One of the most important roadways in North America – U.S. Route 9W – went right through the middle of the New Jersey town which was my home for the first fourteen years of my life. One of my boyhood pleasures was to stand where I could watch traffic coming from and going to New York City and South Jersey, reciting to myself, or anyone standing near me, the year, make and model of those thundering marvels of metal and chrome leaving a wake of blue smoke and wonder as they slowed for the intersection, where Joe Carney – the local constable – presaged the coming of traffic lights. In the 1930s it was no small task to know one’s automobiles, with nearly one hundred different manufacturers vying for automotive prominence. Their names rang like a suzerainty of lesser gods, each intent on being different and better than their perennial peers: Hudson Hornets, Lincoln Zephyrs, Auburn Phaetons, together with a breath-taking array of Cords, Whippets, Duesenbergs, Franklins, LaSalles and Pierce Arrows; not to mention everyday names like Ford, Chevrolet Bros., Buick, Plymouth Terraplanes, Cadillacs and such.
At a present moment of time when it seems as if every car manufacturer is trying not to look different from the others – when it seems as if they have all sprung from the same basic mold - I cherish a time when individuality was esteemed, and car-makers used all their skills trying to build a product which was different from all others. And that brings me to today’s subject.
In the earliest days of car travel, the radiator was often separate from the engine, and rode out in front. Perched atop the radiator cap was a temperature gauge, usually manufactured by the Boyce Motometer Company, easily visible to the driver, and sometimes wearing ornamental “wings”. Once that need was obviated by modern dashboard-mounted needle gauges inside, the empty radiator cap begged for some kind of adornment; and auto-makers were quick to recognize an opportunity for making a bold statement where the whole world would see it.
The Plymouth Motor Co. settled on a stylized sailing ship for its “mascot”, while Stutz featured a sun god. Chrysler went for a leaping gazelle, while Dodge – from early on – favored the rugged ram which endures to this day as a product symbol. Early Cadillacs sported a bugle boy, whereas their number one competitor, the lordly Packard, was adorned by a speed goddess holding a tire in her outstretched arms. Pontiac’s Indian Brave at one time appeared on the front of a speeding locomotive, a favorite token of fleetness on Detroit cars, along with racing greyhounds (Lincolns), airplanes (Franklins), Impala (Chevrolet) and various versions of the numeral “8” in flight.
Whether forged from frosty bronze, hand-polished brass or shiny sculptured chrome, the greyhounds, gazelles, griffins and flying ladies of those exciting years when cars were “Kings” and “Queens” of the roadways, remain a piece of Americana which in the hearts of a generation of admirers still have the power to stir memory’s fire.
Title Photo: The first attempts at hood ornamentation came as a feature of the necessary radiator temperature gauge, as with this early FORD.
All Photos by Al Cooper
If there was one American-made car of the 20s and 30s that was a legend of its time, it has to be the Duesenberg – often described as “the world’s finest automobile”, and at the time certainly one of the most expensive. Between 1928 and 1937, approximately 600 Model Js were hand- built, an amazing 50% of which are still owned and in perfect working order today. This gleaming “Duesy” ornament crowns the hood of a 1933 Murphy convertible.
This shiny chrome-plated widgeon was another FORD mascot, once again denoting speed and fleetness.
The graceful swan was certainly in keeping with the image the Packard Motor Car Company was anxious to project.
One of the most elegant of all the “flying ladies” of the day was the Rolls Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy”.
A stylized goddess of speed rides atop the beautifully sloping hood of a1936 Auburn, another American-built