‘Mascots in Motion’ takes readers back to an era of automotive artistry


The new coffee-table-style art book “Mascots in Motion” will sweep readers away with its grandeur and beauty. The more than 300-page paean to vintage hood ornaments and automotive aesthetics speaks to a time in history when cars were pieces of art. 

Author and photographer Steve Purdy, who’s been shooting the book’s images for more than half his life, takes readers on the ride of a lifetime with this stunning look at an era where cars were a vision of the future, and goddesses graced the sweeping hoods. 

Purdy will visit R.E. Olds Transportation Museum at 7 p.m. next Thursday (May 16) to share tales and photographs from the book. The event is free, and copies of the book will be available for purchase. 

Purdy likes to say the photographs were “shot in the wild,” by which he means outside of a studio where he could control the weather and lighting. He also didn’t use any editing tools. 

“I’m not a techie,” he said. Before retiring and becoming serious about photography, he was a child welfare specialist for the state of Michigan’s Family Independence Agency. 

Now, the camera he’s using today is a technological dream for a photographer, but when he started shooting, he was using film cameras that required a level of skill to operate, and he couldn’t be sure the photographs were usable until they were developed in a darkroom. 

Before adopting an 18-to-200-millimeter lens, he used a fixed 200-millimeter lens, which allowed the primary image to be in sharp focus while the background was blurred, often with a solid color, depicting the ornament in a better light. 

Purdy shot images for his book at car shows like the Detroit Concours d’Elegance as well as more eccentric locations like a junkyard in rural Tennessee that he stumbled upon on a trip. 

The owner gave Purdy a half hour to shoot his photographs, of which about a dozen are used in the book. Some 20 years later, Purdy returned to the same junkyard and retook some of the images. 

When he asked the son of the original owner if he could go into a patch of woods where there were some vintage cars, he was told, “We don’t let people go there because there are wild hogs.” 

Purdy divided the book into 11 chapters, broken down by car brands like General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, independents such as Packard and the Stutz Motor Car Co. and British vehicles like Rolls-Royce. 

His favorite ornament is Rolls-Royce’s “Spirit of Ecstasy,” which is still used today. Within the book, he tells the fascinating story of Eleanor Thornton, the woman it was modeled after. Thornton was the muse and mistress of the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, England, who founded a weekly automobile magazine called The Car Illustrated. 

Purdy noted that many other ornaments had interesting creation stories, like the 29 art deco-style hood adornments created by French artist René Lalique for luxury brands like Bentley and Bugatti. The crystal ornaments were lit from within. 

With each photograph, Purdy also provides a bit of history, like how hood ornaments stemmed from temperature gauges and radiator caps called MotoMeters that were mounted on the hood above the engine. When gauges moved inside the car, ornaments took their place. 

“I enjoyed the research as much as I did the photography,” Purdy said. 

Throughout his years of photographing ornaments, Purdy has learned to arrive at car shows when the soft morning light provides the best image and the crowds of onlookers have yet to turn up. 

One of his most amazing photographs is of a 1939 Pontiac hood ornament. 

“I was at a car show in Marshall, and I shot the ornament as the sun was setting. It wasn’t until I got the photo on the computer that I saw the ornament — a sweeping form of a stylized Indian head — had reflected the sun in its eye. I titled it ‘Fire in the Eye.’” 

Hood ornaments faded away in the ‘60s, and only a few vehicles still include them today. Sadly, contemporary cars have lost most of the ornamentation that made owning a car glamorous. 



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