A Lost Art Form

Unless you’re a baby boomer or a vintage car enthusiast, you won’t even realize one of the most whimsical and beautiful artistic endeavors has died a quiet death. Today’s automobiles only have a flat badge to identify the make of car that you’re passing on the highway. The era of the hood ornament has disappeared, along with tail fins and running boards as auto manufacturers began to care more about aerodynamics and safety than they did style. 

From the earliest days of automotive engineering, cars did not have water pumps, but instead had a circulating system that required constant monitoring of the water vapor. Having quick access to the car’s radiator was a necessity, so auto makers placed the radiator cap outside of the hood, front and center over the grille. Obviously, this unsightly cap needed to be hidden somehow, and during the heyday of the style, auto manufacturers tried to outdo each other creating hood ornaments. They became a way of branding the automobiles, of personalizing each manufacturer. Pontiac created a profile of an Ottawa Native American.

A leaping jaguar became the symbol for the Jaguar brand. The Ford Roadster came complete with a sleek dog on the hood.

A stork came to symbolize the Hispano-Suiza cars.

In the 1920s through the 1950s, a family’s wealth could be determined in part by the type of hood ornaments on the cars in the driveway. 

Some of the most unusual hood ornaments were in the form of a woman’s shapely body, often with flowing sleeves crafter to resemble wings. Taking inspiration from the figureheads of sexy mermaids which adorned the bows of some ships,

these finely crafted hood ornaments showed women in various forms. Buicks once sported female figures as hood ornaments, but the most famous of these was the hood ornament on a Rolls Royce auto. Entitled the “Spirit of Ecstasy,” there is, of course, a lurid tale behind the iconic statue.

The original Spirit of Ecstasy was designed in the early 1900s by a gentleman names Charles Robinson Sykes, who was hired by Baron John Montagu, Lord of Beaulieu, to create a personal mascot for his 1909 Silver Ghost. It symbolized the secret love affair between the Lord of Beaulieu and the model used for the ornament, Eleanor Velasco Thornton. It depicts a woman leaning into the wind with her flowing robes behind her resembling wings, giving her the appearance of an angel. But Eleanor was far from an angel. 

The first version of the ornament depicted Eleanor with a finger to her lips, symbolizing her secret affair with Baron John Montagu, second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu. Called “The Whisper,” only a few casts were made of it.

The Baron was a pioneer of the automotive movement and served as editor of The Car Illustrated magazine. Eleanor was hired by the Baron as his personal secretary and he quickly became enamored with her. Eleanor was from the working class, so their love affair would have been frowned upon by proper English society. An additional complication was the Baron’s longstanding marriage to Lady Cecil Victoria Constance Kerr. So their love affair was kept a secret, limited to only the Baron’s close circle of friends, for more than a decade. 

Eleanor Thornton, posing with the Silver Ghost

Sykes was once again commissioned to create a hood ornament for the Rolls Royce, one that embodied the traits of the car–speed, beauty, energy and grace. Once more, he turned to Eleanor to be his model. He modified “The Whisper” into what he referred to as “A graceful little goddess, the Spirit of Ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight and alighted on the prow of a Rolls-Royce motor car to revel in the freshness of the air and the musical sound of her fluttering draperies.”

Eleanor’s colorful life came to a tragic end on December 30, 1915, when the ship she and Lord Montagu were on was torpedoed by a U-boat south of Crete. They had been on their way to India, where Montagu was to assume a command. She was killed instantly, but Lord Montagu survived, spending several days on a life raft before being rescued. 

The present-day version of the Spirit of Ecstasy still graces the Rolls. It stands three inches high, and, for safety reasons, is mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism which will retract the ornament immediately upon impact from any direction. Eleanor’s image continues to revel in the freshness of the air as a new class of drivers get to know the woman behind the iconic image. 

If you wish to obtain more details on any of the hood ornaments seen here, Amazon is carrying the book called On The Hood, by Chris Banyai-Reipl.




 Witzel, Michael Karl (1996). Route 66 Remembered. Motorbooks. p. 31ISBN 9780760301142. Retrieved 29 October 2014. America’s heyday for hood ornaments.