The Spirit of Ecstasy, also called "Emily", "Silver Lady" or "Flying Lady", was designed by Charles Robinson Sykes and carries with it a story about a secret passion between John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, (second Lord Montagu of Beaulieu after 1905, a pioneer of the automobile movement, and editor of The Car magazine from 1902) and his secret love and the model for the emblem, Eleanor Velasco Thornton. Eleanor was John Walter's secretary, and their love was to remain hidden, limited to their circle of friends, for more than a decade. The reason for the secrecy was Eleanor's impoverished social and economic status, which was an obstacle to their love. John-Walter, succumbing to family pressures, married Lady Cecil Victoria Constance, but the secret love affair continued.
Eleanor died on 30 December 1915, going down with the SS Persia, when the ship was torpedoed off Crete by a German submarine, whilst she accompanied Lord Montagu on his journey to India, four years after she had been immortalized by her bereaved lover.
When Montagu commissioned his friend Sykes to sculpt a personal mascot for the bonnet of his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, Sykes chose Eleanor Thornton as his model. Sykes originally crafted a figurine of her in fluttering robes, pressing a finger against her lips - to symbolise the secrets of their love. The figurine was consequently named The Whisper.
The very first Rolls-Royce motorcars did not feature radiator mascots; they simply carried the Rolls-Royce emblem. This, however, was not enough for their customers who believed that such a prestigious vehicle as a Rolls-Royce motorcar should have its own luxurious mascot, and by 1910 personal mascots had become the fashion of the day. Rolls-Royce were concerned to note that some owners were affixing "inappropriate" ornaments to their cars. Claude Johnson, then managing director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, was asked to see to the commissioning of something more suitably dignified and graceful.
He turned to Charles Sykes, a young artist friend and a graduate of London's Royal College of Art, to produce a mascot which would adorn all future Rolls-Royce cars and become generic to the marque, with the specifications that it should convey "the spirit of the Rolls-Royce, namely, speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy and a beautiful living organism of superb grace..."
Sykes' brief from Claude Johnson had been to evoke the spirit of mythical beauty, Nike, whose graceful image was admired in The Louvre, but Sykes was not impressed. He felt that a more feminine representation might be apt.
It was again Miss Thornton whom he had in mind. Sykes chose to modify ‘The Whisper’ into a version similar to today's; ‘The Spirit of Ecstasy’. He called this first model The Spirit of Speed. Later, Charles Sykes called it "A graceful little goddess, the Spirit of Ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight and alighted on the prow of a Rolls-Royce motor car to revel in the freshness of the air and the musical sound of her fluttering draperies." He presented the mascot to the company in February 1911.
Some critics and fans of the Rolls Royce have given The Spirit of Ecstasy the dubious nickname "Ellie in her Nightie", suggesting Eleanor's influence as Sykes' muse.
Claude Johnson devised the description of The Spirit of Ecstasy, he described how Sykes had sought to convey the image of "the spirit of ecstasy, who has selected road travel as her supreme delight......she is expressing her keen enjoyment, with her arms outstretched and her sight fixed upon the distance."
Henry Royce was ill during the commissioning of the flying lady. He did not believe the figurine enhanced the cars, asserting that it impaired the driver's view, and was rarely seen driving one of his company's vehicles adorned with the mascot.
Royce made sure it was officially listed as an optional extra, but in practice it was fitted on almost all cars after that year, becoming a standard fitting in the early 1920s. Automobiles change with the times, and the Spirit of Ecstasy was no exception. It was silver plated from 1911 until 1914 when the mascot was made with nickel or chrome alloy to dissuade theft. The only departure from this came in Paris at the competition for the most apposite mascot of 1920, where a gold-plated version won first place. Gold-plated versions were subsequently available at additional cost.
Although it seems unchanged, the mascot had eleven main variations in its life. Lowered height of coachwork forced subsequent reductions in the mascot size. Consequently, several alternations in the original design were made.
Today's Spirit of Ecstasy stands at 3 inches and, for safety, is mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism designed to retract instantly into the radiator shell if struck from any direction. There is a button within the vehicle which can retract/extend the emblem when pressed. She can be made of highly polished stainless steel, sterling silver or 24-carat gold, the sterling silver and gold being optional extras.
The only two Rolls-Royces this mascot does not appear on currently is the first Phantom IV delivered to the then Princess Elizabeth in 1950, which carries the British Queen's mascot of St. George on horseback, slaying a dragon, designed by artist Edward Seago. However this mascot is interchangeable so it can be placed in any of the Royal fleet's cars.
On the other side, Princess Margaret chose Pegasus (by Louis Lejeune) as hood ornament for her 1954 Phantom IV.