Logo logic: What's behind the world's most famous car brands

One of the most effective advertising platforms is on four wheels. “The car is a moving billboard,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for AutoTrader. “The logos on it allow you to identify it and have some perception of what it stands for.”

What it stands for is a lot more than marketing. Even a simple letter can be fraught with meaning, such as the H in Hyundai allegedly symbolizing two people shaking hands. A basic word wrapped in a blue oval can be worth billions: Ford pledged its iconic logo as collateral along with other assets in 2006 to secure $23.5 billion in loans and avoid a government bailout.

Some logos are just cool, like the pouncing Jaguar or Lamborghini’s raging bull or the man being birthed from a snake in Alfa Romeo, and others are part of a symbolic system that transcends language borders to evoke brand identity in a global marketplace, such as the circular headlights and seven-slotted grille as the face of the Jeep brand.

Consistency is key. “The logos and design cues establish what the brand is,” Krebs said. “A company that consistently changes those isn’t clear on its mission.”

Here’s a look at the most compelling and mysterious of automotive logos.

Rolls-Royce

Perhaps the most distinctive and prized logo of any company, the Spirit of Ecstasy is not just the symbol of a woman leaning in, as it were. It is based on Eleanor Thorton, who was immortalized in 1909 for her pioneering spirit and love of racing as part of the Automobile Club of Great Britain that included Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. The retractable figurine is meant to “encapsulate the pursuit of personal liberty, and freedom from conformity,” according to Rolls-Royce press materials.

Subaru

Celebrating its 50th year in the United States in 2018, Subaru means “unite” in Japanese and was the name bestowed on the brand by parent company Fuji Heavy Industries. It is also the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus. Despite being known as the “Seven Sisters,” a name derived from traditional Greek mythology, there are six stars in the sky visible by the naked eye. Same with the logo.

Chevrolet

The mysterious Bow Tie: Did Chevrolet co-founder William C. Durant find inspiration from Persian wallpaper design or did it have more formal origins back in 1913? "I think it was between the soup and the fried chicken one night that he sketched out the design that is used on the Chevrolet car to this day," his daughter Margery Durant wrote in her 1929 book, “My Father.” Whatever the case, the logo has been a picture of consistency since the letters were dropped by the late 1930s.

Mercedes-Benz

Perhaps the most recognized automotive symbol in the world, the tri-star represents Daimler (DMG) engines used on land, sea and air, dating from 1909. The Mercedes pseudonym, used by a Daimler dealer in car races, was later applied to Daimler vehicles. By 1925, when the Benz brand merged its company and its laurel wreath logo with Daimler, the Mercedes-Benz tri-star in a circle was born.

BMW

Founded in 1916, Bayerische Motoren Werke (or Bavarian Motor Works, in English) incorporates the Bavarian state colors, the second-largest state in Germany that includes the capital city Munich. Early advertising represented the colors in a rotating propeller, suggesting the company made airplanes. But that’s not the case; it made engines. Its first complete vehicle manufactured and sold in 1923 was the R 32 motorcycle, which featured a boxer engine design still used today. BMW didn’t make cars until 1928.

Cadillac

The ever-evolving crest of the 115-year-old luxury brand mirrors its rise and fall between the luxury and sub-luxury, or premium, segments. The crown and wreath are gone as of model year 2014 for a more streamlined, modern look. “This new Crest matches the lower, longer, leaner mantra of our current car designs, and reflects the evolution of our Art and Science philosophy,” executive design director Andrew Smith said in 2014. Interestingly, the five-sided shape of the Cadillac family coat of arms is everywhere in new Cadillacs, from the shape of the dashboard and the mirrors to the shape of the license plate area of the trunk.

Toyota

Toyota’s logo of three interlacing ovals is so layered with meaning it could justify another inexplicable plot featuring Dan Brown’s fictional symbolist Robert Langdon. Introduced in 1989 on the Japanese brand’s 50th year, the logo on first glance looks like a vertical and horizontal circle in the shape of a T so that it’s easily recognized around the world, befitting one of the world’s largest automakers. The broader circle can also represent the world, stamped by T for Toyota. Seen another way, with a bit of a reach, each letter on Toyota can be evoked graphically within the symbol. Toyota says “the two perpendicular ovals inside the larger oval represent the heart of the customer and the heart of the company.”

Mazda

It’s a bird, it’s an M, it’s both. The logo for the small brand beloved by enthusiasts became the word Mazda once the carmaker started exporting from Japan, only to return to a symbolic logo in 1997 for a global market. The M-shaped wings in an oval trademark is said to stand for “Mazda’s determination to pursue ongoing improvement to drive powerful, continuous growth.” The brand is under 2 percent in the U.S. market. What might be more interesting to typographists and OCDists alike is how Mazda displays its name in all lowercase letters except for the D, so that it fits flush and full in a box, without the vertical element of the d sticking out by itself. Of course, in a case of ethnocentrism for the American-speaking crowd, it could emphasize D for Drive. Zoom Zoom.

Buick

Buick doubled down on the potency of its tri-shield logo by removing the brand name from all of its vehicles starting with model year 2019. The decision comes as the brand launches its more luxurious Avenir trim line and reshapes its identity away from one best known as being preferred by older drivers. And my brother. The logo is derived from the Scottish family crest that became the red, white and blue tri-shield launched in 1960 to create a “fresh modern look,” according to Buick archives. It was modernized again in 2001 with a see-through stainless steel shield.

Audi

While the four rings of Audi may appear to be one short of an Olympic bid, it is a historic symbol dating to 1932 conjoining four German automakers into Auto Union, which is “the roots of what is today Audi AG,” according to Audi’s historical website. Audi freshened the logo in 2009 by making it more three-dimensional and chrome.

rduffer@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DufferRobert

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette
79°