By Sivan Goren

As a kid, I once took a ride in a Mercedes-Benz that belonged to the parents of a friend (as recent immigrants to South Africa my family could never have afforded such opulence). The one thing that stood out in my mind, apart from the tin of Quality Street on the back shelf – the height of luxury in my 10-year-old opinion – was the impressive-looking metal object in the shape of a weird sort of star attached to the front of the long nose of the car. What was it? Were these people royalty or something?

Nowadays, of course, the iconic Mercedes tri-star figurehead is known worldwide, though it has fallen out of favour in recent years… seems younger people don’t really go for ostentatious vehicular adornments much. There was a time, however, when these hood (or bonnet in South Africa) ornaments or mascots were the height of fashion; a way for motor manufacturers to set themselves apart from the rest and let their creativity loose. Like clothing, music and movies, these motoring mascots took on the flavour of the period, becoming a part of pop culture.


According to the book Motor Badges & Figureheads by Brian Jewell, John Scott Montagu (later Lord Montagu) was the first person with a hood ornament – in 1899 he attached a Saint Christopher medallion to the bonnet of his Daimler. Whether this was for aesthetic or religious purposes we will never know, but it was just before WWI when car mascots really began to emerge. Toy-type ones, such as model aeroplanes with propellors that spun when the car moved became very popular, as did lucky charm mascots including horseshoes and black cats. Believe it or not, the now-hated swastika was considered a symbol of good luck and was commonly displayed on bonnets in the years before it was adopted by Hitler and his Nazi party.

Around the same time, many people had taken to adorning their cars with silly and sometimes comical mascots. Although this seems like a bit of innocent fun to most, it caused some major rumblings in the car world. The top chaps at Rolls-Rolls for one were extremely unamused; downright vexed, in fact. It was all very well for the more, you know, common cars to be sporting these ridiculous ornaments but Rolls-Royce, they felt, was a brand that deserved something more befitting of a car that evoked awe and respect. Lord Montagu (the selfsame) introduced his friend and well-known artist Charles Sykes to Claude Johnson, the MD of Rolls-Royce at the time, and suggested that Sykes design an exclusive mascot for Rolls-Royce – one that would be worthy of the esteemed marque.


Montagu had good reason for recommending Sykes. Apart from being an esteemed sculptor, he had already created a hood ornament for Montagu’s personal 1909 Roll-Royce Silver Ghost, modelled upon Eleanor Thornton, Lord Montagu’s secretary. (Ahem, ok… she was obviously more than just Montagu’s loyal employee – the two had a secret love affair for over ten years which resulted in an illegitimate daughter who was given up for adoption. ‘Thorn’ died in suitably dramatic fashion when the ship she was travelling on was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915, but I digress.) The Whisper, as it was called, depicted Thornton’s likeness in flowing clothing with her finger coyly pressed against her lips – apparently a symbol of the secret affair. Sykes based his designs for Rolls-Royce on The Whisper and the glorious Spirit of Ecstasy, arguably the most magnificent and famous hood ornament ever created, was born.

Once a symbol of class and status, hood ornaments have all but faded into obscurity over the years. Apart from being considered over the top or old-fashioned, they can also cause severe injury to pedestrians in the event of a collision and have become easy targets for vandalism and theft. Will they ever make a comeback? I hope so – partly because I find them terribly useful as analogue PDC devices, but mostly because they are beautiful snapshots of a time when rules were made to be broken and cars were made to last.

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