1 August 2013

Badges of Honor

Once nearly as ubiquitous as the automobile itself, grille badges offer a sense of belonging

In 1892, Panhard et Levassor manufactured the first production motorcar, but the new conveyence was not greeted with universal admiration. Early motorists in both Europe and America faced hostility from the general public, as well as from law enforcement ready to issue fines if a motorist so much as startled a villager’s horse. Organizations such as the Association of Not Yet Run Over Pedestrians fought the motorcar at every turn.

In 1895, the first automobile organization, the Automobile Club de France, was founded in Paris, while the American Automobile Association originated in 1902 and the Automobile Association in Great Britain followed in 1905. New clubs emerged with the explosive growth of the automobile, and their purpose was to fight unjust regulation and provide social activities, while the Automobile Association also monitored police and warned members of speed traps. Badges were offered to members so they could recognize fellow associates and announce their allegiance. Dozens of badge variations were issued well into the 1960s.

Over the years, the AAA has faced competition from the National Automobile Service Club, Automobile Legal Association and the Touring Club of America, although it continues to be the dominant auto club in the U.S., with affiliates in most states. Ohio had at least 60 chapters and Pennsylvania even more, all with their own unique badges.

For many years, St. Christopher, the patron saint of all travelers, was the most common of all car badges, though any number of other organizations around the world issued badges of their own. The unusual badges of African auto clubs often featured native animals and tested geographical knowledge. The 120- and 130-mph badges from Brooklands in England are especially cherished. If you drove your Porsche 356 100,000 kilometers, you could apply for a distinctive badge to commemorate the achievement.

Today, unique and colorful badges are highly sought after, especially those that are enameled and graphically interesting. With literally thousands to choose from, most collectors tend to limit their search to a specific country or region, or they run the risk of being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

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