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I (Chris) remember when I was seven or eight years old, the emblems and logos of cars were fascinating objects. At the vintage car collection of the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, we saw a collection of car hood ornaments on the cars of yesteryears.

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Starting with a silver Rolls Royce and a yellow Isotta-Fraschini 8A (from 1931).

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The most iconic hood ornament has to be Roll Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy. It is in the form of a woman leaning forward with her arms outstretched behind and above her with a cape billowing from her arms to her back, resembling wings (hence, it is also known as the Flying Lady). Supposedly, each piece is unique and a button on the dashboard retracts it inside the hood.

See Wikipedia for more gossip about the lady.

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This piece of decorative metal figurine is also referred to generally as hood ornament, bonnet mascot, car mascot, radiator mascot. There are a lot of histories behind the ornaments, the brands and the car manufacturers, many of which are now defunct.

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Most designs tried to convey a sense of movement and speed – equating it to flight (hence, the wings). Avions Voisin, a French car maker who also made military planes during World War I, used a minimalist abstract winged animal (bird or horse) to represent the brand.

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Front view of the Avions Voisin.
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Hispano-Suiza – a Spanish brand which used a stork (?).

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Side view of the Hispano-Suiza.

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I noticed the two designs below did not try to convey speed or movement. The first is a Bugatti from 1930 which carries a tiny elephant standing on its two hind legs raising its trunk  (sorry about the size of the photo).

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The second is this brass (or gold) lobster ornament (no, it is not a scorpion). For the Bugatti elephant, although it did not suggest speed, it arguably conveyed power and mastery of movement. But what did a lobster represent ?

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The lobster was installed on a car made by Velmorel from 1914. The emblem of this French brand did not include a lobster. Nor were the cars manufactured near the sea – they were made in the Rhone-Alps region. Perhaps it was a personal ornament that the owner added to the car.

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Then there are these angry hissing snakes that lurch from the side towards the front of the car. This is a Swiss-made 1911 Turicum.

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The brass snake on this white Turicum looked to me like a pneumatically-operated horn (see the black rubber bulb in the picture below). I can only imagine that the slow-moving pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages must have been such a nuisance to call for such an aggressive-looking, whimsical design !

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This snake design was also used by the PicPic brand (Piccard & Pictet) of cars from Switzerland. This one was made in 1906.

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Nowadays, I suspect hood ornaments are fast becoming a thing of the past except on some ultra-luxury models. Apparently in 2008, Mercedes-Benz stopped providing the erect three-prong star on the hood of its standard C-line of cars. A feature of every Mercedes Benz made since 1923, fewer than 1/3 of their cars now carry the famous standing ornament. This one was made in 1929.

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I vaguely remember in the 80’s or 90’s when rappers start wearing these ornaments around their necks. The VW ornament seemed particularly popular at the time.

To see more pictures of ornaments, goto this Flickr page (not by me):  http://www.flickr.com/groups/1042548@N25/pool/

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