Like Cats And Dogs: An Exploration Of Automotive Mascots & Intellectual Property

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
Statue in front of Changfeng’s Liebao “Leopard” Division (Photo: Changfeng)

China doesn’t have the world’s best reputation for respecting intellectual property (pdf). TTAC’s own old China hand Bertel might give us an on-the-ground report that could differ with the reputation, but reputations are still what they are. We’ve seen knockoffs of MINIs and smart cars (do you think that smart could borrow a capital letter from MINI?), and of course there is the notorious Chery QQ’s take on the Daewoo Matiz/Chevrolet Spark. GM was already not thrilled with “Chery” being one letter removed from “Chevy”, but the QQ was kinda overt so GM was understandably upset. Bertel can correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that Chery prevailed in both the Chinese court system and in the Chinese marketplace (apparently by offering more features/value).

Daewoo Matiz / Chevy Spark

Chery QQ

When I first saw a photo of the leaping leopard statue in front of the headquarters of * Changfeng‘s Liebao division, my first thought was the Changfeng was knocking off Jaguar’s famous “leaper” mascot. A big cat, leaping onto its prey. As a matter of fact, for a few years now Jaguar dealers have had similarly sized statues of the leaper on columns, plinths and roofs. Okay, so leibao is Chinese for leopard, and a leopard isn’t exactly the same as a jaguar, but the pose does look kind of familiar, don’t you think? It turns out though that this might be more of a case of Apple vs IBM than GM vs Chery.

Photo: Ontario Jaguar Owner’s Association

According to Jaguar lore, Jaguar started using a leaping cat in the 1930s, after William Lyons renamed the Swallow Sidecar Co. to Jaguar. Some owners had their own mascots made, as hood ornaments became known after they stopped being radiator caps. Lyons disapproved, and I can see why. Appropriately aggressive, but Jaguars are known for grace and it’s not quite graceful. Some artists have trouble capturing the big cats. Lions are a popular motif in judaica, often flanking the tablets of the Ten Commandments. I have an embroidery shop and I’ve done a few lions myself (there are tallis bags and Torah mantles that are adorned with lions that Peugeot fans would recognize). The Holy Ark that holds the Torah scrols at the synagogue where my grandparents went and my son currently attends has a couple of lions that make me think, every time I see them, that they look more like baboons than lions. So I can understand Sir Williams desire for the perfect feline mascot.

Unofficial Jaguar mascot.

Soon after, Lyons had automotive artist F. Gordon Crosby design an official mascot, which has become known simply as the “leaper”. Today it’s the symbol of the company, gracing its cars in one way or another (its profile currently adorns the rear decklid of the XF and XJ), its logo, and its buildings.

F. Gordon Crosby's original Jaguar leaper mascot, used as a display c. 1938

In those countries where safety regs prohibit hood ornaments or when a leaper wouldn’t make sense, like on the steering wheel, is the “growler”, a jaguar’s face in bas relief.

Jaguar "growler" - Jaguar publicity photo

Lyons started offering the leaper mascot as an option for the price of 2 pounds and two shillings. From the beginning, though, there have been changes to Jaguar’s famous cat. You can see that compared to Crosby’s original casting even the original hood ornaments were smoothed out and stylized in a manner befitting the art-deco era.

1938 Jaguar hood ornament - Jaguar publicity photo

In 1955, Sir William had the cat redesigned. In the 1950s Jaguar’s XK series were doing first 120, then 140 and finally 150 mph, and Coventry’s racing cars were seeing success at LeMans and other venues. The redesign fittingly changed the cat from a slightly crouching position to a leap, hind legs fully extended. Lyons also wanted to increase the leaper’s angle of attack. That basic design was used into the 1960s, with minor revisions to the mounting base.

Sleaker leaper used in the 1950s and 1960s - Jaguar photo

The most recent revision has been to give the mascot a spring loaded base, to protect pedestrians. US bound XJs had them, but no other markets allowed them. Safety and aero concerns along with Jaguar’s new styling idioms means that we’ll probably never see another Jaguar leave the factory with a leaper on its bonnet.

The last leaper mascot used on the final traditionally styled XJ. Currently, no Jaguar wears the leaper as a hood ornament, though it adorns the cars elsewhere. Jaguar photo.

Of course Jaguar was not the only company that used hood ornaments. There were Plymouths with sailing ships, Chryslers with wings, and Packards with cormorants. Figurines like Rolls-Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy or Packard’s earlier Goddess of Speed were an important way of establishing a brand identity. As he started to plot Lincoln’s brand, Edsel Ford decided to let Lincoln go to the dogs.

Ford and Lincoln hood mascots

Henry Ford bought Lincoln in part to get back at Henry Leland for his role in Ford losing his second unsuccessful automotive venture. Ford’s creditors wanted to liquidate but Leland convinced them to keep the company going using engines of his own design. That company became known as Cadillac. Leland, the best machinist in Detroit, made Cadillac the standard of the world and the company was eventually bought by Billy Durant’s General Motors. Leland and Durant had a parting of their ways over World War One. Durant was a pacifist and Leland wanted to make Liberty engines. So Leland started Lincoln for that very purpose, only to get into financial difficulties when the government canceled his contracts abruptly after the war. Ford so badly wanted to humiliate Leland that he made an offer that the bankruptcy court said was ridiculously low. After raising his offer and buying Lincoln, Ford kept Leland and his son on for a short while and then had them humiliated by having them unceremoniously walked out of the building.

So, if Henry Ford bought Lincoln in part to get back at Henry Leland, as Gene Hackman’s character says to Rebecca Pidgeon’s in David Mamet’s Heist, what’s the rest of it? The other part is that Henry bought Lincoln to give it to Edsel. Some even called Lincoln “Edsel’s plaything”. That wasn’t quite fair. Edsel was the son of a fabulously wealthy and powerful man but he didn’t really need a plaything. He was no dilettante, but rather a competent and talented automobile executive. He was 15 years old when the Model T came out and grew up in and around the nascent automobile industry with a number of roles at Ford. Henry didn’t like accountants and wasn’t too keen on engineers either, though he ended up employing some very creative people and was lucky to have a talented son. I think that an argument can be made that without Edsel and James Couzens, Henry Ford’s personal eccentricities would have prevented Ford Motor Company from thriving. It was Edsel who got the Rouge Plant built (to build ships during WWI) and it was Edsel who convinced his father that the Model T needed to be replaced. Henry, though, generally kept his son under his thumb and resented it when the Ford heir tried to change things, particularly to his beloved Model T, the perfect car.

There is a documented story that while Henry was out of the country, Edsel had a Model T refreshed, to use a more modern automotive idiom. Henry returned to Dearborn, happened across the prototype and proceeded to physically attack it, ripping the roof, tearing the doors off. Edsel died of stomach cancer when he was about 50, but the family blamed Henry for how he mistreated his son. Edsel Ford had an art collector’s eye for style and proportion. Eventually he would bring Bob Gregorie into the company and start a real styling studio, producing masterpieces like the first Lincoln Continental, the Lincoln Zephyr and the ’39 and ’40 Fords. In the meantime, though, his father wanted something to occupy him, perhaps to keep him out of his hair. So he bought Lincoln and put Edsel in charge. While the company was never a huge success, it survived other luxury marques like Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg. As with some of those marques, and Packard as well, Lincoln in the 1920s and 1930s would often have custom coachbuilt bodies. The first Continental was Edsel Ford’s attempt to make a factory built Lincoln that would rival or surpass the custom body builders. He used Lincoln to introduce the automotive world to his own quite sophisticated sense of style. In doing so Edsel Ford helped invent what we know today as automotive styling.

Until the mid 1920s, Lincoln offered a variety of radiator caps/hood ornaments. It was a time when car owners would also fit their own mascots, like those made of glass by Lalique. As Edsel Ford got more involved with Lincoln, though the company continued to use Leland designs and engines into the 1930s, he wanted to give the company his own stamp, so he commissioned Gorham silversmiths to design Lincoln a greyhound hood ornament. Production ornaments were made using the lost wax method, just as Rolls-Royce did with their mascots, cast in brass and then chrome plated. Edsel specifically chose a greyhound because in his mind, and in many potential consumers’ minds, the breed stood for speed, stamina and beauty. It might not have the poetic ring of Jaguar’s “grace, pace and space”, but speed, stamina and beauty have sold a lot of cars.

The similarity between Jaguar’s leaper and Lincoln’s greyhound is striking. In part, that’s because greyhounds are unusual dogs. Not just because they can accelerate to 45mph in three strides, or jump a 4 foot fence, and not just because they’re about the gentlest and kindest predator on the planet. Greyhounds, unlike almost all other breeds (outside of their fellow sighthounds, of course), run like cats. Cheetahs are the fastest ground animal because cats have long and very flexible spines. You’ve seen videos of cats twisting themselves in the air in order to land on their feet. That long flexible spine allows a running gait that has all four paws off the ground twice in the running cycle, when coiled, and when fully extended. That allows cats (and greyhounds) to have both maximum stored energy when they’re coiled and be able to fully expend that energy when they leap. Greyhounds are also big dogs. A male can grow to 75 lbs or more. About the size of some of the wild big cats. So a leaping greyhound looks a lot like a leaping Jaguar.

Greyhound radiator cap on a 1929 Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Cars In Depth

The two hood ornaments look so much alike that even Jaguar enthusiasts sometimes can’t tell the difference. As you know, some cars, like obsolete American iron Ford’s Panther platforms, or German clown shoe cars BMW shooting brakes have some fan boys on the TTAC staff. The timeless styling and manners of the olde and unreliable English crappe mid 1980s Jaguar XJ has its aficionados as well. Baruth has owed one. So have I. Mine was the former daily driver of the Jaguar Club of North America, so it was mechanically (albeit not electrically) sorted out, and a fun car to drive, particularly out on the highway.

Did you know that Jaguar XJ’s had the speedometer and tachometer sweeps calibrated so that above 35 mph they are perfectly parallel to each other?

Anyway, I had an old, tired Jag with over 200K miles, but it was still a Jag. The car was fairly solid, not much rust, but it had lived in the Carolinas and the grey paint was matte finished long before matte finishes were stylish. The chrome leaper, though, was still shiny. Things weren’t great already with my ex and the Jaguar was one of the final straws but I’d always loved the XJ so I bought it. I needed a car, and I still had decent credit then. Around then we had adopted a retired racing greyhound. I’d gotten knocked down on my bicycle by an SUV, broke my knee and was gimpy and depressed. My ex figured I could use a dog. Good in theory, not so good in practice. I really like dogs but it took a while for Annie, the greyhound, to warm up to me. You save a beautiful dog’s life and it walks out of the room when you walk in. That really helped with the depression. Eventually she grew to like me, while the ex was growing to dislike me even more. I always used tasty treats to train her. The dog, not my ex. Maybe that was the problem. One day I noticed that the grey car had a hood ornament that looked like a grey hound. I remembered something about Fords and Lincolns having greyhound hood ornaments, found a site online that sold inexpensive replicas, and made a custom bracket so I could mount it on the Jaguar without damaging the sheet metal. The leaper got put away in a box. I still have it. Don’t have the car. Don’t have the wife. But I still have the hood ornament in a box someplace here.

So I swapped out my leaper for a dog. The funny thing is that a lot of Jaguar enthusiasts would ask me about the car. It had the look of a survivor, plus there was all that advertising on the sides. We’d talk old Jaguars, about how attractive the XJ was, how stupid it is to swap out the most reliable part of a Jaguar, the engine, and replace it with a small block Chevy, how to get your car started when Lucas, the Prince of Darkness, strikes. You know, Jaguar owner stuff. Nobody, though, would ever notice that the cat on the hood was really a dog. Sometimes they couldn’t notice the difference even after I asked them if there was something odd about the car. What was cool, though, is that once they noticed it, they didn’t get offended, they enjoyed the joke. Jaguars may be elegant British sporting cars but I’ve never met a stuffy Jaguar fan. Other than the Americans who insist on pronouncing it Jag-u-ar, that is.

So what’s this about IBM and Apple instead of GM and Chery. Well, it’s quite possible that Sir. William and Mr. Crosby got their inspiration from that earlier mascot, the leaping greyhound that Edsel Ford picked out for Lincoln. Lyons didn’t start putting cats on the bonnets of his cars until almost a decade after Ford put dogs on their Lincolns. Lincoln started using greyhounds on their radiator caps in the 1920s and Fords would wear them in the early 1930s, also before Jaguar’s leaper. In the early days of personal computers (correct me if I’m remembering the specific case wrong but this is already >2,000 words and I don’t feel like looking up the details), Apple was the first to the market with a GUI, a graphical user interface that did not require line commands, like DOS machines. When IBM came out with their own operating system (remember IBM OS2?) with a GUI, Apple sued. IBM pointed out that the idea had actually originated at Xerox’ Palo Alto facility. Apple’s argument boiled down to “but we stole it first”. I don’t think there’s any question if Changfeng is ripping off Jaguar, the question is, did Sir William Lyons steal it from Edsel Ford first?

*Link to suck up to Ash Sutcliffe so Bertel doesn’t have to buy him breakfast again.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original stereographic 3D car culture site. Don’t be put off by 3D, all the graphics and video can be seen in mono too, though they look great in stereo. Besides, in the case of cars, S3D makes a lot of sense, not just hype. If you’ve read this post to the bottom, you’ll probably like the editorial content there as well.

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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2 of 13 comments
  • -Cole- -Cole- on Jul 18, 2011

    Great article. I really want one of these. You can in fact get the XF with the hood ornament--I even saw one. But probably only from the dealer, from the big pile of leapers left over. I like the older ornaments better. The current one seems to work in every way but a small statue. Are the cars not square enough to support it anymore? It does look hilarious on the XF.

  • 5thbeatle 5thbeatle on Jul 19, 2011

    Thanks for the entertaining article, Ronnie. I love learning about the history of how some of the most simple things (i.e. hood ornaments) come about!

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