Vintage view: Vintage car styling


Vintage view: Vintage car styling

A beautiful mascot is best appreciated on the big screen, cleaving the air on the horizon of a car bonnet — a glittering ambassador of sheer style.

All this ostentation had a practical start. Early cars from 1900 forward, featured a radiator which was fed and examined through a cap mounted on the grill, right at the prow of the vehicle.

The cap had to be held and turned by the driver or chauffeur, as the only reliable way to check if the car was overheating was a face full of steam.

Caps were therefore designed in the second age with a thermometer to gauge the temperature of the coolant in the engine, the most famous being the American Boyce Motormeter patented in 1912.

These devices could be supplied by Boyce, the maker of the car or even the dealer, as a bonus on a car deal.

Soon, to accommodate the visual intrusion to the line of the car, makers used the cap for a bit of decorative flourish, branding their make and suggesting its almost metaphysical powers.

The team at Top Gear (BBC) credit Lord Motagu with the first mascot, a homemade addition in the form of a St. Christopher statuette, that m’Lord bolted to the hood of his Daimler in 1898.

Whatever the truth, invested with luck and spirit, figures and symbols were plundered from wildlife for the motor car, and the classical and ancient — formerly strapped to galleons at sea — like straining war horses, soaring birds, wild boars, winged women and muscular athletic young men, found their place on the automobile.

The Tête d’Aigle (Eagle’s Head) by Rene Lalique of France, favoured by the Nazis for the cars of their high ranking officers. A car mascot was a status symbol.
The Tête d’Aigle (Eagle’s Head) by Rene Lalique of France, favoured by the Nazis for the cars of their high ranking officers. A car mascot was a status symbol.

Owners could buy their own mascot to individualise a fabulous vehicle — a real social statement that led to the formation of makers dedicated solely to the supply of mascots.

Even when the temperature gauge moved inside the car, buyers remained interested in a bit of bonnet bling.

The heyday of the mascot was the 20s to the 1960s, when even though it had transmogrified to being solely a decoration, the hood furniture was synonymous with the make of car and part of a suite of chrome tailoring in rockabilly 50s classics.

The Art Deco era which persisted right up through the 50s in the US, was rich in wind whipped sensual forms, and these modernist pieces offer some of the most dynamic and fascinating examples of radiator caps and hood ornaments.

With a small dynamo, they could even light up by night — wonderful when combined with glass by Deco makers, including Rene Lalique and Sabino of France.

Pieces survive from the early decades of the 20th century in chrome or even silver plate, brass, zinc and bronze. Later emblems, from American cars, were gaining an audience for their confident forms right up through the 1980s.

Most are inexpensive and make great chunky sideboard pieces mounted for display as automotive archaeology.

When you think of the danger as a pedestrian or cyclist of being speared on impact by one of these often pointy-limbed sculptures, it’s little wonder that modern automotive designs are tightly controlled with hood mountings that collapse or shear off easily.

Nearly all have been replaced by a badge or have migrated down to the front fascia. Jaguar was one of the last to do so with their leaping symbol now tamed to a demure pussy cat cameo.

Mascots where they are fixed retrospectively are often staged up the bonnet towards the windscreen to comply with European directives on exterior projections and the danger of a lawsuit by a bruised bonnet-rider.

Louis Lejeune, established in 1910 and the sole surviving English manufacturer of car mascots, offers its pieces with steel or nylon fittings, and has made several mascots for the English royal family, including a leaping frog for the late Princess Diana.

The company point out that there is currently no specific law against the mounting of mascots.

So, motormeters contain a working gauge, while mascots or hood ornaments are purely decorative. Car-badges form another niche grouping declaring membership of a club including the early Automobile Club of GB and Ireland (f 1897).

There are collectors for all these areas, with some enthusiasts concentrating on mascots supplied specifically for the car type, for instance, Ford, Buicks, and Bentleys.

Factory-issued mascots are as hotly collected as the aftermarket pieces by specialist firms, jewellers and foundries. Condition is key and mascots salvaged from the rusted wreck of an old car are generally ruined through pitting and corrosion.

Anything collected worldwide will be reproduced honestly but also counterfeited very well indeed.

Too good to be true? It’s a lemon.

Real hood ornaments by Lalique are museum quality, and in good order without chipping, are super-stars of the antiques world, regarded as fine sculpture and the can easily achieve five figure sums.

The coloured varieties are the rarest and widely faked, or offered as being from original moulds.

Other fabulous but genuine Deco examples in glass include British maker (now extinct) Red-Ashay, founded by Czechoslovakian, Hermann George Ascher.

His very rare Acceleration mascot with internal lighting is an acknowledged classic, with modern reproductions of the more commonplace pieces by the legitimate crystal art house of Desna.

The Rolls Royce ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ (Emily) by Charles Robinson Sykes and modeled on the scandalous Eleanor Thornton, is a staple for any serious collection.

He called the 1911 figure, his ‘disgraceful little goddess’ and in a standing version in bronze with chrome or nickel plate, Emily starts around €250 in middling condition.

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