Mascots, more commonly known as hood ornaments, have just about all been relegated to a dusty shelf in the garage of automotive history, but in the vintage and classic eras and up into the 1950s and even 1960s, they were popular accessories that ran the gamut from purest kitsch to valued objects d'art.
Today, they're just as keenly enjoyed by collectors, most of whom prowl auto flea markets and eBay for early examples that might have perched atop humble Model T radiators. But others, from across the great collector-car divide, show up at events such as the recent Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance where, at a sale by Canadian-based RM Auctions, a 30-piece collection of the works of master glass craftsman Rene Lalique changed hands for $805,000 (U.S.).
Hood ornaments, either factory designed or of the aftermarket variety, once adorned just about every make of car, but no longer. Their demise is due to concern over having large pointy things attached to the front of vehicles where they are likely to eviscerate unwary pedestrians – although many still find the notion of bolting something "creative" to the front of their vehicles appealing, and in some cases appalling.
The fluidly-graceful be-winged Spirit of Ecstasy that has adorned Rolls-Royces and the precise geometrically-circled three-pointed star that has symbolized Mercedes-Benz for more than a century still stand proud on the prows of at least some models. But they're the last surviving factory-installed examples of a form of automotive adornment that has been around almost as long as the automobile itself.
In the automobile's early days, radiators were recognizable figureheads, mounted prominently out front, but originally topped by a just a simple cap. It didn't take inventive minds long to add water temperature gauges and marque symbols though, while individual motorists found the cap an ideal spot for a mascot they felt said something about themselves or their ride. Mascots were also mounted on the "scuttle," the area between the rear of the hood and the windshield.
The early-times mascot market was soon served by manufacturers that offered them in a variety of forms, but as in all things, there were also those looking for something a little special to personalize their Rolls, Bentley, Bugatti or Hispano-Suiza.
One of the most noted to step up to meet demand for artsy, expensive, high-style mascots was France's Rene Lalique.
Lalique was born in 1860 and went on to become a sculptor, wallpaper and fabric designer, jeweller and finally, in the 1920s, Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass maker.
His original glass efforts were perfume bottles and powder containers made for Paris per fumier, cosmetician and business neighbour Francois Coty, but he then received a commission from Andre Citroen to produce a mascot for his 5CV model, which was to be shown at a spectacular arts and industrial exposition in Paris in 1925.
It wasn't the first time Lalique had produced auto-related works, having created the award plates presented in the original 1906 Targa Florio open road race in Sicily. But the resulting five prancing horses in glass mascot "Cinc Cheveaux" would establish him in this odd little high-class automotive niche.
He would go on to produce 29 designs over the next seven years and become the most famous name in a field that included rivals in France and Britain and the Corning Glass Co. in North America.
Lalique produced his creations – which depicted animals, birds, insects, comets and nudes – mostly in clear glass, but sometimes in frosted, satin finish or opalescent glass, and others tinted or coloured. And they came in sizes up to the stunning Art Deco-inspired Spirit of the Wind of 1928 that stood 255 mm high above the Minerva rad it graced at the Paris auto show that year.
Lalique collaborated with the Breves Gallery in London to market his mascots worldwide with prices starting at less than three pounds Sterling. Breves also provided the bases and lighting systems, a bulb that shone through a red, green, mauve, blue, amber or white disc to illuminate the mascot.
Many of Lalique's mascots were apparently used as paperweights and these likely have a much higher survival rate than those actually used on cars where they were subjected to the obvious sorts of road debris damage. Presumably the chauffeur kept any eye on them when the car was parked to ensure nobody absconded with the boss or madam's expensive glassy gewgaw, or took a resentful swipe at it in passing.
The collection sold by RM Auctions at Amelia Island was pieced together by Ele Chesney of New Jersey. Regarded as the most prominent female collector of classic cars in the United States, her enthusiasm for automobiles dates back to long before the days she could afford "collector" cars or Lalique hood ornaments.
Chesney worked a part-time job to buy her first car "Harry," a 1941 Plymouth, and then became an entrepreneur, creating among other ventures an electronic component manufacturing business supplying the defence and communication industries. Her success allowed her to expand her car choices beyond early Plymouths to such things as her regal 1928 Minerva and the other exotic classics that make up her collection. Now retired. she enjoys sharing her cars with the public through events such as the Amelia Island concours.
It isn't known how many Lalique mascots were produced up until the Second World War (Lalique himself died in 1945, but the company still exists as a purveyor of pricey lifestyle items), or how many survive.
Copies and fakes abound, but judging by the price paid for Chesney's collection, if you find an old cardboard box of these beautiful and rare automotive ornaments at a spring car flea market you shouldn't haggle, just pay the asking price and walk nonchalantly away.
Be sure to check out our gallery of the hood ornaments.