Friday, January 17, 2014

Vintage hood ornament extravaganza

When I’m out taking all these car show pictures, there are some design elements that I almost always have to stop and shoot.  Hood ornaments seem to be one of them.  I love thinking that some designer said, “you know how we can make this look better?  Put a twenty pound, chrome-plated, flying naked woman on the end of the hood.”  That is just awesomeness right there.  And you can be sure that nothing like that is going to turn up on any new cars anytime soon.  With that in mind, I thought we’d take some time today and check out a few notable hood ornaments from the good old days.

Back in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, Pontiac produced one of the most famous ornaments ever to be bolted to a car hood.  The lighted chief was an option in those days, and his amber-colored translucent head would glow when the headlights were turned on.  I would imagine that the whole idea of an Indian head emblem would offend people today, but back then it seemed cool.  Just think about how comforting it would be to look down at the end of that chrome-stripped hood at night and see the warm glow of Chief Pontiac pointing the way.  Sure, it was a little gimmicky.  But it was good gimmicky.

I have read before that these old Buick hood ornaments were controversial because they had some sort of phallic symbolism.  I suppose you could make that argument with a lot of the examples in this story if you really wanted to, though.  I never really thought of that until I read it.  It just seems more like a comet blasting through a ring or something like that.  This hood ornament saw some slight variations over the years.  For example, it it had been on a Skylark, there would have been V-shaped wings in the ring.

Back in the 1930s, it wasn’t unusual to see an Art Deco building decorated with the image of a beautiful woman.  So why should it be any different with a high-end automobile?  Rolls Royce had been using their Spirit of Ecstasy mascot forever, and Cadillac adopted this Flying Goddess.  They used one version of this or another for many years, and it proved to be so popular that companies like J.C. Whitney continued to make knock-off versions for many decades to follow.  It has sort of a flowing, angelic quality that probably helps remind you why you bought a Cadillac instead of an Oldsmobile.

In 1934, Ford brought out this greyhound radiator mascot as an option.  Not to be confused with the bus line, this was meant to convey grace and speed.  Of course, back then, betting on the puppies was a popular past time, so most people knew what was they were trying to say.  The Flathead V8 was a couple of years old at this point, but it was infused with ten more horsepower and fitted into a sleek updated design.  This thing is really a piece of art.  Just look at how it pushes off from its back legs.

Rockets and airplanes were extremely popular hood ornament themes in the 1950s.  Everyone from Ford to Chrysler to GMC wanted to let you know they were thrusting into the future.  Oldsmobile went so far as to base their marketing efforts around it.  The engines were labeled as “Rocket”, and every car had a hood ornament that looked like it was ready to launch into space.  Chevrolet had their fair share of flying mascots as well.  This ’56 Chevy not only has a futuristic jet plane in the middle of the hood, but GM accessory rockets flank the main plane on the fender tips.

Most old Packards seem to have hood ornaments that I can’t resist taking pictures of.  This type always looked like swans to me, but really they’re cormorants, which is a species of sea bird.  They make a nice looking hood ornament, though.  Before this, Packard had their own version of a flying lady holding a wheel in her outstretched arms.  Most people called her the Goddess of Speed as well.  All of these Packard ornaments were fashionable enough that they made it to the knock-off market.

Really any hood ornament worth its salt was recreated by the aftermarket.  Who wouldn’t want to make a Rambler station wagon look like an Imperial sedan out over the hood?  There was even a robust novelty hood ornament trade.  Everything from ducks to frogs to horses were rendered in dazzling, triple-plated chrome.  You can still buy a flying lady like the one on this Pontiac, complete with light bulb, socket, and wiring diagram.  Look at her go!

There’s no way that I can write about every old hood ornament, and they’re more fun to look at than talk about anyway.  So I put together a mega slideshow of 480 pictures of various hood ornaments that I took at car shows and museums over the past couple of years.  Some of the pictures are better than others, but at least I got them, I suppose.  See the slideshow below, or click this link for a nicer version.


  1. Craig, I'm sure well before your time, before there was Crown Center, there was "signboard hill" so named because of all the billboards. the 'hill' faced northwest toward Union Station. For years, Pontiac had billboard there featuring Chief Pontiac. I always thought it was pretty cool. - Mike T.

  2. When Crown Center was built the hill went away but it was abar insde Crown Center called the Signboard Bar which had many signs familiar to you if you were from the area, lasted maybe 10 yr's.

  3. Could anybody tell me what kind of car that red one at the bottom is? I just bought the ornament for 30 and I want to resell it, but I don't know the value