I have an odd fascination with hood ornaments. There’s something about that third dimension that makes them so much cooler than a flat, embedded logo.
Originally, hood ornaments were just fancy radiator caps. If you had to cool down the engine, you simply popped off the ornament and poured in a cooling liquid. But radiators have been under the hood for decades, and these ornaments are still being made. Why?
In most cases, it’s tradition, but there’s always a great story in there somewhere. Here’s a quick look at the fascinating stories behind a few of my favorites.
Dodge: rugged like a ram
Dodge has been making cars since 1915, so naturally its hood ornaments have gone through some changes. The first version of its burly mascot appeared in 1932 as a leaping ram. It was scaled down to a head and horns by the 1950s and was replaced by a logo in the 1990s.
Dodge hired a sculptor named Avard Fairbanks to design the original piece. He originally suggested a big cat, like a mountain lion or a jaguar, but the company settled on the ram because it is “master of the trail and not afraid of even the wildest of animals.”
Though the ornament is history, that sentiment has driven the brand’s image ever since.
Jaguar: leapers and growlers
Legend has it that Jaguar cofounder Sir William Lyons commissioned F. Gordon Crosby to design the official ornament in 1937 when he saw a disappointing custom-made ornament on a Jaguar outside his office. Over time, the leaper’s position evolved to reflect the increasing speed of Jaguar cars.
These days, even luxury brands have started to move away from hood ornaments, either leaving them out completely or reserving them for their more expensive models. Jaguar now charges extra for the “leaper” ornament — upward of $250. (By the way, they also charged extra for the ornament when it first came out.) Without the add-on, drivers have to settle for the flat “growler” emblem.
Mercedes-Benz: land, water, and air
Perhaps the Mercedes-Benz hood ornament isn’t as evocative as some of the others, but the symbol still says a lot about the company. It dates back to Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, an automotive manufacturer that eventually broke off into several branches, including Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz.
Though Mercedes is best known for its automobiles, the 3-pointed star is supposed to represent mobility on land, water, and in the air. As the designers of 2 of the first proper automobiles, engineers Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler hoped to inspire and create engines for all kinds of transportation.
The star in the logo was designed by Daimler in 1909, but they didn’t include the circle until 1926 when Daimler and Benz merged.
Rolls-Royce: the spirit of ecstasy
No manufacturer takes as much pride in its hood ornament as Rolls-Royce. She goes by many names: “The Spirit of Ecstasy,” “Flying Lady,” “Silver Lady,” even “Emily.” There’s a 3-minute film about the figure on the official Rolls-Royce website titled “The Graceful Little Goddess.”
The Spirit of Ecstasy was designed by British sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes in 1911 with a tale already attached. Supposedly, the woman who modeled for the figure was Eleanor Thornton, the secretary and mistress of a British baron who was compelled to keep their love a secret because of her lower social rank.
Thornton died at the age of 35 aboard the SS Persia in 1915, just 4 years after the ornament was designed.
Hispano-Suiza: the stork
Hispano-Suiza isn’t a well-known brand, but its stork ornament is notably elegant and ties in well with the European company’s unique history.
Designed by Frederick Bazin sometime in the 1920s, the Hispano-Suiza stork was inspired by the emblem of a WWI-fighter ace named Georges Guynemer who led a fighter squadron powered by Hispano-Suiza engines.
The luxury line was discontinued in 1968 when Hispano-Suiza began focusing on turbine technology for airplanes and was then acquired by an aircraft and rocket engine manufacturer.
Luigi Colani: the pinned lady
There isn’t much to say about Luigi Colani’s “Pinned Lady” except that it’s easily the most elaborate hood ornament ever made. Nothing else comes close.
Found on the industrial designer’s 1996 Horch Mega Roadster, the ornament plays such a central role in the design that there are actually ripples and creases in the chassis around it. Like most of Colani’s creations, the entire car is an eccentric masterpiece.
Symbols tell a story
In each case, the ornament seems to say something about the car — either something the manufacturer wants us to believe, or something it can’t hold back. Of course, the same can be said about any logo. But nothing says it quite like a shiny, sculpted hood ornament.