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The origins of hood ornaments can be traced back to 'motometers', which were temperature gauges or thermostats installed on the radiator caps of the first automobiles. As time went on, manufacturers moved these gauges to the dashboard, but the radiator caps still remained outside. The 1920s saw automakers adding motifs to these radiator caps, like wings, animals and other ornamentation which later went on to becoming the norm till the late 1940s or so.
While only a few manufacturers like Rolls Royce persist with hood ornamentation today, the popularity of such mascots in their heyday prompted us to bring you this little trip down memory lane, when these beautiful hood ornaments were all the rage.
1. Rolls Royce - ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’
The ‘Spirit of Ecstasy' as it is known, is the official hood ornament of Rolls Royce. Although evolved and retractable now, it is still seen on Roll Royce models today.The Spirit of Ecstasy was designed by Charles Robinson Sykes and symbolized the secret love between the model of the mascot, Eleanor Velasco Thornton and the Lord of Beaulieu. It depicts a woman leaning into the wind, with her flowing gown behind her giving the emblem the appearance of an angel with wings. The Spirit of Ecstasy is possibly the most recognisable hood ornament there ever was, with its roots going back to the early 1900s.
2. Lincoln - ‘Gun sight’
The Lincoln ‘gun sight' hood emblem was seen on several Lincolns in the past, and looked just like the crosshair used to align guns and weapons to targets. Lincoln was also known for their silvery greyhound hood ornament extended at full speed, which stood to symbolise the company's "speed and grace, and beauty and endurance."
3. Bentley - 'Flying B'
British luxury automaker, Bentley, was also popularly known to have featured hood ornaments for their cars in the last century. The mascot for Bentley, the ‘Flying B', that was characterized by a capital letter ‘B' with wings, first appeared on a 1919 Bentley 3 ½ Litre car. The letter ‘B' stands for Bentley, while the wings symbolize the speed of Bentley cars.
4. Buick - 'Goddess'
Buick, known for its cars like the Riviera, and the Model 40 of the early 1930s were characterized by the ‘Goddess' mascot, that was said to symbolize provocative dancer, Isadora Duncan. The emblem depicts the dancer entirely nude but for a blowing scarf. The dancer was killed in 1927 when her trailing scarf got entangled with the rear axle and strangled her to death.
5. Mercedes-Benz - 'Three-pointed star'
The three-pointed star hood ornament of Mercedes Benz is arguably even more recognizable than the famous ‘Spirit of Ecstasy' of Rolls Royce, and was seen at the end of Merc bonnets till very recently. The story goes that Gottlieb Daimler, in a postcard to his wife, marked his residence out with a three-pointed star, and wrote, "One days this star will shine over our triumphant factories", and inspired Daimler and Maybach to produce engines for "land, water and air." Paul and Adolf Daimler, Gottlieb's sons, proposed this ‘star' as the official emblem to Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft's board, who accepted. The three-dimensional three-pointed star was registered by DMG way back in 1921.
6. Packard - 'Goddess of Speed' and 'Pelican'
Packard was an American luxury automobile manufacturer that produced cars between 1899 and 1958, who again used hood ornaments to add that touch of uniqueness to their line-up. The company used the ‘Goddess of Speed' ornament as well as the ‘Pelican' emblem on the hoods of their cars, which were a woman with her outstretched arms containing a tyre (seen here) and a stylised pelican, respectively.
7. Plymouth - 'Flying Lady'
Plymouths were known to have made their way into our country in the 1940s through Premier, although in limited numbers. The ‘Flying Lady' radiator cap ornament of Plymouth has an interesting story to tell. Rising young sculptor in the late 1920s, Avard Fairbanks was told by Plymouth that they were looking to launch their new PA Series of cars with the advertising pitch, "The smoothness of an eight with the economy of a four", the numbers signifying the number of cylinders of the engine. His response to the brief was a mermaid with eagle wings, which went on to be popularly called the ‘Flying Lady'.
8. Jaguar - 'Leaper'
The now Tata-owned prestige auto firm is one of the few companies that persisted with hood ornamentation till only recently. The famous Jaguar ‘leaper', which is the representation of a sleek jaguar leaping from the hood, was originally produced as an accessory, but by 1938 Jaguar-produced ornaments were available for two extra guineas!
9. Dodge - 'Ram'
The famous symbol of Dodge, the ram, was again the brainchild of Avard Fairbanks, who designed the ornament for Dodge because he felt it "was surefooted, the King of the Trail; it won't be challenged by anything." But it did not immediately win over Walter Chrysler. A bit of corny humour did the trick - Fairbanks said you would think of only one thing when you saw a ram coming for you down the trail, and that is "Dodge!" Chrysler famously agreed saying, "That's it! The Ram goes on the Dodge!" and the rest is ahem, history...
10. Pontiac - 'Chief Pontiac'
Among the most impressive hood ornaments of the world are those of Pontiac, initially in their form of a Native American's head complete with full headdress in the 1930s. These later evolved into a jet plane with the head of Chief Pontiac by the 1950s. The swept wings reflected the jet fighter and bomber airplanes of the era, and also the cultural stereotypes of the Native American living in ‘wide open spaces' and the freedom of the jet-age.
As we know, the world of automotive history is a diverse one, and hood ornaments are but one piece of this cake. It's unfortunate that the days of hood ornaments are numbered, with one being able to count on one hand the manufacturers persisting with this design element today.
Safety concerns of hood mascots potentially injuring in an accident are always there, and thus the manufacturers that continue to fit these characterful emblems have to make sure they are safe in an accident. Rolls Royce ornaments, for example, now retract in a potential accident.
Hood ornaments represented the glory days of automobiles when cars could be big, brash and flamboyant, without a million-and-one regulations to adhere to.