Cast In Chrome: Automotive Glitz From a Bygone Era

It may be hard to believe today, but in their infancy, globe-changing car makers struggled to distinguish themselves. Turn-of-the-century marketers worked in competitive territory, and one of the tactics this new industry used was art. Designers called in skilled artists to create miniature sculptures which were positioned in a most conspicuous place: right on the front of the car.

In the early days Europeans called them “mascots,” today we know them as hood ornaments.

Looking back, it’s easy to dismiss these automotive knick-knacks as trivial decorative details, but recruiting the likes of renowned glassmaker and jeweler René Lalique shows how serious these automotive pioneers were about their hood ornaments.

Other less-famous, but more widely known artists also designed mascots. For example, American artist George Petty, popular with American GIs for his pin-up girl art, was commissioned to create “flying goddesses” for Nash Motors.

This artistic focus put the curator’s skill on display in the fascinating exhibit Cast in Chrome at the Frick Car and Carriage Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

At a time when horsepower meant real, four-legged horses, automobiles were a novelty primarily for the rich. What began as a practical radiator cap for monitoring water temperature on these noisy, mechanical beasts evolved into a way to personalize vehicles and display status.

And it wasn’t lost on early marketers that it was easier to sell an elitist lifestyle than a dull, practical way to get around. Take for example Buick’s “Flying Goddess” and the well-known Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy,” both distinctly highbrow.

But not all hood ornaments were designed to appeal only to the 1%. As time passed, cars became more affordable, and these mini works of art were themed to appeal to a broader, less-wealthy demographic. And as the exhibit points out, hood ornaments became a mini-history lesson in the popular trends and technology of the time: train locomotives in the 1930s, airplanes in the 1940s, and rockets in the 1950s.

Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb made Ancient Egypt, mummies, and all things Tut fashionable – even hood ornaments.

There were also mythological characters, animals of all sorts, as well as gods and goddesses galore. Some creative DIY types even adapted common door knockers to make their artistic car-bonnet statement. 

I don’t consider myself a car enthusiast, but after seeing the Frick Museum’s Cast in Chrome exhibit, anytime one of these classic beauties passes my eyes will be drawn to the hood ornament. I’ll soak in the glitz from a bygone era, and tip my hat to the artists that made it all happen. 

Do you have a favorite hood ornament in your past? We’d love to hear. 

Happy Trails,

James & Terri

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Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

36 thoughts

  1. I’m not at all a car enthusiast, but this is a display I would enjoy, James and Terri. Such graceful, lovely old cars and their ornaments. Here’s wishing you a peaceful and happy festive season.

    1. Jo, the “Cast in Chrome” part of the car exhibit was more about an artistic niche that, for most folks, has gone unnoticed, which is what made it so interesting. Someone at the museum had a really good idea to put the exhibit together. Happy and Healthy Holidays to you as well. ~James

    1. Darlene, there was a number of reasons hood ornaments lost their popularity, and you bring up one of them: theft. Apparently, the theft trend goes back to one of the Beastie Boys who wore a VW pendant, and suddenly hood ornaments became fashion. I think Mercedes emblems became a popular target as well. ~James

  2. I was never a car ‘buff,” but like any teenager of my generation, I paid attention to cars. Our 1956 Chevy still had a hood ornament, but in 1959, tail fins became the distinguishing characteristic of mass audience automobiles. Was “Cast in Chrome” part of their permanent exhibits or a special one? In either case, I have added he Frick to my list of possible future visits. Thanks.

    1. Ray, thinking back, my family went through a number of cars with hood ornaments as well. My Dad’s 1953 Ford had a really slick jet on the hood.

      If you get a chance visit the Frick Musuem. Cast in Chrome seems to be a permanent exhibit there, and they also have an art museum that has rotating exhibits. Frick was Carnegie’s partner, so needless to say he was mega-rich. So his estate, which is where the museum is located, is interesting to see. As an added benefit, the Cast in Chrome exhibit is free. ~James

    1. Thanks Marilyn. Fascinating and fun – just what we were trying to achieve. I had seen a few of these hood ornaments, but the variety and quality was wonderful. Happy and Healthy Holidays to you as well. ~James

  3. As a Brit I have to put forward Roll’s Royce’s famous ‘Ghost’ – and of course, that wonderful, powerful Jaguar – both from my country’s ‘glory days’in the motor industry. But was very impressed by the range of these ornaments. Graham has just come in. I am about to show him. He says ‘A superb collection of motoring memorabilia – in the days when it was an adventure’.

    James and Terri – we would so love to meet you. Have a lovely Christmas, full of love and laughter.
    Jackie and Graham
    PS: Someone has stolen our website name, and seem to have at least partially blocked us ‘out of the net’. Any possible suggestions of how we can deal with this?

    1. Jackie, as every serious car enthusiast knows, Britain has a long and storied history in the auto industry, as well as motorsports in general. So no car discussion is complete without a mention at least. The Cast in Chrome exhibit was truly multi-national in its treatment of hood ornaments, which made it all the more interesting. I’m glad that you and Graham enjoyed the post.

      As to the website hack, I can’t be of much assistance I’m afraid. You’re the second blogger we know that has had problems, and we live in fear of it happening to us. We try to keep a backup copy of all posts, but if we lost it all, I’m sure it would be impossible to reconstruct. Good luck in getting your problem solved, and Happy Holidays to you both. ~James

  4. Gorgeous! I love hood ornaments. I even put one in my car, an eagle. And yes, someone tried to removed it but were unable because it was bolted under the hood. Thank you for sharing these beauties.

    1. Maria, you may be the only person I know that has a hood ornament, and I’m glad it survived the efforts of thieves. As I said to another commenter, apparently, the theft trend goes back to one of the Beastie Boys who wore a VW emblem as a pendant, and suddenly hood ornaments became fashion. ~James

  5. This is fantastic!!! Thank you for sharing. I had seen hood ornaments on Antiques Roadshow and always thought it would be great if we still had them because they look so cool. We have a Honda Accord, but I love the old cars! On another note, hoping you didn’t have any damage in your town from the storms. Scary stuff.

    1. Pam, with all the fine, collectible British automobiles I can imagine the Roadshow would have lots of antique hood ornaments show up for sale. If you want a US version of this, go to ebay and search hood ornaments. We saw one of the ornaments in the post for sale for $450.

      And thanks, but our part of KY (Lexington) didn’t have any tornado problems other than a really nasty thunderstorm and lots of rain. We had relatives in harm’s way who are all fine as well. When the meteorologists have had a chance to study and evaluate this cell of storms it will be interesting to see what they find. I suspect there will be lots of new records. ~James

  6. Oooooh, we would love that exhibit and museum! I will definitely have to add it to our must stop list. Hope you have a merry Christmas and glad you and family weren’t affected bu the tornadoes.

    1. Laura, I’m sure you guys would enjoy this museum. In addition to the hood ornaments, it has a small but excellent collection of classic cars and carriages. If you get up this way make sure to stop in. Also, if you like dinosaur exhibits, the Carnegie Natural History Museum has one of the best I’ve seen anywhere. Have a safe, fun, and healthy holiday. ~James

  7. Love all these adornments and actually, I think I remember a few from childhood. Today, they might not last long unless your chauffeur was trained in karate! Thanks for another wonderful post with pictures that make me long for the old days!

    1. Rusha, I’m tipping my hand on age :), but I remember hood ornaments as well. When I was a kid I took them for granted, and by the time I could appreciate them for their artistic value they were no longer around. However, this exhibit brought it all back and gave me lots of insight into the little-known backstory. Pretty cool. All the best for both you and Bert for a fun, happy, and healthy holiday. ~James

  8. I’m not a car enthusiast either, but I remember when I was growing up I thought Jaguar’s hood ornament was pretty cool which made it stand out among the crowd. I had no idea that in the past there was even an entire trend that revolved around outdoing one another on car “mascots”.

    1. Bama, you’ve mentioned one of the two most well-known car emblems on the planet, the second being Mercedes. I agree with you that the Jag hood ornament is very cool. It’s the quintessential ornament: chrome, sleek, and the very picture of elegance and speed. All the best to you for a happy and healthy holiday. ~James

  9. A visit to Gallivance is always a learning experience. Who knew about the history of hood ornaments? Not me I can assure you. I do recall in my teen years it seemed that vehicle owners of certain models would have their hood ornaments stolen. Luckily I suppose I never drive a fancy enough car to have the problem!

    1. Sue, when I was a kid I just took them for granted, and honestly, until visiting this exhibit I didn’t really appreciate their history or the artistic skill behind their creation. Live and learn I guess. And I can tell you that none of my family ever drove a car fancy enough to have a snatchable hood ornament either. In fact, I always smile when I think of some of the jalopies that my Dad drove (and kept pieced together). But going forward I’ll certainly pay more attention.

      I hope all is well with you, Dave, and the family and we wish you all the best for a happy and healthy 2022. ~James

      1. Thank you James. It’s been a year of highs and lows. We said goodbye to Dave’s Mom who at 91 was still hiking, playing piano for multiple groups, singing in a choir and volunteering. It was a privilege to journey with her through to a peaceful departure. Not long after our grandson was born. Oh the cycle of life.
        The blog has been given a backseat these months. A visit from Terri was such a delight it brought me back to the blogosphere.
        Sending our very best wishes to you both and hopeful energy for Terri’s sister.

      2. Please pass on to Dave how sorry we are to hear of his Mom’s passing. It sounds like she was a dynamic lady who lived a very full life, and I’m sure that you’re both heartbroken. And the birth of a grandson – Congratulations!! With this wonderful news you both must have been whipsawed through emotions for sure. As to blogging when life happens, we’ve discovered that the blog can be a great escape or an annoying burden, and our motivation ebbs and flows. I’m sure that when it’s right, you’ll be back. You two take care of yourselves and give the new grandson a hug for us. ~James

      3. Thank you so much James. A whipsaw of emotions. That describes the year indeed. Will gladly pass on that hug tomorrow. You two take care as well.

  10. When you mentioned that you’re not a car enthusiast, I was reminded of a visit to the Cité de l`automobile (better known as Bugatti Museum) in Mulhouse, France. Mike really wanted to go and I was very lukewarm about it. He practically had to drag me out. I loved the designs and creativity. I think I’d enjoy the Cast in Chrome exhibit for the same reasons. The artistry is amazing. I want a flying goddess ornament on the hood of my Honda Civic! Fun post.

    1. Mitch, until I visited this exhibit I really hadn’t thought about how much art and creativity was actually involved in hood ornaments. In these days of concern for aerodynamics and increased gas mileage I’m afraid hood ornaments are truly gone for good. All the best to you for a happy and healthy 2022. ~James

  11. Thank you for sharing: I did not know this was the origin of hood ornaments, and we love trivia, so I’m delighted to learn a new origin story especially when accompanied by so many shiny visual aids!

    One of the funny (in retrospect) failed predictions of the early 20th century was that the world market for cars would be limited to a few million because… of the limitation of the number of chauffeurs available 🙂

    1. That is a funny prediction that I certainly hadn’t heard. I’m certainly no expert, but I would guess that because horses are unpredictable animals with individual personalities, that a car would ultimately be easier to drive than an horse and buggy.

      And we all make stupid mistakes when it comes to new technology. I remember saying to myself “What’s up with all this texting business? Why don’t people just call each other?” Luckily I didn’t say this out loud to anyone else. ~James

      1. Jeff Bezos was certainly vocal about the world-transforming Segway 😁 I think you are right about us all making mistakes when it comes to new things (technologies or otherwise…).

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