Art Under Pressure: Radiator Mascots Were Sculpture in Motion

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There aren’t many radiator mascots left these days, thanks to both safety and aerodynamic concerns. But in the golden era of automotive art, car companies from exclusive to common adorned their radiators with mascots that were just as recognized as the brand names they signified.

Radiator mascots are a special form of artistry, and they’re as collectible as the cars they rode upon.

The hood ornaments of the 1940s through the early 1980s were e a vestige of the radiator mascots of an earlier age. In the early days, the radiator was housed outside the engine compartment. On the earliest cars, the radiators were unadorned, but later automobiles featured elaborate radiator shells, chromed protective grilles and a proud mascot on the radiator cap.

The concept of a radiator mascot is credited to John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, who, among his other credits was a relentless promoter of motoring. He was the founder and editor of The Car Illustrated magazine and was a member of the Road Board, and an early client of Rolls-Royce. The Baron originally had placed a bronze statuette of St. Christopher — the patron saint of travelers – on the hood of his four-cylinder Daimler.

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Other early, fabulously wealthy car owners took notice and had sculptors create unique ornaments for their radiators, and an entire mascot industry began to take shape.

As radiators migrated inside an enclosed engine compartment, radiator mascots became obsolete. But even early on, these finely crafted mascots were so prized that they became collectible ornamental sculptures.

Some of these radiator mascots have become icons, despite the fact that they were production-line products. Others were constructed by the world’s most recognized artisans, with names like Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique.

Rolls-Royce

Aside from Jaguar’s “Leaper,” probably the most recognizable radiator mascot is one of the last ones still extant. The Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy — also known as “Emily,” the “Silver Lady” or the “Flying Lady” — has adorned Rolls-Royce models since 1911.

The mascot was originally designed by sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes, at the behest of our old friend Lord Montagu. His mistress – Eleanor Velasco Thornton – was the model for what was the progenitor of The Spirit of Ecstasy. The statuette was known as “The Whisper,” which signified the secret love affair between Lord Montagu and his Thornton.

Modern Rolls-Royce models still feature the Spirit of Ecstasy, and to prevent theft the Flying Lady retracts when the ignition is turned off.

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Stutz

(Image Courtesy: AACA Museum)

Ra symbolized “creative power” as the solar deity of ancient Egypt. You’ve seen Ra before, typically depicted as the head of an eagle on the body of a man, which looks nothing like the radiator mascot for early American supercar builder Stutz. The mascot was designed by Aurelius Marcus Bennetti and Dee Carlton Brown, and its Art Deco style is much more like an Egyptian king.

However, the serpent head on the front of the helmet comes directly from the depictions of Ra in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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Cadillac-LaSalle

When Cadillac first started producing automobiles, it featured a radiator cap with a simple Cadillac script. In 1930, though, the brand followed Packard and Hispano Suiza’s lead and developed an ornate, delicate, and ultimately fragile radiator mascot that it used on both Cadillac and LaSalle models with either V-8 or V-12 engines.

The Heron mascot was designed by John W. Hession, Jr.

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Cadillac V-16

For its exclusive lineup of V-16-powered cars that Cadillac produced in the 1930s, the manufacturer selected a flowing goddess, which was the work of William Schnell, who received several patents for his radiator mascot designs.

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Delage

French luxury automaker Delage contracted the talents of artist René Lalique — the premier glassmaker and sculptor of his day — to complement the stunning beauty of its cars after Lalique had created radiator mascots for several individual owners.

This Delage mascot is known as Victoire, or “Spirit of the Wind”, and it’s one of Lalique’s most valuable and appreciated radiator mascots. RM Auctions sold a lot of 30 Lalique mascots in 2012 — including a Victoire from a Delage — and the the collection brought an astounding $805,000.

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Latil

You’d think that mascots designed and sculpted by the world’s finest craftsmen would be reserved for the likes of luxury cars, but like the Mack bulldog, mascots can adorn the most utilitarian vehicles, too.

Between 1898 and 1955, France’s Latil specialized in the manufacture of heavy trucks, tractors and buses, and capped many of them with this Art Deco elephant’s head in the 1920s.

Latil’s cap was designed by Frederick Bazin, who also sculpted the stork that appeared on Hispano-Suiza’s cars.

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.