Intricate and creative car mascots featured on many vehicle bonnets during the early 20th century. Initially added on top of the radiator cap, in the days when it was on the car’s exterior, they later became decorative bonnet ornaments in their own right.
Iconic car mascots such as the beautiful Rolls-Royce Spirit Of Ecstasy and Jaguar’s legendary leaping big cat are recognised by every luxury car enthusiast. While they are largely a product of 20th-century motor vehicles, the idea of an ornament on a vehicle dates back more than 3,000 years to Ancient Egypt.
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Ancient history of car mascots
Vehicle mascots originated during the reign of Egyptian ruler Tutankhamun, the young pharaoh from 1332 BC until 1323 BC. According to historians, the first such ornament was a sun-crested falcon mounted on his chariot. The design was meant to bring good luck.
The horse-drawn vehicle driven by the young king, who died at 19, was the equivalent of a Ferrari in Ancient Egypt. It was a great status symbol. Chariots were pulled by a pair of horses and could travel at around 25 mph.
King Tut’s favourite chariot was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter when he entered the king’s treasure-packed tomb. It was customary to bury the pharaoh’s possessions with him for the afterlife.
His most luxurious chariot, complete with decorative ornament, was among the items in his tomb. Known as the boy king, he had a number of ornate chariots that were built for speed. As well as symbolising the pharaoh’s grandeur and wealth, they were used for hunting and fighting.
The sight of the sun-crested falcon bearing down on opponents, accompanied by the thundering of the horses’ hooves, would have been terrifying.
20th-century bonnet ornaments
In modern times, bonnet ornaments first appeared in 1911. As a feature on early motor cars in both the UK and the United States; they served both functional and aesthetic purposes.
The first automobiles had a radiator cap outside the bonnet so the driver would have an idea of the engine coolant’s temperature. A sensor measuring the heat of the water vapour became a useful tool for the driver to ensure the car wasn’t overheating.
Early engines didn’t normally have water pumps. Instead, they had a water circulation system based on a “thermo-syphon” principle. In 1912, Boyce MotoMeter Company, of Long Island City, New York, took out a patent for a radiator cap with a thermometer that the driver could see with ease.
As well as having an important function, the exposed radiator cap soon became a focal point for vehicle personalisation. Recognising a golden opportunity to market their brands, car manufacturers created mascots to accompany the MotoMeter on the radiator cap.
From the 1910s through to the early 1920s, the mascot figures on top of the cap grew in popularity and became a highly fashionable accessory. After car body designs changed, with the radiator and cap being placed under the bonnet, the car mascots had become so popular that they continued as an accessory in their own right.
Popular car mascot designs
The designs of bonnet ornaments became increasingly ornate during the 20th century. There have been some famous mascots, such as the Archer on Pierce-Arrow cars – the US manufacturer that ceased production in 1938. The archer alone is valued at £1,500 upwards on online auction sites today.
Mascots became highly stylised under the influence of the Art Deco movement. A vintage Finnigans Icarus car mascot, from a Farman car from 1925, is valued at around £1,720 today. The leaping jaguar on Jaguar cars was launched in 1945 and remained virtually unchanged until the early 21st century.
The Spirit of Ecstasy on Rolls-Royce cars dates all the way back to 1909, when Charles Sykes created the sculpture of actress, model and early motoring pioneer Eleanor Thornton, of Stockwell, London. In 1911, Rolls-Royce decided to place the unique figurine on every vehicle that they produced.
At this time, English society preferred women to be passive in the male-dominated culture. Eleanor was the exact opposite and one of a small group of Rolls-Royce enthusiasts who represented the freedom the luxury car permitted.
The mascot’s name, Spirit of Ecstasy, symbolised bold actions and freedom of thought, the model’s flowing dress reminiscent of wings. The image represented the freedom and sheer joy of owning a Rolls-Royce. A rare Spirit of Ecstasy car mascot from 1950 can fetch around £3,950 at auction.
Other famous car mascots included the lion used on Peugeot cars; a rocket on Oldsmobile cars; a three-pointed star surrounded by a circle on Mercedes-Benz vehicles; and a ram’s head on Dodge cars and vans.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Bentley limousine, produced in 2002, had a special bonnet ornament depicting St George slaying the dragon.
The most expensive car mascots ever sold include a one-of-a-kind Spirit of Ecstasy commissioned by luxury car dealership Manhattan Motorcars. Designed by Jean Kemanjian, it is made from diamonds, platinum and rare metals. It is valued at £160,000.
A rare 1920 art deco car mascot, Egyptienne Ailee, depicting an Egyptian figurine in bronze and silver and signed by French artist Marcel Bonnot, was valued at £104,000 by Bonham’s auction house.
Health and safety laws
Throughout much of the 20th century, the car figurines remained incredibly popular and became a status symbol in their own right. Sadly, after booming during the 1950s, they gradually fell out of favour, as increasingly strict health and safety laws were introduced.
Legal restrictions on the grounds of safety impacted on the car mascots and they became a feature mainly of classic cars. Rolls-Royce still fits the Spirit of Ecstasy – but on the grounds that it mustn’t obstruct the driver’s view.
The legality of existing car mascots remains something of a grey area. While having a bonnet mascot is not a criminal offence in itself, it’s illegal to fit anything that obstructs the driver’s view.
The Department for Transport says the potential danger to other road users, including pedestrians, could also be an issue. If a driver is involved in an accident and the mascot causes an injury, this could be an offence. It would be up to the courts to decide if an individual mascot had broken the law in such a case.
Rolls-Royce’s bonnet mascots are now spring-loaded, so they will retract, break off or bend in the event of a collision.
Today, classic cars with bonnet ornaments are viewed as luxury vehicles and the mascots are highly collectable in their own right.
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