The eccentric engineer: the Spirit of Ecstasy and a Christmas tragedy
Image credit: Dreamstime
One of the greatest names in engineering never to yet appear in this column must be Rolls-Royce, and to correct that I thought I’d tell a soulful Christmas story about perhaps the greatest icon of that engineering business – the Spirit of Ecstasy.
When Charles Rolls and Henry Royce first went into business, there was no standard mascot on the bonnets of their vehicles. However, as the craze for cars exploded amongst the wealthy, a fashion for putting small statuettes on radiator caps took off.
This bothered the company somewhat (not to put too fine a point on it), with some radiator statuettes that owners chose being less than ‘appropriate’. It was a friend of the company, managing director Claude Johnson, who first suggested that the answer might be to pre-empt the owners and sell their cars with a mascot already installed. This friend was none other than motoring pioneer John, 2nd Lord Montagu of Beaulieu – a founder member of the RAC and owner of Car Illustrated magazine.
However, what to put on the bonnet? And who to design it? Well, Montagu could easily solve the second question. From the start, Car Illustrated had gained appeal among wealthy car owners, with its high design standards and colour production. The key to this look was designer Charles Sykes, a Yorkshire artist who had been introduced to Montagu by a client who couldn’t pay his bill. The introduction proved more than fair payback however, and the two men got on famously, Montagu commissioning him to not only design for the magazine, but to produce a silver statuette of a young woman in flowing robes with a finger pressed to her lips, known as The Whisper.
This private commission was an interesting one. The model had been Montagu’s personal assistant, Eleanor Thornton, known to the family as Thorn. She had a passion for motoring, having gone to work while still in her teens for Claude Johnson, then secretary of the Automobile Club. At the Club, she had also met Johnson’s friend Montagu, and a passion of a different kind had developed between the two, although it was a love that, in the eyes of society in general, had to remain secret as Lord Montagu was married. In 1903, Eleanor had given birth to a baby girl who was put out to foster parents to avoid a scandal, but she remained as Montagu’s assistant and their relationship was tolerated by his wife.
As an answer to the first question – that of quite what to put on the bonnet – in 1910, Johnson suggested a Nike-type figure as a mascot with “the spirit of the Rolls-Royce, namely, speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy and a beautiful living organism of superb grace...”
However, Montagu came back with the idea of something lighter and more delicate – like his little statuette ‘the Whisper’, which adorned the bonnet of his 1909 Silver Ghost. Johnson agreed, and so Sykes received the commission to produce a design for the mascot and his favourite sitter, Miss Thornton, sat as his model.
The result was a statuette initially called ‘The Spirit of Speed’, known more intimately among the family as “Miss Thornton in her nightie”. Johnson later rechristened it “‘The Spirit of Ecstasy’ who has selected road travel as her supreme delight...”
And so it has been known ever since. Presenting it to the company in February 1911, Henry Royce, by then an ill man, was decidedly unimpressed, but the press and public loved the little statue, and it quickly became a standard piece of equipment.
Yet the story would not end happily for Thorn. In 1915, with the First World War raging, Lord Montagu was ordered out to India to advise the government on mechanical transport, with Thorn travelling with him as far as Aden. Lord Montagu’s wife and lover exchanged letters before leaving, in which Thorn prophetically wrote: “I do not think for one moment that there will be any trouble in the Med, but supposing?… the lord will have an extra chance, for there will be my place in the boat for him, even if he has to be stunned to take it.”
The lovers embarked on the P&O liner SS Persia on Christmas Day, 1915. Five days later, as they were enjoying lunch in the first-class saloon, the ship was rocked by the impact of a torpedo fired from a German U-boat. Moments later the boiler exploded, and the ship began to sink. Lord Montagu and Thorn rushed on deck, but the nearest lifeboats had been shattered by the blast. They were still in each other’s arms when they were swept off the deck. Thanks to a bespoke inflatable jacket that Lord Montagu was wearing, he surfaced, but Thorn did not. She, along with most passengers and crew, were never seen again, going down with the vessel in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.
After convalescing, Lord Montagu returned home, unable to tell the world of his loss, or of the secret identity of the lady who graced the bonnet of his – and now every – Rolls-Royce.
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