The next time you’re in the Hamptons – you DO summer in the Hamptons, don’t you? – pay close attention to the hood ornament (or as the Brits call it, the bonnet mascot) on your neighbor’s Rolls Royce. There you’ll see an Art Deco figure of a woman leaning forward with her arms outstretched, billowing cloth around her, as if taking flight.
It’s called The Spirit of Ecstasy. It was inspired by the sculpture of Nike currently in the Louvre. And it’s not just a random decoration.
You see, it was designed by English sculptor Charles Sykes at the behest of Lord John Montagu of Beaulieu, an early pioneer in the automotive industry and editor of The Car Illustrated at the turn of the century. He was having an affair with one Eleanor Thornton, his secretary. They had to be stealthy regarding their romance, though, because Miss Thornton was impoverished and from the wrong side of the social tracks for a peer. Lord Montagu grudgingly married Lady Victoria Constance for political reasons, but never stopped loving Eleanor.
The earliest Rolls Royces had no hood ornaments at all, just the ‘RR’ cypher on the radiator. But ornaments were the rage pre-WWI, and some owners were affixing ‘inappropriate’ decorations to their hoods, something that concerned the brand-conscious company. Montagu was no different, and asked his friend Sykes to sculpt his lover so that he could affix her likeness to the hood of his Rolls. Originally the figure, which Sykes called The Whisper, had her finger to her lips to represent the illicit love affair – the original artist’s model of this still exists at the National Motor Museum in the UK – but later, perhaps out of an excess of discretion, Montagu asked that the Whisper be changed to The Spirit of Ecstasy, sans whisper, known today.
Most of Montagu’s friends and associates loved the design, and given Montagu’s prominence in the early automotive world in Great Britain, he was urged to use his influence with the company to have it adopt his ornament for all of its motor cars. The company agreed – better this female form than something ‘inappropriate’ – and The Spirit of Ecstasy became ‘the’ symbol of Rolls Royce in February 1911. And though listed as an option, silver plated at first and then made from nickel or chrome later, it was present on just about every car that left the factory after 1920. In the Gilded Age with its conspicuous consumption, some of the ornaments were even sterling, 24k gold-plated, or made of Bacarrat crystal.
Today, The Spirit of Ecstasy is cast at the factory in stainless steel (options still exist for other pricier materials) and stands 3″ tall. It is mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism that will retract instantly into the radiator shell if struck from any direction – an attempt to keep from impaling any litigious pedestrians. And despite its longevity – there have been eleven different styles and sizes of the standard ornament over the past 103 years – not everyone has liked it. Some referred derisively to the mascot as “Nellie in her Nightie.” Royce, part-namesake of the company, didn’t think the emblem added much to the car, rarely driving any company vehicle that sported one. Queen Elizabeth II has a Rolls that displays St George and the Dragon on the bonnet, and not The Spirit of Ecstasy in any of its version, and others in the royal family have followed suit.
And of Eleanor and Lord Montagu? Sadly, she accompanied him to his posting to India during WWI and perished on 30 December 1915 when their ship, the SS Persia, was torpedoed by a German sub off the coast of Crete. He survived.
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