What does a whisper, German torpedoes, an adulterous courtship, and the Baron Montagu have to do with one of the world’s top luxury vehicles? A lot actually, and most specifically the trademark hood ornament of Rolls Royce. The “Spirit of Ecstasy.”
Spirit of Ecstacy
An enchanting piece of Rolls-Royce history
Early car manufacturers did not have a uniform brand hood ornament. Most would simply use the vehicle manufacturer’s insignia on the hood of the automobile. It wasn’t until around 1910 did personalized mascots become a popular element in the car enthusiast arena. At this point, the fashion of the day was for the vehicle owner to customize and commission their own hood ornament. Evidently the fad didn’t catch on to everyone, Frederick Henry Royce of Rolls Royce wasn’t thrilled with the ornamental additions. Royce did not believe the hood mascots enhanced the look of his prestigious vehicles and none of his personal vehicles sported them.
As the customization of hood ornaments grew, the Rolls-Royce Corporation worried that some of the chosen mascots were too inappropriate to be affixed on their esteemed luxury brand. They combatted this concern by creating a permanent hood mascot to unify their brand.
It was then that Charles Sykes was commissioned by Claude Johnson to create a mascot that would encompass all things Rolls-Royce. As Johnson put it, a figure that “'conveyed the spirit of Rolls-Royce, namely, speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy and a beautiful living organism of superb grace..” A considerably challenging task that Sykes so eloquently pulled off.
Eleanor Velasco Thornton
The ephemeral being behind the “Spirit of Ecstacy”
In a twisting web of love, art, and automobiles, Sykes would find his muse in the effervescent Eleanor Velasco Thornton. A vibrant woman also known simply as ‘Thorn.’ This young woman was the longstanding mistress of the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, John Douglas-Scott-Montagu. The Baron was an avid motoring enthusiast. In 1902 the Baron created a weekly journal titled “The Car Illustrated”. A 22 year old Eleanor would become the Baron’s personal secretary and the two quickly became entwined lovers. It was through Montagu’s association with Roll-Royce and the secret love affair that Eleanor would be chosen to model for Sykes.
“The Whisper”, is the widely unknown initial figurine created by Sykes. It was a graceful young woman in a figure displaying cloth draping in the wind while she slightly leans her form forward and holds a finger across her pursed lips in secret suggestion. It is rumored that only two of the original three ornaments are still in existence. The secret was in reference to the love affair between Eleanor and Montagu. A secret they closely guarded from outer social circles at all costs.
Sykes would then cast the second and most famous figurine, “The Spirit of Esctasy”. The sophisticated hood ornament the world associates with Rolls Royce. Once again, Eleanor was used as the fleshly muse for this creation. In his own words, Sykes considered his creation "A graceful little goddess, the Spirit of Ecstasy, 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."
However the love affair and the life of that jubilant figure, Eleanor Velasco Thornton would be lost forever below the depths of the Mediterranean Sea in 1915. At the time, World War One was deep into its throes of devastation when the Baron was stationed in India act as Adviser on Mechanical Transport Services to the government. The Baron and Eleanor set out on their voyage aboard the doomed SS Persia to India.
Car enthusiast, editor of The Car Illustrated
On a cold December afternoon while passengers enjoyed lunch, a German U-Boat sent a torpedo through the hull of the SS Persia. The passenger liner sunk within 10 minutes with 343 of the 519 passengers taken to the ocean depths with it. The torpedoing created great controversy as it was considered to have broken naval international law. The Baron survived after clinging to an overturned lifeboat for 36 hours before being rescued. Eleanor would not be fortunate and her body was never recovered. It was said the Baron’s survival was mostly due to a Gieve waistcoat he wore at the time which encompassed an inflatable life preserver beneath it. The death of his beloved would haunt him forever.
So now you have it, the love affair, “the whisper”, the travesty of a German war torpedo, and the mystic of one of the world’s most famous luxury car brands hallmark hood ornament. The enchanting and transcending story of the “Spirit of Ecstasy.”
The Bad Blonde aka Caitlin Shook has grown up in the mechanic shop world. Shook Enterprises is a south Texas automotive repair shop that focuses on the antique, classic, rare, awesome, and sometimes just plain hard to fix vehicles.
An avid fan of travel and adventure, she’s popped into every car MUSEUM and car SHOW + AUCTION she can along the way.
She began an arduous car restoration of a 1976 Porsche 912e at the age of 14 and she’s not stopped loving difficult cars since. Enjoy the journey with The Bad Blonde!