At the Lyon Universal Exhibition in 1894, the Michelin brothers noticed an evocatively-shaped pile of tyres on their stand. Édouard said to André, “Look, with arms it would make a man.” André Michelin would remember this moment a few years later.
In 1898, when looking at an advertising sketch for a brasserie drawn by O’Galop, André Michelin had an idea: why not replace the bearded giant raising his beer mug with a man made of a pile of tyres and holding a cup filled with nails and broken glass. The latin quotation from Horace, “Nunc est Bibendum” (now it is time to drink) declared by the character was also reused by Michelin.
O’Galop’s Michelin poster, 1898
“Cheers, the Michelin tyre drinks up obstacles!” This slogan had been launched by André Michelin a few years previously to convince engineers of the benefits of tyres.
An animated cartoon was made in the 1930s to show the Birth of Bibendum (embedded below).
No sooner was the Michelin Man born when he began to play a major role for the company: it was he who presented the products and advised and assisted motorists, becoming the brand’s worldwide ambassador.
In 1905, Michelin opened a sales office in London. The Michelin Man changed into a knight to conquer this new territory, wearing a helmet and carrying a shield. For his coat of arms, O’Galop drew his accoutrements: the spectacles, the cup, a cigar, and the cross-section of a tyre with a nail incapable of puncturing it. In the caption, a line from Tennyson is adapted to promote his tyres, “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my rubber is pure.”
As early as 1907 the Michelin Man crossed the Atlantic and set up a factory in Milltown, New Jersey. The advertising became more educational: the Michelin Man was depicted as a giant accompanying and advising travellers by explaining the advantages of his products.
From 1907 to 1915, the Agenzia dei Italia Pneumatici Michelin published a monthly review sent to its customers by post. It copied the fun but educational format of the “Michelin Mondays” in France. Particular care was taken with the cover illustrations, which naturally involved the Michelin Man. The Italians turned the character into even more of a hero than he was in France. On this cover the Michelin Man is a sort of diplomat idolised by women.
Michelin used a large number of artists who each brought their own interpretation to the character. His shape was guided by the narrow silhouette of the tyres, while his appearance and attitude reflected the customer of the time, smoking a cigar and wearing spectacles, here in 1914.
Michelin, by René Vincent, 1914
In North Africa in 1922, Roger Broders showed the company’s mascot dressed as a Bedouin. Adopting local costume, the Michelin Man slipped on babouches and a djellaba.
From the 1930s onwards, Michelin made increasingly less use of outside artists. As a result, images of the Michelin Man became more standardised, although there were country-specific variants. Adapting to the evolution of tyres, his rings became thicker and the character dropped his wealthy image to move closer to a broader customer base.
The character’s sportive nature is often symbolised through this famous attitude of the racing Michelin Man.
In Germany, as in the Nordic countries, the Michelin Man dons a hat, boots and a scarf when the weather gets cold in winter.
In Japan, he was seen as a ladies’ man with his sumo-like proportions.
In 1998 his centenary was an opportunity for the company to give him a new look: he appeared slimmer and more dynamic in the company’s brand block.
Today, 100+ years after his birth, Bibendum stills appears all over the world.
My favourite Bibendum appearance was in the 2009 film Logorama.