidated multiple companies into a single business during the 20th century. An early logo shows the four original company names (Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer) each within their own ring. The text disappeared, but the interlocking rings have remained.
Contrary to Jamal Wallace’s sardonic explanation in the film Finding Forrester, the blue and white roundel does not represent a plane's white propellers against a blue sky in a nod to Bavarian Motor Works’ roots in constructing aircraft engines in the early 20th century. That myth originated with a 1929 magazine advertisement, BMW spokesman Tom Plucinsky told The New York Times in 2010. The real story is less exciting—the blue and white are merely an ode to the Bavarian flag.
In Japanese, subaru is the name of the Pleiades star cluster M45 in the Taurus constellation, one of the nearest star clusters visible to the naked eye. Officially, the first president of the company felt it was a beautiful Japanese word, but it might also be related to the six companies that merged in 1953 to form Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru.
Accounts differ on what inspired Chevrolet and General Motors co-founder William C. Durant to help him create the car company’s famous bowtie logo. Some say Durant had a dream stirred by a wallpaper design from a French hotel; or, according to his daughter, it was a random design he sketched on a tablecloth. Other origin stories say it was "borrowed" from a newspaper advertisement seen by Durant and his wife, Catherine, on vacation in Hot Springs, Virginia in 1912, or was modeled on the flag of Switzerland, in honor of the birthplace of his partner, Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet.
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft trademarked a pair of star logos in 1909 for its German automobiles, one with three points and one with four, but the four-pointed star was never utilized. The iconic three-pointed star was inspired by a symbol Gottleib Daimler would use, and represented the hopes of Mercedes-Benz, renamed after a 1926 merger, to establish motorized domination in three places: The sea, air and land. Kind of like Navy SEALs.
The mythical red griffin crowned in gold represents the Swedish province of Scania, or Skane, the original location of Swedish car and truck manufacturer AB Skania-Vabis, which merged with Saab Automobile in 1969. The griffin symbol was not used on Saab vehicles until 1984. After GM bought Saab in 2000, they redesigned the logo, and under some form of agreement both companies used the griffin, even though the trademark stayed with Scania. After Saab’s bankruptcy and eventual purchase by National Electric Vehicle Sweden, Scania decided to not let the new Saab use the logo. As a result, Saabs today have a simple text logo.
The ancient symbol for the Roman god Mars has long been associated with weapons and warfare, and is also the alchemist symbol for iron. The Swedish company, known for its safe, sturdy vehicles, adopted the iron badge when it began manufacturing cars in the 1920s.
The Italian company was headed by three brothers, but it was a fourth Maserati brother, artist Mario, who created the company logo. He designed a trident based on the statue of the Roman god Neptune in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, and added red and blue to acknowledge that city.
The Porsche logo combines elements from two coats of arms: the Free State of Württemberg in western Germany, and its former capital, Stuttgart.
The Detroit-based company’s first real logo borrowed heavily from the ancestral homeland of founder David Dunbar Buick, incorporating elements like a Scottish coat of arms, including a large crest, gold cross, and deer head. In 1959 the red, white and blue tri-shield emerged, representing the LeSabre, Invicta, and Electra models that made up the day’s Buick lineup.
Italian racecar driver Enzo Ferrari was asked to paint a prancing horse (cavallino rampante) on his vehicles to honor fighter pilot and World War I hero Count Francesco Barraca, who painted a similar horse on his plane. Ferrari founded the Scuderia Ferrari racing team in 1929 and kept the horse emblem, adding bright yellow to the background for his home city of Modena.
means three in Japanese, while hishi, or bishi, refers to the diamond- or rhombus-shaped water chestnut plant. The Mitsubishi logo references the family crest of founder Yatoro Iwasaki and the logo of his first employer, the Yamanouchi, or Tosa Clan.
Originally a French grain mill, Peugeot diversified into steel production, tool and bicycle making, and, by the late 1890s, automobile manufacturing. Brothers Jules and Emile commissioned a logo in the mid-19th century to be used on all its products. The lion emblem was first added to a car model in 1905, and has become increasingly stylized since then, with the more abstract lion first appearing in 1975.
A luxury spinoff from Nissan, Infiniti debuted two models in 1989, and the Japanese brand furthered the “infinity” concept in its logo with two central lines in the center of a badge, symbolizing a road leading into a vast unknown landscape.
The “Spirit of Ecstasy” mascot that sits atop the front grille of the British luxury cars is thought to be taken from an earlier sculpture called “The Whisperer,” modeled on actress Eleanor Thornton. Sculptor Charles Sykes was commissioned to create a logo for Lord John Montagu’s Rolls-Royce, who supposedly urged Sykes to utilize Thornton as his muse. Later, Sykes was asked to create a mascot for all Rolls-Royces, and gave them a modified version of the one he made for Montagu. Accompanying Montagu, who was dispatched to India during World War I, Thornton—who may or may not have been in a relationship with the married Montagu—died in 1915 when the SS Persia was struck by a torpedo from a German U-Boat. The “Spirit of Ecstasy” would not become standard on Rolls-Royces until the 1920s.
The classic Chrysler pentastar, created in 1962 by designer Robert Stanley, was phased out after the company was purchased by Fiat in 2014. The modern wing logo is based on the original Chrysler logo, which has been used at various times since the company’s inception in 1925 and references the Roman god Mercury.
19. Alfa Romeo
Quite possibly the most mysterious car logo, the cross and man-eating snake can be traced to the Italian city of Milan and its former ruling family, the Viscontis. As Jalopnik reported, Otone Visconti, a Milanese Knight, fought in the First Crusades and may or may not have defeated a Saracen in battle and taken the symbol of a snake devouring a man from his vanquished foe’s shield. Alfa, for its part, claims that the snake isn’t eating the man, but that the man is instead coming out of the snake renewed.
Legend has it that as the company was being conceived, founder Ferrucio Lamborghini was on the Miura Ranch, where bullfighting bulls were bred. A noted bullfighting enthusiast, founder Ferrucio Lamborghini’s birthday also fell under the Taurus astrological sign.
All images courtesy of Getty Images.