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Behind the Logo: the Origin of BMW

Behind the Logo: the Origin of BMW
BMW 8 Series (Credit: BMW)

What do you see if you look at the BMW logo? Does it really depict an aircraft propeller, as many still believe to this day? The history of the German carmaker’s roundel is intertwined with the company’s history, and to answer these questions we need to go back in time to the first two decades of BMW’s activity. 

BMW is a German car manufacturer with a motorcycle brand, BMW Motorrad. Thousands of BMW models are being sold across the world every year but do you know what the BMW logo means exactly? We went looking for answers.

An Aircraft Engine

The brand’s story begins in 1913 with Rapp Motorenwerke, an aircraft engine manufacturer. In 1917, the company changed its name to Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH: the BMW name was born, and so was the first version of the logo. The new badge retained the shape of the old Rapp roundel, but it included two gold lines and featured the letters “BMW” in the same color. The logo’s inner circle represented the Bavarian flag’s colors – cyan and white – but displayed them in inverse order. It wasn’t a creative license but rather a trick to bypass local trademark laws forbidding the use of state symbols and references on commercial logos.

Yet, this wasn’t the BMW we all know today. The company mainly focused on producing and maintaining aircraft engines for the German Air Force. After World War I, the Versailles Treaty imposed Germany’s temporary disarmament, and BMW had to pivot from aircraft engine production to railway brakes and embedded motors. The new course was a success, and in 1920 attracted the attention of Berlin-based Knorr-Bremse AG, which decided to acquire a majority stake. 

In 1922, Camillo Castiglioni, the largest investor in Knorr Bremse, bought the BMW trademark and funded a new spin-off. It briefly renamed the company BFW, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG, before changing the name back to Bayerische Motoren Werke AG later that year. The emblem stayed the same, as the letters didn’t change, and in 2023 the badge proudly featured on the company’s first motorcycle, the R32. Despite the past experience in the aircraft industry, the company’s logo still wasn’t associated with an airplane propeller. 

The myth of an airplane propeller was born in 1929, and like many industry tropes, it’s the byproduct of a successful advertising campaign (Credit: BMW).

The Myth of an Airplane Propeller

The myth was born six years later, in 1929, and like many industry tropes, it’s the byproduct of a successful advertising campaign. That year, BMW published an ad on the title page of a new company’s magazine, BMW Flugmotoren-Nachrichten. In the picture, the logo was superimposed on the round profile of two plane propellers, with the feeble white and blue quadrants representing the blurred speed of the rotor. It was but a clever marketing ploy aimed at promoting the new radial engines that BMW had been building under a license from Pratt & Whitney since 1928.

The legend about the logo’s origin was later reinforced in 1942 by BMW itself, which backed the story in a celebratory article published in the same company magazine and authored by Wilhelm Farrenkopf, BMW’s press and advertising director at the time. During the following decades, the company made almost no effort to counter the myth of the logo being a propeller, even after changing the badge a few times in 1953, 1963, and then in 1997 with the introduction of the latest embossed badge. 

New Logo

The company finally came clean about the logo and the myth’s origin in an article published on its website in 2020. The occasion was the launch of the new simplified white logo redesign that BMW now employs for brand communication.

Credit: BMW

Jens Thiemer, Senior Vice President of Customer & Brand BMW, conceded that the timing was right to dispel the unchallenged legend, as the company’s aiming for more clarity and openness.

“With this new transparent variant (of the logo), we want to invite our customers more than ever to become part of the BMW world. In addition, our new brand design is geared to the challenges and opportunities of Digitization for brands. With visual restraint and graphics We are equipping ourselves flexibly for the wide variety of contact points in communication at which BMW will show its presence online and offline in the future”.