What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think Rolls-Royce? Is it the iconic boxy-shaped design, or the creature comfort it offers? Or is the heavy price tag it carries? For many of us, it is the Spirit of Ecstasy. It’s perhaps the most iconic emblem to adorn a car, maybe second only to a prancing horse.
On Feb 6th, 2022, this mysterious hood ornament turned 111. To celebrate the occasion, Rolls-Royce announced a major facelift for the mascot. The smaller, sleeker and more aerodynamic ornament will adorn the upcoming Rolls-Royce Spectre EV.
Moving forward, the updated Spirit of Ecstasy will feature on all of the brand’s forthcoming products, while current models like the Ghost and the Phantom will carry the old design.
“As we enter a new era with Spectre, we have taken the opportunity to revisit our treasured icon and her story, which remains endlessly fascinating, eye-opening and intriguing after more than 100 years,” said Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös.
But before we meet the new ‘Flying Lady,’ let’s turn the pages of history books to see where it all began.
A Secret Affair
You may find this hard to believe, but the very first Rolls-Royce motorcars did not feature any mascots. They simply carried the ‘RR’ emblem. In fact, owners were known to fashion their own mascots and fit them on to their bonnets.
It was during this time that Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, founder and editor of The Car Illustrated magazine, employed Charles Robinson Sykes, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Art to sculpt a personal mascot for his 1909 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
For this, Skyes chose Eleanor Velasco Thornton as his model. Thornton was originally an actress and dancer, who worked for Lord Montagu as his office manager. It was rumoured that she was in a relationship with Lord Montagu, who was a married man.
However, Sykes and Thornton already knew each other. A few years earlier, Thornton lived a double life of being a professional assistant by day, and an exotic dancer and life model by night. One of her many admirers—one whom she posed for regularly—was Sykes.
In fact, her presence can be seen in Sykes past work. A statuette called the ‘Bacchante’ which was showcased at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon shares an eerie resemblance to his muse.
Coming back to our Rolls-Royce story, Sykes did produce a personlised mascot for Montagu’s Rolls‑Royce Silver Ghost. It was called ‘The Whisper,’ and it featured a young woman in fluttering robes with a forefinger to her lips. Montagu was smitten by this and displayed it on every RR car he owned until his death in 1929.
Only three or four castings of ‘The Whisper’ were made, and only two of them survived. One of them is on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu with other ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ figurines.
A year later in 1910, Thornton’s former employer Claude Johnson became the Managing Director of Rolls-Royce—a company that was started by his former business partner, Charles Stewart Rolls, and Henry Royce.
By this time, Royce was becoming increasingly irritable by the personalised mascots, which adorned the radiator caps of the company’s motor cars. Some of this included black cats, the devil and a policeman. Royce found them to be “tasteless.”
Claude Johnson argued that the company should make their own mascot, arguing “a mascot should enhance the image of a Rolls-Royce rather than demean it.” After Royce grudgingly agreed, Johnson, who was close friends with Lord Montagu commissioned Sykes to create it. At that point, Sykes was working as an illustrator for Lord Montagu’s motoring magazine.
Before the first sketch could be drawn, Johnson already had an idea of the type of adornment he wanted. During his trip to Paris, he had been impressed by the marble statue of ‘Nike of Samothrace’, the Goddess of Victory, sculpted in 190BC.
“I want something beautiful, like Nike,” Johnson is reported to have said to Sykes. “Go and have a look at it.” To his credit, Sykes did go and look, but thought Nike was too domineering to be a Rolls-Royce mascot. He wanted to create a more delicate, ethereal figure, who would embody the marque’s grace, silence and power.
He then went along to create the first ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ as we know it today. Some say he turned to his muse again. Some argue it shares a likeness with Sykes’ mother, Hannah Robinson Sykes. Some speculate that it’s his own recreation of the female physique.
Syke’s called his new mascot ‘The Spirit of Speed.’ While Rolls-Royce registered the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ as its intellectual property in 1911, it did not receive the blessing of either of its founders. Charles Stewart Rolls died before she was created and Sir Henry Royce disliked mascots of any kind.
The latter’s apathy towards it so unhinging that it was offered as an ‘Optional Extra’ until 1939. According to Rolls-Royce, this caused the mascot to only adorn 40 percent of the 20,000 or so cars sold during this era.
It did, however, receive its acknowledgement in 1920, when the company entered the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ in world’s best motor car mascot competition. She won and Sykes was awarded a gold medal.
Each of the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ figurines was personally cast and hand-finished by Sykes, from 1911 to 1928. His daughter, Josephine took over the mantle until manufacturing was interrupted in 1939 due to WW2. Ever since, each of these figurines is slightly different from one another.
Over the years, the emblem has seen many iterations. In her original form back in 1911, she stood around 18cm tall in bare feet. By the ’80s and eight more iterations later, she stood 11cm tall. The total distance from her nose to the tip of her robes also reduced from five inches to three. As of 2022, Rolls-Royce has continued this tradition.
A beautiful story like this, unfortunately, met with a tragic end. Thornton died in 1915, while returning from India. Her boat, the SS Persia, capsized after being struck by a torpedo. Lord Montagu survived after being adrift in a lifeboat for 38 hours.