Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Every Car Had Its Mascot


QUESTION: Way back when, my grandfather owned a 1925 Packard. My father says he loved that car, so much so that he removed the hood ornament from it and kept it as a souvenir when the car no longer worked, and he took it to the junkyard. He gave it to my father, who, in turn, gave it to me. It now sits proudly on my desk. It’s a real beauty, but is it worth anything or am I just being sentimental?

ANSWER: Your hood ornament, a Packard cormorant, is something very special. If you haven’t noticed, cars don’t come with them anymore. At the time your grandfather owned his car, hood ornaments were all the rage. Every car had one—some were extremely elaborate, more like works of art.

Collectors refer to these hood ornaments as automobile mascots. They began as radiator caps at the turn of the 20th century. Automakers added decorative touches to differentiate their vehicles from others during an era when there were 3,000 automobile manufacturers in the U.S. There are now only a handful.

Back when drivers had to negotiate muddy roads and weren’t sure if they’d get back home, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, supposedly brought them good luck. He also protected them from robbers, who prayed on unsuspecting motorists. If you owned a car back then, you had some money.

Birds, chosen by auto makers to convey quick flight, became a common ornament theme. Packard chose a cormorant. Ford chose a quail for its Model A’s and Duesenberg, a stylized bird.

Many collectors consider the stork, used by European automaker Hispano-Suiza, to be the most distinctive and collectible. The stork commemorates French World War I ace Joseph Vuillemin, who had a stork painted on his airplane.

Some auto makers chose to use graceful ladies. Moon Motor Co., a now defunct St. Louis manufacturer, had the Greek goddess Diana on its cars to appeal to women. The glass lady hood ornaments crafted by Lalique before World War II are worth $1,000 to $10,000 depending on subject matter, condition and rarity.

Bugatti Royale selected an elephant balancing on a ball to demonstrate agility. World War I ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacher used an airplane mascot before his auto business failed in the 1920s. Chevrolets also sported airplanes in 1932. Designers for the Lincoln chose a greyhound mascot to dispel rumors that the auto was slow.

Some mascots invented in that time still exist, including Mercedes-Benz's three-point star and the Mack Truck bulldog. The height of hood ornament use was the 1920s and early '30s. By the mid-'30s, they began to fade as the Streamline Moderne movement, which emphasized aerodynamics and eschewed features that slowed down vehicles, caught on. But Mercedes held on to its mascot anyway. The company cared more about prestige than it did aerodynamics.

Other ornaments, such as Cadillac’s Lady, Rolls-Royce’s Flying Lady, Packard’s Cormorant, Desoto’s Explorer and Imperial wings, lasted through the 1950s, though they were much smaller than their  predecessors.

Collecting hood ornaments began in the 1940s when the owners of great old cars like the 1920s Rolls and Packards began scrapping them. Some of the first collectors visited junkyards, armed with screwdrivers and pliers, to hunt for mascots among the wrecks, for which they paid a dollar or so. Today, it’s almost impossible to find them in junkyards—junkyard owners know their value. Today, a typical Chevrolet mascot from the 1950s costs $100.


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