Saturday, September 29, 2007

a meditation on ROCKIN' hood ornaments (and their period relationship to the rise of rock & roll)

(above and below, from
1937 Buick; note the Zeppelin relationship

(above) 1942 De Soto; one example of the popular use of the '30s human form

(above) 1949 Lincoln; one of the first uses of the jet form
(above) 1949 Lincoln, from another angle

(above) 1952 Oldsmobile, an early jet-fighter ornament
(above) 1952 Oldsmobile, different angle
(above) 1953 Kaiser
(above) 1953 Oldsmobile

(above) 1953 Pontiac; the Indian meets the Jet
(above) 1953 Pontiac; from a slightly different angle
(above) 1954 Cadillac; the '30s human form enters the jet age
(above) 1955 Chrysler; an eagle morphs into a sleek-winged jet
(above) 1955 Mercury
(above) 1955 Packard
(above) 1956 Chevrolet
(above) 1956 Oldsmobile
note end-of-wing pod tanks, just like the Shooting Star jet
(above) 1956 Pontiac DeLuxe; aka the "Flying Wing,"
much like the mid-'50s experimental aircraft
(above) 1956 Pontiac DeLuxe, from a different angle
(above) early '50s North American F86 Sabre jet fighter
(above) mid-1950s McDonnell F101 Voodoo
(above) mid-1950s Lockheed T33 Shooting Star
(above) mid 1950s Lockheed F104 Starfighter
(above) 1959 Convair F106 Delta Dart
(above) early 1950s ill-fated de Havilland Comet 1 for BOAC
the world's first commercial jet airliner; note jet engines in wings
(above and all below) from
just a small selection of evolutionary examples at that website

One of the key discussion points in ROCKIN' DOWN THE HIGHWAY is about the merger of the emergent post-war hot rod culture with rock & roll, which did not truly appear as rock & roll until the summer of 1954, when Elvis Presley entered Sun Studios in Memphis, TN to record "That's All Right."
Up to that point, it was R&B music with stylings that would define rock & roll. One of those R&B songs was "Rocket 88," sung by Jackie Brenston but not credited (as it rightly should have been) to Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. Many say, this song referencing the hot Oldsmobile of the period, had all the elements to be regarded as the first rock & roll song. Sadly, these were still very segregated times, and that recognition (other than the fact that the song went to #1 on the R&B charts in 1951) simply wasn't to be.
At the same time--the early 1950s--car design was being affected by the early jet age. As WWII came to a close, jet fighters were just being pressed into action. The Korean war truly showcased jets, beginning with the F86 Sabre and its successor, the Super Sabre, and their adversary, the MiG's. With that, car makers began to adapt their hood ornament design (and some of their styling exercises) to ape jets and rockets, as if to indicate to the consumer that the excitement, power, style, and thrust of the jet age was not going unnoticed (even though, at least prior to the Tri-5 Chevies--and notwithstanding the Rocket 88 engine--their overall car designs were still rather pedestrian and un-evolved). So the rise of the jet age hood ornament (along with the tailfins) really did parallel the rise of early rock & roll.
Much wonderful information on the subject of '30s art-deco and the new '50s modernist design (with much about automobilia and hood ornamentaion) can be found at, a website created and maintained in Munich, Germany. I highly commend their on-site essays "Decorative Arts in the Art Deco Era" and "Introduction to Streamline Design." The site's business is called Anticlopedia, and they appear to sell hood ornaments among much else. The photos of the ornaments at the top of this blog are reproduced from that site.
While the rockets and jets are of interest to me because of their period-relationship to rock & roll and the growth of hot rod culture, hood ornaments actually had their first peak of originality and brilliance in the 1930s. At you can see pages of color photos of the "Flying Ladies," from an exhibit of sensual car ornaments and mascots (including those created for Jaguar, Cadillac, Auburn, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Rolls Royce, Cord, Buick, and Packard). Also, for photo-compilations of ornaments by year and period, for 17+ American car manufacturers, you can visit And, additional excellent documentation for these and even more American makes also may be found at
is an abbreviated edit from an essay on the subject:
"Car mascots and hood ornaments saw a period of high popularity in the 1930s to the mid 1950s. The concept began with the earliest automotive temperature gauges which were mounted on external radiator caps. Before the first temperature gauges, or motometers, drivers were at the mercy of overheating engines with no warning. But the new gauges also offered manufacturers a new artifact on which to display some distinctive emblematic form or stylized logo, which could be seen by everyone, perched, as it were, prominently on the hood of the vehicle.
"Motometers began displaying wings and other features with increasing creativity. Soon there were sculpted pieces into which the motometer was attached, making the motometer itself more an addition to the ever more predominant ornamental mascot.
"Two design developments then occurred changing the appearance of hood ornamentation. The need for an exterior heat gauge was eliminated with the introduction of water temperature gauges mounted inside, in the dashboard. And exterior radiator caps also began to disappear as manufacturers opted for radiators accessed beneath the hood. These two changes suddenly left the hood ornament as completely ornamental, and with the loss of any need for functionality, the beauty of the mascot took full flight.
"By 1930 the mascot was being promulgated industry-wide, from the detailed and realistic to the completely stylized. The human form was a popular concept, both clothed and naked. The goddess was also very popular. Then came forms based on inanimate objects, including a crescent moon, a sail, a diving helmet, and a crown, among much else. The winged wheel was a motif shared by Studebaker, Austin, Pierce-Arrow, and Chevrolet, ultimately surviving as the symbol for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Animal forms were very popular as well. Lions were depicted by Peugeot and Franklin. Birds perched on Packards (the cormorant), Fords (the quail), and there were separate versions of the stork on Hispano Suiza's and Morgan's. Chevrolet and Marmon had eagles. And other Chevrolet's had gryphons while Duesenbergs sported Pegasus.
The most beautiful renditions most often include these: the Lincoln greyhound, the Pierce-Arrow archer, the Rolls Royce "Spirit of Ecstasy" (commonly known as the "Flying Lady"), and Cadillac's "Goddess of 1934."
"By the 1950s, rockets and jets were all the rage, only now they took up more acreage (or, conceptually, more take off and landing space) on the front and top of the hoods.
"Today car companies generally consider neither the hood ornament or the mascot fashionable. It's become something of a symbol of excess or perhaps even gauche ostentation. Yet, there are still stars on Mercedes cars and big cats on Jaguars. Dodge still utilizes the Ram on some of its trucks (as does Mack Trucks with its bulldog). But mostly ornamentation of this kind ended in the early 1960s."
My comment: it really is fascinating to see how the hood ornament reflected the times, and how, when rock & roll encountered its first doldrums (pre British invasion), the ornament fell off in favor (the peak of the tailfin craze came with the '59 Cadillac). Then came the great American muscle cars of the mid-to-late '60s, paralleling the rise first of guitar-driven surf music and subsequently psychedelic rock with its highly-amplified wattage and light-show effects.
For more information on the early jet fighters, I commend you to


Fodder_4_Da_Man said...

Really interesting blog entry. You collected some very nice sourcepix and provided fascinating commentary.


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