Motorcycle brand names and badges and how they came to be

Motorcycle brand names become part and parcel of everyday life for a biker, but do you know how the names, and badges, came about?

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WE all know the main motorcycle brands – Honda, Ducati, Harley-Davidson etc – and how valuable they can be (hence the recent sales of Norton and Indian plus, back in 1983, Triumph). But do you know where they come from?

Many, admittedly, are obvious: Honda from founder Soichiro Honda back in 1947, Ducati from Antonio Cavalieri Ducati and his three sons, Adriano, Marcello, and Bruno Cavalieri in 1926, H-D from William S Harley and Arthur (and later brother Walter) Davidson in 1901 and so on.

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There are others, too: Benelli was founded in 1911 when Italian widow Teresa Benelli invested her inheritance into a workshop for her six – yes, SIX – sons; Compatriots Laverda was founded by Pietro Laverda in 1873 as an agricultural engineering enterprise (no sniggering at the back) while Moto  Guzzi, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, was set up by mates Carlo Guzzi, Giovanni Ravelli and Giorgio Parodi in 1921, with Guzzi earning prominence as he was the engineer of the three. Piaggio comes from Rinaldo Piaggio, by the way, in 1884.

Others are less obvious: Bimota comes from the first two letters of founding fathers Valerio Bianchi, Giuseppe Morri, and Massimo Tamburini in 1973 while Cagiva is similarly derived, being founded by Giovanni Castiglioni in Varese in 1950 with its name being a ‘portmanteau’ from CAstiglioni GIovani and VArese. Got that? Good.

But others can be more obscure. So, in a bid to boost your biking knowledge or simply to hopefully give you a bit of pub banter (for when pubs finally re-open) here’s our pick of the others, both their names and badges, and what they actually mean.

BMW

Let’s start with a familiar one you may think you know. German giants ‘BMW’ (or Bee-eM-Vay to use the correct pronunciation) stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke, or, to use a clumsy translation ‘Bayern (as in Munich, in the Bavaria region) Motor Works’. Created out of the former Rapp Motoren-Werke in 1917 BMW was established in its current form in 1922 although back then it was nothing to do with bikes, or even cars – but aeroplane engines. The first bike didn’t come until 1923, its first car in 1933. Which partly explains BMW’s logo, too: the BMW roundel logo was developed from the similarly round design of the Rapp company, with its name likewise in the outer ring. The blue/white quadrants in the middle, meanwhile, contrary to popular myth which suggest they represent a rotating propeller, are actually borrowed from the Bavaria state colours, with one small difference – their order is reversed as contemporary trademark law forbade the use of state coats of arms. Instead, the propeller myth probably dates back to an ad from 1929, which showed an airplane with the BMW logo in the rotating propeller… which then stuck.

Royal Enfield

You don’t get much more British than Royal Enfield, which has sprung back to prominence in recent years thanks to its willing, affordable, retro 650 twins, do you? In truth, motorcycle back-stories don’t get much more convoluted but we’ll try to keep it brief. Royal Enfield’s roots date back to an engineering business in the 1850s which moved into bicycles. In 1892 it be became the Eadie Manufacturing Company and began supplying precision parts to the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield and soon assumed the name Royal Enfield. Its bicycle subsidiary became the Enfield Cycle Company and built its first motorcycle in 1901. The arms association led to Royal Enfield’s ‘Built Like a Gun’ advertising slogan. In 1955 Enfield partnered with Madras Motors in India to form Enfield India in Chennai to assemble the 350 Bullet for the Indian military. By 1962 all components were made in India. Meanwhile, in the UK, Royal Enfield continued to produce motorcycles at its Redditch factory before being dissolved in 1971. Subsequently, Enfield India began importing its updated Bullets into the UK and in 1999, after a legal case, won the rights to use the Royal Enfield name. Now a subsidiary of the vast Eicher Motors, Royal Enfield remains one of India’s largest motorcycle manufacturers but bought UK chassis specialists Harris Performance in 2015 and set up a Technology Centre at Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire headed by former Triumph product manager Simon Warburton in 2017.

Montesa

Spanish trials legends Montesa may be one of the most famous off-road brands of all but their history and the origins of its name are far less familiar. Most famous for its world trials success in the 1970s in the hands of the likes of Malcolm Rathmell and its famous Cota, and again in the 2000s with Toni Bou after being taken over by Honda, Montesa was actually founded near Barcelona in 1945 by industrialist Pere Permanyer Puigjaner and budding bike engineer Francisco Bulto to build lightweight commuter bikes. Sports and racing bikes came later, off-roaders after than and trials bikes last of all. Bulto and Permanyer fell out in 1958 leading to the creation of Bultaco (see below) and, eventually, Montesa fell into receivership in 1983 before gradually being bought out by Honda. Today Montesa is the most successful of all trials bike brands having amassed over 70 world titles, including the last 26 in a row. The name ‘Montesa’, meanwhile, comes from a Spanish cavalry order from the 13th century, which is why its shield logo takes the form of a wax seal with a medieval ‘M’ in the centre.

Bultaco

You can’t really understand Bultaco without mentioning Montesa, so here we go: after the founding and growth of Montesa in Barcelona by Pere Permanyer Puigjaner and Francisco Bulto, whose nickname was ‘Paco’ in 1945, the pair fell out in 1958 following Permanyer’s decision to cease all racing activities. Bulto left as a result, soon set up his own, rival manufacturing concern, took most of the Montesa racing department with him and called the result a combine of his two names – Bulto and Paco, ‘Bultaco’. During the 1960s its ‘Sherpa’ trials bike as developed with Sammy Miller revolutionized the sport due to its lightweight two-stroke engine at a time when heavy British four-strokes had been dominant. It also made successful two-stroke motocrossers and road racers. Following a period of industrial unrest and market pressures, Bultaco closed its doors in 1979 although there have been numerous attempts to revive it since. Former MotoGP star Sete Gibernau, is Paco Bulto’s grandson while the firm’s logo contains a ‘thumbs up’ sign Bulto observed from British racer David Whitworth while ‘’CEMOTO’ is an acronym for  ‘Compañia Española de Motores’.

OSSA

While we’re doing Spanish trial bike manufacturers, we can’t pass on one of the most interesting of all. OSSA (NB, not Ossa) may have, like Montesa and Bultaco, leapt to British fame during the 1970s trials bike boom and become associated most with Mick Andrews, but it’s history goes much further back and originally had nothing to do with bikes. The company was founded by Manuel Giro, an industrialist from Barcelona, in 1924. Its original name was ‘Orpheo Sincronic Sociedad Anónima’ , quickly being truncated to O.S.S.A, and it originally made not bikes but movie projectors – which is why its ‘four leaf clover’ logo actually depicts nothing of the sort – it was originally intended to instead depict the escapement mechanism of a film projector. Like Bultaco (and others) OSSA struggled in the late 1970s and early ‘80s and closed in 1982. It was briefly revived between 2010 and 2014 before being merged with GasGas but when Gas Gas was absorbed by the Torrot Group in 2015, Ossa was not part of the deal and closed down again.

Husqvarna

Another quirky, borderline unpronounceable off-road brand many of us know little about. Although KTM-owned since 2013, and before that was part of BMW and before that Italy’s Cagiva, the bulk of Husqvarna’s history is Swedish. So named for being set up in the Swedish town of Huskvarna way back in 1689 initially as an armaments maker, like many others Husqvarna began making bicycles in the late 19th century before building its first motorcycle in 1903. In the 1950s and ‘60s it found fame as a world leader in motocross and enduro (even finding favour with Steve McQueen) by which time it had also branched out into power tools such as chainsaws. The motorcycle division suffered in the 1980s and was sold to Cagiva in 1987. Famously, a group of engineers and workers, however, were not willing to make the move to Italy and remained to set up Husaberg. In 2007 Cagiva sold Husqvarna on to BMW before again being sold on to KTM – who by then already owned Husaberg – in 2013. The Husqvarna logo, meanwhile, refers to its armaments origins, symbolizing the gunsight over the barrel of a rifle.

BSA

Another motorcycles brand with, like Royal Enfield and Husqvarna, armaments connections (as, incidentally, does Italy’s Benelli) – and one that’s particularly topical following the recent news that new owners Mahindra of India are now in the process of re-launching the brand as an electric bike manufacturer with a sizeable research facility in Banbury. ‘BSA’, of course, as most bike fans know, refers to ‘Birmingham Small Arms’, a West Midlands-based armaments collective that expanded into bicycle, then motorcycles, cars and more to become the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer by the early 1950s. Its arms division became equally massive becoming a crucial manufacturer of rifles and Browning machine guns during WW2. From the 1950s onwards, however, BSA fell into decline. BSA bicycles was sold to Raleigh in 1957, Daimler was sold to Jaguar in 1960. Military gun production ended in 1961, the last proper BSA motorcycle was made in 1973 and, following a liquidation of assets, BSA guns went to Manganeze Bronze then Spanish manufacturer Gamo. Early BSA logos included, perhaps unsurprisingly, three rifles with a later version simply a winged ‘B’.

Aprilia

You know the brand, you know the bikes – cheeky little sporting lightweights for the 1980s and ‘90s growing to ambitious V-twin 1000s in the early Noughties which crippled the original concern leading to its takeover by Piaggio, before today’s new 660s – but do you know the origins of the Aprilia brand and its name? Although having it roots in bicycles and being founded, like many others, in the immediate aftermath of WW2, Aprilia, as set up in Noale by Alberto Beggio didn’t actually produce its first motorcycle until the reins were passed onto his son, Ivano, in 1968, who promptly produced the company’s first motocrosser, the Scarabeo, in 1970. Initially focusing on lightweights, road and race bikes followed to great success in the late 1980s and 90s before it overstretched itself with the move into big V-twins and by taking over Moto Guzzi. Piaggio took it over in 2004 and with its new 660s it looks to be at last returning to its innovative, dynamic, youthful best. Which is quite appropriate, really, as the name ‘Aprilia’ derives from the Latin for ‘April’ meaning youthful or ‘the beginning’.

MV Agusta (MV Agusta logo)

From a ‘young Italian’ to an old, historical one – although in truth, not as old as you might expect. MV Agusta was founded by Count Domenico Agusta in 1945 (again, like many others) to produce lightweight motorcycles for post-war Italy although, this time, it was an off-shoot of an existing company – the Agusta aircraft company and conceived primarily to keep its workers in employment. Accordingly, the MV part of its name stands for ‘Meccanica’ (mechanics) and ‘Verghera’, the hamlet where the first MVs were built. To fit in with this the main part of its logo is a mechanical ‘cog’, sharp, aircraft inspired ‘wings’ were added in 1947 and the Agusta part takes the form of a crown, signifying the family history. Through the 1950s and ‘60s MV dominated grand prix racing before falling into decline in the 1970s. In 1992 Cagiva bought the MV Agusta brand and recommenced motorcycle production in 1999. Agusta, meanwhile, moved into helicopter production in the 1950s, merged with Britain’s Westland in 2000 to become AgustaWestland and then Leonardo in 2016.

JAWA 

Finally, another armaments/motorcycles company that’s changed hands countless times. As any speedway/grass track racing buff will tell you, Czechoslovakian (now Czech Republic) brand JAWA is one of the displines most revered brands of all although today its surviving elements are a complicated mish mash of old and new spread among Europe and India. The original concern was founded by Czech Frantisek Janecek in 1929 after buying the motorcycle ‘Wanderer’ brand from German manufacturer Winklhofer & Jaenicke, ‘JAWA” being produced from Janecek and Wanderer. A series opf successful two-strokes followed in the 1930s before turning to armements during WW2 under Nazi occupation. Nationalised under communist rule post-war JAWA was merged with CZ, However it’s most famous for its now completely separate racing division which in the ‘60s was very successful with its lightweight two-strokes in both motocross and road racing (Briton Bill Ivy died aboard JAWA’s 350 GP bike in 1969) and even more so in the 1970s with its speedway and grass track machines. Following the fall of the iron curtain the road division, with its antiquated two-stroke 350s, fell into difficulty. The JAWA name was licensed to India’s Mahindra in 2018, where it now produces a 300cc retro-style roadster similar to Royal Enfield’s Bullet, although part of the deal means this can’t be sold in Europe. Interestingly, at the same time, a revived JAWA Moto lives on in the Czech Republic, producing small numbers of machines.

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