Bibendum the Michelin Man
Written by Matthew Hocker
Advertising mascots are everywhere. They peer at us from cereal boxes, sling products to us from billboards on the drive to work, and await our return home to bombard us with countless TV commercials. Taken for granted today, character-driven advertising didn’t really take off until the 20th Century. In the automotive realm, one such pioneering company was Michelin with their character of Bibendum. Since his official introduction in 1898, Bibendum has taken on several different forms and roles, all while remaining an iconic figure throughout the world.
Bibendum is Michelin’s metaphorical superhero and, like any comic book character, he comes with a fascinating origin story. In 1889, French brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin set out to work on what would become the first detachable pneumatic tires. Up until that point, replacement of tires was complicated and time consuming. In fact the brother’s quest was inspired by the replacement of a customer’s inflated Dunlop bicycle tire, which had been held in place by glue.
Their invention made its public debut in 1891 when the tires were used in the Paris-Brest roundtrip bike race. The brothers viewed the event as an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of detachable tires, and their sponsored biker Charles Terron delivered on that promise. At one point, he punctured a tire and lost the lead but still managed to emerge in first place. When interviewed, he attributed his victory to Michelin’s tires, claiming they were easy to remove and repair.
For a time, Terron served as Michelin’s spokesman but Andre and Edouard sought a unique way of promoting their product. An epiphany struck Edouard at the 1894 Universal and Colonial Exhibition in Lyon, France. The entrance to the Michelin stand was flanked by two piles of tires, the shape of which Edouard noted to be almost humanlike in appearance.
Soon after this chance encounter, the Michelin brothers were approached by the graphic artist O’Galup. The image he presented was a plump likeness of Gambrinus, the legendary icon of beer brewing. Beer in hand, the figure exclaimed “Nun est bibendum!” (Latin for “Now is the time to drink.”) The Munich brewery O’Galup originally crafted the design for rejected the idea, but Andre and Edouard were intrigued.
With the brothers’ blessings, O’Galup set out to design Michelin’s mascot, finishing the first advertising posters in 1898. The result was a fusion between O’Galup and Edouard’s ideas; the mascot was comprised of stacked tires and retained the rotund figure of Gambrinus. O’Galop also ran with the alcohol theme, depicting the Michelin Man raising a toast of broken glass and nails, all while withered looking tire people representing competitors looked on helplessly. The Latin phrase remained intact, with the addition of the motto, “the tire that drinks up obstacles.” After going public, the Latin phrase was frequently associated with the character, and Bibendum became his adopted name.
Like his physical appearance, Bibendum’s public persona was larger than life. He was a prominent figure at auto shows and parades, with Michelin employees donning puffy character suits. By 1927, Michelin was interested in marketing the character beyond the sale of tires, and he began appearing on stationary, maps, and automotive gauges. Candy confectioner Tobler even made a chocolate Bibendum! Michelin ceased manufacturing accessories in 1930 because companies with similar products felt they were facing unfair competition and threatened to boycott Michelin tires.
In addition to his visual presence, Bibendum served as the voice of the company. An example of this was Michelin Instruction Plates, a 24 page tire maintenance and troubleshooting guide published in 1913. Bibendum was listed as the editor and signed the forward, “yours pneumatically.” His figure dominated the cover illustration, in which he was seen providing a demonstration to a massive crowd.
The Bibendum of early advertisements was vastly different from the form we recognize today. Prominent features included a big belly, human hands, glasses, and a lit cigar. It’s also worth mentioning Bibendum’s appearance was less restricted than it is today. Contracts with several different artists contributed to a diverse range of interpretations of the character. Michelin’s expanse into foreign markets also gave way to regional variations. His image became more standardized when Michelin’s artwork was done in-house by the 1930s.
Bibendum’s looks continued to change with the passage of time. As the tire titan entered the roaring twenties, the width of the rings on his body expanded, and his hands became white. His glasses eventually morphed into large round eyes, reminiscent of the then-up-and-coming animated characters like Mickey Mouse.
Bibendum must have also had an intervention because he no longer drank and, with the exception of the occasional relapse, gave up smoking by 1929. In fact, he became more interested in physical fitness. A 1925 poster featured Bibendum running alongside a tire, an image that was to later become a long-standing emblem for the company. This “exercise” paid off, as he is considerably thinner today.
In a world where trends come and go Bibendum has stood the test of time, having remained an industry superstar for over a century. To learn more about this legendary mascot, be sure to stop by the library or give us a call. We have a collection of early advertisements, more than 35 Michelin brochures and catalogs and the book The Michelin Man: 100 Years of Bibendum, which offers a comprehensive history of the character. We would also be interested in acquiring additional Michelin material to fill in the gaps within our collection.