The Flying Lady's scandalous secret

By Martin Love

Eleanor Thornton, Lord Montagu's lover, was the inspiration for the Whisper and the Spirit of Ecstasy. Photo / Supplied
Eleanor Thornton, Lord Montagu's lover, was the inspiration for the Whisper and the Spirit of Ecstasy. Photo / Supplied

In these days of public prurience and celebrity superinjunctions, it's refreshing to learn that there is another way to deal with the vagaries of an extramarital affair.

Exactly a century ago, the 15cm sculpture that would become known the world over as the Spirit of Ecstasy appeared for the first time on the bonnet of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.

Along with the three-pointed star of Mercedes-Benz, the winged B of Bentley and the leaping cat of Jaguar, it is perhaps the most famous motoring emblem of them all - and she has stood proudly, arms outstretched, diaphanous dress rippling in the wind, on the bonnet of every Rolls-Royce built since May 1911. But the Flying Lady is not only the clue to a scandal, but also the custodian of a tragic secret.

The second Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was a motoring pioneer and became the founding editor of The Car Illustrated magazine in 1902.

In addition to his editorial and estate duties, the Lord also managed to find time to start a passionate affair with his assistant, Eleanor Thornton.

So all-consuming was this affair that Montagu threw caution to the wind and commissioned the chief graphic artist of his magazine, Charles Sykes, to create a sculpture of his lover.

Sykes came up with the striking image of a curvaceous young woman with her index finger pressed to her lips, her robes flowing suggestively around her. It was known as the Whisper, though those close to the Lord often referred to it as "Miss Thornton in her nightie".

At around the same time, Montagu was forging a lasting friendship with Charles Stewart Rolls and Henry Royce - the three men ultimately went on to play a vital role in the development of the British motoring industry.

At the start of the last century, manufacturers didn't put mascots on the front of their cars; it was left to drivers to put whatever they wanted on their radiator caps. Bulldogs and St Christophers were popular but Montagu persuaded Rolls and Royce that a single mascot might help build their brand's identity.

In a surge of boastful pride, Montagu suggested they commission something suitable from Sykes, who duly came up with the Spirit of Ecstasy - a thinly reinterpreted version of the Whisper. Rolls and Royce leapt on the Flying Lady, so to speak, and from 1911 on, Montagu's mistress has commanded the eyeline of the driver of every Rolls-Royce.

Unfortunately, Montagu's love was to end tragically, as Thornton died in 1915, going down with the SS Persia when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. The two were reported as being swept from the deck in each other's arms. Lord Montagu surfaced, but Eleanor did not.

Montagu's ancestral home at Beaulieu in the south of England has since become the National Motor Museum, and the centenary of the Spirit of Ecstasy was the perfect excuse for me to make a visit.

Among the collection of more than 250 classics, the museum has half a dozen prized Rollers. On the day I visited, the chief mechanic, Ian Stansfield, was giving one of their rarest cars, a 1914 Rolls-Royce Alpine Eagle, a spin around the block.

"It's a £3 million ($6.1 million) car," he told me, "and the conservators would like to wrap it in cotton wool. But the best way to maintain these old motors is to drive them."

He fired up the astonishing 48 horse power 7.5-litre engine with gusto.

We stood by, expecting a deafening roar, but the Alpine Eagle's engine was almost silent - a whisper. Ian offered to drive my wife and I out of the workshop and on to the open roads of the surrounding New Forest.

Finally Ian dropped us back in the pretty village of Beaulieu, where I'd booked a night at the Montagu Arms Hotel. Later, as I gazed across at the spires of the main house, I silently raised a glass to Eleanor.

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