After being acquired by BMW in 1998, the British auto makers, Rolls Royce, have soared in the world of luxury, class, and glamour. Built on elegance, these magnificent cars are designed purely for comfort and style for celebrities, business executives, car enthusiasts, and other A-listers. What makes these cars so spectacular is the amount of over the top, unnecessary amenities included. Aside from large comfy seats, tons of extra leg room, and sleek, minimal interiors, these cars can also include umbrellas discreetly stowed into the doors, Rolls Royce engraved crystal tumblers, wine coolers, and some will even roll out the red carpet for a Hollywood entry every time you get into your car. Rolls Royce is known for being luxurious, over the top, and the finest way to street travel.
There is one key feature, however, that each Rolls Royce auto shares with one another and that is The Spirit of Ecstasy. The Spirit of Ecstasy is the iconic hood ornament located on the nose of the Rolls Royce. It features a woman leaning forward with long drapes from her dress flying behind her representing wings. This stunning little sculpture comes with an interesting and unique history that makes these hood ornaments valued at up to $200,000 – sometimes even more than the Rolls Royce itself! Due to its hot commodity and steep resale price, these hood ornaments were often stolen off the cars for profit. However, since 2003 you may notice that the ornaments now have the ability to retract into the hood to be kept safe and secure from theft (1). First designed in 1909 the old rolls Royce hood ornaments have a unique story that have made them an extravagant art piece.
In the early 1900’s when Rolls Royce had first stepped on the scene as the hottest new luxury car, they did not feature any radiator mascot, or hood ornament. Instead, they wore the simple Rolls Royce emblem on the front of the nose. It wasn’t until British politician, Baron John Montagu, commissioned his personal friend and sculptor artist, Charles Robinson Sykes, that the Rolls Royce ornament was born. Charles Robinson Sykes took on the challenge to create a personal mascot from the hood of Montagu’s car in 1909 and chose Eleanor Velasco Thornton, an English actress, to be his model for the sculpture (2).
When Sykes had originally completed the request, the figurine featured a standing woman in fluttering robes and one forefinger held up pressed against her lips to symbolize the secret love affair between Thornton and Montagu. Consequently, the sculpture was named The Whisper and did feature on the hood of Montagu’s Rolls Royce for a period of time. It is said that three castings of The Whisper were ever and only two are believed to have survived throughout the years. Today, one of those figurines are on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu along with other iconic Spirit of Ecstasy ornaments.
The Spirit of Ecstasy
In 1910, hood ornaments were becoming the fashion of the day and every car manufacturer wanted in. At the time, Claude Johnson, the managing director of Rolls Royce Motor Cars, decided to create a dignified and graceful mascot to adorn all future Rolls Royce cars and become a symbol of class and elegance, so he turned to Sykes. Johnson instructed Sykes to create a symbolic masterpiece that fully encompassed the Rolls Royce name – silent speed, mysterious harnessing of a greater energy, and a beautiful living organism of the utmost grace and glamour. Johnson asked that Sykes to evoke the spirit of Nike, a Greek goddess who personified victory, for inspiration. But Sykes was less than thrilled at the instructions. He felt the sculpture could encompass a more feminine energy and called on Miss Thornton again to help with the sculpture. He chose to modify The Whisper into The Spirit of Ecstasy after describing the new sculpture as being graceful little goddess with a spirit of ecstasy.
In 1911, Sykes presented the final model of The Spirit of Ecstasy to Rolls Royce Motors. It was obvious The Spirit of Ecstasy was an upgraded version of The Whisper. After all, he had used the same model for inspiration when commissioned a second time. Sykes signature appeared on the plinth and was signed with his name and date (Charles Sykes, 1911). Each Spirit of Ecstasy received this inscription until 1951.
Alterations to The Spirit of Ecstasy
Once presented in 1911, Rolls Royce listed it as an official option to add on the hood ornament, although they were fitted to almost every car after that year. It wasn’t until the 1920’s when The Spirit of Ecstasy became the standard fitting and from 1911 to 1914 was made with nickel or chrome and was finished with silver plating to discourage theft. Gold plated version soon became available at an additional cost in the 20’s and underwent a few alterations during that time as well.
As Rolls Royce continued to advance their models and design new cutting edge luxury automotive, the hood and height of coachwork developed and changed. Because of this, Rolls Royce was forced to make alterations to the overall size of The Spirit of Ecstasy with some minor changes to the size and shape of her drapes as well. In fact, from 1934-1939 and again from 1946-1956 The Spirit of Ecstasy featured the women kneeling, still with arms stretch out behind her and drapes flying behind her symbolizing wings. This was to provide drivers with a clearer view of the road, but was discontinued after the Silver Wraith, Phantom IV, and Silver Dawn models sported a smaller version of the original Spirit of Ecstasy and remains to date.
The Spirt of Ecstasy has and will always remain one of the most prized features of any Rolls Royce luxury automobile. With its unique history, careful design, and encompassing all things Rolls Royce, it’s no wonder these little emblems are highly sought after over any other emblem. While the little figurine has undergone a few alterations throughout her lifetime, we can expect to see little to no changes moving forward. It is the goal and privilege of Rolls Royce to preserve their rich history and propel it into the future through this little symbol as she continues to lead the way in luxury, style, and class around the world.