The world never ‘tires’ of Michelin Man

This Michelin Tires plastic light-up sign with a light-up Bibi figure measures 56 by 26 by 24in. It realized $2,500 in February 2018 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of DanMorphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Long before brand anthropomorphism became a thing, the Michelin tire company created a beloved brand mascot that has long served as the textbook example of how to achieve corporate identity on a global scale.

“Bibendum, as the Michelin Man became known and loved, has been with us almost as long as the automobile itself, communicating Michelin’s message better than a human spokesperson could, using created human-like attributes, traits and emotions,” according to an article on the New Atlas website.

This Art Nouveau poster from 1914 shows an early iteration of Bibi. Photo courtesy of AACA Library & Research Center, Hershey, Pa.

The Michelin Man is a favorite among advertising mascots and remains highly recognizable today, more than 120 years after its debut. Inspired by an interestingly stacked pile of tires on display at the Lyon Exhibition in 1894, brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin, thought the stack resembled a man without arms. Four years later, the brothers met French cartoonist Marius Rossillon, who professionally went by the name of O’Galop, who showed them an image of a similar figure he had drawn for a restaurant and the Michelin Man was born.

Bibi – essentially a man-like figure made of tires – has gone through many changes over the years but his humanoid appearance and wide eyes have always lent him a charming appeal. While tires are now black rubber, they were historically white and Bibi remains white, except in a handful of illustrations and modern figures. He has been recreated into all manner of advertising collectibles, figures, clocks, trucks and toys as well as on posters, maps and paper. This video made in 1935 shows how he came to life.  There are thousands of items with his likeness on them and collectors can be quite passionate about their collections. This one blogger showed off many photos of his items here while Michelin’s own collector store features figures, cars, brain teasers and more.

A Bibi advertising figure, 31½in tall, sold for $4,500 in March 2018 at Copake Auction Inc. Photo courtesy of Copake Aution Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Matthew Hocker of the AACA Library & Research Center in Hershey, Pa., has written articles like this one about Bibi. He says original Michelin Man advertising posters are highly collectible today, especially those pre-dating the World War II era. “The artwork was phenomenal and automotive enthusiasts are always on the lookout for exciting pieces to display in the garage,” Hocker said. “Given the level of craftsmanship that went into painting them, I would think they also have cross appeal with collectors of early advertising posters.”

Other forms of Bibi such as older metal objects, including figures, ashtrays, banks, toys and the like are also sought after, he said. Many of the items he sees online are cast iron though there are some made of bronze, pot metal and other materials. Interest in these objects is usually strong because they make for great display pieces or decorations.

This Art Nouveau poster from 1914 shows an early iteration of Bibi. Photo courtesy of AACA Library & Research Center, Hershey, Pa.

“The original Michelin Man had human hands, was very round/fat (though not always), smoked a cigar, and wore a monocle; in many ways, he was like a caricatured representation of the well-to-do class of the period. He was also made of several layers of thin tires,” Hocker said. Over time, the tires grew fatter and his appearance took on more cartoonish tones (likely corresponding to the growing popularity of cartoons and Disney films). In recent years, Bibi has stopped smoking and become thinner.

Bibi still holds court at the Michelin Building in London, now home to the elegant fine-dining establishment called “Bibendum,” and later, “Claude Bosi at Bibendum.” Many of the original architectural features remain, as well as exact replicas of the original stained-glass windows featuring Michelin’s beloved mascot. In 2011, as part of the celebration of the Michelin Building’s centennial, Michelin renewed its efforts to locate the long-missing original stained glass windows. A stained glass amnesty website and hotline were set up for this purpose.

1911 drawing of Michelin House by unknown artist. Public domain image in the United States

The AACA Library’s collecting focus is sales literature, including catalogs, brochures, advertising, etc. It has many examples of Michelin brochures, catalogs, press kits and clipped magazine advertisements. Such advertising artwork is desirable yet often does not easily lend itself to display/framing, Hocker said. “Part of the appeal of a catalog or manual, for example, is that you can look through all the pages. You can’t really do this when it’s framed. Some of our members do frame stuff like magazine advertisements and unfolded brochures for display. Fans of the character will no doubt be on the lookout for these pieces.”

This Michelin Man air pump brought $19,000 in October 2016 at Mecum Auctions. Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The top Michelin Man collectibles will have the trifecta of collectibility: attractiveness, scarcity and provenance. “The primary reason I think advertising mascots like the Michelin Man are so appealing is because they are like us but do not look enough like us to be mistaken as one of us,” Hocker said. “They are often anthropomorphic characters of figures with exaggerated human features and, to me, this is what helps make them stand out. They are also used as a tool to connect us with our favorite products and, depending on the satisfaction or reputation of said products, may give people ‘warm and fuzzy feelings’ when they see them.”

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