Many of us grew up watching hood ornaments bob somewhere near the horizon on the fronts of our parents' cars. The winged motometer on my dad's Model T and chrome star on my grandma's Mercedes were two of my favorites. For decades, hood ornaments identified the beginning of a car and the height of an automaker's branding. They've receded considerably since, reflecting the changing definitions of luxury.
To understand the hood ornament, we must travel back over a century when automakers like Ford moved their engines from beneath the body to in front of it, exposing the radiator.
"On the old Model Ts and Model As, the "ornament" was actually a radiator thermometer, so the driver could tell at a glance if the engine was about to overheat," said Carol Leigh, photographer of classic hood ornaments. "As cars became sleeker, more elegant, the radiator thermometer morphed into a sign of luxury, a prominent advertisement of sorts for the car, and a symbol of more modern times."
Automakers seemingly entered a radiator-topped arms race that strengthened their brands. The Jaguar leaper, Pierce Arrow archer and Plymouth Mayflower bridged the Jazz Age into Art Deco bliss. Chrysler's winged logo first flew from a radiator. Bentleys wore Bs on their bonnets. By the 1950s, cars embraced the jet age with bombsites and jet planes on hoods and fenders.
No ornament is more famous than the "Spirit of Ecstasy" that has topped Rolls-Royce grilles since 1922. Created by sculptor Charles Sykes and based on real-life Eleanor Thornton, she was originally 7 inches tall, but is now 3 inches and can retract into the radiator shell for protection. The sculptures are created in 24-carat gold, sterling silver, glass, stainless steel, and illuminated versions. In 2011, Mouawad Jewelers created a diamond-enrobed version valued at $250,000.
The Flying Lady's reign atop Rolls-Royce bonnets out-lasted Cadillac's crest, which has fallen to grilles across the lineup. The famous logo, based on Detroit founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac's coat of arms, even lost its famous wreath recently in a nod to modernity.
This downward regression from hood to grille has increasingly affected Mercedes-Benz too. Prior to the 1955 300SL "Gullwing," stars sat atop radiators, but the supercar introduced a sportier star hung on a single lamella in the grille. That became the standard for Mercedes' sports cars, but today's A-, C-, and E-Class sedans are predominantly grille swaggers too.
"When Gottlieb Daimler build the first Mercedes cars around the turn of the last century, the cap of the coolers where customers filled in the water was the ideal platform for his brand logo," said Gorden Wagener, Chief Design Officer, Mercedes-Benz. "The three-pointed star on the hood, especially on the S-Class is the symbol of a traditional Mercedes three-box luxury limousine. Our specific grille design with the star on the hood represents sovereignty, desirable luxury and is famous around the world."
And it is the changing face of luxury, evolving toward casual over formality, that may most affect where ornaments are located, forcing them from hood to grille on the cars Wagener designs.
"Many customers desired our sports grille in more models like our (sedans) because racing is in our genes and that grille represents this dynamic attitude," Wagener continued. "Our cars deliver what their sporty look promises."