Bibendum, or the Michelin Man to his English-speaking friends, celebrates his 120th birthday and has just been named the advertising Icon of the Millennium

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Man of the Millennium – Celebrating 120 years of the Michelin Man

Nowadays we’re used to seeing the Michelin Man atop the podium at Le Mans, the Nürburgring or numerous other racing circuits around the globe, but did you know that the brand’s first racing success came more than a century ago at the 1891 Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race?

The company we know today as Michelin, was founded in 1832 in the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand. Started by Édouard Daubrée and Aristide Barbier, the factory initially made rubber balls and farm machinery. In May 1889, Édouard Michelin took over the reins and the company was renamed Michelin et Cie. Though Édouard was in charge, he worked in close collaboration with his brother André, and together they pushed Michelin forward as a tyre manufacturer for the burgeoning automotive and aviation industries. However, it was a development in bicycle tyres that first opened doors for the brothers.

In early 1891, the Michelin brothers revealed a removable tyre for bicycles that made puncture repair significantly easier and less time consuming. In a stunning debut for the new technology, champion cyclist Charles Terront used the new Michelin tyre to win the Paris-Brest-Paris race in August of 1891. Terront completed the 1200km journey in just 72 hours.

Buoyed by the success of the removable bicycle tyres, and having already produced the world’s first rubber tyres for cars, the Michelin brothers accelerated the development of automotive tyres. During the last decade of the 19th century, Michelin pioneered the first tyre with the capability to withstand speeds in excess of 100km/h and even built the first car to be fitted with pneumatic tyres – the Éclair.

In July 1895, the Michelin brothers piloted the Éclair themselves in the 1178km Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race – often dubbed the first motorsport event. Though the brothers failed to greet the chequered flag in first place, the test proved the worth of the pneumatic tyre.

Not only were the Michelin brothers innovative with their core product (and they manufactured aircraft for France’s World War One effort, dabbled in locomotives and built the world’s first concrete runway), but they were keen to engage with the public to establish their message. Enter the Michelin Man.

Today, the Michelin Man is one of the most globally recognised corporate logos, ranking beside the three-pointed star of Mercedes-Benz, the golden arches of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola’s trademarked ribbon. But do you know the story behind Bibendum?

In 1894, the Michelin brothers attended the International and Colonial Exhibition in Lyon. The stand manager had arranged a pile of differently size tyres and the Michelin brothers thought that the arrangement looked like a man and the idea for a company logo was born. Adapted from a cartoon by O’Galop (real name Marius Rossillon), Bibendum advertising posters debuted in 1898.

But tyres are black, so why is the Michelin Man white? Remember that in the first decades of tyre development, the items we know today as round black things, were a grey-ish white. Eventually, carbon was added to the rubber for durability and tyres became black.

Celebrating his 120th birthday, the Michelin Man has recently been recognised as the Icon of the Millennium by Advertising Week, the US-based global conference for marketing, advertising and branding. The award ceremony took place in Times Square in New York City and recognised the Michelin Man as one of the world’s oldest trademarks.

Adeline Challon-Kemoun, executive vice president Brands, Sustainable Development, Communication and Public Affairs of the Michelin Group, commented: “Since his birth in 1898, designed by O’Galop, Bibendum is more than just an advertising emblem. He is a living character who embodies the Michelin Group, its values, commitments and missions. As the Group’s spokesperson for better mobility, he passes messages and advises all road users and accompanies them on every journey.”

The L’Aventure Michelin museum in Clermont-Ferrand is holding a special exhibition to celebrate the life of the Michelin Man. A series of 120 images tells the story of Bibendum and will be on display until the end of the year, though the Michelin Man always features prominently at the museum.