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As part two of our soon-to-be-legendary three-part series on logos, we bring you the story of the signature Rolls Royce hood ornament—known as the Silver Ghost or, as we prefer, the Spirit of Ecstacy.

This one takes us back to Edwardian England, in particular a car-obsessed sculptor and a loveless marriage in the noble class…

It starts with John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, Baron of Beaulieu, minor member of parliament and editor of one of the world’s first car magazines. In true E. M. Forster style, he was also stuck in a loveless marriage, and carrying on an affair with his secretary Eleanor Thornton.

At the same time, the sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes was establishing himself as the go-to artist for the motoring set. He spent the first decade of the century designing medals for races, painting car-themed portraits and, most importantly, sculpting commissioned one-of-a-kind figurines for the hoods of early cars—a precursor to today’s mass-produced hood ornaments. When he worked his way up to a commission from Montagu, he learned about the secret affair and seized on the perfect subject: Eleanor herself, leaning forward seductively and holding a finger to her lips as if to say, “don’t tell.”

Cut to a few years later, in 1910, when personalized figurines had gotten so popular that the Rolls Royce management decided to start attaching them at the factory. When they tracked down Sykes for the commission, he moved back to his favorite muse: Eleanor. This time, there was no hushing: both hands were thrown back in the now-familiar flying-angel pose.

The official name was “Spirit of Speed”; the “ecstasy” part comes from a quote from Sykes himself, who said he was looking for “the spirit of ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight.” By any name, it was the most popular work he ever made, and different versions of it have bounced around auction houses ever since. Five years later, Eleanor was dead—her ship was sunk by a German U-Boat in the Mediterranean—but the figurine went on unchanged.

As it turned out, it’s such a good story, it managed to work itself into development limbo in Hollywood—most likely with some encouraging words from Rolls Royce. The movie’s to be called The Silver Ghost, and Christian Bales is supposedly attached to play Montagu, if he ever gets tired of Batman. Of course, they call it limbo for a reason…but in the meantime, you can always use your imagination.

—R.B.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • Russell Brandom