Both my parents were keen motorists, and I was often as a child taken to events where like-minded people congregated. Whilst out driving with my mother, I was taught to recognise all the makes and models of cars on the road – this was early 1950s, I might add, when the roads were still littered with vehicles from well before the war.
Consequently, I used to amuse myself by admiring cars, armed with some knowledge, when at some event I had quickly become bored with the main fare. This rapidly acquainted me with the tantalising array of bright metal and enamel badges sported on many cars. Most impressive were the sort of sports car, the front of which was embellished with a chrome-plated horizontal bar in front of the grille, mounted with an array of such badges.
The most obvious ones were the yellow-backed AA ones and the blue-backed RAC examples. They remind one that the fitting of badges to motor vehicles goes back to the early 1900s. In 1897 Frederick Richard Simms, who is often referred to as the father of the British motor industry, founded the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland. The Automobile Club soon started to attract some of the most influential people of the era. In 1907 Edward VII became its patron. Thereafter the club became known as The Royal Automobile Club, more commonly referred to by the initials RAC. The first brass badges were made by Elkingtons and in good order will cost you £100 or more.
In June 1905 another major British motoring club was formed, this was The Automobile Association. Like the RAC, it is also more commonly referred to by its initials. In March 1906 the AA produced the very first motoring club badge. Earliest examples carried an impressed signature of the club’s first secretary, Stenson Cooke. A little later, the badges also featured the word secretary. The example shown, on offer at £40, looks a bit too good to be true to my eye; the engraving looks machine cut as well; hand engraving always has trailed-off ends.
The RAC soon acquired an impressive club in Pall Mall which still exists although, like the RAC, the badge represents what is essentially an insurance organisation which today has no connection whatever with the London clubs. Both AA and RAC badges are datable from the numbers stamped upon them. For instance, early AA ones run from 1 to 999,999 (1906-1930). More modern versions of both can go for between £5 and £20 depending on condition. At Bamfords we occasionally get pre-Great War AA and RAC badges (upwards of £40), but rarely others.
My father latterly sported one familiar to me, the Veteran drivers’ club: a ‘V’ with a central button denoting the number of years over which the member had been driving; a post-war example should cost in the £20-£30 bracket. Father also passed the Advanced Motorists’ Club exam, and bore their red, white and silver badge (earlier examples about £20), not to mention the Baltic Exchange Motoring Club! The latter would be very rare today, and command upwards of £80, but a Liverpool example was recently on offer for £70; the smaller the club, though, the rarer the badge and the higher the price; yet some go for less than £20. Civil Service Motoring Club badges, quite well cast, are surprisingly common, for instance.
There are also owner’s clubs for most significant marques, especially sports car marques. A common post-war MG one is likely to be £10-£20 only, although others carry a premium. Father belonged to the Packard Register, but I cannot recall there being a badge. The most expensive one I have come across recently is a Lancia Owner’s Club badge in only passable condition for £150.
Vehicle badges of course are not restricted to motoring clubs. They can, and often do, represent a wide range of hobbies and interests; regimental ones used to be very popular when the army was much larger. Being stuck on the front of a car, most tend to look aged, with chrome or brass oxidised or discoloured, and enamel chipped, and these are the ones to avoid unless you spot a real rarity. As ever, always go for those in the best condition and there are a lot out there – numerous car owners got their badges and never got round to having them put on (or didn’t particularly want to).
Again, smaller, long-since amalgamated regiments are the most sought after, along with guards regimental badges and those of the Parachute Regiment, although the latter are surprisingly common yet can go for more than £50.
Yet if you had an RAC or AA badge showing, their respective road scouts would always salute you, and the badge came with a key (sometimes for sale with the relevant badge) to give access to the roadside boxes, of which a superbly restored (and listed) example – box No. 530 – survives in a lay-by near Brancaster Staithe in North Norfolk. Those were the days!
Indeed, the car badge is the longest living vehicle accessory, and many badges are still produced today. But beware: some collectible ones are re-produced today and end up being sold as the real McCoy. Check wear and finish.