There was a time in my life when I found myself mesmerized by the character of cars–those elements of design and style that set them apart from across a crowded parking lot; like heaven itself was smiling on them. Those old enough to remember Johnny Carson will recall the signature three-dimensional pendant the domestic manufacturers would adorn their flagship products with. Standing upright and proud, they were an example of how companies used to take pride in their product. “Yes. We built this.”
In the heyday of American automobile manufacturing each company seemed to have its own identity. They took pride in their work and strived for perfection in all that they did. Some of the great ones were world-class. Not “world-class” as used in one of today’s marketing department press releases, but truly, honestly World-Class. It could be argued that the best of America’s heartland offered design and quality that was above that of even the European coach-builders. Companies like Peerless Motor nearly were, if not for the existence of Packard and Pierce-Arrow. And, like the Christmas tree that isn’t complete until the delicate angel is placed on top, these pieces of rolling jewelry were still unfinished without that symbol of elegance and grace: the hood ornament.
Whenever my parents would gather with their friends, I was drawn to these badges of honor in the driveway. (Or in the case of Chrysler products of the era, a medallion of shame.) I couldn’t resist the temptation, which was nearly as intoxicating as a box full of bubble wrap. I would approach them with great anticipation. A glance or two over the shoulder was needed to ensure no one was watching. Then I would indulge myself by touching them. I gently twisted and turned them, leaning them back on themselves without fear of damage, due to the fact that they were always supported by a spring-loaded cable system hidden underneath the hood. They would simply spring back to life no matter how downtrodden I could get them to look.
The slim, smooth rectangle on an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme fit the proportions of its long hoodline. Chevy’s ever-present bowtie offered Caprice owners a sort of cross-hairs to hunt down Ford LTDs. Dodge pickups had the giant ram’s head often signifying the thickness of the head behind the wheel. Our family’s own Buick LeSabre had the tri-colored shields, a tip of the hat to the family crest of David Dunbar Buick. (But let it be known that the Body by Fisher carriages still bejeweled the sill plates of the doors.) Cadillacs wore their coat of arms surrounded by a cold, slightly prickly wreath, and it always seemed to suit the drivers. Even Pontiac, while not building anything particularly exciting, still had a modified V-badge before they decided to set themselves apart from the crowd by adopting BMW’s signature gopher teeth into their grilles.
In early October I had the opportunity to walk a portion of the Hershey Car Show (aka, The Hershey Region AACA Fall Meet). Again, I was awestruck at the beauty of the cars present. There was pride, craftsmanship, and elegance. As my friend Gordon noted, “There is more design and thought put into one of those brass fuel caps than the entirety of most modern cars.”
Hershey is a bittersweet time for me. I am completely and utterly impressed and inspired by the flawless rolling stock that surrounds me. Yet part of me is deeply saddened. I long for the time when employees of a manufacturer produced a car that they themselves would want to own; a car that sets itself and its owner apart from the crowd. I fear that we, as a country, may never return to the greatness that is symbolized by these chromed figurines. And yet, as I gaze at these ornaments of the hood, I notice that they are ever leaning forward, anticipating the future. I wonder if this attitude will rub off on anyone else who takes in these shining examples of distinction.