Inside the Mercedes Benz dealership on New York's posh Park Avenue, cars shimmer, leather seats invite, and hubcaps gleam—just like you'd expect. But there's also something missing: the distinctive three-point Mercedes star atop the hood. A feature of nearly every Mercedes made since 1923, the trademark raised-ornament adorns less than a third of the 2009 models, and earlier this year the company stopped offering the ornament on its standard C-Class line. "As we've become more aggressive design-wise," says spokesperson Robert Moran, "we've been bumping it down to the grill."
The sleek beasts, winged ladies and mythic figures that once adorned the hood of nearly every car in America have been dwindling for decades, becoming the preserve of ultra-luxury coupes and dictator-style sedans. Now even those are on the wane, as ornaments are relocated to the grill or removed entirely. Given the option, most Mercedes and Jaguar customers have declined to spring for the hood ornament, according to the companies. "I didn't even notice it was gone," says Ilya Mikhailevich, a 52-year-old Russian travel agent, shopping for a new Jag in New York recently. Adding the bling costs $250 for a Jaguar and upwards of several thousand on the Mercedes C-Class, which requires a series of upgrades first.
Of course, it wasn't always so. Ornaments have long adorned our modes of transport, from lady luck strapped to the bow of a ship to the ornate spires worn by carriage horses. Car historians trace the hood ornament back to the early 20th century, when cars still had external radiator caps and temperature gauges. Seeking ways to dress them up, designers turned to miniature works of art—animals, emblems and model machines that embodied the car's identity. In the 1920s, the Cadillac LaSalle featured an elaborate statuette of its namesake, intrepid 17th century French explorer Robert de LaSalle, tipping his hat over a burned-out campfire.
By the end of the decade, the practical need for the hood ornament was gone, as radiator caps were relocated under hoods and temperature gauges moved to dashboards. But that didn't stop the auto mascot from enjoying a life of its own. Some sort of doppelganger topped most cars made in America between 1930 and 1950. Among the classics: the forward-leaning Roman messenger goddess Mercury used on Buicks in the 1930s; the wild and sinewy Archer on vintage Pierce Arrows; and the Goddess of Speed that once graced Packards. Some of the most majestic ornaments were more like traveling tombstones, including the elephant on 1932 Bugattis—a tribute to the designer's dead brother, a sculptor known for breaking into zoo cages to get a closer look at the pachyderms.
Stripped-down hippie tastes, Nader-esque concerns that ornaments could turn otherwise minor pedestrian scraps into fatal accidents, and even irrational fears about heightened fuel costs from increased drag, began to erode the popularity of hood ornaments over the years. Theft also became a costly problem as manufacturers struggled to protect the centerpiece from a mid-1980s rap-music-inspired fashion fad—hood ornament necklaces. Hard numbers are tough to come by, but the list of discontinued ornaments is longer than the tail fins on a '57 Chevy. RIP you garish old greats: the Cadillac wreath, the Dodge ram, and the crashing metallic wave of the Mercury Grand Marquis.
Adding to the hostile climate for hood ornaments were new pedestrian safety laws overseas. In 2005, the European Union forced carmakers to meet minimum standards for pedestrian safety, based on damage caused in frontal collisions. The removal of upright hood ornaments helped meet the requirements and rather than make different hoods for different countries, many international automakers—including Jaguar—removed the hood ornaments altogether.
In doing so, they've bet that hood ornaments have become passé—gaudy and gratuitous relics in a world of smaller, greener automobiles and monstrous SUVs. "We've taken a much more modern, svelte and aerodynamic approach," says Tim Watson, vice president of marketing and communications for Jaguar, North America, referring to his company's decision to remove the "leaper" as a standard accessory. "Are customers crying out for them?" he adds, "I don't think they care."
But not everyone is de-accessorizing. Maybachs have retained their interlocking M's and Rolls-Royce has no plans to kill its gleaming figurine, the "Spirit of Ecstasy"—especially since, according to company research, one of the most important things to prospective owners of the nearly $400,000 sedan is that the ornament be visible from either side of the back seat. Still, to combat theft and meet Europe's tough pedestrian safety laws, the Rolls-Royce winged lady retracts into the car's hood when a collision is detected or the doors are locked. Lincoln spokesman Mark Schirmer says the company "will soldier on" with the crosshair-like ornament of the popular Town Car. On the blue-collar side of town, Mack garbage and construction trucks are standing behind the squat bulldog that's long been the company's mascot.
As the sun sets on hood ornaments in the United States, some are sad to see them go. "They were about personality and identity," says Don Sommer, a 75-year-old collector from Troy, Michigan, who owns more than 3,000 original hood ornaments and makes replicas for a living. He estimates that there are a few hundred enthusiasts like him out there, but they're dwindling in number, too. One bright shining hope: China. Soaring sales of boat-sized Buicks and SUVs, relatively lax safety laws, and rampant status anxiety means the time might be ripe for a new golden era in garish automotive art.