Motor Mascots ~ Radiator Caps ~ Bonnet Toppers
By whatever name you give them, hood ornaments started out as a mechanical necessity for early car owners. Today they are iconic symbols of the luxury vehicles they adorn. Join us as we look back at the evolution of these small statuettes and their lasting influence on the automotive world.
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Air of Mystique with a Past
The first known hood ornament belonged to King Tut of Egypt around 1332 BC. It was a golden orb depicting the sun god, Ra and it proudly adorned his favorite chariot. The first automotive bonnet topper also had a spiritual connection. Britain’s Lord Montagu placed a bronze medallion of Saint Christopher atop his car hood and the trend was born.
A Less Heavenly Purpose
While early owners might have sought a higher power’s blessing on their vehicle, the original purpose for the ornaments was as a temperature gauge for the radiator. The first automobiles had their radiators mounted on the outside of the car and were known to overheat easily. In 1912 the Boyce MotoMeter Co. patented their radiator cap with a thermometer. It was mounted on the car hood to make it easy for the driver to see. Technological advancements soon negated the need for hood mounted thermometers but owners had other ideas.
Era of Automotive Adornment
In the early days cars were the property of the very wealthy. The upper class soon wanted a way to announce their wealth and social standing to the world. Automobiles became rolling advertisements for their owners. A unique bonnet topper designed specifically for your car was as good as a calling card.
“The Whisper” Causes a Stir
Many of the uber rich sought out famous artists to create their one of a kind hood ornaments. British sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes created a stir when he designed a figurine of a woman for Lord Montagu’s car. (He decided to replace Saint Christopher). Titled “The Whisper” it depicted a woman holding her finger to her lips as if she had a secret. Rumor has it that the model for the ornament was none other than Lord Montagu’s mistress.
Rolls Royce’s “The Spirit of Ecstasy” Takes Flight
Roll Royce became so annoyed with their clients personalizing their cars that they had Sykes create their own ornament in 1911. Sykes based it on the figurine he designed for Lord Montagu and the legendary Rolls Royce mascot, “The Spirit of Ecstasy”, was born. It has been standard on all of their cars since the 1920’s.
A Small Company with Famous Clients
From 1920 until the mid-1950’s everyone wanted in on the personalized car mascot market. Today only one company remains. Louis Lejeune Ltd, a small English bronze foundry, continues to create custom car mascots and their clientele is pretty impressive. They created a silver Labrador with a pheasant in its mouth for Queen Elizabeth II’s Range Rover and a leaping frog ornament for the late Princess Diana’s car.
Lalique Car Mascot Collection Sells for $805,000
Many car collectors sought out artists and jewelers to create their unique mascot designs. Rene Lalique, famous Parisian glass designer, created hood ornaments out of crystal to adorn the front of many luxury cars. In 2012, Sotheby’s sold a 30-piece Lalique car mascot collection owned by antique car collector Ele Chesney for $805,000. It featured the “Victoire - Spirit of the Wind” and the “Cinq Chevaux - Five Horses.”
End of an Era
The era of hood ornaments came to an end in 1966 when political activist Ralph Nader deemed them too dangerous for the U.S. market. A fear that pedestrians would be impaled on the winged figures caused auto makers to begin to phase them out. Today only a handful of luxury car manufacturers still have car mascots. Today’s versions are spring loaded and flip back upon impact.
Need a Little Topper Too?
Though their heyday has come and gone, hood ornaments can still be appreciated for what they are – works of art. At your next car show be sure to check out all the unique car mascots on display. You may decide your car needs a little bonnet topper of its own.
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