The term automobilia refers to memorabilia that relates to automobiles, usually classic cars. It encompasses antique & vintage antique items relating to car manufacturers, as well as petrol and gas companies, termed petroliana.
Much automobilia is advertising memorabilia produced by these manufacturers or gas companies. However, anything with a motoring theme, from art to toys to clothing, can also be classed as automobilia. The term also refers to classic car parts and accessories, notably hood ornaments (mascots), and motoring ephemera such as antique road maps.
The history of automobilia runs parallel with the history of automobiles.
As far back as the late 19th century companies were advertising their motor-related products, including French tyre company Michelin (formed in 1889) whose famous ‘Michelin Man’ mascot began to appear in advertising in 1898.
In 1900 the company produced their first Michelin Red Guide, a publication to help drivers maintain their cars, find decent lodging, and eat well while touring France. It included addresses of gasoline distributors, mechanics, and tire dealers, along with local prices for fuel, tires, and auto repairs.
Around this time magazines dedicated to automobiles began to appear, including ‘The Autocar’, a British magazine first printed in 1895 which still survives today. The first years of the 20th century also saw the formation of the RAC (1907) and the AA (1906), and the metal members badges and manuals from this time are highly collectible.
In 1912 The Boyce Motormeter Company was issued a patent for a radiator cap with a visible thermometer. Many car manufacturers wanted their own emblems displayed on their vehicles' hoods and Boyce Motormeter accommodated them with corporate logos or mascots, as well as numerous organizations that wanted custom cap emblems to identify their members.
During the 1920s glass mascots in the Art Deco style appeared, the most famous of which were designed by celebrated designer René Lalique.
The 1920s also saw the birth of the Le Mans 24-hour race, also known as the Grand Prix of Endurance, in France. Promotional items such as posters and programs from famous events such as this, Grand Prix racing, the Monte Carlo rally and early NASCAR races dating from the 1920s through to the 1970s are popular collector’s items.
Today any item that relates to the early days of motoring is considered automobilia, and many items can offer important cultural and historical insights as well as being highly collectible.
Types of automobilia
Petroliana refers to antique and vintage items relating to gas and petrol companies, such as Shell Oil, Texaco, Mobil Oil, Esso and Standard Oil.
This can include advertising memorabilia produced by the companies such as gas signs and posters, large gas station displays such as neon logo signs, antique gas pumps, oil bottles, spouts and cans, merchandise such as calendars, matchbooks, thermometers, playing cards, ashtrays, coffee mugs etc, and other products produced by the company, such as paraffin containers, aerosols, lock fluid, cleaner fluids, wax, windshield washer, polish etc.
Items that track the history of classic car manufacturers are particularly sought after as automobilia. Popular manufacturers among automobilia collectors include Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, and Rolls-Royce Limited.
Antique and vintage advertising, such as signs, posters and sale brochures, as well as merchandise such as models, toys, clothes, flags, lighters, coffee mugs, ashtrays etc, make up much of the automobilia related to these companies.
It can also include actual parts of classic cars, whether spare and accessories, or antique headlamps, horns, steering wheels, number plates, car badges etc. For example, a rare Aston Martin DB4 hard-top roof sold for £12,500 at Bonhams in May 2013.
Hood ornaments, also known as mascots, come in all shapes and sizes. They are general made of metal or glass, in the form of a figure or animal.
While these are produced for specific car manufacturers, many of which adopt a particular shape as representative of their company and their cars, mascots can also be bespoke, artisan creations.
Some of the most popular of these are the glass car mascots of Rene Lalique. Lalique was a fine producer of art glass in the late 19th – early 20th century, renowned for his beautiful Art Nouveau and Art Deco creations. He was commissioned by various car manufacturers and wealthy individuals to produce car ornaments, generally in the shape of animals. Some designs were produced in great number, others in lesser quantities, resulting in great rarity and desirability today. These antique mascots now commonly fetch thousands of dollars at auction.
As well as paper advertising, other specific items of automobilia ephemera have an established community of collectors, such as antique and vintage road maps. The Road Map Collectors Association is dedicated to the collection of road maps. Admittedly these were often produced by gas companies or car manufacturers, so could also be considered advertising.
Other examples of automobilia ephemera are motoring magazines, and promotional posters and other items relating to motor racing events.
Antique road signs
Collectors may be more interested in the history of transportation and driving rather than the history of particular companies. Some people collect antique road signs, such as stop signs, street signs, traffic marker signs, highway signs, speed limit signs etc. There are many reproductions in this area.
Automobilia is a wide field, stretching back across the history of motoring and encompassing many different forms of collectible.
Therefore, collectors of automobilia often focus on a specific area such as those mentioned above, sometimes narrowing it down even further, for example to car mascots from the 1930s, Shell Oil porcelain advertising signs, or Ferrari sale brochures.
A popular area of automobilia collecting is that of early memorabilia from petrol stations and companies. British Petroleum first began to use the ‘BP’ initials on cans of motoring fuel in 1917, and by 1920 their logo began to appear on advertisements and petrol pumps.
Early BP items such as enamel signs from the 1920s, employee pin badges and early petrol-pump globes are now highly popular with automobilia collectors.
There are a lot of reproductions of petroliana. While most reproductions will be sold as novelty items, some may try to pass themselves off as authentically antique or vintage. Always make sure an item is genuine before you purchase it.
Another popular area is that of hood ornaments or mascots, which began to appear at the turn of the century.
Records show that as early as 1898 John Montagu of Beaulieu had a mascot fitted to his 1899 Daimler, and that it was fitted when he became the first MP to drive a petrol-driven car into the House of Commons yard. By 1910 mascots were common, and in 1911 the famous Rolls Royce mascot the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ appeared for the first time.
Automobilia can be found at collector’s fairs known as ‘autojumbles’, as well as regular auctions. The major auction houses such as Bonhams and Christie's all have dedicated automobilia departments. Items can also be found on eBay, at garage sales, flea markets and second hand stores, and through specialist dealers.
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