Imperial Airlines / BOAC


Design: Theyre Lee-Elliott (UK)


In 1932 Imperial Airlines (est. 1924) introduced a stylised motif of a bird in flight, nicknamed the ‘Speedbird’, as its corporate emblem. The bold logo perfectly captured the spirit of this new and exciting mode of transport. To many it is a design classic, an icon created before its time. According to designer Peter Wilbur it is a “mark which although created in an age of 100 mph aircraft is still remarkably modern in concept.”

The Speedbird was designed by Theyre Lee-Elliott, a noted poster artist. During the 1920s and 1930s, the artwork he produced for Imperial Airlines frequently employed this motif to illustrate the various British imperial or empire routes.

In 1939, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was formed after the merger between Imperial Airways and British Airlines. The new state-owned national airline retained the Speedbird as its unifying symbol. By the 1950s, BOAC led many of the developments of the passenger jet era – and the Speedbird both evoked and expressed the glamour and romance of air travel during this period.

Throughout the 1960s, the BOAC livery of a dark blue tail with gold initials on the cheatline and a gold Speedbird on the fin was a familiar sight around the world. The Speedbird, albeit a slightly restyled version by Karl Gerstner in 1964, had survived for generations and was stylistically relevant to brand the airline even further into the future – adverts from 1971 show it visualised on the supersonic Concorde.

With the fusion of BOAC and its sister airline BEA (British European Airways) to form British Airways in 1974, the iconic Speedbird was jettisoned in favour of a truncated version of the Union Jack as the airline’s logo. BA’s chairman, David Nicolson, explained that the new look, by design agency Negus and Negus, expressed “a modern, efficient, confident and friendly face to the public.” However, after a large number of petitions from ex-BOAC staff, the Speedbird was recalled – and featured as a separate emblem on the nose section of the aircraft. This diminished role for the legendary symbol lasted until 1984, when BA launched a new look, as part of its preparations for privatisation. Discarded to the dustbin of history, only the Speedbird name endures – in the title of BA’s HQ and call-sign.