Nick is a freelance automotive journalist based in New York, and has written for the likes of the New York Times, Road & Track, Car & Driver and the New York Daily News.
The true stories behind the world’s most iconic car logos include fascinating tales, a hint of controversy, and sometimes an element of human tragedy.
From BMW’s blue-and-white roundel to Chevrolet’s famous “bowtie” emblem, we’re going to look behind beyond the badges to uncover the meaning and origins of today’s most recognizable car company logos.
Some stories stretch back to the very dawn of the automobile, with one of the oldest examples being Mercedes’ three-pointed star. Others were forged in the heat of battle, such as Ferrari’s tribute to a World War 1 flying ace. And others are most memorable simply for the “ah-ha” moment they provide, once you realize what you’ve been looking at for all these years.
In this two-part series, I’ll introduce you to the logos from BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Chevrolet. Each history has been sourced directly from each respective automaker, so there’s no doubt about the origin, or whether time and marketing have led to a little creative embellishment.
BMW – it’s not a propeller
This one is going to rock a few worlds, since it’s one of the most misunderstood car logos. It shouldn’t be because, in the end, it’s simply a blue-and-white Bavarian flag in a circular format. Did you think it symbolizes an airplane propeller? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
There is a good reason many people make this mistake, and it’s all due to a successful bit of advertising in the 1920s. BMW traces its origins to creating aviation motors but, at the close of World War 1, the company was forbidden to continue building build anything war-related.
Eventually, BMW was allowed back into the airplane engine business, and that’s when an advertisement appeared that used the already-established BMW roundel to symbolize a plane’s spinning propeller.
The ad did an excellent job, apparently, because nearly 100 years later many BMW fans still attest to the logo having an aviation link.
Ferrari – tribute to a WWI flying ace
The glorious machines from Ferrari could probably have a winged hedgehog affixed to their noses, and people would still pay millions to own one.
The Italian automaker’s “prancing horse” emblem is a tribute to Francesco Baracca, a WWI flying ace who died before the war’s conclusion. Enzo Ferrari met Baracca’s parents in 1923 following a motor race, and they suggested his racing team use the emblem their son had emblazoned on the sides of his airplane.
A yellow background was added, since the hue is the official color of Enzo Ferrari's hometown of Modena, Italy. The horse's tail was also redesigned to point upward, versus downward when used on Baracca’s fighter plane.
Hyundai – let’s shake on it
Okay, the Hyundai logo isn’t going to conjure up the same aura and romance of the BMW and Ferrari emblems. But once you see exactly what’s going on here, you’ll never look at a Hyundai the same way.
That stylized 'H' emblem doesn’t just represent the first letter of the South Korean automaker’s name. It’s also meant to symbolize a car dealer and car shopper shaking hands on a deal. Go ahead, give it another look, and don’t try arguing that it’s not kind of adorable.
Chevrolet – a debunked history of wallpaper
Sometimes it takes years to clear up the real story behind a car logo. But other times, the mystery only deepens. William Durant, co-founder of the Chevrolet brand, said the inspiration for the iconic Chevy “bowtie” emblem came from a pattern used on the wallpaper of a Parisian hotel. Sounds strange enough to be plausible, right?
Except according to Chevy’s own records, it was in 1929 when none other than Durant’s own daughter debunked the wallpaper story. In her memoirs, Margery Durant said her father sketched the logo one evening at the dinner table.
Things get a little more complicated, however, because in a later interview with Durant’s wife, she would say the logo’s design was inspired by an advertisement Durant saw in a newspaper.
And if that’s not enough intrigue for you, there is also the belief the Chevy emblem is tied to Swiss-born Louis Chevrolet, and that it's meant to symbolize the Swiss cross used on the country’s flag. In this case, you’re free to pick the story you think sounds best, because it’s now impossible to determine which one is actually true.
Mercedes-Benz – a three-pointed star marks the spot
Having navigated everything from world wars and wallpaper, let’s wrap things up with a private note shared between a husband and wife. It was way back in 1872 when Gottlieb Daimler wrote to his wife about the location of his family’s new home in Deutz, Germany.
His sketch used a three-pointed star to mark the spot, and it would eventually become one of the world’s most instantly recognized logos. Eventually, the design was said to symbolize Daimler engines used on land, sea, and air. Yet, the actual design owes itself to a personal note, and the location of a family home.