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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

A Brief History of Michelin Man & Michelin House in London

What is the Michelin House?

Michelin House is the former headquarters of the Michelin Tire Company, opened in the early 20th century, which now houses offices, a shop, and a restaurant.

Michelin House

Cockney Laurie / Michelin Building South Kensington

Michelin House History

‘Nunc est bibendum’ reads the Latin lettering on the stained glass above the grandiose doorway to Michelin House: ‘Now is the time to drink’. Not another of London’s ubiquitous pubs, this is instead the first utterance of one of modern advertising’s most iconic creations. In his earliest images Michelin Man, an anthropomorphised stack of teetering Michelin tyres, swigged from a champagne glass filled with roadside debris from one hand and puffed on a cigar in another; he wooed French ballerinas and threw grand parties. The Michelin Man swaggered through print ads, billboards, and, on this unusual London building, a stained glass window.

Created in 1894, Michelin Man (otherwise known as Bibendum) is one of the most successful characters ever featured in modern advertising, helping the French company grow to become one of the world’s largest tyre manufacturers with a successful series of roadmaps and travel guides – the company also awards coveted Michelin Stars to the world’s best restaurants. Inextricable from Michelin’s brand identity, the sinister mascot became the archetypal personification of successful corporate branding. Over 100 years later, his visage still grins from the walls and windows of Michelin House, and his friendlier image waves from every Michelin tyres ad.

He was nicknamed ‘the road drunkard’ and his initial image was related to King Gambrinus, the patron saint of brewing. He leered, limbering and swaying, pince-nez eyeglasses milk-white in the low light of the original paintings. ‘The Michelin tyre drinks up obstacles!’ bragged the copy that accompanied his intimidating frame. A far cry from the slick and studiously serious car ads we see today.

In a slight shift, he ditched the cigar and champagne glass around 1930, since smoking and drinking (especially while driving) went out of style. This sacrifice generated some spare cash; he needed it, occupying that miniscule section of society that could afford to buy a car at the time. As well as sharing some quick tips for fiscal responsibility, Bibendum began to establish a more wholesome image.

By the 1950s, he was becoming increasingly rotund. He tumbled down hillside roads on his rolls made up of stark white tyres. The creation of the character predates the introduction of preservative, black carbon to tyre manufacturing in 1912, and his white rings remain as a reminder of Michelin’s lengthy dominance in the industry.

At various points in the last century, Michelin have attempted to retire the character. Every time, Bibendum has returned with force. Since the completion of Michelin House in 1911, the visage of its presiding genius has been found all over the building – and indeed, Europe. In 1985, the French company sold the building to restaurateur, designer and retailer Sir Terence Conran, and publisher Paul Hamlyn. Its modern owners, who no doubt appreciate the quality and legacy of the branding, have never removed his image.

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