Automotive Logos: History and Revisionism

by J Kraus

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Newly revised Citroën logo

Word has recently reached me here at Auto Universum world headquarters that Citroën and Lancia both have announced that they were revising their classic logos. This only a year after Fiat found it necessary to “revise” the storied Abarth badge.

The Citroën logo managed to survive 90 years before suffering the current debasement. The classic badge was a representation of the double helical cut gears that were the original product of André Citroën. The dual pattern allowed the silent meshing of normal single bevel gears without generating side thrust. They had been very difficult and time-consuming to manufacture until André obtained patents and licensing rights for new processes that would allow the gears to be machined cheaper and more accurately. When Citroën began building cars in 1919, the logo followed. It adorned all their ground-breaking designs: the Traction Avant, the 2CV, the DS, the GS, and the SM.

Removing the old sharply defined points leaves the new logo appearing very little like gear teeth and a bit flaccid. It in fact calls to mind a pair of boomerangs. I am aware that things are changing quickly, but last I looked, Citroën was still domiciled in France, not Australia.

Numerous Fulvia and Stratos rally cars sacrificed their lives to the glory of the iconic Lancia shield of yore. Nonetheless, management apparently thought the proud symbol needed to be tarted up a notch. In an attempt at improvement, Lancia designers appear to have pilfered the sharp points out of the Citroën dust bin and grafted them to the new Lancia logo, making it look as if the appellation has become ensnared in a medieval torture apparatus.

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Newly revised Lancia logo

In both cases, the logos have become less distinctive, more generic, and less connected to their history. All this activity raises the spectre of other classic logos someday falling prey to corporate meddling. When one sits behind the wheel (the most important of all vantage points), a key element in the field of vision is the manufacturer’s badge, in the position of honour at the centre of the steering wheel.

I favour rich, colourful and representational images that speak of heritage, as opposed to a simple graphical design or stylized initial. Most logos that accomplish this achieve it by incorporating cues to the physical origin of the marque or founder, articulating a sort of automotive terroir. The following examples are particularly successful in articulating both historic expression and aesthetic appeal, and will hopefully escape any attempts at “improvement.”

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Ferrari’s logo, the Cavallino Rampante, is graphically elegant and imposing with its vivid black and yellow colour scheme (traditionally used in nature to denote venomous creatures) and rich with history and symbolism. The Ferrari version of a prancing horse started life on the fuselage of the World War I airplanes of Italian airman Count Francesco Baracca’s fighting squadron. As a young Enzo Ferrari was making a name for himself as a competitive racing driver, the Count’s mother bestowed on Enzo the right to use the Count’s emblem on his personal cars. The horse as a symbol is particularly suited for a sporting automobile: even though the car displaced the horse a century ago, enthusiasts still embrace such equine terms as stable, paddock and thoroughbred.

Ferrari placed the horse on a shield-shaped Modena Yellow background, paying homage to the coat of arms of his native Italian comune, and added the colours of the Italian flag across the upper edge. When Enzo established the Scuderia Ferrari, the Alfa Romeo’s in his team bore the shield of the prancing horse. After World War II, when Il Commendatore began building cars under his own name, the prancing horse appeared (in rectangular form, minus the initials of the Scuderia) on the workshops and all the race and road cars produced. The traditional shield became the symbol of the in-house competitions department, the resurrected Scuderia Ferrari.

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One of most colourful (literally and figuratively) insignias is that of Alfa Romeo. It is one of the oldest, dating back to 1910, and is another of a number of European badges that pay homage to their physical origins. The left side of the logo depicts a red cross on a white field representing the flag of St. Ambrose, 4th century Bishop and patron saint of the city of Milan. The right side contains the figure of a man being devoured by a gargantuan coiled serpent, the coat of arms of the Ottone Visconti family of Milan. It is said that the snake emblem was appropriated from the shield of a man he killed in a duel in the eleventh-century.

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The BMW Roundel dates back to BMW’s origin as a manufacturer of aircraft engines, including one of the first operational jet engines. The company originated as Karl Rapp Motorenwerke, whose logo was originally a circle containing the knight from a chessboard. In 1917 Karl was forced out during a reorganization and the company name changed to Bayerische Motor Werke.

At the same time the logo changed to appear very much as the version we know today with the alternating blue and white colour segments representing the flag of BMW’s home, the state of Bavaria.

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The Porsche Shield, with the alternating bands of red and black and six antlers, is the coat of arms of the state of Wurttemberg.

Overlaid in the centre (with prancing horse) is the coat of arms of Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württenberg, an area once renowned for breeding thoroughbred horses.

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The Maserati Trident replicates the one held aloft by a towering Neptune in the La Fontana del Nettuno at the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, where Maserati was founded by the six Maserati brothers in 1926. This bronze depiction of the God of the Sea, commissioned by Pope Pius IV in the 16th century, was created by the late Renaissance master, Giambologna, best known for his marble masterpiece, Rape of the Sabine Women in Firenza. The colours of red and blue are from the coat of arms of the Comune di Bologna.

The only automotive badge with a fine-art pedigree.

Unfortunately, it is too late to save the next two.

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From the dawn of the 20th century, most General Motors cars proudly displayed the logo of The Fisher Body company, usually on the door sill plates. The logo was a representation of Napoleonic carriage, reflecting the fact that Fisher Body initially in fact built horse-drawn carriages.

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From 1963 until the mid-1980’s, Volkswagens left the factory bearing two logos: the VW insignia encased in a circle on the front, and the Wolfsburg Crest embellishing the steering wheel. The Wolfsburg badge was a private pleasure, reserved for the driver. An ‘insiders’ logo.

The crest proudly displayed the coat of arms of the city of Wolfsburg, the site of Volkswagen headquarters. It depicts a wolf standing guard over Schloss Wolfsburg, the fourteenth-century castle of Count Verner von der Schulenburg, with the waters of the Mittelland canal flowing beneath. Unfortunately, this eloquent and elegant logo is absent from contemporary Volkswagen products. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was stylized to near unrecognizability, then unceremoniously discarded.

While the circular VW logo works well on the exterior of the vehicle, it is nowhere near as enticing to sit behind. VW’s lost some of their distinctly European character and heritage when this crest disappeared, and took on a more innocuous and homogenized persona.

Detailed histories and vintage images of these and other automotive logos can be found here.olfsburg crest, citroën logo, Lancia logo, Maserati logo, BMW logo, VW logo, Volkswagen logo

5 thoughts on “Automotive Logos: History and Revisionism

  1. The new Lancia logo is an affront to the heritage of Lancia. They have removed all the elements of the traditional one: the flag, the 4-spoke steering wheel, and worst of all, the spear. Lancia is Italian for lance (spear).

  2. There are two other logos I would add to this list. Both are colorful and rich in tradition, but in this case, reference not the locale, but the astrological signs of the creators.

    The Lamborghini charging bull (sign of the Taurus) of Ferruccio Lamborghini and the Abarth Scorpione (sign of Scorpio) of Carlo Abarth.

  3. It’s a sad day when a fine logo is ruined by the pen of a neophite advertising manager. They may as well call it “New Coke” and the bear the brunt of laughter cascading around them at the car show.

    I long for the days when tradition meant something.


  4. I should mention the direct link between the Porsche and Ferrari badges. As with the Royal Flying Corps in UK the Italian Air Force sourced many of its Officers from the army and in the case of Baracca from the cavalry – a Piedmont cavalry regiment. The regiment got its horses from Stuttgart (the name derives from ‘stud garden’. Thus the horses on the badge are indeed one and the same. The Porsche crest originated after a lunch in I believe New York when the US importer persuaded old man Porsche that sales in the US would benefit from a badge as well as the hitherto embossed name PORSCHE on the cars. Even more intriguingly back in Germany the man tasked with the finalising the design and registration with the state and municipal authorities had worked in Porsche’s prewar design company and is reputed to be the draughtsman who demonstrated that the design for the kdf wagen (‘strength through joy’ car later ‘Volkswagen’) which at that stage was to have a twin cylinder engine, could be brought in within the Reich’s allocated budget with a 4 cylinder engine.

    Eoin Sloan Cdr RN CEng

  5. Today’s Lancia has little if any connection to the Lancia that brought such creative innovation to the industry. Their automotive output was the product of iconoclast engineers who gave costs a backseat to the finesse of their designs. The logo should have changed back when they had to sell out to Fiat.

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