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The Rise and Fall of Car Hood Ornaments

car hood ornament

There was a time when car hood ornaments graced most every vehicle, but these days they’re a rare sight. What ever happened to the hood ornament and how did it become so popular in the first place?

To understand why car hood ornaments were once the standard you need to look at how cars were designed back in the early 20th century. Those cars look nothing like today’s sleek, streamlined models. In fact, if you look at old hoods you’ll notice radiator caps jutting up front and center. Those caps are now tucked away inside the engine compartment out of view, but for many years they were the first thing you saw on the front of a car.

Radiator caps aren’t particularly attractive things, so automakers started using hood ornaments to dress them up and make them pretty. It was mostly about aesthetics; miniature statues of animals, people or even smaller versions of the cars themselves were much more appealing than boring old radiator caps.

What started off as a practical way of making cars more attractive quickly turned into an accepted design element. When radiator caps moved under the hood, hood ornaments remained until the last few decades.

Some of the more recognizable car hood ornaments include the Jaguar Leaper, Bugatti Dancing Elephant, Bentley Flying B and Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy. Although the luxury brands had some of the most dramatic hood ornaments, even more affordable brands once had a little something extra out on the hood.

car hood ornaments

Buicks have sported female figures, trains, planes, gunsights and fighter jets over the years. Chevrolets once had eagles and even an eagle/train mashup. Plymouths had sailboats. Pontiacs, which were named after Ottawa Chief Pontiac, had a Native American bust. There was no shortage of creativity during the heyday of car hood ornaments.

Today it’s rare to see a car with a decorated hood. In place of hood ornaments there are smooth lines with nothing more than a few utilitarian vents to cool high-powered engines. Look carefully at the grille, however, and you will see references to hood ornaments of years past.

Mercedes-Benz now has its three-pointed star prominently displayed on the grille. It’s even subtly backlit at night so no one can miss the fact that you’re driving a Benz. Lincoln has likewise moved its four-pointed star to the grille. The Cadillac Crest has seen a similar fate.

So what lead to the downfall of the iconic hood ornament?

It was a combination of factors that spelled the end of the car hood ornament. Tastes changed and cars with chrome accents and huge tailfins fell out of favor. There were also fears about how much they affected fuel economy. A smooth hood reduces drag, so goodbye hood ornaments.

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Those who remember the ’80s will also remember how popular hood ornaments were as a fashion statement. Rappers wore them like giant charms at the end of gold chains. The masses often followed suit by stealing them right off the hoods of cars.

Perhaps the biggest factor in the downfall of hood ornaments was safety. Europe led the charge with new pedestrian safety regulations. The idea was to keep that fancy bit of metal from seriously injuring a person during a collision. It might be the least of your worries if you’re hit by a car, but it was a start.

Slowly but surely, ornaments disappeared from hoods around the world, replaced with mere shadows of their former selves as stylized logos on car grilles instead.

If you’re shopping for a luxury car, you might still be able to find a hood ornament. The iconic double-M on the Mercedes-Maybach hasn’t gone anywhere. Rolls-Royce is also keeping its Spirit of Ecstasy with a creative workaround to meet safety standards. The winged lady retracts into the hood when a collision is detected and hides away when the doors are locked as a theft-prevention measure.

Car hood ornaments, once an essential design element on every car that rolled off the line, are not long for this world. Your best chance of seeing a car hood ornament today is heading to your local car show and perusing vintage models.

Do you miss the days when there were little pieces of art adorning the front of every car? Tell us your favorite car hood ornament in the comments.

Learn more about how the car has evolved over time.

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30 Thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Car Hood Ornaments

  1. One of the big deals with hood ornaments was how deadly they were in automobile vs pedestrian accidents. Back in the 1960s and 70s when automobile safety was being completely redesigned the carnage on our roads was indescribable. The safety redesigns resulted in much stronger passenger compartments with steel guard rails along the side so they wouldn’t crumble and kill the occupants, and seatbelts, and in the removal of hood ornaments. Hood ornaments were like a spearpoint sticking out from the front of the car. Even in a minor automobile versus pedestrian accident, the hood ornament could act like a spear point and kill the pedestrian. The automobile manufacturers did not want to get rid of the hood ornament and resisted their elimination. For a brief period of time, I think in the 70s, this gave way to the redesigned “break away” hood ornament. The breakaway hood ornament reduced fatalities but had one big drawback. Any kid walking down the street could grab onto your hood ornament snap it off your car and run away. Mercedes hood ornaments simply couldn’t last, everybody was snapping them off Mercedes, parked or otherwise, as souvenirs. This eventually gave way to the hood ornaments of today, lying flat on the hood more like a sign or emblem.

  2. As beautiful as they were, there was also a major safety concern regarding them and automobile accidents/impacts(coming loose & flying thru windshields- injuring hit pedestrians) as they were made of heavy cast steel or metal. The best and safest modern options have been just what most automakers have been doing the past several decades: mounting molded, “bas-relief” versions of their emblems on the car’s front grills, sometimes even backlit illuminated with LED bulbs.

  3. My grandmother’s 1952 Pontiac Chieftan had a glass and chrome indian head hood ornament that lit up when the headlights were turned on.

      1. Also common is what my 1926 Packard has – a MotoMeter, which gives a reading of your engine temperature measured at the radiator cap. Looks nice, and is functional. But my overall favorite is the Flying Lady!

  4. Don’t remember the year I think around early 80s 81 82 the Ford Granada had a hood ornament then both went out of production

  5. My father taught me to drive on NJ country roads in the 1960s. He told me to line the hood ornament up with the side of the road to stay centered. I still miss having that little guide sometimes. ☺

  6. Not many people know that hood ornaments and hub caps are the inspiration for the architecture of the Chrysler Building in New York City.

    1. True! I learned that watching a show called “American Built” on FBN. They showed closeups of the design elements that most don’t see because they are so high up. It’s the most beautiful building in NYC, imho.

    2. Yep- the Art Deco aluminum eagle gargoyles on the Chrysler Building have been a design inspiration from their creation to the ’40s & early ’50’s.

  7. Jet airplane hood ornament on our ’54 Ford was really useful as a hand hold when opening/closing the hood.

  8. I liked the elegance’s, and comfort of the 50’,60’ and early 70’ that art lacking today. The seats were so comfortable, which lacks today’s cars. The hood ornament was also classy as were the crome on the cars.

  9. I was in driver’s ed (as well called it) in the early 80s and we were driving Buick Regal sedans, which were not small cars but they were the first of the downsized cars. They were easily driven and their dimensions were tidy.

    I was to take my driving license test in my parents’ Riviera. I remember sitting in the driver’s seat and looking out, wayyy out, and seeing the hood ornament. While that was daunting, the tail of the car fell away in a dramatic slope. While beautiful, you couldn’t see a bit of it from inside the car. It was as if the car ended at the back window behind the seats. The hood ornament at least gave me a reference point.

    I failed parallel parking. Twice.

  10. Remember fathers 39 Pontiac that his parents stored until he came home from WW2.The Indian head on the black finish was always shining…the back doors opened to rear.Next was a 47 Hudson convertible hood ornament on face of hood, hood opened forward.Last was a 56Chevy Belair with the double winged bird….car he taught me to driven.Even as a small kid the hood ornaments were always polished with the chrome polish and looked great.

  11. Yes, I had a “Boyce Motometer” radiator cap on my 1931 Model A Ford. It showed the radiator temperature and had a window in it so you could see the reading while driving at night. Ingenious !!

  12. Yes, the first ornaments were thermometers to see the state of the coolent. I had a number of cars with ornaments. I mostly remember a Ram on my first Dodge. Later I removed them to “nose” and “deck” the hood and trunk. I gave a smoother, sleeker look to the car.

  13. Before reading this article I always have trouble parking my car straight. just the other I thought I wish I had a hood ornament to follow the center of the hood.

  14. Wasn’t one of the original ornaments a thermometer built into the exposed radiator cap so drivers had a visual indication/warning of an engine about to overheat?

    1. Yes, I had a “Boyce Motometer” radiator cap on my 1931 Model A Ford. It showed the radiator temperature and had a window in it so you could see the reading while driving at night. Ingenious !!

  15. I had 2 Buicks in the 1990s and both ornaments were stolen few weeks after I purchased the cars. I wanted to replaced them but they were a little expensive to replace, so they went without them.

  16. As a kid, I had a small collection of hood ornaments (don’t ask where I “found” them!). I remember the Cadillac crest having significant weight and beautiful craftsmanship. It was impressive!

    1. My great uncle, was earmarked to be the first authorized Tucker dealership. Not only do I havea Tucker hood ornament, but all the licensee contracts and a personal letter from Preston Tucker. DEFINITELY NOT FOR SALE.

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