By DAVE FALL
I came across this feature by accident recently while scrolling through some archived material. It was written by an old friend, now believed to be living somewhere in Europe, for me when I edited SA’s top online motoring portal. It’s one of the best pieces of automotive literature I have ever published – so here it is again. – Les Stephenson
I’ve wanted to write a piece about radiator mascots for some time. Last Saturday morning I called in at the Crankhandle Car Club in Cape Town to attend a book sale they were hosting – I’m not a member – but this is an annual event any petrolhead really ought to attend.
While perusing stall after stall of ‘automobile treasures’ – mostly at bargain prices – I soon became caught up in the intriguing story of just how the Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy” radiator mascot came into being in this the company’s 109th year – and the most famous bonnet ornament ever fitted to an automobile, before or since.
Eleanor Valesco Thornton must have been a captivating woman. Born in London in 1880, she became a bright and exceptionally beautiful adult who found secretarial employment with a motoring publication called The Car Illustrated. Her boss was the editor, John Walter Edward-Scott-Montagu, later to become Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the founder of the biggest automobile museum in the world and to be found in the New Forest in the county of Hampshire, England.
SERIOUS LOVE AFFAIR
Montagu’s part-time illustrator for the magazine (many line drawings were the order of the day back then when photography was still in its infancy) was the celebrated sculptor Charles Sykes who was commissioned to design a bonnet mascot for Montagu’s own Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, for which he was told he must use Thornton as the model.
Meanwhile, as you might have guessed, a serious love affair was blossoming between Thornton and Montagu – a tryst frowned upon by all except his closest friends because of his social standing.
LITTLE ENTHUSIASM AT FIRST…
The statue that Sykes produced for the car was of a young woman in a forward stance with a veil flowing behind her but her fingers pressed to her lips. Montagu was really pleased with it, as Well he should have been. With the one-off mascot suitably installed on his car it was nicknamed by Montagu’s closest friends as “The Whisperer”.
Montagu sat on the then board of directors at Rolls-Royce Cars (now owned by BMW) and pushed forward the idea of a standard radiator mascot for all Rolls-Royce cars. Little enthusiasm for the idea was shown by Charles Royce, head of the company, who was more than a little alarmed to see the current craze of funny mascots such as glass cats, nickel policeman and even chromium-plated golliwogs(!) adorning his and other fine cars.
He had to make an instant decision – that choice was to commission a modified version of Sykes’ mascot with “Thornton” standing more upright this time around with both arms trailing behind her while holding a lightweight gown appearing to blow in a breeze. Since 1911 it has been the only mascot officially allowed to adorn a Rolls-Royce.
“What became of Montagu and Thornton? “I hear you ask.
Well, they had a love child, but it was whisked away from Thornton when it was born and brought up by Montagu. Little was said of the matter, probably due to his influential status in London society.
AND HOW THE LADY DIED…
During the First World War Montagu served in the Indian Army as an Inspector of Mechanical Transport. While returning to India aboard the SS Persia, accompanied by his favourite secretary, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.
In the true spirit of “Ladies and children first,”* Montagu escorted Thornton and other passengers to the lifeboats – the last time he was to see her alive. Amazingly, he survived the tragedy but only after his obituary had already appeared in The Times!
Eleanor Velasco Thornton, however, remains immortal, remembered and acknowledged on every Rolls-Royce manufactured since that fateful day. Originally silver-plated, at some time gold-plated and even redesigned slightly in 1934 to accommodate a lower bonnet line for the cars, “Spirit of Ecstasy” continues her onward journey.
• It’s worth remembering that a Rolls-Royce doesn’t ever break down – it simply fails to proceed! So next time I see one driving by I’ll be sure to check out that beautiful mascot up front and remember its real name: “The Whisperer.”
* On 26 February 1852, while transporting troops to Algoa Bay, she was wrecked at Danger Point near Gansbaai, 140 kilometres from Cape Town, South Africa. There were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all the passengers, and the soldiers famously stood firm, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely. Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived, and the soldiers’ chivalry gave rise to the “women and children first” protocol when abandoning ship, while the “Birkenhead drill” of Rudyard Kipling’s poem came to describe courage in face of hopeless circumstances.