The Language of Auto Emblems
By Phil Patton April 6, 2004
The Language of Auto Emblems
By Phil Patton April 6, 2004
The Language of Auto Emblems
By Phil Patton April 6, 2004

The Language of Auto Emblems

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 oblique.

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 instrument panel.

Automotive graphics tend to trail fashions in corporate and consumer product graphics by several years. They remain tied to their origins in hood ornaments, as on Mercedes, Jaguar and Rolls Royce, whose current Silver Lady drops down into a protective bunker atop the hood of the new Phantom model.

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 subcompact.

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 performance.”

Origins of some auto logos:  

  • Mercedes tri star, the story goes, was inspired by a star Gottlieb Daimler penned on a post card of Cologne, marking where he was living and sent to his children. Today, a rotating tri star is visible on the skyline of almost every German city. Benz brought the wreath when Mercedes and Benz merged in the 1920s. The ring around the tristar was patented in 1923.
  • BMW’s circle with blue and white quadrants is an interpretation of the image of a spinning propeller, powerfully simple as an early airline poster and suggesting the company’s beginnings in building aircraft engines.
  • Alfa Romeo hails back to the city arms of Milan and the 12th century bishop who bestowed them.
  • Porsche borrowed arms from the city of Stuttgart, where it located its headquarters.
  • Ferrari’s rearing stallion has roots in insignia of World War I Italian fighter.Citroen’s chevrons come from stylized gear teeth.
  • Volkswagen’s iconic buttressing of V and W was the creation of an engineer named Franz Reimspiess, the same man who perfected the engine for the Beetle in the 1930s. He won fifty marks in an office competition to do the job. Before WW II, when the car was still Hitler’s “Strength through Joy” car the logo was surrounded by the gear shaped emblem of the German Labor Front that built it.
  • In reviving the super luxury Maybach brand of the 1920s, when it was favored by maharjas and marquis, Mercedes updated an almost Wiener Secession looking “M.”
  • Some logos evolve but, like Time Warner’s infamous “IUD,” are abandoned in favor of their predecessors. In the 1980s Fiat supplanted its pre war, wreathed emblem in favor of a Scrabble piece letter logo. The story goes that Fiat design chief Mario Maioli was driving past the company’s Mirafiori factory one night in 1982 during a power outage. He noted a neon sign outlined against the dark sky, bearing the letters FIAT and was inspired to sketch a new logo.
  • Audi’s four rings have nothing to do with the Olympics but represent the juncture of four earlier German auto companies in 1932. Horch, DKW, Wanderer and Audi were forced to ally by depressed market conditions to form Auto Union. After the war, the company finally took the name Audi which is Latin for “I hear,” a translation of the name of August Horch, founder of the company that bore his name, but kept the Auto Union rings.
  • Best H logo. Hummer dealerships are built around a giant “H” that functions as both entrance and supergraphic visible from highways. But the best H logo was that of Horch, the prewar German company that enjoyed a status not unlike Buick in the U.S. Its H was formed to suggest the gateway of a city or castle—an image of sturdy tradition.
  • Coolest recent logo: Subaru’s five star logo refers obscurely to the keiretsu joined together in the parent company Fuji Heavy Industry. But this the new high performance road rally inspired Sti model (for Subaru Technology) arrived with a hot pink and high (graphic) fashion logo on its horn button, side panels, radiator and two or three more places. The parallel looping lines of the Sti logo suggest hip retro graphics such as old American basketball association expansion team emblems or the recent logo for the band OK Go by Stefan Sagmeister.

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