If you’re an American classic car nut, you’ll be irresistibly drawn to vintage rallies, classic car meeting and autojumble events to feed your passion. Of course, the old beauties are a joy to behold but if an early Bentley, Cadillac or Buick is way out of budget, why not indulge your hobby with motoring signs or badges?
Enamel car badges and signs are very collectible and they won’t cost you an arm and a Dayton chrome wire wheel. You can have a lot of fun and enjoyment searching for and tracking down genuine old signs and enamel badges as you start to build your own collection, and many are now proving to be a really good investment too.
The history of enamel motoring signs
The early signs of the 1920s were made of colourful porcelain or glass, called enamel – a technique developed in Europe, where layers of coloured, powdered glass were heated and fused onto an iron base.
The enamelling technique for motor car signs was very popular in the United States until World War II, when the iron in the signs was needed for the war effort – at this time most of the signs were recycled for their base metal. Following the war, the production of enamel signs declined dramatically.
Enamel car signs came in all shapes and sizes; some rectangular, some oval – many had graphics on one or even both sides. Some were made in the form of advertising clocks – useful and functional items that were more than just signs. But with war looming, many sign manufacturing companies stopped making enamel signs and turned to painted metal and tin, as these were cheaper to make.
Enamel or porcelain signs were used by car manufacturing companies in repair shops and dealerships where they would be seen by customers. The Ford signs are probably the most common, but others worth collecting include Chevy, Cadillac, Buick, Dodge, Packard, Oldsmobile and Studebaker.
Collecting old badges
For the rich, the early motor cars of the 1920s and 1930s were expensive personal accessories, and much like the people who drove them, these new-age machines were adorned with distinctive car brand emblems that could be likened to fine jewellery brooches.
These emblems, often found on the radiator grille shells, were usually made of cast metal coated in colourful enamel, and bore the names of Buick or Ford, or coats of arms of Packard and Cadillac, or the symbols of Hudson and Plymouth. The shapes of the radiator grille shells, together with the classic enamelled badges, became a car maker’s signature.
Today these beautiful car emblems and badges are highly collectible for their historical significance and rarity. Affixed to car bonnets, radiators and boots, these emblems come in an array of shapes and sizes and are made of enamelled or coloured plastic with metal or foil inserts.
What are the badges and signs made of?
The way car badges are made is called champlevé. A copper or metal base is etched with a design, and the recessed areas packed with powdered coloured glass. The champlevé is heated, then chrome or nickel plated and finally buffed. Some old badges were coated in gold, while others had bases of copper alloy. The early Bentley car badges were made of German silver and could be polished without having to be chrome plated.
Another type of badge is the metal-painted type, where an emblem is cast, etched, or stamped with a design and then simply painted. These emblems were used on late-model MGBs. In the 1940s, plastic emblems replaced their metal counterparts. These had the appearance of metal under glass but were actually moulded in the underside and painted or had foil inserted.
Where to find them?
Hundreds of makes, or marques, of car came and went in the first 30 years of car production, and nearly all the emblems from these are now rare and highly collectible. Obscure nameplates like Monitor, Berkshire, National, Firestone-Columbus and Premier are treasured items.
Some of better-known marques like Packard, Franklin, De Soto, Kaiser and Studebaker are easier to track down and still make fantastic collection material. Emblems like Ford’s blue oval, Plymouth’s sailing ship or Cadillac’s original crest make fine additions to any collection.
Your best bet of finding these highly prized signs and emblems is in car boot sales, at autojumble events and on the old cars themselves. If you prefer to search while sitting comfortably at home, the Internet offers many resources for collectors. Why not start by looking for Chrysler, Ford or Pontiac badges as these are more common. But beware, as collecting can become addictive. Good luck!
Article provided by Mike James, an independent writer working together with South East England specialist manufacturers Southern United on this and other memorabilia projects.