[Editor's Note: My feature about the great sculpture of early automotive hood ornaments originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on October 15, 2005, but without pictures, which I think add much to the understanding and enjoyment of the story. So I re-print it here, illustrated.]
At the outset of World War I, and its attendant hardships, the animals in the zoos at Paris and Antwerp were butchered to save feeding costs.
This was especially heartbreaking news to Rembrandt Bugatti, a gifted sculptor, contemporary and friend of art legends such as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani.
Bugatti was noted for actually climbing into cages at those zoos for a closer look at animals he was sculpting. His stunning rendition of an elephant earned him France’s Legion of Honor.
The melancholy Bugatti, further dispirited because his older brother Ettore stole his former fiancee and married her, would later commit suicide (by sealing his apartment, and then turning on the gas; he was found clutching a bouquet of violets).
The brother, whom he still referred lovingly to as “Ettorino” in his suicide note, went on to produce the famed Bugatti Royale sports cars. As a tribute, each carried a replica of Rembrandt’s elephant as its hood ornament.
The Royale, of which only six were made, from 1929 to 1933, is considered one of the world’s most collectible autos. (One sold at auction in 1987 for a then-record $8.7 million.)
It is poignant stories such as this that make hood ornaments more than mere collectibles. They added a certain personality to the cars on which they appeared.
Take, for example, the Buick “Goddess” ornaments of the early 1930s.
The sleek sculpture of a woman, nude except for a trailing scarf, was reportedly based on the provocative dancer Isadora Duncan, who had been killed in 1927 (on the promenade in Nice, France) when her blowing scarf became tangled in the rear axle of the car in which she was riding – and strangled her.
Another Buick “mascot,” as they are also called, was the Roman god “Mercury,” which might seem an odd choice because there is a competing car company with the same name – but it predated the introduction of Ford’s subsidiary by several years.
If Buick’s “Mercury” ornament seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to the FTD florist logo, there’s a reason: Many early Buicks were used by FTD as delivery vehicles.
Both Buick ornaments were created by Casimer Cislo, a little-known artist who did contract work for Ternstedt Manufacturing Co. The former Fisher Body Works subsidiary designed such mundane auto parts as door handles, trim pieces and gas caps.
Most of Ternstedt’s stylists toiled in relative obscurity, with little fanfare at the time. But their works have stood the test of time as the most memorable feature on a series of otherwise mostly forgettable General Motors cars of the 1920s and 1930s.
Dozens of Ternstedt’s “anonymous” nickel-plated zinc hood ornaments, just as the works of famous artists like Rembrandt Bugatti, have become collectors’ items and are now recognized as objets d’art.
The Nethercutt Collection and Museum in Sylmar, California, features an entire floor devoted to hood ornaments and other automotive mascots. Its collection of more than 4,000 hood ornaments is the world’s largest. (The collection was once even larger; sadly, many were destroyed in one of the Northridge earthquakes.)
Like so many famous hood ornaments, “Spirit of Ecstasy,” the signature feature of Rolls-Royces for decades, had an inside joke behind it. Spirit of Ecstasy was based on another, earlier sculpture called “The Whisper” that depicted a woman with a finger to her lips, as if warning not to divulge her secret. Rolls-Royce buffs know the model (for both statues) for the sculptor, Charles Robinson Sykes, was Eleanor Thornton, a real-life beauty with a tragic story.
She was secretary to the 2nd Lord Montagu, the publisher of Britain’s pioneer automotive magazine, The Car. And her “secret” was that she was having an affair with Lord Montagu. Not only did she never get to marry her socially superior boss – for one reason he was already married – but she drowned in 1915 when the ship (the S.S. Persia) she was traveling on with the lord was torpedoed and sank. Lord Montagu, of course, was rescued.
Her so-called “Flying Lady” hood ornaments, many of which were coated in real silver or gold, are among the most collectible today.
A prominent collector of hood ornaments, Briton Tony Wraight, estimates that there have been as many as 20,000 possible mascots made for cars since 1900. Most were “aftermarket” items that could be purchased separately and fitted to most any vehicle.
“There are only a few,” Wraight says, “that can be truly considered as ‘works of art.’” He has 50 personal favorites, many of which were designed by noted jewelry artist Rene Lalique.
The Lalique creations, using his signature frosted glass, could be illuminated by six-or 12-volt lights, wired from the headlight system.
Many early hood ornaments also featured temperature gauges, which was why they capped radiators in the first place.
The “golden age” of hood ornaments ended in the early 1930s, when designers relocated radiators under hoods, and temperature gauges to the dashboard. Theft, which became a burgeoning problem during the Depression, was also a constant issue.
Few cars today still have hood ornaments – the Dodge Ram pickup a notable exception – due to considerations such as cost, aerodynamics and poorly defined corporate identities. What, for instance, might be a “traditional” Kia mascot?
Original hood ornaments are available, without the added financial burden of buying the car to which they were attached, from collectors such as Wraight, or at most large classic car auctions. Auction houses, like Barrett-Jackson, now have separate sales for automobilia, including mascots.
A devotee of the genre, Don Sommer of Clawson, Mich., has a robust business selling remanufactured stainless steel versions of nearly 100 of what he considers motoring’s most praiseworthy hood ornaments.
He still uses the original “lost-wax” method of casting each sculpture, in which the mold is destroyed to reveal the casting. Sommer offers a set of 12 of his most elite “statues” for $5,320. Original ornaments – of which he owns 3,000 – remain his true loves.
“Prices,” Sommer wrote in an e-mail, “have escalated sharply in recent years.”
He says he knows of a 500-piece private collection worth nearly a quarter-million dollars. European car mascots generally are worth more than their American counterparts. “A Cadillac Herald will sell for $1,600 or so today. A perfect Lalique ‘Victoire’ sold at the Hershey, Pennsylvania, swap meet last year for $12,000.”
Rembrandt’s Elephant? “Priceless.”
October 15, 2005 (Republished March 18, 2010)
Read more about the Spirit of Ecstasy and my encounter with Rolls Royce’s “Silver Ghost” in a Swiss hotel, in The New York Times of March 4, 2009.
[Many of the famous sculptures mentioned here can be found on public display in the Nethercutt Museum, 15151 Bledsoe Street, Sylmar, Calif. This amazing museum contains a stellar collection of automotive "mascots", as well as a large number of collectible cars, railroad rolling stock and other memorabilia. Best of all, admission is free. Also, check out the separate Nethercutt Collection at 15200 Bledsoe St.]