Badges aren’t just for sheriffs

Palm Springs is a car city and the Coachella Valley is full of cars. Look at all the car auctions, dealerships, shows and even race tracks we have here. Old cars are great too, with all the accessories that come with them. Muscle cars of the 1950s and 1960s have long overshadowed pre-war classics in popularity, but it’s not uncommon to see a handful of both rolling along Route 111 on any given day.

Not surprisingly, we in the antiques business sell all the vintage car stuff we can get and are always looking for more. Among the most popular artifacts are car badges. Let’s take a short drive down the path of history.

In fact, the name “car badges” is a bit vague. Hood ornaments sometimes fall into this category, as do make and model plates that often adorn the back of a car. Back when radiator caps were located outside the engine compartment, manufacturers knew that above these caps would be a great place to promote their brands. Some rose to fame like the Bentley “Flying B” while others like Jaguar eventually decided their leaping cat was an unwanted speed bump for their sleek designs and scrapped them.

The famous Rolls Royce Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet ornament is said to have originated from an illicit affair between a Rolls owner and a British actress.

The growing popularity of these ornaments has also spurred an increase in thefts, prompting many manufacturers to incorporate their logos elsewhere.

Even more interesting is the origin of many automotive logos. Alfa Romeo’s logo includes a number of historic Italian elements, while Audi’s four interlocking rings represent the 1932 merger of four of Germany’s major automakers. BMW’s logo is derived from the Bavarian flag and Cadillac’s began as a take-off from the Cadillac family coat of arms. The Prancing Horse Ferrari was inspired by an Italian fighter pilot who flew with a similar crest on his plane and felt it brought him good luck. Although the origin of many other logos is a bit fuzzier, you can find everything you want to know about your own car logo with a quick search online.

The fenders adorning a Bentley badge reflect the company's origins as an aircraft engine builder.

As with other car badges, there is a whole range that has nothing to do with car manufacturers. Many were originally designed to be affixed to a car’s grille to give names to car clubs, rallies, military service and places of interest. A good number of these were beautifully crafted to the finest detail with colored enamel, and it was not uncommon for a well-traveled vehicle to have a grille full of badging. Just as hikers and climbers often attached badges to their trekking poles indicating the regions visited and the mountains conquered, so did the automobile enthusiasts who took their cars on tour. For those who stayed closer to home, their auto grills may feature American Legion, Masonic, or VFW badges, all colorful and well-made.

If you’re a classic car enthusiast but maybe don’t have the space or the wallet for a car, researching and collecting car badges is a fun way to go; eBay is full of them, and they’re often featured at car shows and car museums.

After World War II, number plates were also popular for a time, mainly in England, where they promoted automobile associations and clubs. Prices range from a few dollars to several hundred, but it doesn’t take a fortune to build a credible collection. And what the hell; maybe your own car could use a little bling too.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiquities column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Write to him at [email protected].

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