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The hidden meaning behind well-known car badges

Carlton Boyce / 19 November 2018 ( 27 September 2019 )

There is often a rich heritage behind a car company’s name, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the car’s badge.

Two images, one of a McLaren M7C racing car from the 1960s featuring the kiwi logo prominently, and a modern McLaren 650S sportscar with the small McLaren logo, but vaguely kiwi-shaped headlights!

The car industry has been around for well over a hundred years, and the companies themselves have often been around for even longer; Peugeot, for example, started life as a manufacturer of salt, pepper, and coffee grinders at the beginning of the 19th century, something it still does today.

This history means that there is a rich, and often hidden, heritage behind the company name we know today and nowhere is this more obvious than in the badges they use to denote the brand and its values.

Whilst a lot of people know that Alfa Romeo’s badge features a snake wearing a crown swallowing a man (this is one we can’t easily explain – please write in to if you can!), and most can easily understand that Maserati’s three-pronged trident was chosen because it is the symbol of the town of Bologna where it built its first factory, other car badges remain shrouded in mystery - and some are even completely misunderstood, having become the subject of urban myths as to their origin.

Here are the hidden meanings behind ten of the car logos we’ve come to know and love.

Citroen's chevrons

The twin chevron logo is a throwback to the time when Andre Citroen, the company’s founder, patented and manufactured helical gears. Helical gears have teeth that are cut at an angle, so when they link up they take a shape that’s not too dissimilar to that of a chevron.

The emblem was first used in 1919 and has evolved over the years into the stylised version we see today.

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McLaren's evolved kiwi 

Almost every logo has transformed over the years to better meet a company’s image as it evolves to meet an ever-changing marketplace, and few logos illustrate this evolution better than that of McLaren.

The company’s founder, Bruce McLaren, was a New Zealander. Proud of his heritage, he adopted the kiwi as his symbol, as you can see above on a McLaren M7C racing car from the 1960s. This has steadily metamorphosed into the sleek and almost unrecognisable symbol you will now find on the bonnet of a modern McLaren 650S sportscar.

In fact, the McLaren emblem is so central to the company’s image that you can even see it has been used as inspiration for the shape of the 650’s headlights!

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BMW's blue and white check

Everyone knows that the blue and white BMW badge represents spinning propellers, don’t they? Except it doesn’t…

The original circular shape was similar to that of Rapp Motoren Werke, an aircraft engine manufacturer in Germany. In time, Rapp Motoren Werke became BMW, or Bayerische Motoren Werke to give it its full title. BMW kept the circular badge that Rapp Motoren Werke had used, but looked to the blue and white chequerboard-esque lozenges of the Bavarian flag as inspiration for the colours, because the Bavarian Free State is where BMW made its headquarters.

Subaru's six stars

The name Subaru is the Japanese translation of Pleiades, which is the Greek name of a cluster of seven stars in the Taurus constellation – two of which are too close together to be seen separately by the naked eye, so they appear as one big star.

The stars were the obvious choice for the company’s badge, which is known in Japan as mutsuraboshi, or ‘six stars’.

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Bentley's wings

I bet you’ve never noticed that the Bentley symbol isn’t symmetrical, have you? The modern symbol has ten feathers on one side and eleven on the other, but this has varied over the years depending on which model the emblem was applied to: vintage cars could have as many as thirteen and fourteen, something the cars lost in 1930 when Rolls-Royce bought Bentley and decided that the symbol should be symmetrical.

The symbol regained its asymmetry in 1990, and as for the wing design itself, this is said to represent speed and power.

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Audi's four rings

The four-ring Audi symbol, usually seen in great detail in your rear-view mirror as you ply the nation’s highways, came about because it reflects the company’s four founding manufacturers - Horsch, DKW, and Wanderer in addition to Audi itself - who came together in 1932 to form the company we know today.

Audi was originally known as Auto Union and the name Audi wasn’t used as a standalone term for the company until 1985; its transformation from Auto Union to Audi came via ‘Audi NSU Auto Union AG’, the name by which it was known between 1969 and 1985.

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Acura's calipers A

Acura, the luxury arm of Honda charged with selling premium vehicles in the USA, Russia, Canada, Hong Kong, and Kuwait among others, is known for the quality of its engineering, so it’s only fitting that its symbol is a pair of calipers positioned upright in the shape of an A. It's appropriate because calipers are an engineering tool used for taking precise measurements, and because the A takes a leaf out of Honda's book and is the first initial of the company, as well as looking a bit like the H itself has been squeezed to create the shape of the calipers.  

Hyundai's handshake H

While most people think that the stylised ‘H’ that forms the Hyundai logo is simply the first letter of the company’s name it actually has a second, hidden meaning: the insignia is said to represent two hands shaking, one belonging to the company, the other belonging to a satisfied customer.

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VW's VW 

The large V and W in the VW badge are pretty self explanatory, but the badge itself still manages to boast an interesting story. It enjoyed its moment of fame in the eighties after Mike D of The Beastie Boys wore one around his neck in the video for the band’s record (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party). This inspired the Beastie-Boy loving youth of the time to acquire their very own VW badge jewellery – by simply pulling them off the bonnets of unsuspecting cars. Volkswagen might have brilliantly turned the problem into a PR coup, but it’s not the only brand in the VW stable to suffer the indignity of having the badges ripped from its cars.

Skoda joined the Volkswagen Group in 1994, and as a premium brand in India, it’s currently suffering the same problem. The reason behind the thefts is much more mundane; rather than pop culture driving the liberation of Skoda badges, it’s good old-fashioned greed, as Skoda badges can be resold from between £6.50-£16 a go. Skoda itself is yet to turn lemons into lemonade with a deftly written advertisement but it is offering affected owners free badges, something VW also did back-in-the-day.

And whilst we’re on the subject of Skoda, did you know their three feathered arrow is an evolution of an image of a Native American warrior in a feathered headdress?

Rolls Royce's Spirit of Ecstasy

The Spirit of Ecstasy, which is fitted to the bonnet of Rolls-Royce cars, might be the most famous automotive emblem in the world but it still holds a few little-known secrets.

Like the fact that the first statue, commissioned by Lord Montagu to go on the front of his 1909 car, had her forefinger to her lips. This act is said to symbolise the affair Lord Montagu was having with Eleanor Velasco Thornton, the women who modelled for the statue. Nicknamed The Whisperer, no more than four ornaments were ever produced and only two are known to have survived.

The Spirit of Ecstasy itself came about because Rolls-Royce was so appalled at the poor quality of some of the mascots being fitted to its cars at the beginning of the 20th century that it commissioned Charles Robinson Sykes, the man responsible for The Whisperer, to create an official bonnet mascot. The result was the Spirit of Ecstasy and the model was, again, Eleanor Velasco Thornton.

 A kneeling version was introduced in 1939 to give the driver a better view of the road ahead. The kneeling Spirit of Ecstasy was discontinued in 1939 and reintroduced in 1946 before being permanently deleted from the company’s catalogue in 1956.

To meet modern safety measures, the Spirit of Ecstasy has been spring-loaded since 2003 and she can be manually retracted using a button on the car’s dashboard. Now made from highly polished stainless steel, she can also be ordered with a 24-carat gold plating or made from illuminated frosted glass.

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Which story surprised you most? Or do you have a story behind a car manufacturer’s emblem that we’ve missed? If so, we’d love to hear from you - email us on!


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.