Monday, November 9, 2009

Tales from the hood

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 9, 2009


The world has philatelists and numismatics and oenophiles, the attraction of their passion obvious even to those who do not share their obsession.

A postage stamp provides a panorama of world history on a thumb-sized canvas. Coins jiggle in your pocket and buy stuff. The hoarding of wine makes sense if one acknowledges the eventual tippling of each cherished bottle.

Dr. James Colwill is not one to indulge these common hobbies.

He is an aficionado of flying ladies, a maven of mascots, a boffin of bonnet decorations.

Step into the grand entrance of his Samuel Maclure-designed heritage home on a Saanich hill, descend the narrow steps into the basement, and a visitor is confronted by walls covered with automobile detritus.

A radiator from a 1913 Packard hangs from one wall. An old Ontario sign designating The King’s Highway No. 2 is posted in a corner. Old license plates are nailed to the walls.

These are mere appetizers for the heart of his collection.

He owns more than 700 hood ornaments, or, as the British prefer to call them, automotive mascots.

Think not of the Beastie Boys wearing a Volkswagen badge around their necks as pendants.

These relics of the junkyard are miniature artworks in nickel-plate.

Arranged in display cases are a speedy bestiary of rabbits, jaguars, greyhounds; a rookery of owls, parrots, pelicans; a wee folks gathering of pixies, brownies, sprites; an antipodean assortment of cockatoos, kangaroos, kookaburras; such good-luck symbols as horseshoes, wishbones, four-leaf clovers, and (pre-Nazi) swastikas; muscular paragons of grace and power such as a surfer, a football player, and Superman; and, such fantasist’s delights as nymphs and such horrors as chimeras;

Speaking of monsters, among the odder ornaments is a bust of Henry Ford, the genius of the production line who used his profits to bankroll anti-Semitic quacks.

He is a rare figure from history to take his place among such mythological figures as Atlas, Diana, Triton, Minerva, Hermes, and Vulcan.

The retired obstetrician takes a trip back in history in contemplating his collection.

“A rendezvous with time,” he said.

He was raised on a farm in St. Thomas, Ont., the Railroad City of southwest Ontario, where, incidentally, Jumbo the Elephant met his sad end when struck by a train. He attended class in a one-room schoolhouse where it was his duty to ensure the fire remained stoked throughout the day.

His parents were farmers who did not purchase their own automobile until 1953, settling on a Nash. On the hood was a reclining woman, a voluptuous figure designed by pinup artist George Petty.

In the 1960s, as he studied medicine in Toronto, the young student met the owner of a automotive plating company interested in mascots. He began a collection of his own.

As a doctor in Colorado, he discovered junkyards in which hood ornaments and radiator caps had not been stripped from abandoned vehicles.

“It was like opening Christmas presents,” he said. “You’d be wondering what you would find another 100 yards down the road.”

Remembering bargaining sessions with overalls-clad dealers, he got a wistful expression on his face.

“You could offer them $1, or $2 each.”

Those days are long gone, as a valuable ornament now goes for far more than the original price of the automobile to which it had been attached.

The Holy Grail among collectors — what to call them? Hoodies? Hoodwinked? Mascot maniacs? — is the trumpeting elephant found on the radiator cap of the Bugatti Type 41, popularly known as the Royale. Designed by Ettore Bugatti as a luxury car for European royalty, few orders were made during the Great Depression and only six were ever assembled. One survived the war after being bricked behind a wall to avoid seizure by the Nazis.

The rearing elephant is believed based on a sculpture by his brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, who committed suicide many years earlier. Fortune magazine calls it “the world’s most expensive car,” valued a decade ago at $10 million US.

Dr. Colwill will not be adding it to his collection anytime soon.

He has published three glossy books based on his collection, a series titled, “The Automotive Mascot: A Design in Motion.” He is now at work on a fourth, photographic volume.

The retired obstetrician’s expertise helps other collectors discern the cheap, knockoff reproductions from the magnificent, and sometimes bizarre, mascots found in his basement.

He has a kewpie doll, a Shriner in a red fez, and an Uncle Sam in a red, white and blue top hat.

He has such advertising characters as the Red Devil from Bosch and Bibendum from Michelin.

He has a coiled snake that once could be found on the car driven by movie heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, who starred in the 1925 silent film “Cobra.”

Sometimes, the ornaments were designed with whimsy in mind.

In one, a monkey hugs a cooking pot from which the steam from the radiator would be released.

Another includes a miniature roulette wheel, spun by the wind.

“Everyone kicked money into a pot and selected a number from one to 20,” Dr. Colwill said. “When the car stopped, they’d get out to read the marker and award the money.”

As distracting as a cellphone call, but infinitely more fun.

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