BBC Autos

Evolution of Design

Breaking badge

  • The signatures

    In recent years, the car industry has assimilated some unwritten rules. For one, automakers must produce blockbuster commercials around major sporting events, lest their financial health be questioned by Monday-morning quarterbacks. Just as ironclad is the rule that their marketers must champion their clients' adherence to "brand DNA".

    And at some point, whether by a cabal of industry executives and designers or by the will of the free market, it was decided that all new cars would wear a circular badge on the centre of their trunks - or "boots" in the UK. If a brand did not happen to have a corporate badge handy, tough tarmac; it was high time to go get one.

    Branding gurus on New York's Madison Avenue are convinced that companies can conjure a badge as iconic as the Coca-Cola logo, Apple emblem or Ford blue oval. They are wrong, but it does not stop them from trying.

    There are, however, rumblings of rebellion against the badge dictate. Non-conformity is afoot particularly in the studios of carmakers like Volvo, Chrysler and Ford. These are brands that have long been on board with the centre-badge practice, but are beginning to release products that chart new, iconoclastic courses.

  • The originators

    As they are with many things automotive, the Germans were at the fore of the trend. Mercedes-Benz, self-proclaimed inventor of the automobile, has the three-pointed star. BMW, the car company all the others seem to want to be, has its roundel, and Volkswagen its stacked “VW” within a circle.

    The presumption made by their would-be competitors seems to be that these companies are successful precisely because they slap a circular badge in the middle of their trunk lids, full stop.

  • Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR

    There is something to be said for copying Mercedes. The company built its first car in 1886 and has come, over the intervening century and a quarter, to epitomise class and refinement. The elegant three-pointed star emblem is the very embodiment of delicate beauty, while also a robust brand image, instantly recognisable worldwide. And there it has sat, in the centre of the trunk lid, for decades, though it arguably has never looked better than it did on the rear of this circa-1955 300 SLR. (Mercedes-Benz USA)

  • BMW 328

    BMW’s former life as an aircraft engine supplier is underscored by its blue and white roundel emblem, which is intended to evoke a spinning airplane propeller. From early on, the badge adorned the gas tanks of the company’s motorcycles and the trunk lids of its cars. Even when the tail was covered by a spare tire, as on this pre-World War II 328, the badge was preserved. (BMW Group)

  • BMW 3 Series

    The BMW propeller badge propelled cash into Munich when it appeared on the 3 Series sedan in the 1970s. Since then, various iterations of the 3 Series have been the benchmark by which other sedans are measured (Those wannabes, not surprisingly, have all put badges on the centre of their trunk lids.) (BMW Group)

  • Volvo P1800

    Even companies like Volvo that resolutely follow their own path have been drawn into the centre-badge practice. This 1960s P1800 illustrates how the company used to project its name boldly across its cars’ posteriors for followers to read. (Volvo Cars)

  • 2002 Volvo S60

    But by the early 2000s, even idiosyncratic Volvo was dangerously close to falling into lockstep, as it crowded its lettering together to form a quasi-badge. (Volvo Cars)

  • 2013 Volvo S60

    The new S60, though, marks a return of aesthetic sanity for Volvo, as the company’s name again spreads expansively across the back of its 3 Series fighter. The S60 makes no effort to mimic its German rivals. (Volvo Cars)

  • 1999 Ford Taurus

    Ford was well-positioned to react to the trend, with the Ford name having been housed in an oval on every one of the 15 million Model Ts sold over that car’s two-decade production run. A modern blue oval began to appear in the centre of the trunk lid of American Fords in the mid-1980s, as the domestic brand with the strongest ties to its European subsidiaries sought to cast its products as more continental. (Ford Motor)

  • 2011 Ford Flex

    In the last decade, however, that blue oval badge swelled to positively embarrassing proportions, as evinced by the seven-passenger Flex of a couple of years ago. (Ford Motor)

  • 2013 Ford Flex

    A course correction occurred for the 2013 model year, when the enormous blue lump was displaced by a smooth horizontal line of text spelling, “F-L-E-X”.

    Does this bold, declarative style sound a death knell for the oval? Do not bet on it, says Ford executive director of design Moray Callum. “We will have the badge with us for some time,” he said in a telephone interview.

    The design challenge is that these badges require flat real estate on which to mount them. Tall swaths of metal adorned with bulging circles do little to help an automaker express refinement or sleekness. “Sometimes, with nameplates, we’ve had an ‘oops’ moment with the wrong surface for it,” Callum conceded. (Ford Motor)

  • 1988 Honda Accord

    Honda has had its familiar “H” badge for decades, but in the brand’s infancy it was typically found only on a car’s grille. Honda began applying it to the centre-rear position in the early ‘80s, dovetailing with the brand’s intensified focus on styling, particularly to suit American tastes. This effort brought low hoodlines and the installation of the “H” badge front and rear. (American Honda)

  • 2013 Honda Accord coupe

    Those “H” badges are bigger than ever, as demonstrated by the rump of this redesigned 2013 Accord coupe. But in the minds of most buyers, things have always been thus, so the “H” is read as a fundamental part of Honda styling, irrespective of size. (American Honda)

  • 2013 Hyundai Azera

    Hyundai, on the other hand, is a newcomer to respectable circles. Lacking proper letters of introduction, the company looked to benefit from mistaken association with the good name of Honda. With no traditional badge on hand when company executives translated the global styling edict, they borrowed that of their Japanese neighbours.

    In fairness, the Hyundai "H" looks like Honda's "H" as rendered by Salvador Dali, but the lineage is unmistakable. It was small when it debut on the 1996 Elantra, but has since grown to industry-standard enormity, as demonstrated by the pictured 2013 Azera.

  • Mazda Miata

    Mazda fumbled the badge issue spectacularly. In 1991, the company contrived an image it believed would convey wings, sun and a circle of light. None of that might have been visible to consumers, but Renault’s lawyers saw a badge that bore an uncanny likeness to its own.

    The following year, Mazda modified its logo by rounding the edges of the previous diamond shape, resulting in what came to be derided as the “toilet bowl” badge, which lasted five years. Finally, the company settled on its current design, which renders the Mazda “M” as a seagull in flight. (Mazda North America)

  • Ford F-100

    Even pickup trucks have become infected, a contrast to trucks of yore, which, like this 1965 Ford F-100, proudly displayed the names of their makers across the width of their tailgates. (Ford Motor)

  • 2012 Ford SVT Raptor

    Now those tailgates are as smooth as the faces of the targeted young, affluent, well-educated customer these brands hope to lure - that is, save for the bulbous centre-mounted badges, as on this 2012 Ford SVT Raptor. There are baboons at the zoo with less prominent tail colouration. (Ford Motor)

  • 2011 Lincoln MKZ

    Lincoln, the luxury subsidiary of Ford, embraced badge-mania as firmly as any company, as illustrated by this execution of the company’s cross-hair hood ornament on the tail of the outgoing MKZ sedan. (Ford Motor)

  • 2013 Lincoln MKZ

    The rear end was cleaned up considerably for the 2013 model year, in part thanks to the excision of the badge. Artful lettering informs followers that this exercise in rear-facing restraint is a Lincoln. All the old badge told them was that it was ugly. (Ford Motor)