Logo Evolution: A Brief History of a Few Ever-Changing Car Logos

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Hollywoodland sign

Originally the Hollywood sign said “Hollywoodland.” The last four letters were removed in 1949, during refurbishment.

Trapped in a moment of time, such as we are, it would appear that everything around us is as it has always been. The Hollywood Sign, for example, is a seemingly timeless icon that stands for not only a city but a whole industry known worldwide. Those nine 50-foot-tall letters have been perched on Mount Lee above Tinseltown since 1923, but as enduring as they appear, they have changed drastically over the years. Originally, they said “Hollywoodland” because it was used as a real estate advertisement. The letters were covered in 4,000 lightbulbs. The H was completely destroyed by Albert Kothe, who ran into it with his car while drunk (ironically, he was the sign’s caretaker). Most of the sign fell to pieces in the 1970s and was completely replaced in 1978. The letters of the new version, though they sit on the foundations of the original, are only 45 feet tall and made of metal, not wood.

See, many changes can take place over the course of nearly 100 years while the original concept still remains. Given enough time, this is true for car logos as well. The Peugeot lion, Porsche’s stallion, Alfa Romeo’s snake, the BMW propeller, the shields of Buick, and the rings of Audi, to name a few, have all seen alterations, either from changes in the company, changes in the design, or changes in how society perceives the company.

Here are a few examples:

Different Buick logos over time.

Buick’s logo has evolved over 116 years.

The current tri-shields of Buick is a relatively recent incarnation of the company’s logo. Started in 1899 by David Buick and named Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company, Buick is currently the oldest active American car maker. David Buick, at first, wasn’t interested in making cars at all, instead, he wanted to build ship engines. In 1903, Buick incorporated his company, and his chief engineer Walter Marr began building cars. Buick himself quickly ran the company into the ground as was forced out by his partner William Durant in 1906. Buick died penniless in 1929.

Early Buick logos were just a variations of the word “Buick” set in a cursive script. In the 1930s a researcher in GM’s styling department, Ralph Pew, discovered a Scottish crest for the Buik family and decided it should be used as a grille decoration. In the 1940s, the shield gained a series of flourishes, and in 1959, it was divided into three shields, each representing the three models Buick offered at the time: LeSabre, Invicta, and Electra. In 1975, the logo became a hawk named Happy, which lasted too long well into 1990 when the tri-shield emblem returned.

Cadillac's logo over the years.

For 90 years, the elements of Cadillac’s logo remained relatively unchanged.

Turn-of-the-century car manufacturers were an incestuous lot. All related, their careers ebbed and flowed from one company to another. When we hear of Henry Ford, we can only think of the Model T and today’s best-selling trucks. However, by 1902, Ford had two companies in his wake and was on to his third. The first, the Detroit Automobile Company, went bankrupt in only two years, and he left his second venture, Henry Ford Company, after just a single year. The investors in Ford’s second company attempted to liquidate the assets, but an engineer named Henry M. Leland convinced them to keep the company solvent. They named the continued venture Cadillac in 1902 after Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the founder of Detroit in 1701. Cadillac Automobile Company used the regal appearing de la Mothe coat of arms as its logo.

Interestingly, Laumet was never part of the de la Mothe family and he cobbled together this coat of arms from several different ones. He left France under dubious circumstances and arrived in the New World with a whole new identity around 1694.

The first logo for Cadillac was trademarked in 1906 and consisted of de la Mothe’s crown which represented the ancient Counts of France, the six merlettes (some say ducks) that stood for the Holy Trinity, and some color elements of the shield. For the next 90 years, the elements of the logo remained relatively unchanged, just presented in a variety of ways.

The current logo is a streamlined and watered-down version of the original. The crown, its points and the ducks—ahem, merlettes—are gone. Left is a colorful pallette of boxes in a shield reminiscent of the Autobots from the Transformers.

Mazda's logo has changed over the years.

Rei Yoshimara completely re-stylized Mazda’s logo to its current incarnation.

In the 1920s, there was a cork shortage in Japan because of World War I, so Toyo Cork Kogyo Co. started to process a cork substitute from the bark of the Abemaki tree. Since Japan would soon be able to get real cork, the company fell on hard times and needed to be rescued from bankruptcy. In 1927, Jujiro Matsuda joined the company and persuaded diversification, branching out into the tool making industry as well as producing three-wheeled trucks. During World War II, the company produced war material. The name Mazda was adopted after World War II and applied to every car the company ever made, but the company’s name had been Toyo Kogyo until 1984 when it formally switched to Mazda, a name that either came from Jujiro Matsuda himself or was a reference to Ahura Mazda, an Asian god of wisdom.

Early logos were just the Mazda name in a simple script. In 1936, the logo changed to the triple-M, which harkened to Hiroshima city’s emblem (Mazda’s hometown), the Ms standing for Mazda Motor Manufacturing. A major change occurred in 1991 when it introduced the diamond inside an oval, representing wings, the sun and circle of light. The folks at Renault complained that it too closely resembled its own logo, so Mazda altered if somewhat the following year. Five years later, Rei Yoshimara completely re-stylized the logo to its current incarnation. Dubbed the “owl” logo, the M was designed to look like outstretched wings. Many see a tulip instead.

The Ferrari logo over time.

There is no more famous prancing animal than the rearing stallion of Ferrari.

Prancing animals are a common theme among automakers, especially horses, considering early automobiles were marketed to replace the horse. There is no more famous prancing animal than the rearing stallion of Ferrari.

The Cavallino Rampante, the prancing horse’s official name, was the symbol of Count Francesco Baracca, a wealthy pilot who became a household name during World War I. After 34 successful engagements during the war, Baracca and his Spad VII was shot down on June 19, 1918. On the sides of every plane he flew during the war was painted a large prancing horse that he felt provided him good luck.

Enzo Ferrari formed Scuderia Ferrari, which means Ferrari stable, in 1929 in Modena, Italy. He initially prepared Alfa Romeo racing cars for various amateur drivers. When Alfa Romeo discontinued its racing team, Ferrari took over. However, in 1938, Alfa Romeo brought its racing team in-house again and hired Ferrari as the manager. Scuderia Ferrari was in hiatus.

The first Ferrari-badged car was the 1947 125S and was only made because Ferrari wanted to fund his racing efforts. That logo was the black prancing stallion over a field of yellow. Enzo Ferrari explains its introduction in his own words:

“The horse was painted on the fuselage of the fighter plane of Francesco Baracca — a heroic airman of the first World War. In ’23, I met Count Enrico Baracca, the hero’s father, and then his mother, Countess Paulina, who said to me one day, ‘Ferrari, put my son’s prancing horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.’ The horse was, and still is, black, and I added the canary yellow background which is the colour of Modena.”

The yellow background represents Modena, Enzo Ferrari’s birthplace and the colors of the Italian flag span the top of early renditions. Coincidentally, the very same horse is used on the Ducati motorcycles. Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni’s father was one of Count Baracca’s fellow airmen in the 91st Air Squad during World War I.

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3 responses to “Logo Evolution: A Brief History of a Few Ever-Changing Car Logos”

  1. Tommy Hart says:

    Seems like all the cool car logos are like a thing of the past. Hood Ornaments, kids these days dont even know what we are talking about.

  2. Singapore taxi service says:

    Handsome blog about Car-logos… I like the wonderful presentation of the blog… keep writing more!!!

  3. Ryan Price says:

    Thank you very much for your positive comments. When writing this story, I was surprised how much history there is in something so simple as a hood ornament. Thanks for reading!

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