From their plain beginnings as manufacturer’s badges installed on car radiators, hood ornaments evolved into an art form all their own. Early automobile badges were often made from enameled metal decorated with a company's name and logo, like the intricate butterfly symbol that branded Invicta automobiles in the 1920s ands '30s. Three-dimensional hood ornaments, or mascots as they are also called, were created as a combination of these official insignia and the home-made talismans car owners frequently attached to their radiators. A mixture of brand identifier and good-luck charm, hood ornaments quickly became standard decoration on automobiles during much of the 20th century.

A few early hood-ornament designs had functional properties, like the popular Calometer temperature gauge from the 1920s, which featured a glass-enclosed radiator thermometer mounted between a pair of outstretched wings. However, as car designs matured, most radiator mascots were created simply as emblems of speed and power, like the sleek jet-plane symbol used on Ford cars in the 1950s and '60s. Others explicitly integrated the manufacturer’s logo or brand, like the Austin of England ornaments from the 1940s, whose windswept lines formed the letters “A” and “E.”

Countless statuettes were modeled after animals, like the Packard swan, the Mac Truck bulldog, the Dodge ram’s head, or the Ford greyhound. Many other hood ornaments were created to represent ancient civilizations or mythological characters, like Armstrong Siddeley’s sphinx, Pontiac’s Native American bust, and Cadillac’s winged goddess.

While there have been many variations of the flying woman mascot, Rolls Royce’s “Spirit of Ecstasy,” is perhaps the most celebrated. Also nicknamed “Nelly in her Nighty,” the Rolls Royce ornament was designed from an original radiator cap statuette sculpted for Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, modeled after his mistress Eleanor Velasco Thornton. Rolls Royce’s hood ornaments were actually silver plated through 1914, but their frequent theft caused the company to switch to stainless steel.

During the 1920s, the illustrious glass studio Lalique introduced a series of beautifully sculptured radiator covers featuring classical deities and animal figures. These ornaments, which could be used to customize any standard car, ranged from “The Archer,” a flat disc engraved with a nude Grecian bow-hunter, to a stylized row of leaping glass horses. One of Lalique’s most popular designs, “The Dragonfly,” included a lighted, multicolored mechanism beneath its base, which revolved as the car moved to cast various shades of light up through the clear glass statue. By 1932, Lalique was offering 46 different radiator cap designs in its annual catalog, and the company’s eagle emblem had been adopted for use on cars belonging to Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich political party.

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