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Idle Worship: The History And Evolution Of Car Logos

Motor vehicles are absurdly complex machines made up of hundreds of parts. And while, to most folks, they are merely the sum of those parts and little else, the people who built those vehicles feel quite differently. To them, every minute detail has been pored over to create the full experience of that vehicle, both inside and out. And the finishing touch to any automobile is its emblem.

Emblems are like artist signatures for car makers. That is to say, they aren’t a necessary functional part of the overall car, truck, or SUV – yet they do serve to let the world know who is responsible for its creation. And while those emblems might seem like little more than flourishes, many of them actually have a long and storied history, deep symbolism, and have gone through a lot of changes over the years. To illustrate this, we’ve put together the following collection of 28 noteworthy car brand logos, their permutations over the years, and their symbolical significance.

Alfa Romeo

One of the busiest of logos on our list, Alfa Romeo’s emblem is steeped in historical and symbolical significances. And while the logo is quite busy, the story is rather uncomplicated. First unveiled in 1910, the Alfa Romeo symbol is separated into two parts. On the left, we find a red cross on a white background – the symbol of Milan, Italy – the city from which Alfa Romeo hails. On the right, there’s a snake with a man emerging from his mouth (meant to symbolize rebirth and not a fire-breathing dragon or a serpent devouring a man, as commonly misconstrued). This is the crest of the Visconti family, one of the most important bloodlines and the former rulers of Milan. There is a little bit of controversy surrounding this symbol, however, as some believe that the snake is, in fact, eating a Muslim man – as the Holy Roman Empire had gone to war with what would become today’s Middle Eastern Muslim nations during the Crusades.

Aston Martin

Founded in 1913 by Robert Bamford (not related to the watch brand) and Lionel Martin, Aston Martin was originally known as Bamford & Martin Ltd. They changed their name to Aston Martin in 1914, after Lionel Martin won the Aston Hill Climb in Buckinghamshire, England. Their first logo was a simple circle encompassing the letters A and M. However, the brand was forced to shut down in 1925 due to financial hardship. It was resurrected in 1926 by a group of investors, at which time the circular emblem was abandoned in favor of the first iteration of the brand’s iconic wings. Since that time, the logo has seen minor changes but remained true to the winged emblem – even when the brand was purchased by English industrialist, David Brown. Today, the Aston Martin wings are one of the most iconic and recognizable automotive symbols in the world.


While just about all of the car brands on this list have a unique and interesting story, none is perhaps as directly tied to its emblem as Audi. You see, Audi actually got its start way back in 1899, when August Horch founded Horch & Cie. in Cologne, Germany. Shortly thereafter, due to “differences opinion” with the company board, Horch left to start a new brand. But, since his surname was already in use by the brand he has just left, he chose instead to name his new company Audi. Eventually, in 1932, Audi would amalgamate along with three other brands – DKW, Wanderer, and (of course) Horch – to become what would eventually evolve into today’s AUDI AG. Representative of that amalgamation, the present logo is a symbol of the unity amongst those four original brands.


A timeless classic, Bentley is one of the most highly respected car manufacturers in the world – and is held in especially high regard in popular culture. Interestingly, though they were originally formed way back in 1919, their emblem has changed very little, if at all. Indicative of the brand’s beginnings as an aircraft engine manufacturer, the icon consists of a pair of bird’s wings, which feature an uppercase B at their center – clearly meaning “Bentley.” There’s not too much else to say about this symbol, which is also what makes it so great. It’s beautiful in its design but also easy to understand and recognize. And sometimes, that’s what a brand needs to stand the test of time from a design perspective.


For approximately 90 years, BMW’s logo has remained largely unchanged – with the exception of one brash outlier during the 1970s. What’s especially interesting about that, however, is that it isn’t entirely clear exactly what the symbol is meant to represent – even amongst the brand’s own top brass. There are two schools of thought regarding its origins. First, it’s believed that the opposing blue and white quarters are meant to be representative of an airplane propeller rotating against a clear blue sky – a claim to which credence is lent due to the fact that the brand can find its origins in aircraft engine manufacturing. The other story, however, insists that the blue and white is meant to symbolize the Bavarian flag – cleverly disguised so as to avoid the Trademark Act’s prohibition of the use of national symbols in company logos. The likeliest truth is that it is some combination of these two stories.


Buick has experienced bit of an identity crisis over the years, switching between several logos that don’t quite work together thematically. But – after cycling through badges with just their name, one with a hawk, and one with a simple singular coat of arms, they kept coming back to the three-shield logo that would stick with them through today. Introduced 55 years ago, the three-shield insignia can be traced back to the heritage of brand-founder, David Dunbar, and is representative of his familial history across the pond in Scotland. Apart from that, however, there’s not too much else to say about this logo – though it does serve as an instantly recognizable icon, which is likely the most important factor to the brand.


If you’ve ever seen Bugatti’s emblem, you may have wondered why it was an EB instead of just a B. The reason is fairly simple: Ettore Bugatti, the brand’s namesake, are E and B. What’s especially interesting about this story, however, is that the original Bugatti coach-building company ceased to exist in 1947 when Ettore died. As he had no heir, there was nobody to carry on his name. Then, Volkswagen came along and revived the brand to build some truly amazing hypercars, bringing the name back to life with it. As a tribute to Ettore Bugatti, they continue to use the same emblem today. This symbol remains one of the most unchanged in the car world, which seems like a fitting tribute.


Over the past hundred years, the Cadillac logo has been altered and/or redesigned more than 30 times – perhaps more than any other automotive brand logo in the world. But, while the form has been altered, sometimes significantly, there have always been a few commonalities. Namely, each and every one features the brand’s crest, or coat of arms, in some form or another – a tribute to the family that started the brand (one which can be traced back to the Crusades). Most of the icons have also featured a wreath and a crown, both more embellishments than holders of any real significance – which is likely why they have been done away with in recent years. Still, the familial crest and color scheme remain, even with the brand’s Mondrian-inspired stylized emblem of today.


Known colloquially as the bow tie, Chevrolet’s instantly-recognizable emblem doesn’t have any particular historical significance to the brand nor its founders, Billy Durant and Louis Chevrolet. However, the story is still steeped in a bit of mystery. One report dictates that Durant, while vacationing in Paris, France, saw the shape in a pattern on the wallpaper of his hotel. In this version of the story, he liked the icon so much, he stole a bit of the wallpaper and took it home to show his friends and coworkers. Another story, told by none other than his wife, states that he saw the icon in a newspaper advertisement for stove coals. Finally, another still suggests that Louis Chevrolet personally designed the logo as a tribute to his parents’ homeland, Switzerland. It is difficult to say which of these rings true, but there’s no denying the significance of both this legendary car brand and the impact of their logo on the world.


While many brands can trace their logos to a familial history, some of the most impactful have even stranger stories. Ferrari fits into that latter category. So the story goes, Ferrari’s famous Prancing Horse icon is a direct reference to a similar logo that was painted upon the aircraft of Italian fighter ace and national hero, Francesco Baracca. So the story goes that Enzo Ferrari actually met Baracca’s mother following the pilot’s untimely death. She told him that he should paint the emblem upon his cars to bring them good luck. Being the patriot and fan that he was, Enzo obliged, adding just a splash of yellow to pay homage to his place of birth, Modena. Since that time, the logo has remained virtually unchanged – with some exception to its shape (sometimes a shield, sometimes a rectangle).


Though often given credit, Henry Ford did not actually invent the automobile. He did, however, create an empire out of what was otherwise little more than a novelty and deserves credit for making automobiles what they are today. In contrast to many other car brands on this list, Ford does not have a script-free symbol acting as their emblem, instead opting for what looks like Henry Ford’s signature. The truth, however, is that this emblem was created in 1907 by the company’s first chief engineer/designer Childe Harold Wills – after Ford decided he wanted something less busy for his vehicles than the brand’s original circular emblem. Since then, the logo has changed slightly here and there – including the addition of the oval in 1912 – but that familiar script has remained virtually untouched.

Honda Motorsports

For as long as the brand has been manufacturing cars, Honda’s emblem has been a simple H captured within a trapezoid. With only slight changes to the overall proportions, that logo has remained unchanged. Their motorsports motorcycle-building sub-brand, however, has seen a wide variety of emblem alterations over the years. One constant you might recognize, however, is the presence of a wing in the symbol. Apparently, the brand’s founder, Soichiro Honda, was inspired by the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, and chose to incorporate her angelic wing into the symbol. While the color, shape, and font have changed over the year, the wing has been ever-present.


At first glance, you might think that the Hyundai symbol was stylized as such to avoid confusion with the likes of, say, Honda. You’d be wrong, however, as there is actually a great deal more to it than that. For instance, the oval that encapsulates the logo is intended to insinuate a lastingness – similar to the symbol for infinity – something the brand hopes to achieve. The H itself, however, is a heavily stylized symbol meant to look like two people shaking hands, illustrating the brand’s overall friendliness and accessibility. As mentioned before, sometimes the simplest of logos can be the most impactful.


Originally founded as the Swallow Sidecar Company, the British car manufacturer’s name wasn’t changed to Jaguar until 1935. In fact, their symbol wasn’t a jungle cat, either – it was a simple SS, which was done away with in 1945 for the obvious negative political connotations brought on by WWII. It was during that period that the iconic “Jumping Jaguar” was added to their vehicles, a clear and simple representation of the brand name – but with just the right amount of sleekness so as to insinuate both speed and stylishness. Like some of the other big-name sports car brands on this list, their icon has changed very little since.


Like Ferrari, Lamborghini’s bull isn’t actually of historical significance to the brand or its founder, but it does tie in directly to a particular event in Ferruccio Lamborghini’s life. Apparently, back in 1962, Lamborghini visited a ranch owned by Don Eduardo Miura – at which he observed the sheer dynamism of the strong and imposing animals. So taken with them, he created his car brand’s emblem in their image and even used the names of famous fighting bulls as the names for his sports cars. In another curious similarity to Ferrari, the logo hasn’t changed much at all – with exception given to some color variations over the years.

Land Rover

At the present time, Jaguar and Land Rover both fall under the same parent company umbrella, but the story with their logos is quite different. In fact, Land Rover’s original icon was hardly an icon at all. Rather, it was a metal nameplate with the word’s “Land Rover” bisected by a zig-zagging line – suggested to be representative of the brand’s motto, “Above and Beyond,” and representative of their 4x4s’ capabilities. In 1989, when the metal nameplate was finally replaced by a proper logo (the iconic green oval), much of that original styling remained the same. However, the line no longer bisects the words but is instead hinted at by a pair of what look like apostrophes.


A sub-brand of the Ford Motor Company, Lincoln actually started its life as a solo venture created by Cadillac co-founder Henry M. Leland in August 1915. After WWI, the company was acquired by Ford and has remained a sub-brand ever since. What’s perhaps most interesting about this brand’s logo, however, is how it came to be. You see, Continental was actually a separate line from Lincoln, but the two were merged in the 1950s – resulting in the creation of the Lincoln Continental luxury sedan. It was at that time that the logo was created – a representation of Continental’s star, though the brand name itself had been dissolved.


In 1926, Maserati’s first vehicle, the Tipo 26, was unveiled to the world. Even back then, the grand prix vehicle bore the brand’s iconic trident logo upon its facade. And, honestly, it hasn’t changed much at all in the nearly-hundred years since. Like Lamborghini, there have been slight variations in color and format, but the overall logo is still mostly the same as it was back then. The emblem, as you might gather, is meant to represent the trident of Neptune, Roman god of the seas. But the reason for it is a little more personal. You see, the brand’s first HQ was in Bologna, Italy – in which the Piazza Maggiore features a statue of the god holding that very trident above his head. At the suggestion of a family friend, Mario Maserati – the most artistic of the Maserati family – used this statue as inspiration for the logo.


Whereas many European car brands have symbols that date back centuries, Asian car manufacturers appear to have more of a view toward the future. Sometimes, as is the case with Mazda, this means a lot of logo changes – sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. The brand’s original logo consisted of a triple-stacked M, for “Mazda Motor Manufacturer,” with wings meant to suggest things like speed and agility. From the ’50s to the ’70s, it was simplified to just “Mazda” in a stylized font. Then, things took an odd turn when it was changed to a strange circle encapsulated by a diamond encapsulated by yet another circle. Eventually, this icon was abandoned in favor of the stylized winged M you see on the brand’s vehicles today.


Back in the early 1900s, Mercedes-Benz (then just Mercedes and a division of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft) needed to create a trademark logo. Inspired by their recently-passed father, brothers Paul and Adolf Daimler chose two symbols – a three- and four-pointed star, both inspired by the star upon their father’s home that was meant to represent future prosperity for his company. The three-pointed icon survived, as it better illustrated the purpose of the brand to create vehicles for land, sky, and sea. This icon has changed very little since 1916.


Interestingly, Mitsubishi has one of the longest-lasting logos of any Japanese car company, having kept their three-diamond logo since it was first created by Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of the old Mitsubishi organization. This design is meant to be a stylistic representation of the brand’s name – which is a combination of the Japanese words for “three” and “water chestnut.” The word Mitsubishi is also a long-time Japanese term for the rhombus, or diamond, shape.


You might not know that Nissan and Datsun were two parts of the same whole, with Nissan creating vehicles in Japan and Datsun releasing those for export. It’s also interesting that the Datsun logo was the first of the two that featured the brand name encapsulated within a rectangle in front of a red circle – like the one on the Japanese flag. Once Datsun was discontinued, Nissan adopted the same logo. Over time, the coloring was eliminated with and we were left with the silver Nissan rectangle with its Rising Sun circle we have today.


Originally founded in 1931, Porsche wouldn’t actually get their iconic logo until 1952 when brand founder Ferdinand Porsche set out to create an unforgettable emblem. Virtually unchanged since it was originally created, the logo was based on the coat of arms of the Free People’s State of Württemberg of former Weimar, Germany – of which Stuttgart (the city from which Porsche is from) is its capital. The horse at the center of the emblem is also representative of Stuttgart, as the city was originally a stud farm. Like the emblem itself, some of Porsche’s most iconic automobiles are also, similarly, virtually unchanged over the course of decades.


Like many other European automotive brands, Rolls-Royce’s iconography has varied over the years but retains a few commonalities. Originally a lot busier, the oldest of the brand’s logos looked a lot more like a familial crest. As time went by, the design was refined until just the central “RR” icon remained. What’s perhaps most interesting about this brand’s story, however, is that there’s a second icon that is perhaps even more associated with the brand than their “RR” logo. We mean, of course, the “Spirit of Ecstasy” ornament found on the hood of their vehicles. Surprisingly, the hood ornament was included at the behest of the brand’s customers and does not carry any significance other than to symbolize speed and grace.


Known in the west as the “Seven Sisters,” Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster – hence the stars in the brand’s logo. If you were to count them, however, you might notice there are only six stars on the icon. According to mythology and tradition, only six of the seven stars are visible. Originally, this logo had a slightly different format, though it hasn’t changed drastically.


Believe it or not, but Toyota actually started as “Toyoda” – as it was a rendering of a Japanese family name into western characters. The change in spelling and pronunciation came in 1936 when the brand ran a competition to create a new logo. With the pronunciation of Toyota preferred over “Toyoda” by the company show-runners and the luck associated with the 8-stroke characters of the Japanese lettering of this new version, the name of the company was officially changed. They wouldn’t get their present logo, however, until 1989. The well-known oval icon, while thought to be an artistic take on the brand’s name, actually stands for the trust and love between brand and customers, as well as the bright future of the company. And that symbol is backed-up by their incredibly reliable pickup trucks, cars, and SUVs.


One of the simplest stories in car emblem history, German automotive manufacturer, Volkswagen, is as uncomplicated in their branding as they are with their intentions. You see, Volkswagen is actually a portmanteau of the German words for “people” and “cars.” The intention of this name is to express that their vehicles are intended for everyone – meaning they are not inaccessible to the average joe. With similar simplicity, their logo consists of a V and W, one on top of the other. Simple, clean, straightforward – just like their vehicles.


There are folks out there who might tell you that Volvo’s symbol is intended to mimic that of the symbol for the male gender. This is simply not the case. Instead, the logo was selected for what it originally represented: the alchemic symbol for iron. It is mere happenstance that this symbol is also associated with Mars and men. The brand’s name is, similarly, surrounded by confusion. Assumed to be a Swedish name or word, it’s actually a permutation of the Latin word meaning “I roll.” While the story is a bit bewildering, the emblem is no less iconic.