originally published August 24, 2014
It was late one February night in 1992. Edmonton’s winters don’t even call their travel agent to book their flight out of town until at least March, so the snow on the ground was thick and slothful. My friend Josh White and I were exercising our teenage stupidity in a place we called Beggar’s Canyon – it was the local zoo’s parking lot, but in the winter months when the zoo lay stagnant, it was the ideal locale for spinning our cars upon the ice, and generally undertaking whatever foolishness we felt to be worthy of our adolescent immortality.
This night, we were hood-riding. That is exactly what it sounds like: one idiot drives the car while the other idiot lays flat upon the hood, trying to syphon just a droplet of action-movie adrenaline into our otherwise mundane lives. I know – don’t do this, kids. We were stupid, and living prior to the age of internet pornography. Were there any cosmic arbiter presiding over nights like those in Beggar’s Canyon we’d have escaped into adulthood with at least one limb missing apiece.
On one run in particular, while Josh was clinging to the hood, aiming a non-existent pistol at me through the glass, I hit a snowbank. Josh flew forward into the (fortunately) pillowy cold, taking the Buick hood ornament clean off with his crotch. The karmic judge let us off with a warning (and for Josh, an ass-bruise) that day. But ever since then, I have held an odd curiosity about hood ornaments. These seemingly useless statuettes upon the tip of a car’s nose perplexed me. Why did we even have them?
The first hood ornaments had a functional purpose. They were called motometers, and they were actually the car’s radiator cap. More specifically, they screwed into the radiator cap which was mounted on the outside of the hood, and displayed the temperature of the fluid within. The early motometers were ugly distractions, so manufacturers began jazzing them up with wings and funky knobs. The Boyce MotoMeter Company was the first to snag a patent for this technology back in 1912.
Early cars – and yes, this includes the uber-king of mass-production, the Ford Model T – didn’t have a water pump, so this was actually an important gauge for drivers to watch. As the art deco craze swept the world of design in the 1920’s and 30’s, the hood ornament became a fashion statement. Companies popped up specifically to design these tiny little statues that people could affix to their cars. They were the rear-view mirror dreamcatchers of their day.
Louis Lejeune Ltd. was one of these businesses, launching in 1910 in London. Of all the companies in this limited trade, Louis Lejeune is the only one still kicking, operating out of a foundry in Cambridgeshire. How they manage to stay in business now, when hardly any new automobiles seem to have hood ornaments, I have no clue. But their website is full of shiny creatures and goofy miscellany one could superglue to the front of their Prius, if they were so inclined.
The 1958 Chevy Bel Air was one of the first American cars to roll off the line without a hood ornament, foretelling the industry’s inevitable decline. They’re pretty, sure, but wholly unnecessary and incompatible with the sleek tilt of modern cars. I see this as a loss to our car-heavy society. The Europeans call them ‘mascots’, and that’s really what they are: a little guy (or gal, or creature) who can cheer you on and get you a little excited about whatever destination lies beyond its reach.
In the 70’s, restrictions began to be placed on hood ornaments, because in the 70’s restrictions were getting placed on everything fun. The Rolls Royce Spirit of Ecstasy ornament was mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism so that it would retract into the radiator shell if it got hit. These were the new rules in Europe, beginning in 1978. Hood ornaments were seen as pedestrian weapons – the bayonets that could do some damage if the 2000-pound bullet of a moving car didn’t do the trick. Even the Mercedes 3-pointed stars in Europe would fold back to be flush with the hood (sorry, the bonnet) if they’re hit.
While people could order their own little kits so that their hood ornaments could reflect their personality, car manufacturers kept companies like Boyce Motometer in the black by commissioning tiny chrome representations of their corporate logos for their cars as they rolled off the line. Some of the end results became as iconic as the cars themselves.
The aforementioned Spirit of Ecstasy, found on every Rolls Royce (probably – I’m not checking) since 1911, has a tragically romantic backstory. It centers around a man named John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, whom we’ll call John in the interest of saving space. John was married to a noblewoman named Lady Cecil Victoria Constance Kerr, but he was secretly in love with his secretary, a commoner named Eleanor Thornton. John was an auto enthusiast, working as editor of The Car Illustrated beginning in 1902. Their close circle of friends knew of the affair, but they kept quiet.
Custom hood ornaments were all the rage around 1910, so John asked his artist friend, Charles Sykes, to concoct something special for his 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Sykes came up with a woman – modeled after Eleanor – in fluttering robes, with a finger to her lips to signify the secrecy of their relationship. John loved it. The mascot came to be known as The Whisper, and it presently sits in the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, England. When Claude Johnson of Rolls Royce came to Sykes a year later to create something elegant to appear on every shiny new Rolls, Sykes once again used Eleanor as the model for what has come to be known as the Spirit of Ecstasy.
There is still a collector’s market for hood ornaments. As the internet and reality television have taught us, there is a collector’s market out there for almost anything. As radiator caps slipped under the hood, the hood ornament became the glimmering representation of the car company, nobly rising like a beacon at the front-most point of the realization of their care-crafted dream. Until some schmuck takes it out with his crotch in an act of teenage idiocy.
I wish more modern vehicles made use of the hood ornament, as I strongly believe it would give rise once again to the custom manufacturing industry. People would decorate their hoods with Pokemon, with Ironman, with little Don Draper heads. The front of one’s car could once again reflect the spirit of the driver. It’s always a good thing to know what kind of yutz you’re dealing with in a traffic situation. Sometimes, this kind of customization is a piece of valuable insight.