A hood ornament (‘bonnet ornament’ in the UK), ‘radiator cap,’ ‘motor mascot,’ or ‘car mascot’ is a specially crafted model which symbolizes a car company like a badge, located on the front center portion of the hood. It has been used as an adornment nearly since the inception of automobiles. According to ‘A History of Cars,’ the first ‘hood ornament’ was a sun-crested falcon (to bring good luck) mounted on Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s chariot.
In the early years, automobiles had their radiator caps outside of the hood and on top of the grille which also served as an indicator of the temperature of the engine’s coolant fluid. The Boyce MotoMeter Company was issued a patent in 1912 for a radiator cap that incorporated a thermometer that was visible to the driver with a sensor that measured the heat of the water vapor, rather than the water itself. This became a useful gauge for the driver because many early engines did not have water pumps, but a circulation system based on the ‘thermo-syphon’ principle as in the Ford Model T. The ‘exposed radiator cap became a focal point for automobile personalization.’
Hood ornaments were especially popular in the 1920-50s, with many automakers fitting them to their vehicles. Moreover, a healthy business was created in the supply of accessory mascots available to anyone who wanted to add a hood ornament or car mascot to their automobile. Most companies like Desmo and Smith’s are now out of business with only Louis Lejeune Ltd. in England surviving. Sculptors such as Bazin, Paillet, Sykes, Renevey, and Lejeune all created finely detailed sculptures in miniature.
Restrictions to the fitting of ornaments on the front of vehicles have been introduced in some jurisdictions. Projecting decorative designs on the hood may increase the risk of injury to pedestrians in the case of an accident. Regulations introduced in the United States for the 1968 model year vehicles meant the disappearance of fixed stand-up hood ornaments, as well as spinner wheel protrusions. Later versions featured flexibly mounted (spring-loaded) stand-up hood ornaments designed to fold without breaking on impact. In the European Union, since 1974 all new cars have had to conform to a European directive on vehicle exterior projections. Rolls Royce’s mascot is now mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism designed to retract instantly into the radiator shell if struck with more than 22 pounds of force. The Mercedes-Benz and many other ornaments were designed with a spring mount to fold on impact. For aftermarket ornaments, breakaway nylon fixings are available.
Many automakers wanted their own emblems displayed on their vehicles’ hoods, and Boyce Motormeter accommodated them with corporate logos or mascots, as well as numerous organizations that wanted custom cap emblems to identify their members. The company had over 300 such customers at one time during the mid-1920s, for car, truck, tractor, boat, airplane, and motorcycle manufacturers, and in 1927, had 1,800 employees in six countries: U.S., England, Canada, Australia, France, and Germany. The hundreds of motor vehicle manufacturers before 1929 meant many customers for their customized emblems.
Along with the grille, the hood ornament is often a distinctive styling element and many marques use it as their primary brand identifier. Famous examples include the Jaguar’s ‘Leaping Jaguar,’ Cadillac’s ‘Crest and Wreath,’ Dodge’s Rocky Mountain big horn ram, Mercedes-Benz’s three-pointed star, Rolls-Royce’s ‘Spirit of Ecstasy,’ and Buick’s ‘Trishields.’ Additionally, many models such as Buick’s Regal, the Chevrolet Impala, or Chrysler’s Cordoba had their own unique emblem and accompanying distinctive standup hood ornament.
The radiator cap was transformed into an art form and became a way of individualizing the car, ‘representing a company’s vision of the automobile,’ or ‘speaking volumes about the owner’ of the vehicle. Hood ornaments are usually cast in brass, zinc, or bronze and finished in a chrome plated finish. During the years when chrome plate was unavailable, they were plated in either silver or nickel. Some also incorporated other materials, such as plastic, bakelite, or colored glass, while others incorporated a light bulb for illumination at night. The best-known glass mascots were made by René Lalique in France. Other sellers or producers of glass mascots include Sabino in France, Red Ashay in England, and Persons Majestic in the U.S. The latter two had their products made in Czechoslovakia. The Lalique company, like Louis Lejeune, is one of the few survivors from this era of motoring.