There is no question that the best place to see an old car mascot is atop the radiator of a veteran, vintage or classic car. However, it also true that most of the cars that were ever produced have since long gone to the wreckers or have suffered similar fate. Luckily, a significant number of their mascots have survived. These were no doubt saved from destruction as sentimental reminders of a long lost automobile. These saved "works of art" are now popular with collectors.
The concept of a mascot goes back a long way in man's history. Romans hung good luck charms on their war chariots and sailing ships had figureheads on the bow so that the ship could see its way through tempestuous seas. Ploughmen hung horse-brasses on their Clydesdales to ensure that the crop would be bountiful. So it is not surprising that early automobiles were graced by a wide range of luck-bringing, satirical, speed-evoking or personalising figures.
Mascots can be classified into various categories, notably as accessory, manufacturers or advertising.
It is believed that one of the first car mascots made was the figure of St Christopher made for John, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu's car. This mascot adorned his 1899 Daimler when it was the first car to enter the precincts of the House of Commons in London. Most early mascots were of the accessory type. Often in the form of good-luck horseshoes and chimney sweeps, naked speed nymphs, different animals and also various satirical types. Gruesome elves and devils thumbing their noses being among the most popular. Also popular were whimsical policemen in various forms. The early motorist was greatly harassed by both the non-motoring public and the police - who were hostile to the horseless carriage. No doubt these provocative mascots didn't help the situation, but they must have been fun!
Flying birds or speed nymphs were often used to portray speed and lions and eagles depicted strength. Dogs, the faithful friends, were also popular subjects for the mascot designer.
There are literally thousands of accessory mascots dating from the turn of the century through to recent times and the books by Bill Williams and Michel Legrand are good sources for information.
Many of the early mascots were superbly crafted in brass or bronze. Some were silver or nickel plated to suit the detail of the car. Some of these mascots were marked with the makers name such as Finnigans or A & E Lejeune (AEL) or in the case of many fine European mascots, they were signed by the artist who designed them such as Souest or Bazin.
Later came the die-cast mascots made from zinc and magnesium alloys with nickel or chrome plating. Many US car manufacturers used this method as well as a few accessory mascot makers. However the majority of accessory mascots are made from the more durable metals and because of this and their artistic merit they are popular with collectors.
Some of the most beautiful accessory mascots were those made from glass. They were probably about as practical as a rubber spanner and must have been prone to damage. However, many examples have survived if you can afford to buy them. The most famous maker was Lalique. Early mascots were marked R Lalique and those made after 1945 are marked Lalique Paris. Glass mascots were also made by H G Ascher Ltd, who made the Red Ashay brand, and Sabino Paris who perfected a style of opalised glass mascots. Some of the glass mascots could be mounted on the car upon illuminated bases such as those made by Breves Galleries for Lalique mascots. In some cases the colour of the light could be changed in a sequence.
In the 1920's Wilmot developed their Calometer, or a "mascot with a mission". These were capable of measuring the temperature of the water in the radiator and warn the driver of overheating. Morris cars extensively used these. In the USA, similar Motometers were produced, the most often seen being made by Boyce. Motometers could be obtained that were branded for a wide range of different car marques.
It is believed that Vulcan was the first vehicle manufacturing company to make a mascot for their cars and trucks. This was in 1903, and the mascot was a blacksmith with anvil. In 1910 Rolls-Royce commissioned an official mascot for their vehicles. Designed by Charles Sykes in 1911, the mascot was the now well-known Spirit of Ecstasy. This initiative by Rolls-Royce directors was driven by the desire to avoid their cars being adorned by many of the "undesirable mascots of that period". The mascot was produced in many sizes, the largest being for the early Ghosts and Phantoms, smaller ones for the later 20hp models and continuing up to the present time. The more recent mascots having to be sprung loaded to comply with the safety regulations that started the demise of mascots on many other marques.
Many car manufacturers offered figural mascots during the 20's and 30's. They had come to realise the benefits that mascots gave for the instant recognition of otherwise similar looking cars. This aided sales potential.
Peugeot, Bean and Argyll had lions, Galloway, Arroll Johnston and Albion had thistles. Star (UK) and Swift, not surprisingly, used a star and a swift respectively. Rover had a splendid Viking (Sea Rover) figure. Standard had an aluminium mascot in the form of the standard of the Roman 6th Legion that conquered Britain. Other aluminium mascots were the Trojan head used by Trojan cars and the sphinx used by Armstrong Siddeley. Most English mascots were, however, made from brass or bronze and were designed to be fitted to a normal metal or Bakelite radiator cap. Mascots often carried the maker's name, Joseph Fray, Elkington and Fattorini being well known makers of quality mascots in the UK. Citroen commissioned a glass mascot by Lalique for their Cinque Chevaux model in 1925. This had five horses in bas-relief.
In the USA many of the mascots formed an integral part of the radiator cap, some of these were die-cast in great detail. Willys and de Soto had knight's heads, Pontiac had an Indian chief's head with the face finished in copper colouring. Buick had a goddesses head and Franklin had a rearing lion. Chevrolet had a wide range, including a griffin, Vikings head, flying eagle and several birds.
These include the mascots made for official company vehicles and also those made as commercial giveaways or awards.
Some of the leading petrol and gas companies had special mascots for their tankers and company cars. Mobiloil had gargoyle and Pegasus mascots, Shell had a clamshell and Esso used the oil drop man.
Michelin produced a range of mascots in the form of Mr Bidendum, the most often seen is the standing "boxer". Mr Bidendum was created in 1898 and the first mascots appeared around 1918. Most of these are of hollow pewter construction and thickly plated in copper or nickel, some are marked as being Made in France.
The vehicles of Harrods Ltd, in London, were fitted with mascots of the Royal Coat of Arms around 1910 showing that they were "By Appointment to the King". Foden's had a similar badge fitted to the chimneystacks of their steam vehicles.
Many other types of corporate mascot exist.
The mascot collector must always be on guard for reproductions and many exist. Two of the most commonly reproduced mascots are the Michelin man and Old Bill. The modern Michelin reproductions are usually solid and much heavier than the originals. Old Bill was the head of a First World War "Tommy" with tin helmet and huge moustache and was based on a cartoon character devised by Bruce Bairnsfather. These were made in bronze or chrome finish including a special batch (marked S behind the scarf) made for the car-parts company, Smiths. The mascot was very popular and continued popularity has encouraged continuous reproduction.
Whereas mascot collectors generally prefer original items there is still a place for reproductions. In particular, a car restorer might consider the wisdom of re-plating a beautiful original mascot when completing a restoration. The metal's patina that has developed over a lifetime is a thing of value and it can never return once the mascot is re-plated. Maybe it is better to put a reproduction mascot on a restored car, keeping the original in the china cabinet? Some excellent reproductions exist for many of the well-known models.
Occasionally mascots of 1920's American cars turn up in Australia that are made of brass instead of being die-cast. However, they show all the signs of age consistent with being over 80 years old. I suspect that these mascots were made in Australia to avoid the cost of importing the manufacturers mascots from the USA. Although they must really be classed as reproductions they are still very collectable. I have seen 1928 Essex, 1928/29 Buick and 1927/29 Studebaker mascots made this way.
What to collect:
There is ample opportunity to collect to a theme. You often find collectors that will only collect manufacturers mascots, others that only collect animal mascots and so on. There are abundant varieties of goddesses etc. to form an impressive collection. But my wife always says indignantly "not another naked lady" when I find another to add to my collection!
For those with bottomless pockets a collection of Lalique mascots would form an imposing and impressive display, perhaps having a total cost exceeding ten thousand dollars!
Like everything associated with the old car hobby, the supply of good mascots is drying up and the prices are going up. Good quality mascots now command prices up into the thousands. The more common 1920's types can, with luck, still be found at swap meets for as little as $100, a little more for those in very good condition.
The mascots from 40's and 50's cars, once shunned by mascot collectors, are now the subject of collector interest.
As with most collectables you can't go wrong if you buy items that you like the look of and those in very good condition.
Mascots can be mounted on old radiator caps or on polished wooden bases for display on shelves or in a cabinet. Perhaps a more impressive display, for those with plenty of space, might be to mount mascots onto original and relevant old car radiators.