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The story of Avard T. Fairbanks

It was 1929 when rising young sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks arrived at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to head up the sculpture department. He needed a more reliable car than his 1928 Willys-Knight with its sleeve-valve motor that wouldn't start on cold winter mornings. But it was the Depression and he didn't have any more money than anyone else.

Flying Lady - Plymouth hood ornament

He reasoned he could design a radiator cap ornament in trade for a new automobile. Chrysler Corporation, in nearby Highland Park, was an up-and-coming auto maker, with innovative engineering and designs. Yet its radiator caps, with their little Viking wings, needed improvement. Avard Fairbanks was just the artist to replace them with sculptural masterpieces.

Flying Lady hood ornamentAt Chrysler headquarters he was told they were about to introduce an all-new Plymouth, the PA series, featuring Floating Power (which meant shock-absorbing engine mounts). “The Smoothness of an Eight with the Economy of a Four” was the advertising pitch. Could he symbolize that in a radiator cap ornament?

Fairbanks designed a little mermaid (of Norse mythology) coming up out of a swirling wave...then gave her the wings of an eagle. The mermaid was a hit: Floating Power, indeed!

In return for his work on the little mermaid, Fairbanks was paid with a handsome, red 1932 Chrysler Royal Eight.

Over the years these radiator caps have come to be known as "the Flying Lady." Only the Fairbanks family seems to know who she really is. Take a close look, the next time you see one; take a closer look at the point where her hips emerge from the swirling waves and where her tail disappears topside. Notice the little ridges that represent her fishy scales. She's a mermaid, all right!

The 1931 Plymouth was a runaway success. It pushed Buick out of third place in national sales and thrust Chrysler Corporation into the Big Three of auto makers. Walter P. Chrysler may have thought its success had to do with his engineering features such as hydraulic brakes, free wheeling and Floating Power. But Avard Fairbanks, never averse to taking due credit, always said, "everyone just loved my little mermaid."

There is a feature of the Little Mermaid on which almost everyone seems compelled to comment. It's not about the feathery pattern on her wings, nor her flowing wavy hair, nor her graceful emergence out of the waves. It's about her healthy torso! Fairbanks reply spoke strongly in her defense: "She's a mermaid, and that's just how mermaids are!" Dispute that if you can.

Walter P. Chrysler with the Plymouth PA

The "Little Mermaid on the waves"--as a symbol of floating power and Plymouth--soon got lost on the marketing people at Plymouth. A line drawing of the design appeared on each page of the sales brochures of the PA models, but the Fairbanks design was used only on the 1931 PA and 1932 PB Plymouths. The 1933 design, which was taller and slimmer, was the work of someone else. By 1934 Plymouth ornaments had become sailing ships. DeSoto got winged ladies of various designs until 1949.

first Dodge Ram logo - hood ornamentAvard Fairbanks was influenced by the styles of the era in which he worked, most notably the Art Deco motifs popular during the 1920s and '30s. His work for the Chrysler Corporation was not over, however. As he recalled:

One evening I got an urgent call from the engineers at Dodge automobile company asking me to meet them in ten minutes. They explained that they had 10,000 cars that needed hood ornaments and that they wanted something as attractive as the ornament on a Rolls Royce, but for the cheapest car! I took along my clay and an animal book by my friend William Hornaday and spent the next several days at their headquarters. They brought in food and a couch and I went to work.

I suggested a mountain lion, a tiger, a jaguar and other animals. Finally I started modeling a mountain sheep. When the engineers read that the ram was the "master of the trail and not afraid of even the wildest of animals" they became enthusiastic about the symbol. Walter P. Chrysler wasn't as convinced. But I explained that anyone seeing a ram, with its big horns, would think "dodge." He looked at me, looked at the model, scratched his head and said, "That's what I want - go ahead with it."

ram hood ornamentThis is the story as it appeared in Southwest Art magazine. The Fairbanks family recalls it slightly differently:

For two weeks father worked on all sorts of models from mythology creatures to various powerful animals.

Finally, he called the designers and Mr. Chrysler in to see three models of a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, a ram. He proposed the charging one.

They asked, “Why a ram?”

Father responded, “It is sure-footed; it’s the King of the Trail; it won’t be challenged by anything.” They nodded their heads. Then father, with a bit of corny humor, added, “And if you were on the trail and saw that ram charging down on you, what would you think? — DODGE!” To which Walter Chrysler excitedly replied “That’s it! The ram goes on the Dodge!”

Dodge ram hood ornamentAvard left his models at Dodge headquarters for a few months. When he returned he was surprised to see an assembly plant lot full of new Dodges with rams on their hoods. He immediately sought an audience with K. T. Keller, President of Dodge Division, who explained that in his absence, they had to move ahead so their own designer modified the ram ornament for production. They had tilted the head down a bit more and pulled the horns away from the head, a suggestion Avard had made but thought would be too costly for production. In fact, it was an expensive item but so beautiful that new Dodge owners were constantly troubled with thefts of their rams. Thousands had to be produced as replacements.

Avard reminded Mr. Keller that copyright laws do apply to sculpture and artistic designs and Mr. Keller very quickly offered to pay him with another new car. But with the big red Chrysler already at home, he asked instead for a royalty on the design. They finally settled on a check for the full retail price for a top-of-the line Dodge Eight: $1,400.

For that amount (rather paltry by today's standards), Dodge got one of the most enduring corporate symbols in American history.

ram hood ornamentA ram of one sort or another went on the hood of every Dodge car and truck from 1932 to 1954. It's on the badges of today's cars, too, and the Ram still symbolizes tough trucks for Dodge [this was written before Ram was separated]. Unlike the Plymouth “Little Mermaid” (for which Fairbanks received no public credit and which has sometimes erroneously been credited to Chrysler stylist Harry Henderson), Fairbanks was given full credit for the Ram design. In a four-page brochure entitled A Fitting Symbol For Dodge Dependability, page one features a closeup drawing of a ram’s head against a mountain backdrop. Pages two and three explain the history of the mountain sheep. Page four finally gets around to giving credit where credit is due, reading:

To Mr. A. E. Fairbanks [in reality, his middle initial was T], sculptor of the art department at the University of Michigan, should be extended the credit of this personification of Dodge dependability and performance.

Deftly sculptured by Mr. Fairbanks’ hands, the Bighorn literally dashes forth upon the radiator of the Dodge Six and Eight with swift and sagacious speed.

bust of Walter P. Chrysler by Avard FairbanksAlthough the Dodge Ram was the last radiator ornament Avard FairDanks designed for Chrysler Corporation, perhaps his most influential contribution to the auto industry came as Chrysler engineers watched him modeling in clay. He taught them how to use clay instead of wood, and sculpture techniques instead of carpentry for their automobile design mock ups.

The Dodge Ram was not be the last radiator ornament Fairbanks designed. His work is also found on the 1933 Hudson Essex Terraplane. The hot performance car of 1933 (it won the Pike's Peak Hill Climb and set records on the sands of Daytona Beach), the Terraplane was given an ornament of the Griffin, the mythological lion with an eagle head and wings. (Its wing pattern is a close match to Plymouth's winged mermaid.) This time he signed the ornament and took an Essex Eight in payment.

Avard Fairbanks went on to a distinguished career as an educator, anatomist and renowned sculptor, creator of over a hundred public monuments (including the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, that can been seen in the background of the cover photo of the July-August 1999 Plymouth Bulletin).

Dodge RamHis other works include a bronze portrait-sculpture of Walter P. Chrysler in the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia; three Pony Express Monuments; four bronzes of George Washington on the George Washington University campus; three marble portraits of Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theater; a colossal marble head of Lincoln and three bronze statues in the U.S. National Capital; a bust of North Dakota Governor John Burke; and the "Statue of a Pioneer Family" on the capitol grounds at Bismarck, North Dakota.

Avard Tennyson Fairbanks was born in Provo, Utah, in 1897. He passed away January 1st, 1987, in Salt Lake City.

Special thanks to Avard T. Fairbanks' sons, David N. F. Fairbanks, MD, Eugene F. Fairbanks, MD, and Grant R. Fairbanks, MD for their assistance with this story; The Avard T. Fairbanks Academy of Fine Arts; Marv Raguse, Jr., and Jeffrey Godhsall of Chrysler; and Avard Fairbanks, Higher Ideals by Athelia Tanner Woolley, Southwest Art, February 1987.

Related bios and Chrysler history pages

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