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One story explaining origins of the Chevrolet “bowtie”
logo holds that while visiting Paris in 1907, General Motors founder
William Durant became so intrigued by the pattern of his hotel wall
paper that he tore off a sample and tucked it into his wallet. In 1913,
he pulled it out to create an emblem for the line of cars bearing the
name of race driver Louis Chevrolet, whose name at least sounded French.
It is a story too good to doubt. I enjoy envisioning Mr. Durant, whose
enthusiasm for assembling car companies created the giant company later
wrested from his grasp by a corporate coup, tugging out his wallet from
time to time and contemplating the increasingly tattered wallpaper. The
graphic device it bore was to be rendered in many ways on millions of
vehicles in the years to come, signifying a brand boasting of being,
“The heartbeat of America.” Although automotive brands are among the
most powerful on the planet, most of them have origins at least as
random as Chevrolet’s.
With their beginnings in hood ornaments that initially capped radiators,
auto emblems are frequently obscure in origin and meaning, either
unplanned in development or attributed to committee design. But there is
a whole language and history to auto emblems and the other chrome
“bright work” insignia of the auto world. Models, engines and features
are indicated in graphic form on auto bodies, but the shape of the
vehicle itself is the dominant design—and dominant graphic. Only
recently created brands such as Saturn or Lexus show signs of
professional logo thinking.
Last year Jeep rolled out what the company called its first logo (fig.
6) ever: “A graphic representation of the front grille and windshield of
the Wrangler, the icon of the Jeep brand...depicts the strong styling
cues of the Wrangler...the seven-slot grille, round headlights and
rectangular windshield.” Jeep is one of the best known brands in the
world, that it should not have a logo or emblem is surprising. The
image elicited by the word “Jeep” is clear as a logo. It is of a
vehicle—boxy and basic—and especially its grille.
Logos and emblems are less important in the automotive world than what
auto designers call “down the road graphics,” the features that make a
Jeep or a Ford recognizable without any identifying graphics. The goal
is that from a distance the three dimensional form of a vehicle read
itself reads a flat image, a stop-action graphic. In an ideal design,
the brand of the vehicle should be evident form the any angle. “Down the
road graphics” have to be visible from all angles, including the most
The last generation Ford Taurus took this idea so literally that its
entire body theme was built on the oval of the Ford logo: its
silhouette, the shape of its rear window, even the outline of its
The 1950s and 1960s were great years of exuberant auto graphics—as they
were for auto bodies. I recall from childhood the Oldsmobile
globe-in-a-ring and rocket emblems, and the Rocket 88 symbol—part Werner
Von Braun, part Chesley Bonestell—images that made the unabashed
conation between motoring and space flight. One still sees them at
classic car shows and suburban cruise nights: Pontiacs with Chief
Pontiac, with the colored glass elements melded into chrome, the amber
glass now crazed with age. Studebakers with sinous, Raymond Loewy
designed S’s in rippling red discs. Hudson Wasps (fig. 5) and Hornets
with little chrome blimps of logos. The Chrysler Imperial in cursive
suggesting the signage of a Las Vegas hotel or casino.
Some of the same spirit survives today. Most auto graphics remain chunky
pieces of applied pseudo chrome. But walk through a parking lot these
days and you see more innovation: the softly textured, powedery, brushed
metal cursive rendition of “Cayenne” (fig. 7) on Porsche’s new SUV for
instance, the toothpaste like rendition of neon lights on the Dodge Neon
The best thing about the new Chevrolet Impala is the silhouette of the
leaping ungulate on the side of the rear pillar or sail. In its
stablemate, the Monte Carlo, the Chevrolet bowtie lends shape to the
headlights in a gesture likely to go over the heads of that car’s
youthful market—the model designation is rendered in a flat black
script. This graphic wears a vaguely Iberian look—it could be Southern
California, even Mexican restaurant—suggests the possibility that the
designers believe that Monte Carlo is located in Spain.
In 1998, when Cadillac began creating a new design language for its
models called “art and science,” graphic designer Anne-Marie
LaVerge-Webb of GM’s corporate and brand identity group was called on to
rethink the Cadillac emblem. The new design theme (fig. 2) aimed to
combine suggestions of high technology and elegance through faceted
shapes—inspired by the stealth fighter and by gemstones. LaVerge-Webb, a
graduate of CCS in Detroit had come from an ad agency. She reviewed
the history of the Cadillac emblem, which had appeared in many
variatons over the years.
The designers, she said, reviewed dozens of emblems from grilles and
trunks throughout Cadillac history, including rare items in a special
collection kept in a drawer in the design studio in Warren. “The big
question was whether the change would be evolutionary or revolutionary,”
she said. She describes the choice as evolutionary, but it seems more
dramatic than that.
The original Cadillac logo (fig. 1) is based on the family crest of the
man for whom the company was named, the Gascon officer and minor
aristocrat who founded Detroit in 1701—Antoine de La Mothe, Sieur de
Cadillac. His coat of arms, like many family coats of arms, appears to
have been concocted and borrowed from a more noble neighbor. This may be
appropriate for a car that has often appealed to the self-made man—if
the not the nouveau riche hustler.
For the new logo, however, there was a need to match a new body theme.
Cadillac’s top designers and Wayne Cherry, head of all GM design, were
involved. “Wayne wanted to be sure the logo looked like an essential
part of the grille, not something tacked on,” LaVerge-Webb said. The new
look of the cars was to be high tech, a “milled from solid metal” look.
The group decided on a major changes to the traditional crest and
wreath emblem. The new "Wreath & Crest" logo was unveiled at the
1999 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where collectors and designers
assemble to appreciate collector cars. The shield wore the colors from
Cadillac tradition: red, silver and blue, black and gold on a platinum
background, aimed to suggest high technology. But the pearl-topped crown
was gone as were the merlettes or ducks from the coat of arms of the
original nobleman. The wreath was to be faceted, too, its leaves
reinterpreted in a mechanical form.
The result suggested a Mondrian.
The “merlettes” or ducks had been used in an infamous ad campaign for
the small Cadillac Catera, billed as “the Cadillac that zigs instead of
zags.” One duck was seen swimming in the direction opposite the others.
But on the new logo the merlettes were gone; many saw the ducks as
collateral casualties of the failure of the Catera.
“We wanted to make it less fussy, more technical. The look we were
aiming for was the milled out of a single billet of aluminum. The ducks
felt fussy,” she said. Furthering the high tech theme, the typeface for
model designations is a handdrawn and modified version of Serpentine.
Removing the crown was also read by some as a quiet abandonment of
Cadillac’s long time proud motto, “The standard of the world,” a claim
no longer supported by sales, quality or customer satisfaction ratings.
Beyond the hundreds of drawings for the new logo, considerations of
materials and manufacturing took over. Even a few pennies of cost figure
in acceptance of logo designs as in all parts of the auto industry,
where costs are multiplied over millions of cars. The physical logos and
other graphics are tested extensively over two years for endurance to
heat, cold, and salt damage.
Stereolithography is used to produce models for visual testing for size:
proportion of the logo to body shape and position is critical. Logo
sizes and shapes vary according the vehicle of course: the current
Escalade SUV and truck wears the largest Cadillac logo ever. It is known
internally as “the frisbee.” Cadillac recently introduced the high
performance CTS-V model, with a Corvette engine. It is the first of a
new “V” line whose logo (fig. 3) squeezes and angles the colors of the
basic crest so they suggest a racing flag and attaches them to a V
evoking V shaped engines. The V is tilted as if with speed. The logo for
V-Series models employs the same basic elements. But according to Kip
Wasenko, design director, GM Performance Division, who oversaw the
design of the V-Series logo.”While its colors are meant to depict the
’luxury’ side of Cadillac, its vertical orientation and its
forward-leaning angle to the right are both meant to depict motion and
Origins of some auto logos:
How does graphic design touch Sagmeister’s heart? On the occasion of his first New York retrospective, he reflects on this and other passions.
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