Just who is that jolly, puffy toff?

Present day Bibendum

My road racing wheels are decked out with Michelin Pro Race tires, my ‘cross bike has Michelin Mud and Michelin Sprint tires for training. Did you ever wonder who that chubby little character on the label is who’s waving at you? The Michelin Man, aka “Bibendum”, hasn’t always appeared in his present benign, innocuous persona. Back in 1898, when Michelin only dealt with bicycle tires, their anthropomorphic tire-man was a cigar-chomping, monocled, sinister icon. Here is Bibendum’s history in a (rather lengthy) nutshell:

The Michelin Man was anything but cuddly in his earliest incarnations. He had a frightful, mummy-like aspect then, and sometimes appeared as a gladiator or a kickboxer. In the Italian market he was a grandiloquent memoirist, a nimble ballroom dancer, and an incorrigible ladies’ man. Stranger still, back then he was known as the “road drunkard.” To this day his official name is Bibendum, the Latin gerundive meaning “drinking to be done.” The name comes from the first series of posters featuring him, which bore the Latin legend Nunc est bibendum–”Now is the time to drink”–and depicted the tire man hoisting a champagne goblet filled with nails and broken glass, sometimes garnished with a horseshoe. The seemingly tortured conceit, as the ad copy spelled out, was that “Michelin tires drink up obstacles”–i.e., they wouldn’t puncture easily.

Yet what sounds today like a preposterously ill- advised advertising campaign made keen good sense at its moment in cultural history. And the quirkiness of Bibendum’s origins is part of what inspires such loyalty among his fans today.

In 1889 the brothers André and Édouard Michelin took control of a struggling rubber products business in Clermont-Ferrand, an industrial city in central France. According to the company’s official history, a bicyclist came to their workshop in 1889 with a flat tire. Pneumatic (inflatable) tires had just been invented by John Boyd Dunlop the year before. Pneumatics provided a much more comfortable ride than the alternative–solid rubber tires–but they were subject to punctures, especially since roads were so poor. In fixing the flat, the brothers discovered that the customer’s Dunlops were glued to the rims, making patches extremely time-consuming. They soon developed and patented a detachable pneumatic tire that could be repaired in 15 minutes or so. Next they pioneered pneumatic tires for carriages, and by 1895 an early automobile known as the Éclair (it looked like one) completed a 750-mile race on Michelin tires.

During this period Bibendum was in gestation. His first kick in the womb came in 1893 when André argued to the skeptical Paris Society of Civil Engineers that pneumatic tires could “drink up obstacles.” Fetal Bibendum kicked again in 1894, when Édouard motioned to stacks of tires at an auto exposition in Lyon and commented to André, “Add some arms, and you’d say they were men.”

Then, in 1897, while thumbing through a commercial artist’s portfolio, André had a fateful epiphany. It was triggered by a sketch that had been rejected by a Munich brewery, showing a legendary king hoisting a stein and uttering a Latin toast. André told the artist, who went by the pen name O’Galop, to substitute a tire man for the king. In O’Galop’s final version, completed in April 1898, Bibendum is flanked by two tattered, flaccid rivals who couldn’t hold their rusty nails. To contemporaries, the competitors’ caricatured faces were readily recognizable as those of John Boyd Dunlop and the then-chief of Continental Tire.

Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

If Bibendum was made of tires, the reader may ask, why wasn’t he black? Simple answer: Tires weren’t black until 1912, when makers first began adding carbon black as a preservative. Until then they were either a gray-white or a light, translucent beige.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

While it may seem astounding that a company would base an advertising campaign on a Latin motto, the Michelins weren’t wooing the masses. Both motoring and bicycling were rich men’s avocations. Accordingly, O’Galop’s Bibendum was, like his customers, quite upper crust, smoking a fat Havana cigar and wearing a lorgnette.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

André Michelin gave Bibendum his first speaking engagement in December 1898 at a Paris cycle show. He set up a large cardboard cutout of the tire man at the Michelin booth and hired a cabaret comedian to crouch behind it and provide in-character banter. According to a biography of Bibendum by Olivier Darman, André had specified that he wanted someone with “perfect elocution,” “keen repartee,” and “wit without vulgarity.” So large a crowd is said to have formed around the spectacle that rival vendors became enraged, pushing and shoving broke out, and gendarmes had to be called in to restore order.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

In those days competition was brutal, and so was Bibendum. One poster depicts him as a gladiator in the Coliseum, his sandaled foot across the throat of a writhing, bleeding tire man, with three tattered tire corpses littering the arena behind him. Competitors responded in kind. A maker of solid rubber tires depicted its own symbolic champion, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, about to drive a huge nail into a cowering Bibendum, who abjectly begs for his life.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

In 1907, Michelin launched a travel magazine in Italy, giving Bibendum a regular column. In one, he wrote of a Ball of Nations he had attended, praising ladies representing various lands. According to biographer Darman’s translation, Bibendum addressed Italy: “O you sublime Madonna, Rome’s destiny, accept my homage, you whose eyes shine with the splendors of the Renaissance.” In an almost cruel postscript, Bibendum reported the crushing impact his social conquests were having on his rivals: “ashen-faced suitors with fixed smiles, living symbols of a shattered illusion.” No Pillsbury Doughboy he!

With iconic status, alas, comes a certain responsibility to one’s public. As a product succeeds, its mascot must appeal to a wider audience–and tone down his sharper edges. In the early 1900s, Bibendum swore off violence and began to strike more playful poses–say, riding a bike while flinging tires like Frisbees–and he increasingly defined himself as the motorist’s guardian angel. In a 1914 poster he assists a family with a flat by donating the biggest, choicest tire from his own midsection, as an azure sky shows through the hole left in his abdomen.

These behavioral modifications were complemented by physical ones. As the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould once observed in an essay on Mickey Mouse, successful mascots frequently undergo an evolutionary process he called “neoteny”: They develop increasingly juvenile physical characteristics, because those are the ones that we consider the most lovable and unthreatening. Like Mickey’s, Bibendum’s head over the years has grown larger relative to his body, his eyes bigger relative to his head, his jaw less prominent, his limbs pudgier. By 1925 he had discarded the lorgnette, and in 1929, during a tuberculosis epidemic, he gave up cigars too.

-from Michelin Man: The Inside Story by Roger Parloff

Comments (19) to “Just who is that jolly, puffy toff?”

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