“Where Have the Car Hood Ornaments Gone?” by Neal Murphy

April 1, 2021 - As a young lad back in the 1950's, one of my favorite things to do was to ogle all the new cars that appeared in the local dealerships every October. I would examine details of interest on all the new models. I particularly enjoyed the hood ornaments peculiar to every brand auto. The all had hood ornaments on them, and I knew just by looking at the ornament what make car it was. Fast forward to today: you do not see a hood ornament on any car. What happened to them?
We must look at the hood ornament as it was back in the early days of the automobile. In the early days, automobiles had their radiator caps outside the hood and on top of the grille. The radiator cap also served as an indicator of the temperature of the engine's coolant fluid. The Boyce MotoMeter Company invented a radiator cap that incorporated a thermometer that was visible to the driver. It contained a sensor that measured the heat of the water vapor, rather than the water itself. This became a very useful gauge for the driver because many early engines did not have water pumps, but a circulation system based on the “thermo-syphon” principle as in the Ford Model T. So, the exposed radiator cap became a focal point for automobile personalization.
Fast forward to around 1940. Radiator caps were now tucked away underneath the hood of the cars. Now that the radiator caps were hidden, car makers decided to attach hood ornaments to help identify their brand of auto. So, what started off as a practical way of making cars more attractive quickly turned into an accepted design element. These hood ornaments remained until the last few decades.
I recall that my Dad purchased a brand new 1955 Chevrolet Impala in October of 1954. It had an attractive jet plane ornament affixed to the center front of the hood. It helped me keep the car centered for whatever transportation activity I was doing. With my new Chevrolet Malibu today, with no hood ornament, I just have to guess if my aim is correct. So far, so good.
Some of the more recognizable car hood ornaments include the Jaguar “Leaper”, the Bugatti “Dancing Elephant” the Bentley “Flying 8”, and the Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy. Most every car maker sported their own personalized hood ornament. So, what happened to them?
It seems to have been a combination of things. One is that smooth hoods reduce air drag, so goodbye ornaments. Another reason was, believe it or not, safety. It was felt that hood ornaments were particularly dangerous to pedestrians during a collision. Slowly but surely hood ornaments disappeared from hoods around the world, replaced with mere shadows of their former selves as stylized logos on the car's grille instead.
So, if you want to see any of the old ornaments, you will have to attend any car show featuring restored automobiles of the past.
The following is a list of the most dangerous/deadly car hood ornaments:
  1. Jaguar “Leaper”
  2. Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy”
  3. Mercury “Winged God of Speed”
  4. Pierce Arrow “Archer”
  5. Chevrolet Bel Air “Jet Plane”
  6. Duesenberg “Model J”
  7. Packard “Goddess of Spring”
  8. Nash Metropolitan “Flying Lady”
  9. Buick Super Eight “Bomb Sight”
  10. Plymouth “Mayflower”