Hood ornaments capture grace in motion

Hood ornaments capture grace in motion
Ray Kihne of Winona, MInn. has an impressive collection of hood ornaments from cars built decades ago. The swan figure he is holding has an unknown origin but is one of his most artful pieces.

Is it called a hood ornament or a mascot? Actually, they are somewhat the same.

The term "mascot" appears to be favored more in Great Britain and Europe, while in the United States, "hood ornament" is used more often to specify those highly detailed, pre-World War II pieces representing living things such as people, animals or birds.

The Dodge Ram is a factory mascot. Many of the original, one-of-a-kind hood ornaments were made by fine jewelers, artists or an exceptionally skilled craftsmen and are considered more of a collectible today than the factory pieces.

Hood ornaments are especially sought after by collectors around the world. These emblems represent more than company logos, but also sculptural works of art.

"I started (collecting hood ornaments) in 1969 after buying a Jaguar 3.4 in New Mexico," says Ray Kiihne of Winona. "At Ma Unzer's Salvage Yard on Route 66 in Albuquerque, I'd see 1955 cars in clean condition because of the dry desert air. I bought parts for my Jag from her as well as some of my first hood ornaments."


American automobiles of the 1950s featured more elegant chrome, more glass and more horsepower. This elegant chrome was called "brightwork." These shiny treasures or small sculptures captured the essence of grace in motion, such as the development of the Pontiac symbol featuring a realistic Indian head concept.

"I chose hood ornaments because in the '50s, a hood ornament was designed as a small sculpture to relate to the hood of a car," Kiihne said. "My first one was the eagle shape from a '51 Chrysler Newport. It was handsome — a simplified Art Deco form."

These skilled works of art and the wide array of hood sculptures still fascinate classic and vintage car fans today.

"I have 14. My collection includes a Pontiac Chieftain, Chrysler Eagle, Nash Pretty Girl and Buick's Torpedo shape with a ring around it," Kiihne says.

Most hood ornaments were made of chrome-plated zinc or nickel. Although some were made of glass, pewter, brass, bronze and polished aluminum.

"I look for good chrome finish, from the early to mid-'50s,' Kiihne says. "I look for sculptural forms not necessarily for a certain make of car. I regret not having one from my own Jag, the cat form."

When a new ornament appears on the market, they usually sell for top-dollar prices.

"Any limited production, luxury model car — those ornaments are good," Kiihne says. "They may be from a noted sculptor and usually are made of quality chrome. In my collection, I feel the most valuable is my Nash Rambler Pretty Girl, because it is a unique combination of auto ornamentation and wall calendar art."


Glass ornaments by Rene Lalique are probably the best-known today and are among the most valuable. In mint condition, they sell for several thousand dollars each.

As with any collectible, the rarity of Lalique pieces has led to numerous fakes and forgeries, as most collectors cannot afford a Lalique. Keep in mind, there are many other interesting and beautifully designed ornaments, so it is not impossible to have a nice collection on almost any budget.

About hood ornaments, Kiihne says, "They can be found anywhere. Though I've never found one at a garage sale, I do keep looking. Prices range from $4 to $60; unique ornaments can be worth any price to a restorer."

The care of the hood ornaments is very important to preserve their value.

"Rub good, paste auto wax into the surface to clean and to prevent any pitting," Kiihne says. "Ornaments are made from pot metal, an alloy with a low melting point, so it absorbs moisture and pits easily. A good waxing will deter that process."

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