Few automobile logos are as recognizable as BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke). Whether you compare it to other cars or just about any other brand, it's a consistent list topper on articles reviewing the most clever and ubiquitous logos of all time. There's a solid reason for this, given the long and rich history of a global brand, albeit one mired misconception throughout the decades.
A lot of people have postulated that the logo itself was a representation of airplane propellers, perhaps an indication of the quality and power of BMW's legendary engines. The myth is rooted in the company's origins as a manufacturer of aircraft engines and was unintentionally perpetuated by BMW in a series of 1929 adverts superimposing the logo over an airplane propeller.
The marketing push stemmed from a newly sealed deal to produce radial aircaft engines for Pratt & Whitney. At the height of a global economic depression, the company sought to boost morale and consumer confidence in a bold series of marketing campaigns. They were so effective that most people defer to them as documentation of the logo's origins, including people working at BMW! The idea was further reinforced in a 1942 article by Wilhelm Farrenkopf in the BMW journal which used similar imagery - and the propeller legend grew.
But the truth is that BMW's logo was not inspired by spinning blades against a clear blue sky. In fact, it was born of an ironic need to distance itself from the airline industry. Before it underwent a series of acquisitions and mergers, the company known as BMW existed as Rapp Motorenwerke, an aircraft engine manufacturer. As you can see the logo we all know and love borrowed a good deal of DNA from its predecessor, which was created in October of 1913.
It wouldn't take too long for Rapp Motorenwerke to be a rap. The endeavor would only last for 4 years thanks to the ravages of World War 1, financial recession and a shift in market focus to satisfy a wildly growing demand for vehicles. In July 1917, founder Franz Josef Popp registered the name Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works). Given the vastly different target market a new brand was needed. He had the name, and some experience branding the previous company, so he simply iterated on the old design while representing his colors of national pride.
In October of 1917 Popp registered a trademark which would stand the test of time. The use of a roundel (circular icon or logo) and bordering text ties the logos together, while the BMW logo reaches towards the future with stark modernity. The blue and white fields represent the Bavarian flag, although the order is reversed given that it was illegal for anyone to trademark symbols of the state.
The brand has continued to evolve over the years, although the changes have been minimal given the logo's iconic simplicity. Border widths fluctuate, gold gives way to white, and the serifs erode into the modern era of sans-serif sophistication, thanks to a custom version of Helvetica Neue Bold authored by Dalton Maag. Aside from these slight modifications, precious little has changed.
All images courtesy of BMW.