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.
James & Terri