The Terrifying Orginal Michelin Man

October 30, 2022

Just about everybody knows about the Michelin Man, the rotund amalgamation of tires that represents the company's steadfast commitment to automotive safety. However, did you know the Michelin Man’s inception dates back well over 100 years? Or that he began life as an alcohol-drinking, cigar-smoking, axe-wielding murderer of the competition?

That’s right. The friendliest face in automotive tires today actually more closely resembled a cross between Frankenstein and an alcoholic Kool-aid Man when he first debuted in 1898. Here’s the story of the Michelin Man’s incredible journey from spooky to sociable.

The original Michelin Man was the stuff of nightmares. His original name, Bibendum, even sounds scary. Reddit

Before The Michelin Man There Was Bibendum

Around the turn of the 20th century the Michelin brothers, Édouard and André, spied a stack of tires and Édouard noted, “Look, with arms and legs, it would make a man.” Despite that moment of epiphany, it took five more years and a drawing of King Gambrinus, the patron saint of brewing, by cartoonist Marius Rossillon (who also drew the original “tire man”) for the first rendition of the Michelin man to fully come alive.

The drawing of King Gambrinus included “nunc est bibendum.” In Latin it reads, “Now it is time to drink.” For the Paris–Amsterdam–Paris race in 1898, the Michelin brothers added that phrase to their “tire man” advertisement. When driver Léon Théry shouted, “Voila Bibendum, Vive Bibendum,” the brothers found the mascot’s name for their eponymous company.

Over time the Michelin Man became more family friendly. MTFCA

A Very Different Time

It’s important to note that the advertising icon back in the early 1900s looked more like Mad Max than Pokemon. The earliest depictions of “Bibendum” showed him perpetually smoking a cigar and pounding champagne, accompanied by a phrase that translated to “The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles!” He literally became known as a “road drunkard,” which would obviously cause zero controversies today!

Other advertisements around the time also portrayed “Bibendum” actually killing the competition in gladiator-style fights to the death. Design historian and curator Alain Weill theorized, “Once a character becomes a popular icon, you don’t have to question if it’s good or bad. At different periods Michelin stopped using him but always came back to him. He has lasted so long because the brand did, which is not the case with many others who invented brilliant logos.”

“Bibendum” Matures

The coarse nature of the original “Bibendum” was supposedly geared toward the wealthy upper class as they were the only ones who could afford a car. As the clientele of cars changed, so did “Bibendum.” He stopped drinking, smoking, and gradually changed from the stuff of nightmares to a family-friendly purveyor of road safety.

Advertisements stopped picturing their mascot murdering other tire companies and began illustrating him helping stricken travelers with spare tries from his ever-shrinking belly. Weill appreciated the marketing genius in the character's malleability, “The great thing with the chubby little man made out of tires is that he could be represented in various situations; the different possible versions is my favorite thing about him.”