Featured: The Meaning Behind The BMW Logo, And How It Has Evolved

The Meaning Behind The BMW Logo, And How It Has Evolved

James Gent By
March 13, 2020
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For the first time in more than 20 years, BMW has updated its famous ‘roundel’ logo with a design “better suited to the digital age” and one befitting “the visual style of today.”

That means the black surround that’s been a staple since 1917 (and before that even) is now gone in favour of a transparent exterior. And unlike its embossed, convex predecessor that first appeared in 1997, the new-for-2020 design is completely flat in an effort to promote the company’s “openness and clarity”, simultaneously promoting “a transition from centring purely on the automotive world to being about technology and connections.”

Consequently, though the new logo made its global debut on the all-electric i4 Concept, it won’t be rolled out fully on BMW’s production range until at least the end of May next year, reserved as it is for the time being for press and marketing materials, and brand representation at trade shows.

Unsurprisingly, the response online to the most radical re-design of the BMW logo in more than a century has ranged from “meh” to “are you freaking serious?!” Ironically, that the roundel has been changed at all is something that should be celebrated, given that this is only the sixth time in 103 years that the logo has been updated.

And before you ask, no, the original design had nothing to do with a spinning propeller.

Technically, the roundel actually dates back to 1913, when BMW, then an aeroengine producer, was founded as ‘Rapp Motorenwerke.’ And even then, ‘B’, ‘M’ and ‘W’ didn’t appear on the company logo until 1917, following the departure of original founder Karl Rapp and a renaming of the Munich-based company to Bayerische Motoren Werke. To complete its registration with the German Imperial Register of Trademarks, and in a fitting nod to its lineage, BMW’s new emblem continued company tradition by having a black ring, now with gold outlines, envelope its logo, inside which the company name was written. The Rapp horse though was ultimately replaced with the colours of the Bavarian flag – blue and white – in tribute to the company’s founding province.

With commercial brand recognition not exactly at its height in Europe in 1917 though, the revised logo was rarely publicised. Indeed, it’s first use in print wasn’t until 1918, when it featured prominently on the cover of a ‘Bayern Flugmotoren’ (Bavarian aircraft engine) manual in 1918, and it wouldn’t be until 1923 when the roundel finally appeared on a road-going vehicle.

What happened in those intervening five years? Well – warning, short tangent, super brief – despite being the aeronautical bee’s knees in 1915, terms in the Treaty of Versailles meant any hope of manufacturing aircraft engines on a mass scale after 1918 was completely out of the question, and Bayerische Motoren Werke, now a stock corporation, quickly turned its focus to railways brakes and farming equipment. Business was good. So good in fact that Viennese financier Camillo Castiglioni – a principal shareholder in both BMW and Berlin-based brakes company, Knorr-Bremse AG – took majority ownership of the former, integrated the name into the latter, and, for a brief time, the former Rapp Motorwerken company was gone altogether.

That was until 1922, when Castiglioni, who was also a majority shareholder of aircraft production company Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG, transferred all engine production, including the ‘BMW’ name and assets, to the BFW facility, re-introducing the Bayerische Motoren Werke nomenclature in the process…

…yep, it’s a lot to take in, but simply put, by 1922, BMW was back producing engines, and just one year later, the silks were pulled from the Bavarian marque’s first road-going vehicle, the R 32 motorbike. Crucially, alongside an 8.5hp 486cc flat-twin engine, an innovative wet sump oiling system and an eye-brow raising top speed that brushed 100kph, the R 32 also featured the Rapp/Bavarian-inspired roundel on its fuel tank. This marks the very first time the BMW logo was introduced to a mainstream audience.

Rather than linger on that though, we’re skipping forward to 1929, a significant year for two reasons. First was the introduction of BMW’s first automobile, the 3/15. Yes, it was an officially licensed version of the Austin Seven, and yes, production had been on-going since 1927 under the ‘Dixi’ banner, but hey, genesis in genesis. In 1932 after all, the 3/15’s replacement – the 3/20 – became the first fully-developed BMW automobile to be launched, and just one year later, the marque introduced the ‘303’, a family saloon boasting a six-cylinder engine, kidney grilles, and a BMW roundel affixed flush to the nose. Each hallmarks of the brand 87 years later.

1929 was also the year that arguably the most significant BMW advert of them all, one promoting a new aircraft engine the German marque was building under license from Pratt & Whitney, was published. One whose imagery struck a nerve so deep that it inadvertently established a legacy, and even at the turn of the century, was still believed by many to be the inspiration for the roundel.

But if the public wished to believe this was where their logo originated, hell, BMW certainly wasn’t going to correct them! Indeed, in 1942, and for an in-house edition of ‘Flugmotoren-Nachrichten’ (Aircraft Engine News), a similar image featuring the spinning ‘B.M.W.” propeller was included alongside an article by Wilhelm Farrenkopf, fueling the fire rather than sweeping speculation beneath the rug. Even stories of a German engineer, mesmerized and inspired by the blue sky poking its way between the blades of a spinning propeller while testing the company’s first 320hp engine, were oft-repeated but rarely corrected.

So that in admittedly wordy fashion is the basis of the original logo in 1917, and when time came for a makeover in 1933 – the same year as the 303 debuted, tellingly – it was done so with the lightest of brushstrokes. The gold lines and lettering remained but both given a bolder, more imposing presence. And…yeah, that was pretty much it for the next two decades.

Indeed, only in 1953 was the next ‘major’ revision of the logo unveiled. Gone now was the gold outlines in favour of white, which also adorned the new, more subtle ‘B’, ‘M’, and ‘W’. Even the blue of Bavaria had been pared back a few shades. While reflecting “the visual style” of the day, the updated logo also arrived hot on the heels of a successful lawsuit against Eisenacher Motorenwerk. A BMW production facility in Eisenach since 1928, the East German factory was eventually taken over by the Soviet Union after the second World War, and from which ‘BMW’ cars and motorbikes continued to roll out until the lawsuit was filed, and won, in 1952. The now renamed ‘Eisenacher Motorenwerk’ continued production on a small scale of ‘EMW’ models until 1956, and in a not-so-subtle wink wink, nudge nudge to their former paymasters, used a roundel of their very own, albeit in red and white. That BMW’s new logo arrived one year after that was quite a coincidence…[cough]

Even despite the lawsuit though, the 1950s were not a happy time for Bavaria’s most famous carmaker. Its headline model, the four-stroke Isetta microcar, was pulling in decent sales, but the profit margin was nowhere near enough, and the threat of bankruptcy loomed large. There was even talk of a merger – good grief! – with Daimler-Benz.

Salvation eventually arrived with the ‘Neue Klasse’, a funkier fleet of sedans and coupes that hardly need little introduction to you, oh faithful Petrolicious reader. Suffice to say this new, more characterful BMW proved a sales phenomenon, and from deep in the red, the company’s stock was salvaged. Cue another finite change to the logo to mark a newer, sportier era, one that now featured heavier though still subtle white lines and a more formal font for the letters.

By 1997, M Division had long-since taken the fight to AMG, the 3 and 5-Series’ were benchmarks of their respective categories, and while the rockier, Chris Bangle waters were just around the corner, so too was the acquisition of Rolls-Royce, the company’s first ever SUV, the re-invention of Mini/MINI, a Le Mans legacy, and multiple Grand Prix wins. What better time for a more radical, 3D emblem, one boasting an artistic use of shading, and an ideal match for a conglomerate – no longer a company – heading into a new century? A representative of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG for 23 years, give or take the occasional i-themed blue ring, until a new era began in March 2020. One better suited to the digital age, and without a propeller in sight.

*Images courtesy of BMW and Redbubble

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