Like a relentless parade of tireless tire men, our survey of automotive product mascots marches on. Today, we’ll try to wrap up this brief (although some may feel not brief enough) history of the memorable creatures that have represented automotive-related companies throughout the ages.
Gas and Fuel Products
Let’s start with the Esso tiger. At least here in the U.S., the tiger is perhaps the best-known gas company mascot. Arguably as famous as Michelin’s Bibendum, the tiger nevertheless has a much more convoluted history with his product.
The tiger was initially used as a mascot for a Norwegian oil company, founded in 1893, that was ultimately subsumed under the Standard Oil (Esso) brand.
It seems likely that the tiger was chosen as a symbol for Østlandske Petroleumscomp due to the fact that the tiger is the symbol for Oslo (or Kristiania as it was originally named). That of course in and of itself is a bit controversial since even a passing acquaintance with zoology would reveal that tigers are not native to Norway. No, the actual story is a bit more complicated and involves a backhanded compliment by a 19th century Norwegian poet and Nobel laureate and perhaps additional shade thrown at the Norwegians by their sort of neighbors, the Danes. It appears that at times Danes have referred to Kristiania/Oslo as “Tiggerstaden” – or “City of the Beggars” since “tigger” is Danish for beggar. Looking to make hay from what other cities might have considered misfortune, the plucky and resilient residents of Oslo therefore had several reasons to promote the “Tiger” as their city mascot (better on all accounts than “Beggar”). Shortly thereafter when their oil company was looking for its own mascot, the tiger was a natural shoe-in.
That’s all well and good, except the whole tiger and Norway thing went pretty much underground for another 20+ years as Esso became the parent company of Østlandske Petroleumscomp in 1919 and in the process eventually introduced its own mascot. A mascot considerably weirder than the Oslo tiger.
Happy the Oil Drop was Esso’s global mascot until the 1950s. Happy built off of Esso’s motto/tagline of “Happy Motoring!” and came in both male and female versions.
At times, male and female versions of Happy are referred to as the “Oil Drop Kids” as they perform various musical routines that incorporate the Happy Motoring motto.
Sometimes the mascot was abandoned altogether in lieu of just the song and a cavalcade of national stereotypes that probably wouldn’t pass muster (or for that matter be understood) by many in the 21st century.
By the mid-1950s, most Esso ads eschewed mascots and focused only on music and animation. Maybe it’s just me, but all of these TV ads from the 1950s make. me want to visit our snack bar during intermission.
There. Now wasn’t that refreshing?
Altogether, despite some zippy musical numbers and a hint of (strange) sex appeal, the Happy Oil Drop boy and girl lasted only about 20 years as Esso mascots. By the end of the 1950s, the now/still familiar Esso Tiger had emerged as Esso’s worldwide mascot.
The tiger appeared in print ads, in various gas station merchandise such as travel maps, and pretty much anywhere a mascot could be displayed.
And of course, the tiger was featured in some rather snappy TV advertisements, which by the late 1960s were rendered in the contemporary style that combined live action with animation. This vaguely surreal German ad – with a somewhat bumbling motorist driving an Opel Rekord – must be from around 1966 and illustrates the global appeal of the “tiger in your tank” motto and ad campaign.
Here in the U.S. we had the tiger tails that you hung inside your fill cap door (my family’s always seemed to fall off and get lost), bumper stickers, and my favorite, the white Fire King glass coffee mugs that were offered as a premium for fill ups. My family had a set of these. I drank milk from them. My dad drank his coffee for years from his. The mugs were washed so often that eventually the tiger image nearly vanished; and so I passed them over when I cleaned out my parents’ house in the late 1990s. That was a mistake. They’re such a fixture in my mind that I still think someday I’m going to find one in the recesses of my own kitchen cabinets. (Nope, I just checked. I don’t have a Tiger in my Kitchen.)
Esso/Exxon’s tiger lasted a lot longer than his image on my family’s mugs. Despite proclamations as early as the 1970s that the tiger mascot was being phased out, the tiger continues to appear at times even today. Gas station branding isn’t what it used to be what with stations often seeming to change brands regularly throughout the year, but it’s still possible to find a “Tiger Mart” convenience store attached to an Exxon-Mobil station. The brand has been known to incorporate images of live – actual – tigers in some TV advertising. And even if he’s not always recognized as the official mascot, one can find reminders of the Esso tiger on roadways across the country. There’s a site that catalogs all remaining Esso tiger statues, just in case you’d like to visit one locally or (as would be my recommendation) construct a cross-country road trip that hits every remaining statue.
The Esso tiger may be on a slow decline as a gas station mascot in the wild, but another famous gas station critter has found new life and seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. That would be the Sinclair Dino.
Only Sinclair gasoline has nickle, nickle, nickle. Really?
Registered as a trademark by Sinclair in 1932, Dino quickly got busy doing the yeoman work of mascots by making high profile public appearances at venues such as the Chicago World’s Fair (1933).
Note the zeppelin slowly crossing the sky behind the T-Rex in this video.
Dino appeared as a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1963 and continues to serve in that capacity to the present day…although redesigned in 2022 to include a not-very-dignified (IMO) “Baby Dino” friend.
My personal mania for Dino came with his appearance at the 1964 World’s Fair Sinclair Dinoland exhibit.
What I didn’t know until researching this article was that Sinclair had also mounted a dinosaur exhibit at Chicago’s fair in 1933, making 1964 something of a repeat performance for Dinoland. I wonder how many people managed to see both the 1933 and the 1964 exhibits. I would absolutely go see Dinoland again if there were ever to be another World’s Fair. Which, sadly, there really won’t be.
I went to the 1964 New York World’s Fair twice. Automotive exhibits – such as the Ford Pavilion with the brand new 1964 Mustangs and the giant Uniroyal Tire ferris wheel (above) – all figured prominently in my memory of the event.
Dinoland was one of the reasons why I worked so hard to convince my parents to take me to the Fair as many time as possible. I likewise prevailed upon them to take me to see the dinos after they went on tour down the East Coast after the Fair. I can still remember standing in that rainy (and cold!) Baltimore parking lot to catch one more glimpse of the Dinoland critters.
Actually, I need not have worried since the Sinclair dinosaurs have continued to live on as a somewhat constant feature in my life. The actual T-Rex seen in that Baltimore parking lot wound up in a state park in Texas, but his identical mold-mates (all of the dino models were molded out of fiberglass by the Jonas Taxidermy studios in Hudson, New York) lived on at the Boston Museum of Science and the Springfield (Massachusetts) Museum of Science where I have visited them often.
Likewise, the triceratops from Dinoland – after staring in a much-beloved (by me) TV movie – wound up in front of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, where I and a gazillion other kids spent many years climbing on him.
Ultimately, Uncle Beazley the triceratops was transferred to the National Zoo. My own kids, during their childhood visits to the National Zoo, have grown weary of me telling the story of Uncle Beazley and Sinclair Dinoland. Nevertheless, in this way, Sinclair Dinoland and its dinosaur mascots have woven their way into over half a century of Jeff’s personal and family history.
It’s a toss-up as to whether I’d rather have the inflatable dino or the 1963 Galaxie convertible in that commercial. I guess Sinclair put the car in there for adult interest, but let’s face it, the real draw was the toy. That would be what got the kids to pressure dad to drive to his local Sinclair station.
All in all, it seems apparent that in its prime, Sinclair made the most out of using Dino as a way to draw children into begging their parents to go to Sinclair. The strategy definitely worked on me.
It still does.
Last spring when I was in a part of the country that has the newly-relaunched Sinclair stations, I drove at least an hour out of my way to try to find Dino mascot merchandise. I looked everywhere. I found nothing.
Some habits die hard.
Before moving on from gas product mascots, it seems reasonable to acknowledge the fact that many gas brands adopted actual humans as their spokespeople. The Man Who Wears the Star (Texaco) comes to mind.
Prior to its merger with Exxon, and after years of using its rather dull and static flying horse mascot (so dull that there are few interesting online sites about it), Mobil was represented in TV commercials by “Mr. Dirt”.
Mr. Dirt is not dull.
This character/mascot one was particularly memorable to me due to the fact that the actor who portrayed Mr. Dirt – Ronny Graham – is (was) the uncle of one of my long time best friends. Every time a Mr. Dirt Mobil commercial came on TV when I was a kid, my mom would yell “LOOK!!! It’s Jim’s uncle!”. This was my mom, being parasocial 50 years before anyone knew what that term meant.
You go Mom. You’d have loved the 21st century.
Mr. Dirt was a short-lived Mobile character who doesn’t entirely fit the rules of what is considered a “mascot” for the purposes of this exploration. Yeah, nice job explaining the rules of this game when we’re already two-thirds of the way through, but this is why I haven’t featured sections on seemingly worthy mascots such as “Muffler Men” and the Rolls Royce Flying Lady/Spirit of Ecstasy.
Basically, I’m looking for caricatures or characters, and extra points for non-humans. So while I absolutely love Muffler Men, the fact that so many have been repurposed into everything from firemen to lumberjacks to (I don’t know what, with the head of) Alfred E. Newman and they now hold items ranging from axes to hot dogs to golf clubs to chicken wings in their outstretched arms indicates that in my accounting the Muffler Man is more cultural icon (with quasi-religious symbolism in some cases) than brand mascot.
Likewise, just dressing up an unfortunate employee as the actual thing that your company sells does not entirely constitute “mascot” in the same sense of something like Bibendum (who is arguably a whole collection of things that Michelin sells).
So, while honorable mascot mention should go to the NGK spark plug guy…
…or his cross-country rival, Denso Man, neither of these rise to the level of true mascot. I do expect to be soundly criticized for this position by fans of Japanese products and cities, nearly all of which have mascots of some sort.
This clarification may become more important as we move into the our final section of automotive mascots.
Vehicle Brand Mascots
Not to be confused with the generic term used to refer to animal or human hood ornaments, there are surprisingly few product mascots to be found among automotive brands.
Most of the examples I’ve uncovered are from European brands. Somehow, it appears that American companies by and large decided that characters and mascots – particularly anything human-like – were undignified.
The American company Mack, as in Mack Trucks, is one notable exception to this rule.
Mack trucks’ association with the bulldog goes back to World War I when British soldiers referred to the American trucks that supported the Allies as “bulldogs”. Early Mack trucks — which were in fact the product of the “International Motor Company”, the company started by the Mack brothers in 1900 to produce trucks in Brooklyn, New York — carried a bulldog symbol through the 1920s. Nevertheless, as the photo above shows, this bulldog wasn’t quite the same as that which later came to define the brand.
The modern version of the Mack (by this time, the company had been renamed “Mack”) bulldog arrived in the early 1930s and was patented as part of a radiator cap. From this point on, for as long as trucks had something that resembled a radiator cap, most Mack trucks hit the road with a bulldog out front. Otherwise, the familiar bulldog mascot appeared in emblems on the trucks and of course product literature, etc.
As is the way of most things design-wise, the bulldog has lost some detail and become more stylized in modern times, but it’s still very much recognizable as the Mack Trucks mascot.
Since we’re talking Mack Trucks, it’s worth mentioning that Mack’s current parent company, Volvo, also had a mascot for its trucks way back in the 20th century.
I don’t have much information on this mascot and frankly have only included him because I really had no idea that such a thing existed. Maybe some readers can fill in the blanks. It seems that these Volvo mascots were mostly attached to trucks sold in Brittan as I’ve not found any for sale here in U.S.. They seem to have been mascots only for Volvo’s truck division. There have been attempts to utilize a viking as a symbol for Volvo cars, but that seems to mostly have been an unofficial, owner operated affair.
It appears that these truck mascots were intended to be mounted on radiators, much like the Mack bulldog. They came in a variety of different sizes and colors and have different things (or nothing) held in their right hand. All are supposed to have a shield emblazoned with “Volvo” on their left arm. The viking’s left hand is always clenched tightly over his groin. The overall impression is that they’re trying to make something happen with apparent great difficulty.
“Leif, how about next time we pillage the grain stores instead of just eating all of the sheep?”
Moving back to North America, without Viking raiders, aside from Mack most attempts by American manufacturers to utilize mascots have been short and not largely successful. A good example of this is the brief attempt by Nash (American Motors) to enlist Disney characters as product spokesthings.
Here we find Mickey and family living large in their new Nash. “Live a little, drive a Rambler.” Hummmmm. I’m not sure anyone ever actually said that aside from a cartoon mouse. Just as notable is the commercial’s clear implication that parking a Rambler was so simple that even a woman could do it. Good grief.
The video quality isn’t very good on this one, but it’s one of Several Nash ads supported by the vocal stylings of our favorite perpetually upbeat insect. I’ve heard, by the way, that those fully reclining seats (“twin travel beds”) were good for less wholesome (yet perfectly natural) things than napping the children on long trips.
For several years in the mid-1950s until Nash’s demise in 1957, Mickey, Jiminy, Donald Duck, The Song of the South characters (which for a variety of pretty good reasons have generally been scrubbed from the 21st century Disney roster), Pluto, you name them, all shilled for Nash on TV commercials.
This type of thing was slightly echoed by Warner Brothers in support of the 1971 Roadrunner and Chevrolet’s half-hearted “Warner Brothers Edition” minivans. Still, the Disney effort for Nash was much more full press.
Alright, any reason to post a Wile E. Coyote cartoon…I’ll take it.
Given how well-versed the world is in the artistic vocabulary of the original Disney characters, one of the things most of us would notice about the Nash commercials is that there’s something kind of funky about how Mickey and his crew are rendered. The simplified and flat style of the character artwork used in the Nash commercials was in fact a cost-saving effort. It also fit with the style of “limited” animation that was popular in the mid-1950s in both theatrical cartoons as well as a wealth of television advertisements (see also the Esso Calypso commercial, above). Think of this as midcentury-modern for cartoons. But it was really about the cost. Nash-Rambler-American Motors was looking for a cheap way to jazz up their TV advertising, and Disney (having nearly gone broke building Disneyland in the early 1950s) was looking for cash. A match was made.
But not for long. There’s really not much that Nash could do to save themselves at that time; nothing that could come from a TV commercial anyway. Particularly not one that employed live actors and voice-over that looked and sounded resoundingly old-fashioned. For its part, Disney’s fortunes soon rebounded and the need to rent out the company’s intellectual property quickly diminished. The match vanished.
Yes, overall, automakers have been reluctant to adhere themselves to cartoon mascots except when they are rather desperate.
Which of course may explain Cadillac’s short term fling with turning one of the merlettes in its historic logo into a bizarre one-off attempt to use a cartoon duck named “Ziggy” to sell a rebadged Opel. At least they brought Cindy Crawford to the party, although at the time even that decision was judged by many to controversial and pandering and generally not conducive to efforts to market the car to women. It nevertheless should be noted that the Crawford ad (a 1997 Superbowl commercial) did rather well with men.
What nearly everyone agreed was that the interpretation of a merlette into a somewhat crudely-drawn cartoon duck was not at all what Cadillac needed in order to sell cars to any gender. Cadillac’s “Ziggy” campaign lasted less than a year. The Catera was around for just five years. Whatever one might say about the Catera, Ziggy was confusing and ultimately not deemed helpful.
And that at long last brings us to the end of this survey. Surely there are mascots that have been overlooked, but I trust that those will show up in the comments. There are a few that I’ve debated on including (e.g., VW’s Fahrvergnügen “driver” icon and what may be the best commercial that isn’t an actual commercial featuring an excellent late 1980s lady, a GTI, and an out-take soundtrack by Prince ) but ultimately I felt that they were too insignificant or confusing and didn’t feature Cindy Crawford in an attempt to rescue an otherwise terrible idea.
For better or worse, mascots, like jingles, are increasingly becoming a feature of advertising’s past. So, it’s doubtful that there will be a slew of new mascots to cover in the future. But who knows. Everything old someday becomes new again. Maybe there’s a new Bibendum out there waiting to take the product world by storm.
Take a bow guys. And smoke ’em while you can. You’ll probably have to give up the stogies in the future.