History of The Spirit of Ecstasy
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The Fascination with Bonnet Ornaments
Car manufacturers have built many exquisite cars that became immortal because of their design and performance. When designing, car companies spend millions to get the design right. Countless elements make a car design phenomenal, including front & rear bumpers, hood design, skirting, spoilers, and bonnet or hood ornament. The bonnet ornament is also called a car mascot or motor mascot. It is a design element that can make a car stand out. It is said that the first bonnet ornament was used by the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun on his chariot, a sun-crested falcon. The fascination of car enthusiasts with bonnet ornaments is as old as their fascination with cars. Notable manufacturers of these ornaments in automobile history included Desmo and Smith, Louis Lejeune Ltd, and Boyce MotoMeter. Out of this, only Louis Lejune survives to this day. The fascination with car mascots eventually led companies like Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Jaguar, and many others to design and install eye-catching bonnet ornaments.
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The Spirit of Ecstasy
Car enthusiasts like me are obsessed with bonnet ornaments, and I find no bonnet ornament more attractive than the leaning lady with arms outstretched and fluttering robes that look like wings. The lady of Rolls Royce, officially known as “The Spirit of Ecstasy”. Where did it come from? Whose idea was it? And what does it represent?
What is the Spirit of Ecstasy?
The first models of Rolls Royce did not have any such lady. It was just the company’s emblem affixed on their cars. However, a car enthusiast who loved his 1909 “Silver Ghost” and who also happened to be the 2nd Baron Montagu Beaulieu decided to give his ghost a personal mascot. John Douglas Scott Montagu had no idea that his wish would become the wish of every Rolls Royce owner. He asked one of his best friends, a famous sculptor of his time, Charles Robinson Sykes, to design the mascot. Sykes knew John’s secret: Eleanor Velasco Thornton, John’s secretary and lover. So Sykes created the mascot in the image of a lady with a finger on her lips and her robes flying behind her. They call her “The Whisper”, the predecessor of the spirit of ecstasy and still the official mascot of the Montagu family’s Rolls Royce cars. The whisper represents then the secret relationship of Lord Montagu with Miss Eleanor, something they had to keep a secret as Lord Montagu was already married. Another reason for concealing the relationship was the difference in the social status of both Lord Montagu and Eleanor.
Other Names of the Spirit of Ecstasy
The Spirit of Ecstasy has many names: Elanor, flying lady, silver lady, and some even call her “Nelly in her nighties”. Till 1910 Rolls Royce had no official bonnet ornament. Still, as personal mascots started becoming a fashion and people started fabricating inappropriate ornaments for their cars, the managing director of the company, Claude Johnson, was given the task of designing a graceful and dignified mascot for Rolls Royce. He commissioned Sykes and asked him to develop an ornament that would capture all the extraordinary qualities of Rolls Royce, such as high speed, low noise, and grace. It is said that Johnson suggested “Nike”, the Greek goddess representing victory and often portrayed in a winged appearance, but it seems that Sykes was more inspired by Miss Thornton. So he chose to carry out a slight modification to The Whisper and created an ornament quite similar to the present-day Spirit of Ecstasy. It was called The Spirit of Speed. Later, he explained it in these words “A graceful little goddess, the Spirit of Ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight and alighted on the prow of a Rolls-Royce motor car to revel in the freshness of the air and the musical sound of her fluttering draperies.”
Sykes presented the new ornament to Rolls-Royce in February 1911, easily recognisable as The Whisper because the model for both ornaments was the same. Sykes included his signature “Charles Sykes, February 1911” or “Feb 6, 1911” or “6.2.11” embossed on the plinth, which kept on appearing on Rolls Royce cars till 1951.
Surprisingly, Royce, who was sick when the flying lady was commissioned, did not have a high opinion regarding the bonnet ornament. He believed that the ornament impaired vision and did not enhance the beauty of the cars. Perhaps this is why he never used it on any of his personal cars. He also ensured that the ornament was listed as optional, but it was fitted to every Rolls Royce and became a standard ornament in the 1920s.
In the 1930s, Rolls Royce commissioned Sykes again to modify the mascot so that it could match the design of the new Rolls Royce sports saloons. The redesign was to give the drivers a better view of the road. Sykes, undeniably impressed by Miss Eleanor, unveiled the kneeling lady on 26 January 1934. Sykes signed it as “C. Sykes, 26.1.34”, which was embossed on the plinth. This design was, however, discontinued after the launch of Rolls Royce cars such as the Silver Wraith, Phantom IV, and Silver Dawn. The original mascot design was reinstated but with a smaller size, and that’s the one used to date.
The Spirit of Ecstasy Today
From the Rolls Royce Phantom 2003 to the present day, the Spirit of Ecstasy measures 3 inches in height
A spring-loaded mechanism acts as its mounting and enables the ornament to retract if it is hit. It can also be lowered or raised by pressing a button inside the cabin. The flying lady was historically silver-plated from 1911 to 1914. From thereon, nickel or chrome was used. In 1920 optional gold plating versions were introduced. These days it is fabricated from
- Stainless steel,
- Stainless with 24-carat gold plating or from
- Illuminated frosted crystal
- Customised versions include the ornament covered with matte black paint or studded diamonds
Rolls Royce Spectre and the Spirit of Ecstasy
The flying lady has again modified to grace the bonnet of the all-new-electric Spectre. It has been remodelled to give a more dynamic posture bringing her much closer to the original drawings of the early 20th century. The new ornament will appear on all future spectres and stands 82.73mm tall. Eleanor’s robes have been reshaped and look more realistic and aerodynamic. With a leg stretched forward and body tucked, eyes focused ahead, she is braced for fast winds and is “a true goddess of speed”.
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Lady Eleanor and John Douglas
Eleanor “Nelly” and John Douglas kept their relationship as secret as possible, but “The whisper” revealed it and turned it into one of the most well-known love stories in the United Kingdom. The relationship between the two was not temporary. Eleanor gave birth to their daughter. Lady Elanor accompanied Lord Montagu to India when he was called to perform his duties. They were on board the SS Persia in 1915, heading straight to India to assume command, when a german U-boat hit Persia without warning. The one that inspired the flying lady lost her life in that attack. Initially, it was thought that Lord Montagu had also lost his life, but he was found on a life raft days later. Eleanor’s life ended, but not her love story, for that was immortalised by the man who truly loved her in the form of “The whisper” and “The spirit of Ecstasy”. The same whisper is now shared by the exceptional cars of Rolls Royce, symbolising its exceptional noiseless operation even at high speeds. The same spirit of ecstasy that was the most prominent feature of the relationship between Lord Montagu and Eleanor Velasco Thornton is now a symbol of the long-lasting and incredible performance of the phenomenal Rolls Royce.