The legend of Marchal, motor racing’s lucky black cat

Marchal black cat ad

Those who know me are fully aware I am the proud owner of an eight-pound, 11-inch-tall black cat. She is a stalwart friend and faithful companion. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I am infatuated with the black cat logo of S.E.V Marchal, which pegs that perfect combination of vintage motor racing and abject cuteness. Strap in, feline fiends.

Marchal headlights adorned the noses of Chaparrals, Ford GT40s, Porsche 917Ks, and BMW 2002s and lit the night from Le Mans to Daytona, Monte Carlo to Finland. There are very few constants in life, but vintage motorsport readily supplies the same images—and the black cat has remained an enduring mascot

In 1923, Pierre Marchal and a few friends started a company dedicated to electric lighting. One night, as the story goes, he drove home to his garage when he caught the reflection of his cat’s eyes staring back at him, piercing through the darkness. And so, for his eponymous company, he adopted the image of the black cat and paired it with the slogan, “I only lend my eyes to Marchal.”

Marchal lights cat advertisements
Marchal

The French love their black cats. Witness Théophile Steinlen’s iconic poster for the bohemian Montmartre cabaret Le Chat Noir, currently hanging in the dorm room of sophisticated college Francophiles next to that one James Dean poster. The French believe in the matagot, a spirit in the form of a black cat who walks between worlds, waits at the crossroads, and will also grant you near-limitless wealth if you feed it well. Paris’ most famous cemetery perpetually hosts a gang of cats roaming around. Hell, the French put a cat in space. It was black and white, and it survived.

Marchal supplied lights to the most exclusive carmakers. By the 1930s, its lights adorned the chromed front ends of Delahayes, Hispano-Suizas, and Talbots—though its logo was a simple M, an Art Deco motif. In the James Bond novels, writer Ian Fleming gives Marchal a nice shout-out for Bond’s 4 1/2-litre supercharged Bentley.

The cat branding truly took off sometime in the late 1940s, after World War II, like in a 1950 ad promoting the lights onto American cars. Peer through these early ads and you can see all kinds of goofy cats. In 1954, a Marchal-equipped Ferrari 375 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and a Lancia flipped on its Marchals to win the Monte Carlo Rally, and you bet the ads made good mention of that.

And yet, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the angular logo with the checkered flag truly took off. It lasted through every decade of motorsport that you can call the Golden Age. Phil Hill used the company’s iodine projectors to win Le Mans in 1962. Marchal-logo covers adorned Alpines, Renault Gordinis, and nearly every BMW, while its headlights could be seen behind the taped-up headlight covers of every Porsche 917K, especially the Gulf livery ones.

Marchal merged with the company S.E.V, the aptly-named Société d’Équipements pour Véhicules, which made distributors, windshield wipers, spark plugs. S.E.V. Marchal became a one-stop shop for all of your Matra’s or Simca’s consumables.

To promote S.E.V. Marchal’s diversification, in 1964 the company customized a Citroën H-Van into an incredible rolling billboard: up front was mounted every possible light available to buy, a dozen horns, transparent display cabinets on the sides with car parts, and giant S.E.V. MARCHAL signs on the roof. It was built by Carrosserie Le Bastard, a family company with a family name. It is a vehicle you must see to believe. If you go to the Museum of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, you can.

Renault Dauphine with Marchal lights
Selective yellow headlights

That same year, Pierre Marchal passed away. By 1970, Ferodo—another name of motorsports legend—took over the concern. Then, in 1977, S.E.V. Marchal and rival CIBIE merged. Ferodo became Valeo, the lighting business fell by the wayside, and the name fell into the proverbial dustbin.

In 2009, a Japanese company acquired the rights to the Marchal name. It immediately brought the same enthusiasm as the Japanese embraced the American speed shop Mooneyes; you can buy Marchal-branded shirts, stickers, Baby On Board signs, and Marchal-specific riffs that other famous black cat logo of Yamato Transport. Today’s Marchal mostly sells motorcycle lights, complete with the Marchal logo in the center, as God intended. In true French form, they are also available in selective yellow. Limited automotive options are being produced. You own a Hakosuka Skyline, a Datsun 240Z, or other enviable Japanese machinery, you’re in luck.

marchal ad compostie
Marchal

The tradition never dies. The logo reflects a bygone era, summoning a tinge of nostalgia. Recreations are hotly debated on forums from Porsche to Ford, where they were hot OEM options. Someday, the Japanese Marchal will expand the way it deserves: bringing French-branded lights, made in Japan, for our old-school German and American cars. Imagine that.

Until then, we wait, and we imagine. Twin headlights, golden amber in color, cutting through the pitch black of the Mulsanne Straight. At night, I imagine the solitude of the French countryside, the eerie forest, full of myths, and the truth of that slogan, “je ne prête mes yeux qu'à Marchal.” I find myself unable to fall asleep. I open my eyes to see the cat staring at me from the impenetrable dark. Like the twin candelabra eyes of Marchal’s inspiration, they are watching; the cat watches the breath leave my body. The horror, the absolute dread! Its golden eyes of fire!