By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
The impulse to personalize a car is almost as old as the car itself. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, an English aristocrat, is credited with inventing the hood ornament, also known as the mascot, when he affixed a statue of St. Christopher to his 1899 Daimler.
Car manufacturers grasped the value of mounting a three-dimensional advertisement on a radiator cap, and select examples of what collectors call “factory mascots” are striking. The most coveted line of mascots indirectly owes its existence to a car company; in 1925 Citroën commissioned René Lalique to make something in glass for its 5CV automobile, and the Art Deco quintet of prancing horses he fashioned led to a series that included an archer, a comet, a boar, a frog, several birds and female nudes. A Lalique fox holds the auction record for mascots, having fetched $181,000 at a Bonhams & Butterfields sale in May 2004 in Massachusetts. Its high price was due at least in part to rarity. Though Lalique’s glass mascots were relatively hardy, the fox had a unique vulnerability. “A considerable number lost their tails,” says Toby Wilson, head of Bonhams’ automobilia department, which annually conducts more than a dozen auctions in the U.K. and U.S. that contain mascots.
Even rarer than the rarest Lalique is the mascot from the Bugatti Royale. Bugatti built only six Royales, each sporting atop its grille a rearing elephant by sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Ettore, the founder of the car company. Ettore reportedly had a minor accident in a Royale that damaged the mascot, which was repaired but never remounted on the car. Ultimately it sold at Christie’s in 1990 in Monaco for 333,000 French francs ($59,000).
Accessory mascots, or mascots produced by independent companies, display great creativity. French artists excelled at fashioning them, which isn’t surprising considering that Paris was the center of the art world when demand for distinctive mascots peaked. “Very few were treated as sculptures,” says Tony Wraight, an English dealer and collector of mascots. “They’ve now achieved that type of status, but at the time they definitely had not. They had a specific use.”
Accessory mascots reflected the occasionally uncouth tastes of drivers of the era. “Motoring in the 1920s was not exclusively male, but it was a male pastime,” says Wilson, noting, “A bachelor is going to put a figure on the front that appeals to him.” Though motifs suitable for driving to grandma’s were plentiful, underdressed women and figures that thumbed their noses appeared also. Rolls-Royce commissioned itsSpirit of Ecstasy mascot partly to displace the more eccentric ones certain owners were installing. The automobile was mascot-free from its 1904 debut until 1911, when Rolls-Royce gave the draped maiden her perch. “In the minds of the directors of the company, (the jumble of accessory mascots) was spoiling the beautiful lines of the radiator,” Wilson says. The Rolls-Royce mascot has since undergone several minor tweaks; Wraight estimates that he has seen more than 30 iterations.
Mascots went into decline around 1928, when cars were reconfigured to render radiator caps obsolete, and ultimately most countries outlawed them for fear of the injuries they could inflict on pedestrians in a crash. (Modern Rolls-Royce mascots are designed to retract on impact.) But they can be seen in all their glory at the Nethercutt Museum & Collection in Sylmar, Calif., where 1,000 are shown in cases and more than 100 grace period automobiles. “Every car that should have a mascot has one,” says chief curator Skip Marketti. “Mascots are an important part of an automotive collection. They’re miniature works of art. Some are quite crude, and some are beautifully executed, but all have their charms.”