From an era when style trumped pedestrian safety.
Hood ornaments used to be all the rage, replacing hood-mounted thermometers of the late 1890s. Manufacturers offered a range of them on all their different models; designed in-house or often by big-name artists and sculptors of the era. There were, of course, numerous aftermarket hood ornaments too, an easy form of personalization still common amongst hotrodders today.
But, with changing times and increasing safety regulations, the age of the hood ornament is just about dead and gone – these sculptures removed for aerodynamic efficiency to increase fuel economy, and in many cases, due to the danger they posed when striking a pedestrian. So in memory of the era of hood ornaments, we take a look at our favorites over the years, including a few still in production.
The Leaper now adorns the trunk lids of every Jaguar model, a sign of its fall from grace as one of the world’s most iconic and long-standing hood ornaments. It used to adorn the hood of every Jag model, gracefully leaping forward, signifying the power and elegance of the vehicle off which it proudly leaped. The beginning of the end for the Leaper began when European Jaguars arrived only wearing the Growler badge, though American and Middle Eastern models still featured the cat. Since 2005, not a single Jag features the Leaper, though we figure it could look pretty classy if it adorned the hood of an F-Type.
The famous Mercedes logo oozes class and style, a sign of the rich heritage of the German brand that spans decades of successes on the road and the racetrack. The three-pointed star is actually one of the only hood ornaments on this list still in production, making it unique as a stalwart of an ancient era. Adorning the C-Class facelift and S-Class nowadays, you’ll find the 3-pointed star encircled in silver, which one might think of as not being very safe in the event of a pedestrian collision. To circumvent this danger, the 3-pointed star is mounted on a spring-loaded ball joint that can flex out of the way, and break if need be to reduce pedestrian damage.
The 1950s were glory days for aviation, with the space race hotting up and aviation technology moving forward in leaps and bounds. Chevrolet gave a classy nod to aviation excellence by equipping the Chevy Bel Air with an aviation-inspired hood ornament in the form of a jet.
The jet was inspired by the popular art deco styling of the era, with a hawk-head as its nose and a trailing tail down the center of the hood. The ‘hood bird’ didn’t last long beyond the decade but goes down as one of the classiest designs to have adorned the hood of one of America’s great classics.
The 1920s were the peak of the art deco design era, with everything from fashion to architecture inspired by the design style. The Duesenberg Model J epitomized this when it debuted in 1928, featuring this classy two-dimensional art deco bird in flight, mounted atop the radiator cap. Particularly stylish, this one could also be rather deadly we’d imagine, so it’s no real surprise this wouldn’t fly in today’s day and age.
Mack is a truck and former bus manufacturer established at the beginning of the 20th century. But it wasn’t until World War I when the company’s trucks became known as ‘the bulldog’. Their blunt-nosed hood, durability, and tenacious performance reminded English soldiers of their own national mascot, the English bulldog, and the name stuck.
Since 1922, Mack’s logo has been the English bulldog, adorning all models as an identifiable and stylish hood ornament since 1938. The ornament has significance too, based on its coloring. A gold-plated bulldog means that the truck and all its drivetrain components are produced in-house by Mack, but if the bulldog is chrome plated, it means components are borrowed from other manufacturers.
American car company, Packard, decorated the hoods of its high-end vehicles with one of two hood ornaments during the era from 1926 to 1950, either a cormorant bird or the Goddess of Speed. It was the latter that was most famous, known by many as the Packard Donut Chaser. Though there were several iterations throughout its lifespan, they all featured a common art deco design language of a winged woman kneeling on her right knee, her left leg outstretched behind her, her arms extended forward holding a wheel and tire (the donut). Her long hair and loose clothes flowed behind her, evoking the sense of speed. One of the classiest iterations of the Donut Chaser featured a glass wing, though numerous were metal in construction.
Arguably the most iconic hood ornament of all time, the Spirit of Ecstasy adorns the noses of almost all Rolls-Royce motorcars made since 1911, with a few special exceptions. Designed by Charles Sykes, and based upon his original sculpture called ‘The Whisper’, the Spirit of Ecstasy was modeled after English actress, Eleanor Thornton, with whom Sykes had had a secret love affair.
The sculpture of the lady bending forward is often thought to have wings, but the wings are in fact billowing cloth from her outstretched arms. Sykes described the Spirit as, "A graceful little goddess, the Spirit of Ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight and alighted on the prow of a Rolls-Royce motor car to revel in the freshness of the air and the musical sound of her fluttering draperies."
The modern Spirit of Ecstasy can be retracted into the hood of a Rolls and is made from either stainless steel, 24-carat gold plated steel or illuminated, frosted crystal.
As chief rival to Rolls-Royce, it seems fitting that Bentley would have its own elaborate hood ornament. Dubbed the ‘Flying B’, it doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why. The iconic capital letter ‘B’ stands proudly with a pair of wings extended behind it and has done so on numerous, though not all, Bentleys throughout the years. With the issues of theft and safety at hand – there was even a recall for Bentley models from 2007 to 2009 for ‘faulty hood ornaments’ that were potentially dangerous – the flying B has fallen out of favor in recent years, though tuning houses like Arden will still fashion them for you with a legal safety-approved mechanism too, and the Mulsanne still offers it as standard.
For the first and second generation Pontiac Chieftain, from 1949 to 1957, as well as the post-WW2 Streamliner, the hood ornament was a standout design feature, featuring an Indian chief’s head – after all, Pontiac was chief of the Ottawa Indian tribe. There were various interpretations of the chieftain ornament, but one of the most iconic was the amber orange one that would light up at night, giving the Pontiac a glowing figure on its bow as it charged through the night. Nowadays, only the frosted Spirit of Ecstasy represents anything close.
The 1957 Nash Metropolitan went against the ‘bigger is better’ philosophy of most manufacturers of the era, and was compact by almost any definition. But it’s the 1955-58 Series III Metropolitan we feature here for its ‘Flying Lady’ hood ornament. The ornament was a nude woman lying face down whilst propping herself up on her crossed arms upon a winged platform of sorts. It was a particularly classy hood ornament, and the wings could even be removed for a more streamlined, more risqué ornament design. The Flying Lady is part of a bygone era, the likes of which we’ll never see again.