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Blythe Spirit: Embracing Modern Mascots

Nick Dawes, December 15, 2023

The Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy,” with its elegant and enigmatic history, has long stood as a beacon of luxury and sophistication in the automotive world. Yet, in the realm of modern luxury automobiles, other mascots have emerged, echoing the allure and prestige of this iconic figure. Bentley’s “Flying B” and Mercedes-Benz’s “Three-pointed star” are two such emblems that continue the legacy of distinctive and meaningful mascots in the luxury car industry.

Bentley, with its “Flying B” mascot, symbolizes speed and grace. First seen on the 1919 Bentley 3 Litre, this emblem captures the essence of Bentley’s luxury and performance. The “Flying B” reflects a heritage of triumph and elegance, much like the “Spirit of Ecstasy,” linking Bentley’s victorious racing history in the 1920s, including their famed wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to their current status as a symbol of automotive luxury.

The “Three-pointed star” of Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, symbolizes Daimler’s ambition for universal motorization – on land, water, and air. This emblem, steeped in history, parallels the “Spirit of Ecstasy” in its recognition and prestige. The story of the “Silver Arrows,” Mercedes-Benz’s stripped-back race cars of the 1930s, further adds to the emblem’s allure. These cars, racing to victory with the three-pointed star, mirrored the innovative spirit of Rolls-Royce in their era.

Spirit of Ecstasy, also known as ‘The Flying Lady’ or ‘Eleanor’, looks as good today as she did over a century ago, and may be one of the best known and admired works in the history of British sculpture.  Her life story is both elegant and enigmatic.

Charles Stewart Rolls, a figure who could have could have stepped out of an episode of Downton Abbey’ he embodied the spirit of British nobility and daring. His partnership with Henry Royce, a self-made engineer who rose from humble beginnings, marked the birth of Rolls-Royce Motors in 1906. Rolls, a pioneer in speed and aviation, and Royce, a visionary in engineering, together created a brand that would become synonymous with luxury and excellence.

The combination of superior wealth, connections, business vision, driving and engineering talent formed Rolls-Royce Motors two years later.  Charles Rolls led the way.  He personified the intrepid Englishman, held a land speed record by 1903 and was in first place or a pioneer in many aspects of the early age of speed, including the first pilot to make a non-stop double crossing of the English Channel by plane in 1910, and, later that year, the first Briton to perish in an aeronautical accident.

The partners charged into the automobile industry as their ancestors had charged into foreign battles, with only a slightly better chance of survival.  Their first creations, the ‘Silver Ghost’ and ‘Phantom,’ set a new standard for automotive luxury, combining elegant design with unparalleled engineering. These early vehicles were rare marvels, and their mascots—sculptural and symbolic—added a touch of personalization and prestige.

In contrast to the American hood ornament which emerged later as a sleek chrome emblem, the British motoring mascot, or bonnet ornament, was a more sculptural and prominent feature. Rolls-Royce’s decision to continue showcasing an external radiator grill, adorned with the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy,’ was as much a branding decision as it was an engineering one. Today, this iconic grill and its accompanying mascot inspire numerous commemorative items, reflecting the brand’s enduring legacy.

Cars were rare in 1908, and mascots even rarer.  Known in France as ‘bouchons de radiateur’ (radiator stoppers), early examples were sculptural, often modelled as gods and allegorical characters of the ancient world, or animals, typically those evoking speed and grace.  Exposed radiators fronting most early automobiles were commonly fitted with a pressure gauge or simple brass screw cap designed for secure fit and easy release, and adornment was a natural choice for the owner, continuing a tradition seen in maritime figureheads and Roman chariots before them.  

The true mascot is comparable to a gentleman’s tie…….it is the only part of the whole assembly with no practical function, worn prominently up front, represents the taste of the owner and can be changed with relative ease to suit an occasion.  Like ties, some mascots are pre-branded to announce a particular affiliation, and none is as ubiquitously recognized as Spirit of Ecstasy.  Her story is uniquely linked with Rolls-Royce, but she began as a flight of fancy for another member of British nobility, and patron of the fledgling partnership.  

John Walker Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu (1866-1929) was as grand as his name.  Conservative politician, member of the House of Lords, graduate of Eton and Oxford and Brigadier General during WWI providing aeronautical engineering advice to the Royal Flying Corps.  Like Charles Rolls, Lord Montagu was a pioneer, holding several trophies including the first to drive an automobile (a Daimler) into the House of Commons.  His first love was motoring, which he pursued daily by editing and publishing ‘The Car Illustrated: A Journal of Travel by Land, Sea and Air’, from 1902.  Car Illustrated steered a rapidly expanding community of British and International enthusiasts along the open road into the ‘Golden Age of Motoring’ and wider ‘Age of Speed’ in the inter-war years, with Spirit of Ecstasy setting the course and standard of elegance.  

Based on period images Montagu’s taste in clothing was impeccable, so it is not surprising his choice of motoring mascot was too.  By 1909 Montagu’s Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost bonnet sported a tiny sprite, wrapped in a billowing shawl and posed on the radiator cap on one leg, leaning boldly into the oncoming future and provocatively holding a finger to her lips in a gesture of secrecy.  This rare model was known within a small circle at the time as ‘The Whisper’.  For the design Montagu turned to his friend, contemporary and confidante Charles Robinson Sykes (1875-1950), the British graphic designer, illustrator and sculptor. ‘The Whisper’ has become a figure of legend.  Motoring lore tells us Montagu’s secretary, muse and secret lover Eleanor Velasco Thornton was the robed figure allegorical of confidentiality, though her prominent position on the bonnet was far from discreet.  Eleanor, a working-class London girl, joined Car Illustrated in 1902 and became Montagu’s lover soon afterwards, bearing a daughter for him three years later at age twenty-five.  

In 1911 Eleanor modelled again for Charles Sykes, shedding her discretion and embracing all that Rolls-Royce had become and continues to evoke.  Spirit of Ecstasy was an early corporate icon which rapidly supplanted the original ‘interlaced R’ badge still found on all ‘Rollers’ in brand recognition.  She was born in response to the popular pre-WWI trend of placing random ‘bonnet ornaments’ on British automobiles, some of which were considered inappropriate by Rolls-Royce (including ‘comical’ figures and…….figures representing secret lovers perhaps).  The marketing genius behind this masterstroke of luxury branding was company Managing Director Claude Goodman Johnson, who was integral to Rolls-Royce success since the founding, and played a critical role after the premature death of Charles Rolls in 1910.  He aptly described himself as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce.  

Today’s collectors, known affectionately as ‘mascoteers’ consider a collection incomplete without at least one ‘Spirit’, and some collect only versions of the model, or other works by Sykes (including ‘The Whisper’ and the Bentley ‘Flying B’, which Sykes designed a version of for Rolls-Royce’s great rival in the 1930’s.  Unlike ‘Sprit’, ‘Flying B’ has seen many modifications over a century, which Claude Johnson would certainly have never allowed.  In the Art Deco era  Sykes was commissioned again by Rolls-Royce to modify ‘Spirit’ for sleeker sports saloons, and to allow the driver a clearer forward vision.  The result was ‘Kneeling Lady’, introduced in 1934.  She received a lukewarm reception from many owners, and was replaced by a smaller version of the original ‘Standing Lady’ after WWII.  

Purist collectors search for early examples made for use, which often survived even if their hosts went to the scrap heap.  They can be found mostly in nickel with chrome finish.  Few were made in silver to discourage theft, but gold-plated versions were an upgrade option from the 1920’s.  Silver examples exists as commemoratives, and Eleanor has been modelled in bronze, hardstone, plastic and glass, including a rarely found limited edition made by Lalique in the early 1990’s, which is among the most valuable of all examples in the modern marketplace.  

Though her spirit lives on, Eleanor died tragically at lunchtime on December 30th, 1915 together with 343 passengers and crew aboard SS Persia, the British cargo and passenger ship en route to India torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Crete.  She sank within ten minutes.  Lord Montagu was among 176 survivors, though many dignitaries and most of the crew onboard perished.  Eleanor’s sister Rose handled the estate, and London probate records from 1916 include a silver Spirit of Ecstasy statuette among her personal effects.    

The journey from the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ to the modern mascots of Bentley and Mercedes-Benz illustrates the enduring appeal of luxury car emblems. These mascots are more than mere adornments; they are storytellers, each narrating a unique tale of heritage, luxury, and visionary engineering. As collectors and enthusiasts continue to cherish these symbols, the legacy of luxury car mascots remains a testament to the timeless allure of automotive art and design.

In the world of luxury automobiles, the past and present intertwine, with each era contributing to a rich tapestry of design and innovation. The ‘Spirit of Ecstasy,’ the ‘Flying B,’ and the ‘Three-pointed star’ stand as enduring icons, each reflecting the spirit of their age while pointing towards a future of continued elegance and advancement in the realm of luxury motoring.

Nick Dawes

Nick Dawes

Nick is a former Sotheby’s auctioneer and Senior Vice President at Heritage Auctions New York He is the author of four standard works on decorative arts, including ‘Bespoke Mascots’, with Michael Furman, (Coachbuilt Press, 2014). Nick has been a faculty member of Parsons School of Design since 1985 and appeared as an expert appraiser on ‘Antiques Roadshow’ for PBS since the first series in 1996. He is the former Chairman & CEO of the historic non-profit Salmagundi, New York’s oldest artist’s club, founded in 1871, and passionate about soccer.

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