I
t’s nice to believe that cars are purely about performance — that what matters is track times and vehicle specs, not superfluous details like the assembly of letters that make a name. But it’s not. The automotive world works on many levels, even those that can be the most superficial. Every car bears a name and every brand has a badge. And that name and badge make a difference.

Behind the creation and evolution of automotive emblems there’s often tradition, folklore and mystery. So we’ve compiled a bit of history on the most famous automotive emblems — from Alfa Romeo to Volvo. We can’t cover every car brand, but we can give you the skinny on the major names. True identification in the sea of cars on the road is what every automaker wants, so let’s shed some light on how identification is best achieved.

A Quick Primer on the Hood Ornament
Not every brand has a fancy, protruding hood ornament, nor can every brand pull one off. Companies like Bentley and Rolls-Royce lead the pack when it comes to sculpted hood candy, while brands like Jaguar and Cadillac no longer slap sleek leaping cats or wreathed crests (respectively) on their cars. The hood ornament started when radiator caps were located on the outside of the car, rather than in the engine compartment. Companies started making the cap the visual focal point, giving rise to iconic hood ornaments like Bentley’s Flying B, Packard’s Winged Woman or Pontiac’s Indian Chief. Hood ornaments can take the form of a three-dimensional representation of the brand’s emblem, like Mercedes-Benz’s three-pointed star on the 2012 E-Class, or they can be completely separate from the brand emblem, as is the case with the 1978 Ford Thunderbird’s model-specific ornament. Hood ornaments today are viewed as overwrought and detrimental to aerodynamics, to the ornamentalists’ chagrin.

Alfa Romeo

Alfa-Romeo-Gear-Patrol

One of the more intricate and dramatic automotive emblems, Alfa Romeo‘s is rife with Italian tradition. The original was created by Romano Catteneo, an Italian draughtsman, and the emblem employs Milanese elements, including the Biscione (shown on the right side of the emblem), which signifies the house of Visconti, Milanese rulers in the 14th century. The left side shows a Milanese red cross on a white background. In 1918, the badge was changed to include a dark blue surround ring with the words “Alfa-Romeo Milano”, along with two Savoy dynasty knots for the kingdom of Italy. In 1925, it underwent further change to include laurels that signify the Alfa P2’s win at the Automobile World Championship, and in 1945 when Italy’s monarchy ended, the Savoy knots were removed. Though at first glance it appears that the crowned serpent is shooting red flames out of its mouth, it’s actually a man being swallowed. This part of the symbol has been very controversial, seemingly symbolizing the Crusades, wherein the Christians defeated the Moors. Suffice it to say the folks at Alfa Romeo don’t much talk about that part.

Aston Martin

Aston-Martin-Gear-Patrol

Carmakers love wings, and Aston Martin is no exception. The British carmaker was founded in 1913 by two gents, Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford. While they were selling Singer cars out of their Bamford & Martin shop, they came up with the idea to produce their own vehicles. Some years later, the name transitioned from Bamford & Martin to Aston Martin Motors, born from Martin’s name and the Aston Clinton Hillclimb in Buckinghamshire, where Martin would drive from time to time, no doubt spiritedly. The logo itself denotes speed (hence the wings), but it has evolved over the decades from simple superimposed A and M letters within a circle to, in 1927, a V-shaped winged logo and then, in 1987, to what is essentially the modern version. The emblem today employs straight wings and the Aston Martin name front and center, and it’s one of the more elegant brand emblems in existence today.

Audi

Audi-Gear-Patrol

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Audi has anything to do with the Olympic Games. The four silver rings symbolize the merger, in 1932, of the four oldest car manufacturers in Germany: Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer. These four companies formed what is known as the Auto Union, and initially only Auto Union-specific cars bore the four-ringed badge, while the individual carmakers used their own logos. In 1985, the Auto Union name disappeared forever and the Audi name (a Latin derivative of founder August Horch’s last name, meaning “to hear”) carried forth the same German auto-making spirit. It also carried forward the iconic emblem that lives on today, largely unchanged. Rumors have floated around claiming that the emblem symbolized four driven wheels from the Quattro all-wheel-drive system, but that claim has no historical merit. Still, Audi occasionally has made reference to the connection, capitalizing on a bit of synchronicity.

Bentley

Bentley-Gear-Patrol

There are few names in the automotive industry that carry as much panache and gravitas as the British manufacturer Bentley Motors. The emblem shows a bold “B” surrounded by a set of spread wings. The hood ornament is similar, with a large capital B and aviary wings that flow backward. The significance of the emblem is the “B” reflecting the Bentley name, after Walter Owen Bentley, who founded the company in 1919. The winged design links to the original company name, Bentley Aero; the company originally manufactured rotary engines for planes during World War I.

BMW

BMW-Logo-Gear-Patrol

Among Bimmerphiles, the meaning of the BMW Roundel — as it’s officially called (BMW Car Club of America’s magazine title carries the same name) — stirs up a bit of controversy. The latest interpretation (latest being the 1920s) is that the emblem signifies a propeller against a blue sky, representing BMW’s early history of making airplane engines. As attractive as this explanation is, the truth behind the Roundel is far different. When Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (Bavarian Motor Works) was formed out of Rapp Motorenwerke airplane manufacturing in 1928, the emblem reflected the BMW name within a black outer circle, and the blue-and-white Bavarian flag’s panels were placed within a concentric circle at the center. It’s evolved somewhat over the years, but the changes have been minor — font, font color and the appearance of relief in the Bavarian flag checks at the center.

Bugatti

Bugatti-Gear-Patrol

Ettore Bugatti’s initials live on today in his emblem, though an independently held Bugatti company died along with Ettore in 1947. Buggatti was born in Italy, but started his company in 1909 in the Alsace region in France. His cars evoked deep and fluid sculpting, fitting for the Bugatti family’s artistic leanings. After Ettore died, there would be no successor to carry on his name due to the earlier death of his only son. Fewer than 8,000 Bugattis had been built, but the name would not only stand in the record books, but also be revived by Volkswagen, who have since built some of the most exotic automobiles ever made, like the EB110 and the insane Veyron hypercar.

Cadillac

Cadillac-Gear-Patrol

The Cadillac emblem you see today is a modern rendition, yet its initial roots are still easily recognizable. The original emblem represented a family name, belonging to Le Sieur Antoine De La Mothe Cadillac (luckily, the cars weren’t called “La Mothe”). Monsieur Cadillac founded the city of Detroit, Michigan in 1701, and the Cadillac brand bears more than just his name; the emblem bears the resemblance of the Cadillac coat of arms.

Like many other automotive emblems, it has evolved over the years, and its original form was far more complicated than what you see today. The Cadillac coat of arms doesn’t show a shield like the automotive emblem does; rather, it was completely round and displayed trios of merlettes (birds), a symbol of knightly participation in the Crusades, along with a black bar (or “fess”) that also symbolized service in the Crusades and a red band for boldness. In 1905, Cadillac adopted the symbol for its cars, and since then it’s morphed quite noticeably to the modern version that bowed in 2000, largely influenced by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. In 2014, the emblem made its most recent change, losing the laurel leaves that encircled the crest and further simplifying the emblem while remaining easily recognizable.

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Chevrolet

Chevrolet-Gear-Patrol

The jury’s still out on the origin of Chevy‘s bowtie. As it’s supposedly remembered by William C. Durant, cofounder of General Motors and Chevrolet, Durant was inspired by a repeating pattern on the wallpaper of his French hotel room. His wife, however, disputes that claim, stating that he was inspired by a newspaper ad for Coalettes that showed the same bowtie outline. There are other claims that Louis Chevrolet designed the bowtie as a modified Swiss cross, in honor of his parents’ homeland. Whichever story you believe, the bowtie stuck. It’s evolved throughout the years, going from a royal blue color phase to the current gold.

Chrysler

Chrysler-Gear-Patrol

It’s now officially known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, but the Chrysler name lives on in the Chrysler logo and badging. Originally based on the Kruessler family crest, the Chrysler seal emblem — mated with flanking wings in the 1930s — was meant to represent quality, hence the royal-style wax seal. In the ’50s, Chrysler employed what’s known as a “Jet Age” style log, with two chevrons superimposed onto one another, but it didn’t last long given its temporary trendiness. In 1962, Chrysler’s longstanding five-triangle “Pentastar” logo was created with the idea that it should be timeless and global. It was a logo that was easily identifiable and became synonymous with the ubiquitous K-Car and LeBaron. Then, in the ’90s, the Chrysler seal and wings returned, but with longer and wider wings. The Pentastar came back shortly thereafter, then disappeared forever from Chrysler cars in 2009, when a thin, wide and elegant winged badge took its place. After all the changes, it now looks like the wings are a permanent fixture in the Chrysler logo.

Ferrari

Ferrari-Gear-Patrol

The Cavallino Rampante, or “Prancing Horse” in Italian, is the proud icon of one of the most prolific performance automobile manufacturers in the world, Ferrari. And, in good form, the story of the emblem’s creation is nearly as exotic and storied as the carmaker itself. Enzo Ferrari, the namesake, told a story of his victory at the first Savio circuit, where he met Count and Countess Enrico and Paolina Baracca, parents of an Italian fighter pilot who had flown with a prancing horse emblazoned on his plane. The son had passed, but Enzo was told the symbol would bring him luck (talk about prescience). The horse was adopted and a yellow background was used to represent the town of Modena, the Ferrari factory’s location. But the emblem could not be used for the cars, initially — it was seen only on Ferrari’s publications and papers, since Alfa Romeo technically owned the cars. The shield emblem debuted in July of 1932 at the Spa 24 Hours, and in 1963, Ferrari also began to utilize a relief version of the Prancing Horse, which you still see today.

Ford

Ford-Gear-Patrol

The Ford Motor Company‘s emblem hasn’t gone through too many changes since 1903, as they’ve stuck with the Blue Oval from 1927 to now. The original emblem was busy and bore the entire “Ford Motor Co. Detroit, Mich” wording in an amorphously shaped black-and-white background. The script, which has stood the test of time, was penned by Ford Chief Engineer Childe Harold Wills in 1909. The Blue Oval was added nearly two decades later, making the badge what it is today.

Honda

Honda-Gear-Patrol

Though there’s nothing particularly original or mysterious about the basic but attractive silver Honda “H” emblem, what the symbol represents is crucial to understanding Honda. The company is named after Soichiro Honda, the company’s founder — a mechanic, tuner and racer who eventually turned Honda into the largest builder of motorcycles in Japan and the second-largest Japanese automaker. Honda’s consumer engines are direct derivations of the versions built for racing, and their quality and reliability are as solid as the stance of their simple but prominent logo.

Hyundai

Hyundai-Gear-Patrol

At first glance, you wouldn’t give much credit to Hyundai for their emblem. But the South Korean company created it to be more than just a Honda logo that underwent a taffy pull. The Hyundai “H” represents the name, but it’s encased in an oval to reflect the perpetuity that Hyundai pursues internationally. The “H” itself is designed to symbolize two people shaking hands (how friendly!). And we know that based on Hyundai’s affordable yet quality automobiles, the symbol does not signify a customer handing over his wallet to the salesman.

Infiniti

Infiniti-Gear-Patrol

One of the more original but simple modern automotive symbols out there, Nissan’s luxury brand utilizes a partial oval surrounding a road that narrows into the distance, or to…infinity. It’s a tasteful badge and, thankfully, it conveys an actual connected meaning between the brand name and the logo. The logo is similar to Oldsmobile’s logo, which also shows a road driving off into the distance (but Oldsmobile’s road veers to the right). Infiniti has to be around a bit longer before they can lay claim to any iconic cars, but they are well on their way to making some very dramatic statements.

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