Nearly all the cars you’re likely to think of have at least two things written on them: the name (or logo/badge) of the company that built them, and the specific model name (or, as is more and more common, string of meaningless letters and numbers). The Company and Model of the car have become the absolute baseline expectation of car badging. Surprisingly, though, this sort of badging convention is more recent than you’d think, and I recently realized that I’m not exactly sure who did it first. So, I did some digging, and I think I have a good guess.
Just in case you’ve just at this moment taken a rapidly-swinging 2x4 to the face and as a result are unsure what I mean, here’s a pretty recent, common example:
There’s a Honda Civic, clearly marked by the Honda badge at center, and the CIVIC badge to the side. Almost every car sold today has some similar sort of setup.
Now, it’s not universal; some cars just have the manufacturer badging and let you guess the model; usually, that’s done by cars that are very confident in their identities, like the Rolls-Royce Ghost or the first-gen Volkswagen New Beetle:
For these, I suppose the assumption is (for the Rolls) that you’re either rich enough to know what model it is, or you just don’t matter, and for the Beetle, duh, what the hell else would it be?
Having just the manufacturer badging was the norm for cars up until, I’d think, the 1950s, when full make/model and even make/model/submodel badging became common, especially on American cars.
Before the 1950s, though, model name badges were remarkably rare. Wildly popular cars like the Ford Model T would often carry a proud Ford badge, but never a “Model T” one. Same for most cars — Packards, Plymouths, Austins, Citroëns, and so on.
There were occasional deviants, like the Chrysler airflow, which initially only had a small, arched AIRFLOW badge on the dashboard, but later could be seen with its name on the outside, in a lovely, unashamed script:
That Airflow with the badge dates from 1937, well before model-name badges became common, but I don’t think it was first.
After some digging and research, I think I may have a good candidate for the first car with model name badging, though I freely admit much of this research is done by wracking my brain and then attempting to find photographic evidence, so I’m not ready to say this is conclusive, but I think it’s a pretty good option.
Here’s my guess: the Peugeot BP1, also called the Peugeot Bébé, or even Bébé Peugeot, built from 1913 to 1916. There was actually an earlier incarnation of the Bébé from 1905, but I haven’t found that it included a model name badge.
The Bébé was, as its name implies, a small mass-market targeted car designed by none other than Ettore Bugatti. The car had a tiny 855cc inline four making about 10 horsepower, and was advertised against owning a pair of horses, as the Peugeot was as cheap as one and never shat. It was also the first Peugeot to sell more than 3,000 units.
Unlike the 1905 version of the Bébé which did not seem to have a model name badge, he 1913 version absolutely did, though, with the reversed-from-modern-syntax model name/maker name being part of the radiator badge, and sometimes seen as a script badge right on the front of the grille.
I’m reasonably certain this is the first model-name badged car sold in any quantity, though I do have one other earlier option, but it’s a bit more confusing.
The 1901 Mercedes.
Now, here’s why this one is confusing: is “Mercedes,” very clearly spelled out on the grille there, really the model name? Was this ever called a Daimler Mercedes?
These cars were built specially for Emil Jellineck and named for his daughter, Mercedes, and were built to Jellineck’s specifications to be, primarily, racing cars. Later, Daimler adopted the name for their brand, becoming Mercedes-Benz.
So, at the time of these early Mercedes cars, would we consider the Mercedes name as the model name? They were specially built for one particular client, and may have been more of a sub-brand, where Daimler was building for Jellineck under the Mercedes name?
I’m not really sure. But if we think “Mercedes” counts as a model and not a manufacturer name, then I guess this would be the first.
As always, I suspect there will be other good options floated in the comments here, so I’m eager to see what my fellow obsessives come up with! This is important, right? We better figure it out.