It may seem strange, but there was a time when the stylish car wasn't complete without a Lalique accessory
These days, car mascots tell you only one thing: that the owner of the Golf Cabriolet or Range Rover they usually adorn has less taste than money. These are the sort of people who double-park outside department stores and send their children to schools with preposterous uniforms. It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time when an ostentatious bonnet statue was a sign that its owner was not only orbiting the higher echelons of society but also fashionable and discerning, too.

In the 1920s and early Thirties, leading artists and sculptors turned their attention to car mascots. People such as Auguste Bartholdi (best known for the Statue of Liberty), Rembrandt Bugatti and Rene Lalique were inspired by the emerging car manufacturers' increasingly flamboyance. Voisin, Citroen, Hispano Suiza and Bugatti, among others, were beginning to see the potential of the automobile as art, and the artistic community wanted a piece of the action.

The most famous and long-lived mascot is, of course, the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy, designed by Charles Sykes, art editor for The Car Illustrated magazine. It was commissioned in 1911, when the company became concerned at the number of its customers buying mascots, which it felt undermined the dignity of its cars. Generally believed to have been modelled on Eleanor Thornton, secretary to the current Lord Montague's father (who commissioned the first-ever mascot, a St Christopher, for his Daimler in 1896), the silver lady has shrunk considerably over the years and acquired a spring- loader for safety (they retract if something hits them), but in her 11th incarnation, she still cocks a snook at the lower orders on the new Silver Seraph.

Other mascots were not so long-lived, but still left their mark. Bartholdi's design, the Peugeot lion, is still incorporated into its logo. It began life as a three-dimensional mascot in 1922, based on the Lion of Belfort monument near the Peugeot factory in Paris. Michelin's world-famous Bibendum also began life, at the turn of the century, as a car mascot.

The mostly highly covetable single mascot is probably the rearing elephant found on the bonnet of the ill-fated Bugatti Royale, designed by sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti. Rembrandt finished the original bronze in 1903, but it was only after he committed suicide in 1916 that six were made in tribute, to decorate the endless bonnet of his brother Ettore's folie de grandeur. Ettore's own example was sold for pounds 31,000 in 1990.

The inspiration for mascots often came from nature, as with the leaping cat (designed for Jaguar by the doyen of motoring artists F Gordon Crosby), or Alvis's crouching hare. Women in various poses and states of undress were popular, too.

Usually, companies sought an emblem to reflect their brand's particular attributes - Rover's Viking Sea Rover was supposed to suggest rugged reliability, for instance; others, such as Armstrong Siddeley with its sphinx, followed the fashions of the time: Henry Ford even had a bust of himself made as an option on his cars in the 1920s.

The most beautiful mascot was probably Hispano Suiza's elegant flying heron, but the most collectible today are the crystal mascots made by Lalique.

Rene Lalique began his career making Art Nouveau jewellery before moving into glassware and perfume bottles. In 1925, inspired by Citroen's giant illuminated advert depicting a comet on the side of the Eiffel Tower (which he could see from his home on the nearby Cours La Reine), Lalique designed his first bouchones de radiateur, the Comete.

Over the next seven years, Lalique, who died in 1945, produced around 30 mascot designs (though the exact figure is hotly debated among collectors). Twenty-nine were manufactured in clear, satin and frosted-glass finishes, depicting, among other subjects: horse's heads, dragonflies, cockerels, and the seminal Victoire - an Art-Nouveau icon in its own right - but the 30th, a leaping greyhound plaque, was a one-off. "It was made for The Duke of Windsor," Eric Knowles, a director of Bonhams auctioneers and Antiques Roadshow expert, tells me, "I've only ever seen it in photographs, I don't even know if it still exists." Lalique's amethyst-tinged eagle's head mascot attracted the attention of another famous fascist - Hitler gave them to his generals for use on their Mercedes staff cars. Many Lalique mascots were lost during the war, others damaged beyond repair, so their rarity and value today ensures that few are risked as bonnet decoration. "You can pay anything from pounds 800 to pounds 20,000 for one," says Knowles. "The cheapest are the St Christophers on a disc, which they continued to make into the 1950s, the most expensive is the blue peacock."

The coloured Lalique mascots are the most valuable of the mass-produced designs. Often, they would be mounted on a bonnet of a car by Lalique's London agent, Breves Galleries of Basil Street, with a light inside the plinth. Powered by a dynamo, the light would glow brighter the faster the car travelled. You can imagine the impression it would have made from the bonnet of a monstrous 1920s Cruella de Ville-style tourer as it swept through the night along the coast road to St Tropez.

As tastes changed and the Twenties roared to an end, the fashion for mascots died out. In 1928, for instance, the influential magazine Art et Industrie branded the radiator mascot decidedly de trop, saying that it was "destined to be smashed one day by a spanner ... we must get rid of all this junk".

"I think Lalique's mascots must have been relatively impractical," says Knowles, "I dare say a lot of them got stone-chipped." Gerard Tavernas, the current president of Lalique, believes that Rene Lalique simply lost interest. "When he saw that other people had started to copy him he became bored and decided to stop. The company did make a limited run of 250 crystal Spirits of Ecstasy for Rolls-Royce recently, though, and I would still be happy to make some one-offs. But now we use the car mascots as inspiration for our perfume bottles." The final nail in the mascot coffin came with the introduction of laws, first by county councils then by parliament, prohibiting their use, as the number of pedestrians they injured each year increased.

After the war, radical advancements in car body design rendered mascots an incongruous absurdity that only Rolls- Royce would pull off with a straight face. Whisper it in Knightsbridge, but mounted on any other car today and they make furry dice look sophisticated

For Lalique stockists, call 0171-245 9090