The History of Hood Ornaments

Motometer 3In the beginning there were motometers. These were essentially a thermometer that screwed into the radiator cap. It's purpose was to keep the driver informed of the engines temperature. Motometers where ugly, so, as a means to spruce them up a bit, over time wings, knobs and other decorative ornamentation began to appear for them.

Early Chevrolet motometerBy the time the 1920's rolled around, motometers were no longer needed since the temperature gage was inside on the dashboard, and most automakers were covering the radiators with grilles for protection. The caps for the radiators were still on top of the grille, outside of the hood. Thus the hood ornament was born as a design element to decorate the radiator cap.

Rolls-Royce Flying Lady Hood ornamentMascots, as hood ornaments are known to our European cousins, were often exquisitely styled art deco creations. In the late 1920's and throughout the 30's and 40's elaborate hood ornaments were very popular with auto designers. Winged goddesses, graceful birds, and intricate animal designs were common. Some auto manufacturers began the use of distinctive hood ornament designs as a logo or branding. Examples would be the archers on the Pierce-Arrows, the ram on the Dodges, the Spanish explorer on the DeSotos, the leaping leopard on Jaguars or the Indian chief on Pontiacs. Of course, one of the longest-lived and most readily recognized hood ornament is the "Spirit of Ecstasy," which Rolls-Royce commissioned English sculptor Charles Sykes to create in 1911. The silver lady with wings still signifies the Rolls-Royces brand today.

1958 Chevy Bel-AirIn the '50s, auto makers moved toward a wide smooth design for hoods. Consequently the ornaments became more abstract spear-like decorations, such as jet planes or rockets. The 1958 Chevy Bel-Air, was released with a hood ornament conspicuously absent. It was a sign of things to come.

As we progressed through the 60's, hood ornaments all but vanished from the cars coming out of Detroit. Where once every model seemed to be graced by one, they now seemed to be exclusively the domain of large autos with a reputation for luxury. GM still used hood ornaments on many of its Jaguar Hood OrnamentsBuicks and Cadillacs, and Chrysler occasionally used their Pentastar logo on some models, but most automotive mascots were reserved for prestige autos like Mercedes, Rolls-Royce and Jaguars.

Bugatti Elephant hood ornamentToday the largest demand for hood ornaments is for providing the finishing touch on restored cars. However, as quality examples of many of the rarer designs become harder and harder to located the ornaments themselves have become collector's items. Some hood ornaments, such as an original Bugatti Elephant, have been known to top $3,000. With prices like that, no wonder hood ornaments are often a target for vandals.

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