Evolution of car logos

From Neatorama comes this real cool article about the evolution and origins of some famous European car logos:

This article should come in handy the next time you’re stuck in traffic: have you ever wondered why the Audi in front of you has a logo of four interlocked rings? Did you know that Volkswagen was Hitler’s idea?

Let’s take a look at the fascinating stories behind the logos of some of the most popular cars in the world:

Alfa Romeo


Source: Cartype

Source: Cartype

Surprise! Alfa Romeo, the car manufacturer and pride of Italy, traced its beginnings to France. In 1910, Milan aristocrat Cavaliere Ugo Stella collaborated with the French car company Darracq to market the line in Italy. When the partnership failed, Stella moved the company and renamed it Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company) or A.L.F.A.

Alfa Romeo’s distinctive logo was created in 1910 by a draftsman named Romano Cattaneo. One day, while waiting for a tram at the Piazza Castello station in Milan, he was inspired by the red cross in the Milan Flag and the Coat of Arms of the noble House of Visconti, which featured a biscione (grass snake) with a man in its jaws, symbolizing “Visconti’s enemies that the snake [was] always ready to destroy.” Two Savoia dynasty knots separated the words ALFA and MILANO.


The Romeo part came in 1916 when Neapolitan businessman Nicola Romeo bought the company and converted its factories to produce munitions and machineries for World War I. After the war, the company went back to producing cars and took on its owner’s last name to become Alfa Romeo.

Aston Martin


In 1913, Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford founded a company that later would become Aston Martin. At the time, Martin & Bamford Limited produced Singers racing cars, but the duo wanted to create a more sophisticated model of their own. They named their first car Aston Martin after the founder Lionel Martin and the Aston Clinton hill climb racing course where their Singers car had won previously.

We can’t talk about Aston Martin without mentioning James Bond. In 1959, Ian Fleming put his super spy James Bond in an Aston Martin DB Mark III. When it was made into a movie in 1964, Bond drove an updated, supersleek silver Aston Martin DB5 (complete with machine gun, passenger ejector seat, and revolving number plates!)


James Bond and his Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger

James Bond and his Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger

Interestingly, Ian Fleming himself didn’t drive Aston Martin. He preferred the 1963 Studebaker Avanti!



German engineer August Horch, who used to work for Karl Benz, founded his own automobile company A. Horch & Cie in 1899. A decade later, he was forced out of his own company and set up a new company in another town and continued using the Horch brand. His former partners sued him, and August Horch was forced to look for a new name.

When Horch was talking to his business partner Franz Fikentscher at Franz’s apartment, Franz’s son came up with the name Audi:

During this meeting Franz’s son was quietly studying Latin in a corner of the room. Several times he looked like he was on the verge of saying something but would just swallow his words and continue working, until he finally blurted out, “Father – audiatur et altera pars… wouldn’t it be a good idea to call it audi instead of horch?”. “Horch!” in German means “Hark!” or “listen”, which is “Audi” in Latin. The idea was enthusiastically accepted by everyone attending the meeting. (Source: Wikipedia, A History of Progress (1996) – Chronicle of the Audi AG)

And so Audiwerke GmbH was born in 1910. In 1932, four car makers Audi, Horch, DKW, and Wanderer merged to form Auto Union. The logo of Auto Union, four interlinked rings that would later become the modern Audi logo, was used only in racing cars – the four factories continued to produce cars under their own names and emblems.


Four car companies became Auto Union (1932)

Four car companies became Auto Union (1932)

Fast forward to 1985 (skipping a whole lot of history), when Auto Union ultimately became the Audi we know today.



Source: Motorcycle

Source: Motorcycle

In 1913, Karl Friedrich Rapp and Gustav Otto founded two separate aircraft factories that would later merge to form BMW or Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (Bavarian Motor Works). Rapp and Otto actually had little to do with BMW’s manufacturing of cars. Josef Popp, Max Friz and Camillo Castiglioni were the ones who played big roles in making BMW a modern car manufacturer.


Source: Cartype

Source: Cartype

The circular BMW logo was a representation of a spinning propeller of a Bavarian Luftwaffe. At the time, aircraft were painted with regional colors and the colors of the Bavarian flag were white and blue. It is said that the pilot saw the propeller as alternating segments of white and blue, hence the logo. The roundel was a nod to Karl Rapp’s original company.


During World War I, BMW was a major supplier of airplane engines to the German government. After the war, Germany was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles to manufacture airplanes and BMW was forced to change its business: it first made railway brakes before making motorized bicycle, motorcycles and cars.

Update 3/6/08: Neatorama readers Dan S. and Bruce Kennedy who pointed out that the idea of BMW logo being derived from spinning propeller was actually an advertisement by the company (scroll down about halfway). Also thanks to klaus who pointed us out to the logo of EMW, which BMW took over in 1928.



Source: Mercedez-Benz UK

Source: Mercedez-Benz UK

The modern Mercedes-Benz traced its lineage to a 1926 merger of two car companies, Daimler-Motored-Gesellschaft or DMG, founded by Gottlieb Daimler (along with Wilhelm Maybach), and Benz & Cie, founded by Karl Benz. Both Daimler and Benz worked independently to invent internal combustion-powered automobiles. Their factories were actually just 60 miles apart, yet they didn’t know of each other’s early work.

After World War I, the German economy was in tatters, and to survive, the two companies formed a syndicate in 1924, where they would continue to sell their separate brands but would standardize design, share purchasing and advertising. In 1926, however, the two companies merged into Daimler-Benz.

The name “Mercedes” came about in 1900. A wealthy European businessman and racing enthusiast named Emil Jellinek began selling Daimler’s cars. He wanted a faster car, and specified a new engine to be designed by Maybach and to be named after his 10-year-old daughter’s nickname, Mercédès or Spanish for “Mercy” (See below).


Jellinek was quite a character. He used to pepper DMG’s engineers with colorful suggestions and criticism such as “Your manure wagon has just broken down on schedule” and “You are all donkeys“. However, as he actually sold a lot of cars, he was tolerated and even listened to. Later, Jellinek would add Mercedes to his own and became Emil Jellinek-Mercedes. (Source: My Father Mr. Mercedes by Guy Jellinek-Mercedes and MBUSA Biographies)

The star in Daimler’s logo came from an old postcard where Gottlieb Daimler had drawn a star above the picture of his house and wrote that “this star would one day shine over [his] own factory to symbolize prosperity.” The three-pointed star symbolized Daimler’s ambition of making vehicles “on land, on water and in the air.” (Source: Daimler)

After the merger, a new logo was designed. It combined the symbols of the two companies: the three-pointed star of DMG and the laurel wreath of Benz.

Update 2/18/08: There’s a dispute on the origin of the name “Mercedes.” According to Baby Names World, Mercedes is a girl’s name of Spanish origin meaning “Mercy.” It was taken from the Virgin Mary’s liturgical title “Maria de las Mercedes” (Mary of the Mercies; ‘Our Lady of Ransom’):

Latin ‘mercedes’ originally meant ‘wages’ or ‘ransom’.

In Christian theology, Christ’s sacrifice is regarded as a ‘ransom for the sins of mankind’, hence an ‘act of ransom’ was seen as identical with an ‘act of mercy’.



Source: TheSamba

Source: TheSamba

You wouldn’t know it from the company’s website but Volkswagen (German for “People’s Car”) can trace its history straight to the villain of World War II: Adolf Hitler.

Hitler proudly launches the Volkswagon at a Nazi rally

Hitler proudly launches the Volkswagen at a Nazi rally

Here’s the short version of the story: After World War I, Germany’s economy was shot and cars cost more than most people can afford. When Hitler rose to power and became Chancellor, he spoke at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show of his idea to create a new and affordable car.


At the same time, Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) was designing an odd-looking yet inexpensive car (which would later become the Volkswagen Beetle). Porsche met with Hitler in 1934, who asked that the car to have the following specifications: it should have a top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph), a fuel consumption of 42 mpg, and could carry 2 adults and 3 children. He said the car should look like a Maikaefer – a May beetle and even gave Porsche a sketch of the basic design. Porsche promised to deliver the design, with prototype cars to be built by Daimler-Benz.

VW advertisement with Prof. Porsche

VW advertisement with Prof. Porsche

In 1937, the Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH was created (it became simply Volkswagenwerk GmbH a year later). In 1938, Hitler opened the state-funded Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, which was to produce the KdF-wagen (kraft durch freude, meaning “strength through joy”). Few were actually built, instead, the factory (employing forced labor) churned out military cars, based on the same chassis: the Kübelwagen, Schwimmwagen, and Kommandeurwagen.



About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

4 responses to “Evolution of car logos

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