If you've ever spent a couple of hours riding in a car down a long stretch of highway, then you've probably gotten pretty good at picking out at least a handful of car manufacturer's logos. Interestingly, this practice of putting emblems on the car was introduced long before the modern automobile, and antique auto badges stand as a testament to this stylistic trend. However, you don't have to be a gearhead to enjoy the look and feel of one of these antique or vintage car emblems.
What Are Antique Auto Badges?
Cars have always been somewhat of a status symbol. In the earliest days of automobile production, the automobile was considered a luxury item, which was typically owned only by the wealthy. These early cars may have been mechanically primitive compared to what rolls off the assembly lines today, but they were imbued with luxurious details; materials like mahogany, leather, and other expensive items embellished these cars.
One of these embellishments that nearly every automobile boasted was an emblem. These beautifully designed manufacturer's nameplates, which were entirely unique to every manufacturer and often came with an interesting story, could be found almost anywhere on the car, though most often they were found on the radiator shell. The shapes, colors, and design became a signature item, unique to each individual manufacturer, and some modern manufacturers have the same badge designs that they had from a hundred years ago.
Antique Auto Emblem Designs
Every automobile manufacturer needed to distinguish themselves from their competition, and so every badge has a different appearance. Some can be the name of the company in script while others are symbols or coats of arms; also, in spite of the modern manufacturer's tendency to keep the same badge design for decades, these early 20th century badges were constantly changing. These are what some of the badges from auto companies of the late-19th and early 20th centuries looked like.
Alfa Romeo Automobiles
Since 1910, Alfa Romeo has had the same basic logo. It consists of a circular shape with a divided center that has a cross on the left side and a snake with a crown on the right. The earliest badge was encircled with a blue filled ring that, at first, had the text Alfa on the top and Milano on the bottom. However, as the years progressed, this text was changed to say Alfa-Romeo on the top and Milano on the bottom.
Olds Motor Vehicle Company
The earliest of Olds Motor Company's badges included an empty red and gold crest, with the words Oldsmobile printed on a banner that stretched around the crest's middle. Detroit is typed just under the crest's interior, denoting the company's base of operations. By 1919, the crest had become more detailed and included a central 'winged spur' that represented the company's wrangling of horsepower. This now circular badge lasted until the 1940s.
Dodge Brothers Company
The original Dodge Brothers Company badge consisted of a circle with the text 'Dodge Brothers Detroit USA' printed around its edge. Inside the circle was an interlocking DB sat inside a 6-pointed star. Unfortunately, the founders never released any information about the reasoning behind their design choice.
Bamford & Martin/Aston-Martin
One luxury car company began as Bamford & Martin in 1914, then quickly changed to Aston-Martin in 1921. The company created original emblems that exuded a simplistic, Art Deco design. From 1921-1927, this company printed their initials in black on a gold disc, changing the badge in 1927 to the iconic, bronze winged logo that's better known today.
Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company
First launched in 1852 by the Studebaker brothers, the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company rose to international prominence and was known as a significant brand by the 1920s. At this time, Studebaker cars were outfitted with emblems that resembled an automobile tire. These white tires with black spokes and blue accents were cut into by the Studebaker name, typed in a swirling white font on a bronze banner.
Société des Automobiles Renault
Better known as Renault, this French car manufacturer has been around since 1898, and underwent many badge design changes in the early 20th century. The first, launched in 1900 and inspired by the Art Nouveau movement, included a horizontal oval with mirrored, serif-printed Rs, and delicate filigree behind it.
To help drivers better identify their cars on the road, Renault adopted the practice of putting badges on the front-end, and used a simple 3-dimensional circular, metal grill plate with the name Renault stamped into the center.
Ford Motor Company
The Ford Motor Company is perhaps the best known American car company, and their first badge, which was released in 1903, embodies the post-Victorian period perfectly. A circular, filigreed border encases the company's name and location.
However, the better known of these early badges is the 1912 badge where Ford first showcases its uber-simplistic logo. The name Ford sits in an oval circle, which was later filled in with blue in 1927.
You may be more familiar with Rolls-Royce's Art Deco hood ornament, named 'Spirit of Ecstasy',' than you are with the company's historic emblem. This luxury British car manufacturer has been around since 1906, and they created a timeless rectangular emblem of two capital Rs, printed over the top of each other and bracketed by the two words in the company's name.
The Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company
This car manufacturer didn't last long enough to see the end of the Great Depression, but it left its mark on the auto industry. The company's early 20th century emblem is incredibly detailed, featuring a coat of arms with various birds, and Latin script in a banner at the bottom. The white, gold, blue, and red color scheme exudes an old-school sophistication. Another prominent badge to roll off of Pierce-Arrow's assembly line was its chrome, stylized design bearing the name Pierce struck through with an arrow.
Stutz Motor-Car Company of America
An Indianapolis car manufacturer, Stutz Motor-Car Company of American took some visual inspiration from Egyptian imagery. It's early 20th century car badges were printed in a red, white, and blue color scheme, and proudly (and prominently) displayed the name Stutz in white across the circular emblems front. Behind the Stutz is a pair of blue feather wings, illustrated in a style reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian artistic design.
The famous car manufacturer Bentley Motors released their car badge, better known as the 'Winged B,' in 1919. Designed by F. Gordon Crosby, the original Bentley 'Winged B' consisted of a pair of outstretched, feathered wings with a circular button in the center and a white capital B printed in the middle of it.
The Maserati Company
From its start, Maserati knew the stamp it wanted to make on the auto industry, and they've hardly deviated from their original emblem. This car badge was first released in 1926 and features a rendering of Neptune's trident that you can find on the sculpture in the center of the fountain in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna.
The badges were made of cast metal that was then enameled by coating it in porcelain or glass; this unusual process is called champlevé. A copper base was first stamped and then etched with the design. Once this was done, the recessed areas in the design were filled with powdered glass and baked. When cooled, the emblem was chrome plated and buffed, and finally attached to the cars themselves.
Of course, these metal and enamel badges were replaced in the late 1940s with plastic. Many of the badges you find in the post-war period and later are made out of plastics of some kind.
Auto collectors purchase these badges based on several criteria:
- Personal preference
- Historical significance
Why Collect Auto Badges?
Given the expansive number of things directly involved in the car manufacturing process, or those that are loosely related to the buying and selling of cars, it's logical to question why you might go after auto badges of all things. Yet, these tokens are a bite-sized piece of history and are some of the only things related to the classic auto industry that people might be able to afford.
Similarly, if you've ever been involved in restoration projects, then you know how spectacular it is when you can find an authentic item to finish off your piece with. Having an authentic badge not only puts the finishing touch on your antique car and can increase the re-sell value, but knowing where to find them and how much they're worth can make your life a whole lot easier.
Antique Car Emblem Values
Car enthusiasts are a devout group of collectors, and they won't hesitate to drop some serious cash on the badge that they need to complete their current restoration project. That being said, these badges have a pretty wide value range, generally being sold for prices anywhere between $25 - $200 on average. Of course, emblems that're polished, not rusted, and come from prominent or rare car manufacturers are going to be worth the greatest amount of money.
If you have a few of these badges on-hand, or you're thinking about buying one for yourself, here's a good estimate for what badges are currently selling for in the online market:
Where to Find Badges
You can find old auto badges in many places. Old car junkyards are a prime place for finding the emblems inexpensively, though there's never a guarantee that they'll still be on the cars by the time you get there. Other places you can check are:
- Yard sales - Though they're not a first choice for finding antique car badges, there's a chance you can find one or two tucked away in a yard sale. You should absolutely look at yard sales in the area if you live near an automobile plant or an auto-hub such as Detroit, as there's going to be more miscellaneous car-related goods around.
- Flea markets - Make sure you dig deep into all the booths at flea markets and that you go to them as often as you can. Sellers are constantly changing up their inventories, so the only way to snag one of their goodies is to be there at the right place and the right time.
- Antique shops - Antique stores are going to charge you comparatively more than any other place you look because they have a better understanding of current market values. Therefore, while you're more likely to find one of these antique badges there, you're also more likely to spend a lot of money on them.
- Thrift stores - You can find some really interesting items in thrift stores; as with flea markets, make sure to constantly check up on the store's inventory and see what new things show up. Also, if you make a good rapport with the store's owner, they can set things aside for you before they list them and you can come collect them for far cheaper than at an antique store.
- eBay - The easiest place to shop for antiques is eBay thanks to its multitude of vendors, items, and simple interface. You never know what you're going to find when you head to the auction website, so be sure to check in daily to see if anything new has been made available.
- Collector's swap meets - You're guaranteed to find the cream of the crop when it comes to antique car badges at collector's swap meets. Generally, these meet-ups are reserved for more serious collectors, so be prepared to walk away without anything.
Caring for Your Antique Emblem
Emblems are relatively simple to care for. Just wash them gently in a mild detergent; whatever you would normally use to wash your car works just fine. Use a small, soft brush like a toothbrush to get dirt out of the grooves, and finish by waxing the emblem with non-polishing automotive wax.
If you're displaying them in a group, use the same precautions that you would with any other antique:
- Keep them away from direct sunlight.
- Keep them away from heat and humidity.
- Keep them safe from possible damage from being played with or lost.
It's Time to Gear up, Gear Heads
Whether you're just now learning about the auto industry or you've been a die-hard fan since the first time you were given an advertisement poster of a sports car when you were a kid, there's always room to join the avid car collectors who hunt down these pieces of auto history and rework them into something new. The options for how you what you can do with them are limitless; you can create a personal collection, put the finishing touches on your classic restoration, or hang them from your modern car's rear-view mirror. So, crank your engines and get ready to get collecting.