Corporate logos in the modern era are uninspiring icons created by nerds at places called “FutureBrand” and almost always stink.
The history of Alfa Romeo, Acura, Fiat, Volkswagen and Cadillac logos is a blend of international intrigue, nation-building, and sometimes, a snake eating a little guy.
The first half of its name is actually an acronym: A.L.F.A — Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili — or, Lombardy Automobile Manufacturing Company. In the early 1900s, French manufacturer Alexandre Darracq had expanded his production in France to the point where he was building cars in Milan, Italy. In 1910, that company was purchased by investors from Italy’s Lombardy region, and Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili was born.
A.L.F.A’s earliest cars — 12HP and 24HP four-cylinder touring cars — wore badges that should be completely familiar to anyone looking at the badges today: A round field split vertically, with a medieval, red-on-white cross on the left, and a crowned snake swallowing some unfortunate soul on the right.
The earliest A.L.F.A. badges tied the imagery together with “MILANO” lettering on the periphery. The red cross on the white field comes from the coat of arms of the city of Milan.
The voracious snake is the coat of arms of the House of Visconti, and more specifically, the second Visconti dynasty which rose to power in Milan, and ruled from 1277 to 1447.
The Acura emblem is fairly straightforward: It’s a stylized “A” made to look like a set of chromed engineering calipers, in a significant nod to the company’s desire for precision.
But the logo you’ve seen on Acura products since 1990 are slightly different from the original logo that resided on the very first Acura NSX prototype, shown at the Chicago Auto Show in February of 1989. In 2013, Aaron Bonk from Honda Tuning got the scoop on the logo change from Kurt Antonius, American Honda’s first Public Relations representative, whose career with Honda stretched back to 1983:
“After we had the press event, they presented the car to Mr. [Soichiro] Honda, [who] wanted to slightly change the emblem — the calipers. He wanted to connect the calipers so that there was kind of an ‘H’ look, but not totally H-looking, so he had the crossbar added. If you look at the original news stories that came from Japan from that super-long lead, all those stories had the original emblem on it. When they shipped the cars for our national press launch in the U.S., the emblems had changed.”
(Image Source: LogoHistory.Blogspot.com)
Most companies only make subtle changes to their emblems, and then only under great duress. FIAT isn’t most companies, though. There probably isn’t a company in existence that has changed its logo as many times.
Over its 117 year history, FIAT managed to change its logo — significantly, not just rounding an edge here and there — a total of 11 times.
To give credit where it’s due, when the name of your company is “FABBRICA-ITALIANA DI AUTOMOBILI TORINO” and you try and jam it on an emblem, you’re going to have problems.
That emblem only lasted from the company’s founding in 1899 to 1901. The next year, the boys in the Design Department went ultra-modern: an Art Nouveau font in large block capital letters on a blue field.
Take a look at the “A” in FIAT: It’s a design home run. A regular “A”‘s width would’ve fought with the “T’s” crossbar, but by shaving off the right corner of the A and bending the right leg, the letters are spaced perfectly, but the four letters in the FIAT acronym become their own symbol.
FIAT revised the logo again in 1925, and it would be revamped and resurrected many times in the company’s history. That distinctive FIAT symbol moved into a round badge with a gold crest surrounding it. The wreath around the emblem celebrates the automaker’s participation in the world’s first internationally sanctioned motor races.
As radiator shells began to get taller, more pronounced and more stylized in the 1930s, so did FIAT’s logo. In 1932, the round logo morphed into a shield that had several variations throughout the prewar years.
In 1968, FIAT abandoned its iconic script completely as a part of a company-wide makeover. The brand’s acronym was fashioned into a blue parallelogram in four segments, each housing an italic capital letter. The color of the emblem would change from blue to black in the 1970s.
In 1983, FIAT’s logo design went completely off the rails. According to FIAT history, the company’s chief designer, Mario Maioli, envisioned this odd emblem after seeing the FIAT logo on the factory roof, silhouetted against the sky at dusk.
The round FIAT logo surrounded by a crest made its return in 1999, and it has been revised here and there ever since. To celebrate its 1930s history, the current emblem is shaped a bit like the red shields from the prewar era, but the badge inside is round.
We could make this one pretty short: “V” and “W” stacked in a circle. The end.
But the history of Volkswagen’s various logo revisions throughout the years — like many German automakers — is a history of the nation that spawned the brand.
Official VW history suggests that the logo came from a company-wide contest that asked employees to develop something that represented the fledgling brand in the late prewar years. The design was registered as a trademark by Franz Xaver Reimspiess, a fascinating character in his own right. He was a draftsman with Austro-Daimler between 1915 and 1920, and designed an armored car. He joined Porsche in 1934 and developed the air-cooled, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine that would power early Porsche and Volkswagen cars so successfully. In the war years, he designed the nightmarish Tiger tank for the German military.
His notable achievement was that “Sunwheel” logo, though, for which he was awarded the princely sum of 100 Reichmarks.
The emblem — enclosed in a Strahlenkranz or “radiant garland” first showed up on wheel covers at the the Berlin Auto Show in 1939.
That’s the official history. Behind the scenes, battles over the design raged on. In 2005, a Swiss designer, Nikolai Borg, told the Telegraph that Nazi transport minister Fritz Todt asked him to design a logo on the eve of the Second World War.
“I was a 20-year-old student and had just won a top award for a logo for the Reich’s youth hostel association,” Mr Borg told the publication. “That brought me to the attention of Dr Todt, who a year later became minister for weapons, munitions and armament.
“He called me to his office at the ministry and gave me three assignments: to design a logo for the company building the motorways, a lakeside resort, and Volkswagen. He said that the car logo was a new project and wanted me to get working on it straight away.” Borg went to court to prove that he deserved credit for the script, but his claims were denied in 2005.
Before 1953, Volkswagens had another emblem — the city of Wolfsburg’s official crest. As the Nazi party ascended to power in Germany, Wolfsburg was known as KdF-Stadt (“Strength through Joy City”), and the earliest Nazi-era Volkswagens were known as KdF-wagens. Until 1953, the Wolfsburg crest was on all VW cars, but it faded as VW shifted production to plants in Brazil, Mexico and Pennsylvania. The badge returned in the 1980s on Wolfsburg Edition Golfs and Jettas, which have continued through 2015.
For the first few years of its history, Cadillac cars didn’t have a logo at all, instead carrying a bold, brass “Cadillac” script across the radiator. By 1906, though, the company developed a logo intended to honor Antoine de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac.
He had nothing to do with building cars. Like Pontiac, the Odawa war chief whose name adorned GM’s midrange cars, it was de La Mothe’s connection to Detroit history that had his name featured so prominently on one of the world’s finest automobiles. In 1701, he founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the beginnings of modern Detroit.
The Cadillac emblem is Antoine de La Mothe’s family crest, despite the fact that de La Mothe wasn’t an aristocrat at all. He was an explorer from Acadia, a region of what was then called “New France,” but is now comprised of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and parts of Maine. Cadillac Mountain — located within Acadia National Park in Maine — is named for de La Mothe.
The emblem has gone through a dozen revisions over its history, with various wings, rings and shields surrounding it.
In 1968, designers added the wreath, suggesting leadership and victory. In 1999, Cadillac deleted the six “Merlettes” — the footless, beakless, chrome ducks in the crest — and simplified the logo for a more modern appearance.
When Cadillac introduced the stunning — yet never produced — El Miraj concept in 2013 at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, it wore an all-new version of the logo, again stylized, but this time missing the crest.