|My long love affair with automobile mascot collecting began in a junk pile on a ranch in Idaho, near the Canadian border. Intrigued by an old model 'A' Ford pickup truck, I climbed in to the driver's seat only to discover that sitting next to me was my very first mascot. The truck was beyond repair, but the mascot was in good condition and has become priceless to me. |
Since then I have discovered many rare mascots and my collection has grown to over 950 pieces. Although my first mascot was a factory mascot (designed especially for one make of car), most of my collection are accessory - or after market - mascots. These appealed to motorists who liked expressing their individuality with delightfully unique mascots that ran the gamut from magnificent works of art to the absurd and even the macabre. It is no wonder I chose to specialize in these attractive, charming and sometimes amusing ornaments.
That was why I wrote my book, to share these lesser known and almost forgotten mascots with the world. Unfortunately, we cannot always be sure of our information. Very little was written on accessory mascots. Many American mascots bore no artist's name or trade mark, marking it impossible for us today to attribute them to any particular artist or manufacturer. Most information comes from early motor magazines, display ads, catalogues and other automotive articles.
In the early days, as in modern times, small auto accessory manufacturing companies would start up and maybe last only a year or two before going out of business. This is why many of the after market mascots are so rare. Very often they were made in a limited quantity, with only a few surviving today.
There were large differences between the quality and workmanship of the European and American mascots. European mascots were mostly bronzes and were usually bought in jewellery stores or automotive specialty houses. Most of the fine mascots were produced in France and England in the 1920's and early 30's. Some of the early mascots were silver or gold plated, but the majority were nickel plated, and, later on, chrome.
American mascots were mainly made from pewter or cheap pot metal which made it much easier to mass produce the ornaments. American mascots were known, not so much by the individual artist, but by the manufacturing company.
Many motorists found it more appealing to change the factory mascot to something more unique. This became a way in which to make a personalized statement on the hood of their car. Early innovative motorists used such creations as stuffed teddies, club badges and even bronzed baby shoes. A collector friend of mine in Brussels was given a mascot by an elderly lady who had her granddaughter's baby shoe mounted to the radiator cap of her 1918 Peugeot!
In modern times, when a boy takes his girl out, he might buy her a new tune for his automobile tape player. In the early days, if you were taking your favourite girl to an athletic event, such as ice skating or swimming, you might stop by the local filling station and buy a new 19 cent ice skater or swimmer for your fliver's radiator cap. This would be sure to knock her socks off!
If they didn't have the 19 cents, motorists could simply "borrow" a figure - an eagle from the top of a flagpole, say, or a pirate off a set of bookends. Maybe an airplane off an ashtray caught their eye, or perhaps a sailing ship paperweight was more their style. A jolly chap from England went so far as to use the stainless steel joint removed from his own hip as a mascot for his Rolls Royce. On its base he had engraved "A loyal supporter"!
If one was either very rich, very famous or both, a personalized mascot by which to be recognized was in order. Earl Mountbatten had a signalman making a call-up sign, Jackie Coogan had a brass and ivory model of himself as "The Kid", Rudolph Valentino chose a coiled cobra, and "Sacha Gitry", the French theatrical personality had a one-of-a-kind opera mask attached to his personal car.
Fraternal organisations soon joined the fad and used elaborate designs like shrine ornaments.
Mobile ornaments such as birds that flapped their wings, and novelty mascots like the 1930 Billiken with its red Bakelite flapping tongue became popular.
World War I gave a shot in the arm to the mascot industry. Patriotic themes, such as flags, eagles, guns, tanks and Uncle Sams became popular. Many stated the popular feeling at the time of, "America First".
When the motometer came along to monitor the water temperature, the meter bases became highly decorated and mini-ornaments were added to the top of the meters. In the mid-1920's, during the Art Nouveau period, beautiful crystal glass ornaments designed by the French artist, Rene Lalique (1860-1945) appeared, but by 1940, mascots fell victim to the streamlining in auto design. Shortly after the radiator became totally enclosed by the "bonnet" (hood), mascots all but disappeared.
Happily for collectors, mascots haven't disappeared altogether, although they are becoming harder to find. Automobile swap meets and flea markets used to be the fertile happy hunting grounds of mascot collectors, but over the last few years things have started to change. Now the serious collector must travel to Carlisle or Hershey, Pennsylvania or to the Beaulieu Autojumble in England to find anything rare or special. I thought I knew or, at least knew of, most of the mascot collectors, but there must be many more "closet collectors" around. Everything of any quality is being bought up very quickly. Of the few mascots that can still be found, most have gotten extremely expensive. As Bill Williams, author of "Motoring Mascots of the World", recalls "when I started collecting mascots in 1962, they averaged $3.00 or $4.00". Now some of the rarer European bronzes bring $2,500 to $3,000 and Laliques' much more.
A good tip for collectors is: Always buy pieces in good condition. Is it worth the extra money? New York's collector extraordinaire, Bob Lessor, has a sound philosophy. "Don't be afraid to pay too much... go after the best, mint-in-the-box if you can... you're fighting time and there may never be a second chance... time is more important than money".
Many people often ask me which is my favourite mascot. I had so many favourites that the question became very difficult to answer. Finally I realized that my most favoured mascot at that moment was the last one I had acquired. These "treasures of the past" have become so difficult to find that each discovery becomes a special event.
But, it is not only the discovery of a one-of-a-kind mascot that makes it all worthwhile. It is also the special friendships which have developed over the years with such wonderful people in both the United States and Europe that have made it especially fulfilling.
About the author:
Dan Smith was raised in East St Louis, Illinois. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean conflict, he returned to become the proprietor of a large bowling centre. In 1966 he moved to San Diego with his wife Melba and their children. Now the successful owner/operator of the "Love's Barbecue" restaurant chain in the San Diego area.
Dan is also the proud owner of what is probably the USA's largest accessory mascot collection. Begun in 1978, after finding his first mascot on a Northern Idaho ranch, Dan's collection now consists of over 950 beautiful and rare hood ornaments. Dan specializes in accessory mascots because of their originality and sometimes frivolous designs, brought about by the desires of early motorists to personalize their cars. An authority in the field of accessory mascots, Dan has succeeded in assembling an extensive library of historical and research information on the subject.
When Dan is not at home polishing the mascots on this three Model 'A' Fords, he and his wife Melba are touring the United States and Europe in search of new treasures.