Why hood ornaments are becoming things of the past.

Discussion in 'Et Cetera, Et Cetera' started by Principessa, Aug 29, 2008.

  1. Principessa

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    Tony Dokoupil-Newsweek Web Exclusive
    Updated: 8:35 PM ET Aug 26, 2008

    Inside the Mercedes Benz dealership on New York's posh Park Avenue, cars shimmer, leather seats invite, and hubcaps gleam—just like you'd expect. But there's also something missing: the distinctive three-point Mercedes star atop the hood. A feature of nearly every Mercedes made since 1923, the trademark raised-ornament adorns less than a third of the 2009 models, and earlier this year the company stopped offering the ornament on its standard C-Class line. "As we've become more aggressive design-wise," says spokesperson Robert Moran, "we've been bumping it down to the grill."

    It's a similar story over at Jaguar, which last year quietly reversed eight decades of tradition when it discontinued offering its springing cat figurines called "leapers," as a standard feature. Cadillac, Chrysler and Mercury have also ditched its chrome-plated tradition in the last decade. "Hood ornaments are just kind of out style," says John Wolkonowicz, a senior automotive analyst at Global Insight.

    The sleek beasts, winged ladies and mythic figures that once adorned the hood of nearly every car in America have been dwindling for decades, becoming the preserve of ultra-luxury coupes and dictator-style sedans. Now even those are on the wane, as ornaments are relocated to the grill or removed entirely. Given the option, most Mercedes and Jaguar customers have declined to spring for the hood ornament, according to the companies. "I didn't even notice it was gone," says Ilya Mikhailevich, a 52-year-old Russian travel agent, shopping for a new Jag in New York recently. Adding the bling costs $250 for a Jaguar and upwards of several thousand on the Mercedes C-Class, which requires a series of upgrades first.

    Of course, it wasn't always so. Ornaments have long adorned our modes of transport, from lady luck strapped to the bow of a ship to the ornate spires worn by carriage horses. Car historians trace the hood ornament back to the early 20th century, when cars still had external radiator caps and temperature gauges. Seeking ways to dress them up, designers turned to miniature works of art—animals, emblems and model machines that embodied the car's identity. In the 1920s, the Cadillac LaSalle featured an elaborate statuette of its namesake, intrepid 17th century French explorer Robert de LaSalle, tipping his hat over a burned-out campfire.

    By the end of the decade, the practical need for the hood ornament was gone, as radiator caps were relocated under hoods and temperature gauges moved to dashboards. But that didn't stop the auto mascot from enjoying a life of its own. Some sort of doppelganger topped most cars made in America between 1930 and 1950. Among the classics: the forward-leaning Roman messenger goddess Mercury used on Buicks in the 1930s; the wild and sinewy Archer on vintage Pierce Arrows; and the Goddess of Speed that once graced Packards. Some of the most majestic ornaments were more like traveling tombstones, including the elephant on 1932 Bugattis—a tribute to the designer's dead brother, a sculptor known for breaking into zoo cages to get a closer look at the pachyderms.

    Stripped-down hippie tastes, Nader-esque concerns that ornaments could turn otherwise minor pedestrian scraps into fatal accidents, and even irrational fears about heightened fuel costs from increased drag, began to erode the popularity of hood ornaments over the years. Theft also became a costly problem as manufacturers struggled to protect the centerpiece from a mid-1980s rap-music-inspired fashion fad—hood ornament necklaces. Hard numbers are tough to come by, but the list of discontinued ornaments is longer than the tail fins on a '57 Chevy. RIP you garish old greats: the Cadillac wreath, the Dodge ram, and the crashing metallic wave of the Mercury Grand Marquis.

    Adding to the hostile climate for hood ornaments were new pedestrian safety laws overseas. In 2005, the European Union forced carmakers to meet minimum standards for pedestrian safety, based on damage caused in frontal collisions. The removal of upright hood ornaments helped meet the requirements and rather than make different hoods for different countries, many international automakers—including Jaguar—removed the hood ornaments altogether.

    In doing so, they've bet that hood ornaments have become passé—gaudy and gratuitous relics in a world of smaller, greener automobiles and monstrous SUVs. "We've taken a much more modern, svelte and aerodynamic approach," says Tim Watson, vice president of marketing and communications for Jaguar, North America, referring to his company's decision to remove the "leaper" as a standard accessory. "Are customers crying out for them?" he adds, "I don't think they care."

    But not everyone is de-accessorizing. Maybachs have retained their interlocking M's and Rolls-Royce has no plans to kill its gleaming figurine, the "Spirit of Ecstasy"—especially since, according to company research, one of the most important things to prospective owners of the nearly $400,000 sedan is that the ornament be visible from either side of the back seat. Still, to combat theft and meet Europe's tough pedestrian safety laws, the Rolls-Royce winged lady retracts into the car's hood when a collision is detected or the doors are locked. Lincoln spokesman Mark Schirmer says the company "will soldier on" with the crosshair-like ornament of the popular Town Car. On the blue-collar side of town, Mack garbage and construction trucks are standing behind the squat bulldog that's long been the company's mascot.

    As the sun sets on hood ornaments in the United States, some are sad to see them go. "They were about personality and identity," says Don Sommer, a 75-year-old collector from Troy, Michigan, who owns more than 3,000 original hood ornaments and makes replicas for a living. He estimates that there are a few hundred enthusiasts like him out there, but they're dwindling in number, too. One bright shining hope: China. Soaring sales of boat-sized Buicks and SUVs, relatively lax safety laws, and rampant status anxiety means the time might be ripe for a new golden era in garish automotive art.
     
  2. ZOS23xy

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    Teenagers in my old neighborhood stole them frequently, so it was just a pain.
     
  3. Principessa

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    Yeah, that happens a lot. I guess that's what led to their demise.
    It's a pity though, I used to use it to judge where the front of the car ended when I first started driving.
     
  4. midlifebear

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    Actually, it looks as though hood ornaments are actually on the rise. McCain just picked Palin to make him look less like my grandmother's Buick Electra.
     
  5. Deno

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    Well the fact that they can do great bodily injury if you get hit by a car is one good reason they should not be on a car. If you can get you hands on the right one they brings good prices at the auctions.
     
  6. Principessa

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    I love it! :biggrin1: :cool:
     
  7. jason_els

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    The correct term for them is, "mascot." Nothing quite so satisfying as illiterate journalists.

    It's a phase like chrome to black and back to chrome. A good mascot that fits its vehicle always looks good. They'll be back.
     
  8. earllogjam

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    I always thought auto styling trends always played follow the leader and the leader these days happen to be BMW, Toyota, and Honda - cars without hood ornaments.
     
  9. Jovial

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    Getting hit by a car without a hood ornament probably isn't too great either.
     
  10. jason_els

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    Look, even Scion, the young, hip, ricer brand, has optional mascots. See?
     
  11. prepstudinsc

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    One of my friends had a Rolls and it had the coolest retracting ornament. The article mentioned how it retracted when the doors were locked. Ostensibly, this was to reduce theft, but I thought it was a pretty nifty gimick.
     
  12. jason_els

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    A Rolls wouldn't be a Rolls without the Spirit of Ecstasy flying out in front. It's a beautiful piece of work. The Queen actually uses her own mascot. It's made of sterling silver and represents St. George slaying the dragon. She would unscrew it after a drive and drop it in her purse for safe keeping. It's quite pretty. Not sure if she still does that.

    Bugatti had a great mascot of a rearing elephant. Rene Lalique designed and created many in crystal and metals for clients who wanted their personal mascots. Here's a lovely one from a Bug Royale. Pity they can't use them on the Veyron.

    Here are some great examples of automotive mascots from past and present. Many were true works of art.
     
  13. SteveHd

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    As previously mentioned, it's a cycle coming to an end. It started -- this time -- in the early 70s so it's had a 30+ year run. I'm somewhat surprised it last so long.

    Despite what purists say, I call them "hood ornaments". I don't think the reporter erred because that's what's commonly used; even at collector car shows. I've also seen the term "stand-up crest" used, mostly by manufacturers.

    I like hood ornaments but I don't mind seeing them wane; they've been overdone and they need a rest.
     
  14. SeeDickRun

    SeeDickRun New Member

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    Hood ornaments are a problem. Talk to my friend in college who had an unfortunate
    "run-in" with one.
    We had a circle in front of the dorms, called "The Heart". (no one could walk across it. It was sacred ground, I guess)
    One nice afternoon, after a little private drinking party, he decided to straddle the front of the hood of a friend's old Buick, and have the friend drive him around The Heart.
    Yeah. Bright, I know. But the brain doesn't always function well after a case of beer. Of course, there were those less drunk, who stood around, cheering him on, encouraging this risky behavior. I was one of them. Or, wait, maybe that's wrong. That's right. I was driving the car. It was my old Buick. Right!
    Anyhow. we had to make a run to the ER. He did wind up loosing one nut in the deal, but he was still able to father children. All that happened was a little "discomfort" for a week or so.
     
  15. SteveHd

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    Dick, what model-year was that Buick?
     
  16. Phil Ayesho

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    Oh, this visual just has to be spread around the entire country....
     
  17. SpeedoGuy

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    Hood ornaments smack of elitism. Therefore, I want to see them banned.
     
  18. B_cigarbabe

    B_cigarbabe New Member

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    I happen to love my hood ornaments darling!
    C.B.:saevil:
     
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