Sex, Lies, and Dancing Elephants

What’s the story behind the Pierce-Arrow archer? Did you know that the symbol for Mercedes wasn’t always a three-point star? From the secret love that helped inspire “The Spirit of Ecstasy” to a poignant bit of trivia that explains why a Bugatti Royale wears a dancing elephant on the hood, check out the back stories behind some of most iconic hood ornaments in history.

During “The Golden Age of The Automobile,” the hood ornament was an intricate piece of artistic expression that identified a vehicle’s make or defined a car’s style. From the late 1920s until after the Second World War, hood ornaments mostly took the shape of flying ladies, graceful birds, and fleet-footed animals. The 1950s saw a general trend toward steely, abstract renditions of torpedoes, rockets, and jet planes. Hood ornaments all but disappeared by the 1960s and, today, these attention-grabbing pieces of automotive eye candy are now highly prized by collectors. Some like Desoto’s “Spanish conquistador” and Pontiac’s early use of running Indian braves compliment the name of the maker and, thus, make complete and elegant sense. Others, however, beg the question: Just how did they think of that?

An Archer’s Tale

Before the company became synonymous with the powerful and well-to-do, the George N. Pierce Company in Buffalo, New York, was known for making more pedestrian items like ice boxes, birdcages, and bicycles. But then came the automobile, and from 1903 to 1938 few made them better and more luxurious than Pierce-Arrow Motorcar Company. Valuable as Pierce-Arrow touring cars are today, the most coveted single part of the vehicle is arguably the hood ornament. Originals are worth thousands and are typically kept under lock and key by their owners. The first Pierce-Arrow archers were slight in frame, partly clothed, and helmeted. Later versions depict a helmet-less archer with no clothes and a little more muscle. Both versions are graceful and elegant, which is funny when you consider that a fellow sweeping the floor of the Pierce-Arrow factory was asked to be the model. After attending archery classes to add realism to the pose, Albert Gonas used his broom for the arrow.

A “Rolls” In the Hay

Prior to 1910, Rolls-Royce did not offer vehicles with a hood ornament; they simply carried the Rolls-Royce emblem. But hood ornaments—or mascots as they are called in Europe—were fast becoming the automotive trend of the day. People of the era believed that a vehicle as grand as a Rolls-Royce should have a hood ornament and, thus, began to affix their own. This disturbed leaders of the company who deemed some of these ornaments patently “inappropriate”—somewhat ironic when you learn the story behind the creation of the mascot known as “The Spirit of Ecstasy.”

The Flying Lady we know today is a figurine of woman with sight fixed upon the distance and wide, outstretched arms. But she didn’t start out that way. Designed by Charles Robinson Sykes, the idol was originally inspired by a secret love affair between John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu (second Lord Montagu of Beaulieu after 1905, a pioneer of the automobile movement, and editor of The Car Illustrated magazine from 1902) and his secretary Eleanor Velasco Thornton.

By all accounts, Lord Montagu truly loved Thornton. But Thornton was “a commoner” with no social standing, which proved to be an obstacle to marriage. Lord Montagu and Thornton continued their affair even after the former succumbed to family pressure and married a woman “worthy” of his money and status. But when Montagu commissioned his friend Sykes to sculpt a personal mascot for the bonnet of his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, Sykes chose Thornton as his model. The original “Flying Lady” was a figurine of a woman in fluttering robes and pressing a finger against her lips, symbolizing the secrets of Thornton and Lord Montagu’s love.

A Star is Born 

Gottlieb Daimler probably rolled over in his grave during the mid-1980s when a rap-inspired fashion trend led to thousands of Mercedes-Benz automobiles being stripped of their hood ornaments by vandalizing thieves. The symbolic Mercedes star so long associated with wealth and prestige was then turned into a piece of jewelry worn on gold chains around the necks of rappers with stage names like Run DMC and Kurtis Blow.

The origin of the “three-point star” traces its roots back to the late 1880s when Daimler had been technical director of the Deutz gas engine factory. According to company records, Daimler often rendered the image of a star on postcards to friends and had even once written to his wife that this star would one day shine over his own factory as a symbol of prosperity.

As early as 1910, both a three-pointed and a four-pointed star were registered trademarks of Daimler’s fledgling company. Although both designs were legally protected, only the three-pointed star was used after it was determined to best symbolize Daimler’s original ambition of universal motorization “on land, on water and in the air”.

Brotherly Love

On January 8, 1916, Rembrandt Bugatti, a gifted wildlife sculptor and younger brother of Italian auto maker Ettore Bugatti, committed suicide at the age of 31. An eccentric artist known around Paris for climbing into the cages of animals at the Antwerp Zoo, Rembrandt Bugatti suffered financial troubles and chronic bouts of depression.

Struggling financially and suffering from depression as a result of the horrors witnessed in his time as a paramedic aid at the Red Cross Military Hospital during World War I, Rembrandt found himself pushed over the edge. When he was found, sealed in his apartment with the gas turned on, the once gifted artist whose outstanding animal sculptures can be found in museums all over the world was reportedly clutching a bouquet of violets.

When older brother Ettore went on to produce the famed Bugatti Royale sports cars, each carried a replica of Rembrandt’s most famous sculpture on the hood—a dancing silver elephant—commonly regarded as the most sought after hood ornament in the world.

Reader’s Note: While collectors regard original hood ornaments as the most prized and valuable, there are thousands of aftermarket options for the historic vehicle enthusiast. Whether yours is a leaping frog or a popular breed of dog, the HVA would like to see what kinds of ornaments adorn the hoods of your favorite car or truck. Take a minute to head on over to the HVA’s Facebook page  to share your photos and stories. While you’re there, take a stab at the mystery hood ornament for a chance to win an HVA ball cap (same as mentioned in “Name That Motorcycle”). The winner will be chosen by random drawing of those entering a correct response on Monday, February 27th.