For almost half a century now, people have been complaining about the visual homogenization of American automobiles, and it’s true that in the 1920s the various makes of cars were far more distinctive, right down to the hood ornament, that bit of sculpture in metal, plastic, or glass sitting on top of the radiator cap. A flying lady, “The Spirit of Ecstasy,” meant that a Rolls-Royce was coming. A cormorant had a Packard in tow. The Lincoln, a big, heavy car, relied on a greyhound to lead the way. The more humble cars had their mascots too: Pontiac used a chieftain, while Plymouth had a little boat. Hood ornaments weren’t regulated, though, and owners changed them at will, to the consternation of naive car spotters and the delight of collectors today.
For a few dollars a motorist could look out on a chrome-plated pig jumping through a horseshoe, a brass elephant climbing out of an eggshell, or a pewter man thumbing his nose at all who approached. A traffic policeman with his arms spinning wildly in the wind was popular, as were airplanes with moving propellers.
If novelty hood ornaments represented a flowering of folk art, sculpted ornaments were among the only examples of actual fine art associated with the automobile. Until the late 1930s respected artists in Europe created limited-edition hood ornaments, generally with heroic, mythological, or animal themes. The most famous of these artists was René Lalique, whose primary medium was crystal glass.
In the 1960s safety concerns rose up against the hood ornament, propelled by the image of a hapless pedestrian stabbed by a miniature lightning bolt or impaled upon a graceful seabird. Most car companies quietly dispensed with their mascots. Today collectors of antique automobiles tend to be loyal to factory specifications and rarely use anything but the standard mascots. The wider world of hood ornaments stands apart. It has developed its own following, made up in large part of people who wouldn’t know a Dodge from a Duesenberg if it were driving right past them. How could they? They don’t look past the radiator cap.
Sculpted Lalique “Chrysis” woman in frosted crystal, circa 1931: $3,600. Female dancer in nickel-plated bronze, signed by the artist (H. Fugere), circa 1915: $500.
Novelty Charlie Chaplin “Tramp,” nickel-plated, circa 1925: $200. “MotoMeter,” new and still in its box, circa 1920: $160. The MotoMeter took advantage of its placement and displayed the temperature inside the radiator.
Factory Pontiac “Chief Pontiac” head, chrome-plated, circa 1931: $218. Mercury jet airplane, circa 1955: $23.