From 1769, when the first steam-powered vehicle was invented by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, to today’s high-tech marvels, cars fascinate us, attract us and change our lives. As a graphic designer, it’s natural that you’d look at the overall design of the car, advertising surrounding each model and the car logos that drive our recognition of the product.
Car logos sometimes have hidden meanings or special significance to the automaker. Let’s take a look at the top car logos ever created, the brilliance behind their designs and the meaning behind each one.
BMW offers one of those iconic car logos that’s instantly recognizable. Originally, BMW planned to make engines for airplanes. A lot of people suspect that the blue and white, propeller-like design is a nod to that history, but the truth is that the design was based on a previous company owned by BMW’s founder, Franz Josef Popp.
His previous company was called Rapp Motorenwerke, which failed after World War I. In 1917, Popp registered Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) and used a similar design to Rapp Motorenwerke, but he added colors of his national flag. The result is a car logo as iconic as the brand itself.
When someone sees the Abarth logo, they immediately think of Italian racing cars, speed and quality. The logo looks like a shield and has a scorpion outlined in black with a split red and yellow background. The company was founded by Armando Scagliarini in 1949. Although the company was bought out by Fiat, the logo remains on their Italian racing cars.
The colors here are a vivid yellow, white, red and green. The green, white and red are a nod to Scagliarini’s half-Italian ancestry. The yellow and red are a nod to the racing world. The scorpion is from Scagliani’s astrological sign, as he was a Scorpio.
When it comes to the history of automobiles and even just the logos for various cars, Ford Motor Company must be included in the discussion. The first Ford car logo appeared in 1903 for the Model A.
The first logo had a Victorian look with some embellishments and script lettering. The design was pretty intricate, unlike the simple blue oval of today. It wasn’t until 1927 that the blue oval appeared. Over time, the blue oval has changed and been refined, eventually becoming just the word “Ford,” the lettering a bit less intricate.
Today’s Ford logo has the same shade of blue that Ford has used for decades, but the designers added some shading and light to give it a bit of motion and make it more eye-catching for online brand recognition.
Chevrolet (nicknamed Chevy) is a popular American automobile company founded in 1911 by Louis Chevrolet and William C. Durant. Reports indicate that Durant designed the famous bow-tie Chevy emblem. The inspiration for the design is a bit murky. Stories range from wallpaper in a Paris hotel inspiring Durant to an expanded Swiss flag. The mystery behind what inspired Durant is part of the attraction of the logo.
The simplicity of the cross design with lettering across the longest part of the cross makes the brand itself instantly recognizable. Designers should remember the simple design and how it sticks in consumers’ minds.
Audi has one of those car logos that’s so instantly recognizable that you know the design behind it is brilliant. The logo is made up of four intertwined rings. Audi is a German car maker. The company was founded by August Horch in 1909. The name Audi is a Latin translation of the name Horch, which means “listen.”
In 1932, four companies merged to create the Audi logo of four rings, each overlapping and representing a different company that came into the manufacturer’s fold. The design is simple, but the hidden meaning behind those companies coming together makes it unique.
6. Mitsubishi Motors
Mitsubishi Motors has a unique emblem and a unique story to go with it. The original logo was created by combining the logo of two family crests. At the end of the 1800s, Tosa bought out the Tsukumo Shokai company from the Iwasakis. The two crests, three stacked rhombuses and a three-leaf oak symbol were combined in the three diamonds that make up the Mitsubishi logo today.
Even the name of the company itself is a nod to the three-diamond emblem. “Mitsu” means three, and “hishi” means diamond shape. The layers of meaning behind the emblem give it a rich history. Designers should take note of the significance of this car logo and how it ties into the company’s history.
The prancing horse of the Ferrari logo is a show of strength. Another Italian automaker makes this list, also known for their racing cars as well as high-performance sports cars. Ferrari was founded in 1939 by Enzo Ferrari, but the first car with the Ferrari emblem wouldn’t arrive until 1947.
The brand logo is known by the prancing black horse on the emblem. The rest of the logo uses Italy’s national colors. The horse sometimes appears as a silver logo as well.
When it comes to hidden symbols, Toyota is a good emblem to study. The history of Toyota dates back to 1924, when Sakichi Toyoda created a Model G Automatic Loom machine. The company began producing cars — Toyotas — in 1933. The overlapping ovals signify their goal to keep customers satisfied and make sure their cars are reliable. The long ovals signify the trust customers place in the brand.
William Lyons and a friend founded the company in 1922, but the friend later sold his shares. The company was originally called the Swallow Sidecar Company. The first car appeared years later and was name Jaguar.
Jaguar features a logo design that’s straightforward and brilliantly simple. The cars are fast, and a jaguar is powerful and fast. The early version of the logo appeared in 1935 but changed to the image of a jaguar in mid-leap around 1945.
Mercedes-Benz has a logo that looks like an encircled three-point star. The German automobile maker is part of Daimler AG and is well known for its luxury vehicles. In 1926, the brand name was Daimler-Benz, but then changed to Mercedes-Benz as a nod to the first gasoline-powered automobile produced in 1886 by the company.
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) registered a three-point and four-point star as trademarks in 1909, but it only used the three-point version. The star was a symbol for transport on land, air and water. By 1916, it was in a circle with the name Mercedes under it, and by 1980 it looked similar to the logo today with the outline of a circle and the star on the inside.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited is a British automaker now owned by BMW. The car company was founded in 1906. In 1998, the company’s name, trademarks and logos were licensed to BMW, which began manufacturing these automobiles in 2003.
The two Rs in the logo overlap and signify “You have me/I have you.” The overlapping letters show harmony. The logo appears on the front grill of every automobile along with the Spirit of Ecstasy statue, which is also called the Silver Lady. The woman emblem was inspired by an image of the mythical creature Nike in the Louvre, with some inspiration from a woman named Eleanor Velasco Thornton. In addition to the combined initials for Rolls and Royce, the emblem is in a triangle shape, giving it a modern but elegant look.
Peugeot started industrial manufacturing in 1810 as a steel foundry. It made umbrella frames and band saws. The first vehicle was produced in 1889, which means Peugeot is the oldest continuous car brand in existence today.
The lion logo first showed up in 1847 before the company made automobiles. The lion represents the sharpness of its products and the strength of a lion with its sharp teeth. In 1948, the logo started to appear on the front of the cars. Although it has changed some over the years, with paws added to the lion to show a balance between strength and humanity, the logo is still recognizable.
The correct name for Lamborghini is Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A, and it’s an Italian sports car brand that also makes SUVs and tractors. The company was founded in 1963 to compete with other performance vehicles and people know it for its powerful V-12 engines.
Lamborghini also traces roots back to bullfighting, which explains the bull symbol on its emblem. In 1962, Ferruccio Lamborghini visited a Spanish bull-breeder. The animals enamored him so much that he decided a raging bull would show the brand’s strength. Lamborghini was also a Taurus under the zodiac, so the emblem represents him as the person who started the company. He believed people would see his cars as having speed, power and dominance with a hint of danger when seeing the bull logo.
14. Alfa Romeo
Alfa Romeo is another Italian car company, but it was founded by Frenchman Alexandre Darracq as Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (ALFA) in 1910. It’s a well-known brand in racing circles. Eventually, the brand became Alfa Romeo.
In 1910, Romano Cattaneo created the logo in-house and used symbols from the city of Milan, including a viper with a crown and a red cross. The inspiration came from a coat of arms on the Castello Sforzesco gates. The symbol on the right signifies the Visconti family, rulers of Milan. There are many different stories behind it, including a mythological creature, but the overall idea is that the snake is a circular animal that can renew himself.
Tesla is a car and energy company based in Palo Alto, California, and founded in 2003. It’s one of the newer of the car companies, but the logo is quite interesting. The company makes two types of electric motors, and one is a three-phase, four-pole AC induction model with a rotor made of copper. It is this first type of motor, used in the Model S and Model X vehicles, that inspired the logo.
Founder Elon Musk confirmed the image is simply the cross-section of an electric motor, but it also forms the letter T, symbolizing the company and inventor Nikola Tesla. RO Studio, the same agency that created the SpaceX logo, created this graphic.
Volvo is a Swedish manufacturer that makes and sells cars, trucks, buses, construction equipment, and marine and industrial drive systems. The company was trademarked in 1911 and was meant to be a ball bearing company. The word is Latin for “I roll.”
By 1924, a sales manager started work on a car. The plan was to build vehicles able to endure cold temperatures and unpaved roads. The company adopted the ancient chemical symbol representing iron — a circle and a diagonal arrow that looks like the symbol for a male. The diagonal band was to keep the emblem on the front of the car, but is more decorative today. The logo is also the same symbol used by the Roman god Mars — the god of warfare. The entire image conveys durability and strength.
Car Logos for Inspiration
Even if your task isn’t to create a car logo, you can gain a lot of inspiration by studying these simple yet brilliant emblems of automobile history. Note how the emblem changes and grows more modern yet still reflects the past. Each logo has a meaning that’s special to the company and its history and values. Every logo, whether for a vehicle or some other product, should have the same rich meaning behind it.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.