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Mascots - the history

One can hardly imagine a vintage car without a mascot mounted on its radiator cap. Indeed, a Rolls-Royce without its Spirit of Ecstasy, Hispano-Suiza without its Stork, or any other historical automobile with a bare radiator cap does look somehow incomplete. In the past, when standardised factory bodies were quite uncommon and customers ordered selected bodywork from coachbuilders, the mascots helped to differentiate cars from each other. They were, therefore, a kind of extra "trade marks" which symbolised the vehicle's positive features: its quality, vintage elegance, speed, strength, etc. That is why many of them incorporated wings, whether on birds, human figures or even letters, like Bentley's winged "B".

The history dates back to 1898, when a St. Christopher figure was fitted by John Montagu on the dashboard of his Daimler. As the early motorists tended to decorate their automobiles in a similar manner, a number of various mascots became available at jewellery or accessories shops. Soon, the car makers themselves began to pop round to shops, choose the ones they liked and order a few hundred for installation in their cars. This was the beginning of manufacturers' mascots, characteristic for the make or model, widely fitted to British, American or French automobiles from the early Twenties onwards. Another reason to it, was to put the end to decorating radiators with risque or even vulgar objects by some tasteless automobilists who would follow the new vogue. Some designs originated in companies, some were bought from art designers. Generally, for a long time mascots were among optional extras, which cost the owner a few Dollars, Pounds or Marks more. For instance, the famous Isotta-Frashini's Triomphe was added to the car by an American importer but it became so closely associated with the brand that it is now counted as a factory mascot.

One of the best known mascots, among the few which are still fitted - the Rolls- Royce's Spirit of Ecstasy - was commissioned from the artist Charles Robinson Sykes in 1911 for the RR Silver Ghost model. This excellent automobile, a symbol of perfect craftsmanship of that period, certainly deserved something special on its radiator cap. And indeed, the "Flying Lady" was uniquely special as it concealed a hidden passion. It was modelled after Eleanor Velasco Thornton, a woman of a bewitching beauty, intellect and esprit, whose social status did not permit her to marry the man she loved - John Walter Edward-Scott Montagu (after 1905 the second Lord Montagu of Beaulieau), the famous British automobile promoter. Apparently, the design provided to Rolls-Royce (the Spirit of Ecstasy) was preceded by another figurine. Charles Sykes, to Lord Montagu's order, created a special mascot for his own Silver Ghost. The small statue illustrated a young woman in fluttering robes, keeping a forefinger across her lips (the model was lovely Miss Thornton, of course). This meaningful mascot, named The Whisper, epitomised both the utmost discretion of the John and Eleanor relationship and the excellence, which resulted in the extraordinary quietness of RR Silver Ghost's mechanisms.

One of the most graceful mascots, and the best-loved by contemporary collectors - The French Hispano-Suiza's Stork - also has a history behind it. During WW I Hispano-Suiza built aircraft engines, far superior to the enemies' powerplants. Flying their Hispano-engined Nieuports and Spads, the aces of the Western Front made their marks with famous victories over the German pilots. And Capitaine Georges Guynemer's squadron device was a stork painted on one side of the Spads. Later, when Hispano-Suiza resumed manufacturing its distinctive automobiles, the Stork emblem became a H-S's radiator ornament (a dangerous one, as it could impale careless pedestrians). A rival of Hispano was the Voisin. It was the product of Gabriel Voisin, an aviator, racer etc. His famous mascot: a styled bird made from steel plates are shown below. This wasn't actually the first Voisin mascot, other types were previously fitted. This mascot became the standard in 1928:

Such a great individual in the automobile history as Ettore Bugatti placed a mascot on only one model of his cars. The gargantuan type 41 Royale (only seven ever made!) was graced by the White Elephant - quite a good symbol for a 7 meters' long vehicle, weighing 3,5 tones! It was also an obvious example of Ettore's sense of humour, as he was known as a manufacturer of superb racers and sportcars. Ettore also had a very gifted brother, Rembrandt - a sculptor who spent a large part of his life in the Antwerp Zoo, studying animals and making very lively sculptures of them. The White Elephant was originally made by him as a signet and could be hold quite comfortably in one's hand. Ettore made use of it as a tribute to his brother who sadly had been driven to suicide by his unhappy personal life.

Germans were rather moderate in decorating their automobiles, as they had more utilitarian attitude to their vehicles. The still fitted Mercedes Star, Wanderer's stylised "W" or Horch's Winged Ball are the perfect examples of such modest but graceful ornaments. The genuine ones are really rare nowadays, as they were melted in order to obtain precious metal during the WW II. Many mascots in the occupied countries shared the same fate.
Dixi mascot showing a running Centaur with a floating mane

The original manufacturers' mascots were often cheaply produced. Usually made of brass or bronze, they were cast in batches and often later hand-finished. For the Spirit of Ecstasy, which was manufactured by the Sykes family until 1948, the more sophisticated "lost wax" method was used. Despite of it even the genuine ones could slightly differ from each other, since the final effect in this method depends on such environmental factors as humidity. The more complicated ornaments, like the Pierce- Arrow's Archer or the Farman's Ikarus, were cast in parts (arms or wings were detachable). With time, mascots have changed their appearance. The crude ones became more elaborated and graceful masterpieces available in silver or even Lalique glasswork (cheap makes still had brass ones). The later versions were not more purely decorative as some of them incorporated water temperature gauges as well. The Jaguar's Leaping Jaguar (still fitted) was preceded by a much more stiffer version, made for the SS cars by Desmo. Even the Spirit of Ecstasy, which seems unchanged, had eleven main variations in its life. Lowered height of coachwork forced subsequent reductions in the mascot size. Consequently, several alternations in the original design were made, including the kneeling version at the post-war Silver Wraith and Silver Dawn models.

Some companies did not use only one mascot design. Different ones for various models of the same brand were not uncommon, such as Chevrolet's Eagle which changed every year. The traditional mascots disappeared from cars' bonnets in the late Fifties due to the changing fashions and traffic safety regulations. Mascots were qualified as "sharp-edged pieces of metal jutting from the coachwork, which might injure a victim in an accident," and thus are forbidden in many countries. To satisfy the law, the Spirit of Ecstasy sinks into the radiator casing at the slightest knock in the latest RR models. The Vintage mascots, which in most cases outlived the cars they had graced, can be found on the shelves or in glass cases of their collectors as they make quite valuable items nowadays. The 1000 USD for the genuine one is sometimes a bargain, so fakery is profitable. That is why the number of certain mascots can be greater then the ever made number of the cars they were associated with. The designers hardly knew when they created mascots, that their work might be extensively copied, so they did not safeguard against it. In a sense, the Spirit of Ecstasy suffered fakery even before the WW II, when thousands of "Flying Ladies" were reproduced just as ornaments, with no pretensions to grandeur.

Notice: If you have any information or photo this page lacks, do not hesitate to contact the author or the operator of this Web Site!

© Dariusz Piecinski, Lublin, Poland, Jan. 1997. English language translation assistance provided by Dariusz A. Zwierzynski.

Photos are copyrighted to the respective photographers and used with permission.
Bugatti and Voisin mascot images are courtesy of Jacob Jacob Munkhammar , maintainer of the Bugatti Pages

This page is part of the KTUD Archive. © 1995-1997.

Paul Negyesi

Disclaimer: These information are destined to enjoy the history of the cars not to grab pictures from here and feature elsewhere. The same goes for the details. Copyright isn't a meaningful word any more, but be good and don't let me discover Your page featuring info or pix taken from the KTUD Archive without permission.