From Ferrari’s Prancing Horse to Cadillac’s crest, automobile logos appear on everything from steering wheel hubs to giant billboards, and even the lapel pins on the suits of company executives. This kind of flexibility is one of the design elements needed for an effective and strong logo, says Jack Gernsheimer, Creative Director of Partners Design Inc. and author of Designing Logos: The Process of Creating Symbols that Endure.
With over 40 years of advertising experience and more than 500 logos to his credit, Mr. Gernsheimer believes it’s essential to look long-term and to keep things simple when designing a logo. “Not getting too trendy with the type or color” is vital, he says. “When you design a logo, ideally it should endure for decades.” For many automakers, the roots of their logos stretch back over a century and contain enough symbolism and intrigue to fill a Dan Brown novel.
Rolls Royce’s second iconic emblem, the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, is linked to a similarly tragic (but in this case, entirely true) tale. Designed by Charles Sykes in 1911, the model for the emblem was Miss Eleanor Thornton, the personal secretary of John Scott Montagu, the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu and friend of company co-founder Charles Stewart Rolls. In 1915, Miss Thornton died at sea while traveling to India. Yet for almost 100 years her likeness has graced every Spirit of Ecstasy.
The origins of some automotive logos begin even before the dawn of the automobile. The Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star is commonly known to symbolize the use of the company’s engines on land, sea and air. But the star first appeared on a personal note written in 1872 from company founder, Gottlieb Daimler, to his wife. Mr. Daimler used a three-pointed star to mark the location of his family’s new home in the town of Deutz, Germany. His sons adapted the emblem as the Mercedes-Benz logo from 1910 onward.
The Cadillac crest is the coat of arms of French military commander and explorer, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded Detroit in 1701. Simplified and streamlined over the years, the basic style remains intact. “It’s so distinctive, you don’t want to give that away,” says Anne Marie Webb, Design Manager for GM’s Global Brand Identity. When updating one of GM’s brand logos, Webb says she always considers elements “that made it recognizable and strong.” Even then, cultural differences must be considered. The Buick Tri-Shield emblem is monochromatic in every country except China, where the logo maintains red, blue and grey coloring. “They felt [color] had a more premium feel,” explains Webb.
Changing times can also bring big changes in a logo. For more than 80 years, Chrysler has used a wide range of badges featuring ribbon seals, or ribbon seals with wings. But in 1962, Chrysler Chairman Lynn Townsend wanted a more modern and less fussy corporate logo. According to Chrysler’s archives, out of approximately 700 designs, Townsend selected the Pentastar. Many assumed the design symbolized the five divisions of the company (circa the early 1960s). It didn’t; the design simply looked good.
Lawyers, Latin and Luck
Volvo also has Latin roots. Meaning “I roll,” the name was taken from a brand of ball bearings before it was applied to the Swedish automaker in 1924. The Volvo logo is the Roman symbol for iron—symbolizing a warrior’s shield and spear. The diagonal streak across the grille was originally only a mounting point for the badge, but is now “almost as much a brand ID as our iron symbol,” says Daniel Johnston, Product Communications Manager at Volvo Cars North America.
Good luck—and an easier to pronounce name—played a role in the creation of the Toyota nameplate in 1936. In the book Toyota: A History of the First 50 Years, company founder Kiichiro Toyoda “ran a contest for suggestions for a new Toyoda logo. There were over 20,000 entries. The winning entry consisted of katakana characters in a design that imparted a sense of speed… “Toyoda” became “Toyota” because as a design it was esthetically superior and because the number of strokes needed to write it was eight, which in Japan is a felicitous number, suggestive of increasing prosperity.”
Statues, Stars, and Smart Cars
Inspiration for the Subaru name literally came from the heavens—or more precisely, the Japanese name of a star cluster in the Taurus constellation. Six of the stars are visible to the naked eye and—in keeping with corporate identity—this matches the six companies which combined to form Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company. The Hyundai name has an even simpler explanation. In Korean it means “modern,” while the company’s logo is a stylized “H” that also represents two people, the company and customer, shaking hands.
The Smart name seems to speak for itself, no translation needed. It actually happens to be an acronym of Swatch (the Swiss watch company that was a partner during the early stages of the company), Mercedes (the brand’s current custodian), and “Art.” The company’s logo signifies compact, with a “C,” and forward thinking with an arrow emblem.
Yet the story from Porsche Germany differs from this colorful explanation. Max Hoffman did ask Ferry Porsche for a logo, but the emblem was designed by Porsche engineer Franz Xaver Reimspiess—and most definitely not sketched on a napkin somewhere in Manhattan. Does it matter who is right or wrong? Probably not.
A tall tale never hurts, especially when it involves two companies known for building some of the most exotic cars in the world. Car enthusiasts love to stoke the rivalry between Lamborghini and Ferrari, even down to the minutiae of the Lamborghini logo. The design of the gold and black emblem was led by company founder Ferruccio Lamborghini, and the bull located in the center stands for his astrological sign (Taurus). Legend has it that Mr. Lamborghini purposefully copied the Ferrari shield, then reversed that company’s yellow and black color scheme to prod the ego of Enzo Ferrari.
With the key protagonists having passed away, there is probably no way to know for certain how much of this is true. “To our knowledge, this is just a rumor,” said a spokesperson for Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. “The only way to confirm would have been to ask Mr. Lamborghini himself.”