Is Rolls-Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy the Most Beautiful Hood Ornament?

Mountains may fall, rivers may jump their banks, but Rolls’ illustrious mascot will endure.

Humans are ephemeral; Rolls-Royces are forever. In the background, a womanish shape, almost translucent, floats past, flotsam. At the forefront: the Spirit of Ecstasy, the most famous hood ornament in the world. Known at times as “Emily,” “Silver Lady” or “Flying Lady,” Rolls’ iconic little sculpture has adorned its cars since 1910. At that time, it was fashionable for the owners of luxury motorcars to cap their radiators with personal emblems or figurines. Rolls found this gauche, and Claude Johnson, managing directory of the brand, immediately sought a solution: an ornament, designed in house, to satisfy customers’ love of a mascot while maintaining the rigorously elegant Rolls-Royce aesthetic.

Charles Sykes, a younger friend of Johnson then studying at London’s Royal College of Art, got the commission. The brief directed the artist to render a version of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, but Sykes thought a specialized figure was better. The Spirit of Ecstasy was carved as a woman with arms swept back, leaning forward as a cloak billows behind her; the artist described her as “A graceful little goddess… 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.” To detractors, the ornament is “Ellie in her nightie.”

Founder Charles Stewart Rolls never liked the thing. He thought that it impeded the view of any serious driver and he almost never drove a Rolls-Royce fitted with the Spirit of Ecstasy. Everyone else, photographers included, has loved it madly.

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images