For the past 110 years, a woman has been leading Rolls-Royce cars, always slicing through the air in full view of the occupants and others on the road. The woman is referred to as the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ and has been a defining feature of the Rolls-Royce brand. It is one of the most famous, iconic and desirable symbols of luxury in the world. Along with the black and silver ‘Double R’ logo and Pantheon Grille, the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ (also known as the ‘Flying Lady’) mascot is a signifier of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and its Brand.
The Spirit of Ecstasy was officially registered as intellectual property in February 1911. Its design was based on a bronze statuette, called the ‘Whisper’, created for a motoring pioneer and early Rolls-Royce enthusiast Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in England.
Eleanor Thornton – the inspiration
The figurine was actually inspired by a woman, Eleanor Thornton, who was at the core of the ‘motoring-set’ which emerged from the Piccadilly-based ‘Automobile Club of Great Britain’ as the 20th century was born. Prominent in this group were Charles Rolls, aristocratic showman and partner of self-made engineering genius Henry Royce. Also among them was Charles Robinson Sykes, a bohemian artist and sculptor. His friendship with the maverick group led to his creating the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ – an emblem that has stood as an internationally-recognised symbol of perfection ever since.
Although born in Victorian times, Eleanor Thornton would have personified modernity – whatever age she graced. From a modest background, her intellect and charisma saw her rise through an elitist society. She became the central presence of an unsung, yet immeasurably influential coterie of mavericks; one that helped to shape the future of motoring.
Eleanor’s voice led them, and she was a mercurial force that galvanised the group, allowing them to stand together at the forefront of a new frontier of motor travel. Instead of gathering in stale members’ clubs and silent reading rooms, they much preferred the roar of the racetrack and the camaraderie of the workshop, feeding their liberal attitudes with the excitement of speed and competition.
They mastered the art of motoring at pace, over distances never believed possible and encased them in the comfort of luxury, setting the template for every sophisticated thrill seeker since. It was a feeling they would define as ‘ecstasy’…
And so Sykes, when commissioned by his patron , Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, to create a statuette, he used Eleanor as his inspiration. Her presence was crystallised in the form of an ornamental figurine. Challenging the social conventions of the time, her appearance became instantly iconic as they encapsulated the pursuit of personal liberty, and freedom from conformity.
Evolution of the figurine
The first Spirit of Ecstasy figurines were a statuesque height of about 18 cm. Today, the height is a more petite 9.5 cm, their dimensions influenced by safety considerations. Previously flexible at the base, she is now kept safely out of sight within a special housing in the bonnet until the engine starts. She then rises smoothly and gracefully by a precisely engineered mechanism known, not surprisingly, as ‘the rise’.
The company’s foundational connection between the automotive and art worlds continues today with MUSE, The Rolls-Royce Art Programme, a lead protagonist in the world of moving-image art.
“As an emblem, the Spirit of Ecstasy represents far more than just our company and our products. To our customers, she is a potent symbol, instantly and universally recognised – of success, endeavour, achievement and standing. In her beauty, simplicity, elegance and rarity, she encapsulates everything our customers seek – and find – in their Rolls-Royce motorcar,” notes Torsten Muller-Otvos, CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.
“Within our company, the Spirit of Ecstasy fosters pride and esprit de corps, uniting and empowering the Rolls-Royce family right across the world. She reminds us of our inheritance and principles, and inspiring greatness in all of us. Every car we build must be worthy of bearing her, because it is she that makes every Rolls-Royce, and our company, unique and complete,” he added.