The History and Evolution of Hood Ornaments

Close-up shot of the Jaguar hood ornament, the Jaguar Leaper.

The Spirit of Ecstasy is one of the most recognizable hood ornaments to date. In fact, it’s one of the only hood ornaments that we still recognize today. Have you ever wondered why hood ornaments have all but disappeared from today’s cars? 

We decided to find the answer.

To understand why hood ornaments are now a symbol of status and wealth, it’s important to understand the function that hood ornaments first had

Why did hood ornaments exist?

Hood ornaments can largely be found on cars between the 1920s and 1950s. This is because of how cars were designed during that time period – these cars had prominent radiator caps jutting up on the front of the hood. 

Radiator caps are an essential part of the car – regulating the maximum pressure and preventing damage to the hose and radiator. As such, automakers couldn’t just do away with them. However, they attracted a lot of attention to the car in a way that wasn’t appealing. 

To make up for the less than desirable aesthetic of the cap, automakers disguised them with what they called “car mascots”, which were meant to be attractive hood accessories.

Hood ornaments became a way for automakers to play around with design. Hood ornaments had no functional purpose, so automakers were allowed to think less about practicality and more about aesthetics when creating them.

The evolution of hood ornaments

Luxury brands undoubtedly had some of the most dramatic hood ornaments – such as the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy and the Jaguar Leaper, aka Jumping Jaguar. 

But even more affordable brands put effort towards creating hood ornaments – Plymouths had sailboats and in 1956 Buicks sported a fighter jet.

Today, hood ornaments have all but disappeared from cars, seemingly reserved for only a select few luxury brands.

Why the change?

It was a combination of modern design changes and safety. 

As car designs changed, the top of the radiator was enclosed under the hood, making prominent radiator caps impractical. With the main purpose of hood ornaments being to cover up those radiator caps, they were no longer needed.

For automakers whose brands weren’t strongly associated with their hood ornaments, it was an easy division to stop producing them. Additionally, as automakers began to focus on making vehicles faster and more fuel efficient, many of them saw hood ornaments as an obstacle. (Because hood ornaments reduced the aerodynamic profile of the car!)

Hood ornaments also posed a potential safety risk to pedestrians. In cases where someone crashed into a pedestrian, those pedestrians were at risk of getting hurt – if not outright stabbed – by the ornament.

This actually led to a requirement (in the United States) for hood ornaments to bend when force was applied to them. 

Additionally, with luxury brands being the main ones to still produce hood ornaments, they became status symbols that people tried to steal. 

All of these factors played a role in the near disappearance of hood ornaments. 

Today, you’ll mostly find them prominently displayed on luxury cars – where they’re now retractable or detachable, to help prevent theft. 

However, there are remnants of the rich history of hood ornaments that can still be found on cars today. If you look at the grille of several cars, a nod to their previous hood ornament can be spotted. 

Though Mercedes-Benz no longer sports hood ornaments on their cars, they do have its three-pointed star prominently displayed on their grille. Lincoln has done the same with its four-pointed star.

Hope isn’t lost, however, if you want to see hood ornaments from the past. We have a large collection of cars with hood ornaments still intact in our museum! Check out everything from the iconic Spirit of Ecstasy on our Rolls-Royce’s to the rare Diana on our ‘28 Diana 675 Brougham. 

  1. “MotorCities – Looking at the Great History of Hood Ornaments | 2016 | Story of the Week.” n.d.
  2. Wakelin, Nicole. 2023. “The Rise and Fall of Car Hood Ornaments.” Your AAA Network. August 31, 2023.
  3. ATC. 2019. “A Look at the Evolution of Hood Ornaments for Students in Auto Body Schools.” Auto Mechanic Training School | Automotive Training Centre. July 26, 2019.
  4. Whitney, J. C. 2024. “How Hood Ornaments Became Antiques – Car History & Legends Articles – JC Whitney.” March 31, 2024.