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Celebrating Rolls Royce: the hidden tragedy behind the emblem

Celebrating Rolls Royce: the hidden tragedy behind the emblem

On the 18th of June 1935, the trademark Rolls Royce was registered for the first time, but the company has been operational since 1904.

Founded by Charles Rolls (owner of one of the UK's first dealerships) and Henry Royce (an engineer), they built cars and jet engines that were meant to last – in fact, 65% of all Rolls Royce ever built are still on the road today. There are more than a hundred Rolls Royces available on Gumtree in South Africa, many of them vintage.  Engines are still built by hand today.

Two decades ago BMW and Volkswagen engaged in a bidding war to acquire the brand, which saw Volkswagen win part of the company while BMW won the rights to the name and the logo. The companies had to come to an agreement, which saw BMW manufacture the complete car under the RR name.

A favourite of celebrities and the royal family, the cars embody luxury and the legendary "spirit of ectasy" – the lady topping the bonnet.

However, very few people know that the legendary figure has a storied past. She was commissioned by Baron John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, who wanted a personal mascot for his 1909 Silver Ghost, and sculpted by Charles Robinson Sykes. Sykes used Montagu's secret girlfriend Eleanor Velasco Thornton as his model. She posed with her fingers on her lips as a tribute to their relationship. Montagu and Thornton met while working on an automotive publication together, while Montagu was married to Lady Cecil Kerr.

Rolls-Royce became concerned about the number of inappropriate emblems being affixed to their cars, so asked Sykes to produce a hood ornament that harnessed the "spirit of Rolls-Royce" and the contemporary version was born – Thornton was the model once again, but this time posed with her arms outstretched, enjoying the speed of the ride.

Tragically, Thornton and Montagu were involved in a shipwreck when their boat was torpedoed south of Greece in 1915 – Montagu managed to get onto a life raft and survived, but Thornton passed away.

Of course, her spirit lives on as BMW has rolled out numerous new offerings to its product line, including the convertible Phantom sedan, the four-door Ghost sedan, the Wraith, the Dawn convertible and the Cullinan SUV. In fact, she is so popular that in 2004 Rolls Royce introduced an anti-theft feature that retracts the hood ornament when it is touched.

Original Spirit of Ecstasy ornaments can sell for up to R3-million online.

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