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The art of the hood

Hood ornamentation began as necessity, but quickly grew in prestige

Joe Duarte
Published: March 29, 2017, 1:00 AM
Updated: April 29, 2018, 4:20 PM

DeSoto - The Chrysler marque DeSoto was named after Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, who explored much of the south-eastern United States and is documented as the first European to cross the Mississippi River. A stylized portrait and bust of the explorer was used on the company’s vehicles for its duration, and some of the statues were noted for having an electrical connection by which the driver could illuminate the face via a dash-mounted switch. (Credit: Wikipedia/Artaxerxes)  

Datsun Type 14 - Like any maker in the 1930s, Nissan (then Datsun) wanted a signature cue to identify its vehicles, so when it introduced its first production vehicle, the Type 14, it tasked in-house designer Ryuchi Tomiya with designing a tiny sculpture of a rabbit to sit atop the radiator. The choice was reportedly taken from the Japanese “datto” — a concept of a speeding hare. When you add the honourific “san,” it sounds like Datsun, so the leaping hare was deemed a natural mascot. (Credit: Wikipedia/Morio)  

Duesenberg - Some animal inertia was deemed to not be indicative enough of performance, so the movement was stylized further to give it more dynamism. An example is Duesenberg’s highly-stylized flying eagle, dubbed the Duesenbird. As with much of Duesenberg’s engineering and designs, the hood ornament was regarded as ahead of its time in design and presentation. (Credit: Wikipedia/Magnus Bäck)

Hispano-Suiza - Perhaps because of their graceful poses captured in efficient movement, animals were a favourite of hood ornament sculptors. Among the most notable was the flying stork adopted by Spanish maker Hispano-Suiza, which is credited with creating the first 16-valve 4-cylinder engine. The flying stork was created by French sculptor Frederick Bazin and is one of the smoothest and seemingly flawless designs ever to grace a radiator cap. (Credit: Wikipedia/Nave.notnilc)

Lincoln/Ford - When Ford purchased Lincoln in 1922, it commissioned the greyhound ornament to give it a distinct signature cue similar to what Rolls-Royce enjoyed with the Spirit of Ecstasy, and in fact used the same process to capture the essence of speed and grace. It stood atop Lincoln hoods until the 1930s, when it was replaced by a coat-of-arms and knight’s helmet, but Ford picked it up for a couple more years. Though it didn’t last long, it reportedly inspired other makers (notably Jaguar and Dodge) to develop animals in motion for their own hood ornaments. (Credit: Wikipedia/AlfvanBeem)

Mercedes-Benz - Mercedes-Benz’s 3-pointed star is one of the most recognizable automotive emblems, and was reportedly inspired by a postcard Gottlieb Daimler sent his sons, in which he marked the location of his house in Germany, indicating it would one day shine over his factory and bring prosperity. It was trademarked in 1909 and has adorned the company’s vehicles since, maintaining its position on vehicle hoods long after hood ornaments went out of fashion.

Bentley - F. Gordon Crosby also created the famed Bentley logo, which first adorned a 1930 8 Litre model as an option. Although it seems like a fairly simplistic design, it’s asymmetrical to discourage forgeries. It was also one of the first hood ornaments to be banned in some countries because of its fixed base. The company did develop a retraction mechanism for pedestrian protection, but Bentleys with them were still recalled in 2010 over safety concerns, and now the company just uses a flat hood winged badge above the grille.  

Rolls-Royce - Rolls-Royce’s famous ornament, and perhaps history’s most famous of the genre, was created by English sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes due to customer feedback that the prestigious marque needed an equally prestigious signature cue, and also because of Rolls-Royce’s displeasure with the “aftermarket” ornaments adorning their radiators. Sykes adapted it from his The Whisper figurine (of which only a handful were ever made) that adorned the 1910 Ghost. It’s been on just about every Rolls-Royce since 1920.

1930 Packard - Substituting an unsightly ridged metal cap for an unsightly thermometer apparently wasn’t enough progress, so some manufacturers started looking at ways to dress it up, and the radiator cap sculpture was born. Some went on to become as famous as the models they represented, such as Packard’s Goddess of Speed — a winged woman holding a tire in outstretched in arms, which lead many to refer to it as “Lady Chasing Donuts” or simply the Donut Chaser (Credit: Wikipedia/Thomas Quine)

OEM supplier Boyce - From the beginning, the radiator has been a mainstay of water-cooled internal combustion engines and in the early days, it was located outside the hood. The radiator caps were unsightly, though they were fairly easy to get to so the driver could check water levels regularly. They also didn’t provide important feedback on water temperature, which is where Boyce stepped in with a radiator-cap/thermometer that could convey information to the driver at a glance. (Credit: Wikipedia/Infrogmation)

Minerva - Very early on, sculptors and other artists turned their attention to radiator cap ornaments, creating ways for car owners to personalize their new possessions. One such artist, glass-worker René Lalique, create one of the most intricate mascots to ever adorn the hood of a car — Victoire, or Spirit of the Wind, was crafted in 1928 and has topped radiators from the well-respected such as Rolls Royce, to the little-known, such as Belgium’s Minerva. (Credit: Wikipedia/Ingrid Taylar)

Jaguar - Another well known hood sculpture, Jaguar’s mascot was created by automotive illustrator and painter Frederick Gordon Crosby, and first appeared on a Jaguar car in 1938. The original design was of a crouching cat, beginning its pounce, but it was changed to one in mid-leap in the 1950s. The Leaper continued to appear on Jaguar hoods through 2005 (in later years as an optional accessory), and continues to this day in cameo profile on the cars’ trunks. (Credit:Wikipedia/Hellooo)

Maybach - Model initials have been a constant through auto history, with even Rolls-Royce reportedly using the double R on its radiator caps before switching to The Flying Lady. When Mercedes resurrected the Maybach brand around the turn of the century, it brought back the Maybach double M (for Maybach Motorembau) badge as a hood ornament replacing the Mercedes “Standing Star,” which is back now that Maybach is simply an ultra-luxury trim of S-Class.

Lincoln Town Car - Mercedes-Benz created a form of “cross-hair” type of hood ornament that became a staple in the auto industry, and was adopted in many forms by various companies, including Lincoln. As part of Ford, Lincoln has used several hood ornaments before settling on the “star” that adorned classic cars like the Continental and Town Car. Like many, Lincoln retired the upright symbol for safety issues in the ’90s. (Credit: Wikipedia/AlfvanBeem)

Dodge - One of the more famous hood ornaments in the world, the bighorn ram first appeared on Dodge hoods in 1932. Designed by sculptor Avard Fairbanks, it was reportedly meant to convey sure-footedness, king of the “mountain,” and unchallenged by anything. Originally more of a leaper than a charger, the detailed full-body ram made it onto Dodge trucks in 1940, before it got downsized and streamlined, and then became just a ram’s head. It was eventually removed completely but returned in a cameo Dodge badge in the 1980s, before again being relegated to Dodge (and then Ram) trucks.

Mack Trucks - At about the same time as Dodge was developing its ram, another truck maker was developing its mascot. Reportedly designed by Mack Trucks’ chief engineer Alfred F. Masury in 1932, it was mounted on a smaller truck that same year before making it onto the hood of the famed AC in 1938. Over the years, besides evolving in design, it went from being ornamentation to a hood handle (both to provide a handgrip for vehicle servicing, and for actually lifting the hood panel), a function it serves to this day. (Credit: Wikipedia/lehighvalleypa)

Bugatti - Some animal sculptures needed a little prodding, so to speak. Such was Rembrandt Bugatti’s dancing elephant adorning the radiator caps of early Bugatti models (the company soon moved on to the stylized EB “macaron” from its creator’s initials), which was meant to symbolize the graceful power of its ultra-luxury large automobiles. Rembrandt Bugatti didn’t just get the gig because he was the company founder’s brother, though; he was an artist well known for his exotic animal sculptures.

1955 GMC Suburban - Perhaps one of the reasons the Duesenbird is considered ahead of its time is that it paved the way for a series of hood ornaments depicting man-made flight in the form of airplanes and even rocketships, which to that point were the stuff of science fiction. General Motors adopted the aeronautic theme for several of its divisions’ hood decorations at various times, including this futuristic deltawing that lay flat on the hood of a 1955 GMC Suburban. (Credit: Wikipedia/Valder137)

Pontiac - Names played a big part in the development of some hood ornaments. Pontiac was named for the city in which the vehicles were made, Pontiac, Michigan, and both were named after the Odawa chief who lead a raid on Ford Detroit in May 1763 in attempt to drive back British occupation. No authentic images exist of Pontiac, so like many sketches and portraits, the many iterations of the First Nations profile radiator-cap ornament are artists’ renditions. (Credit: Wikipedia/MJ)  

Hyundai Equus - And though hood ornaments slowly faded from desirability around the turn of the century, they are by no means to be regarded as relics of a bygone era. When Hyundai introduced its Equus around the time that hood ornaments were losing favour over safety concerns, it provided the option of replacing the hood badge of a stylized horse’s head with a 3D equally-stylized version, though to us it looks more like a modern, highly-stylized take on the winged lady that in many different poses and states of undress graced so many marques in the hood ornament’s infancy. (Credit: Wikipedia/Derrick_Noh)