Like many kids in the ’70s, David Webb honed his skills for the mechanical by tinkering with his dad’s car. For him, that meant wrenching on a pre-war Rolls-Royce Phantom III.

“It was a complicated car, and incredibly quiet-running, and I thought, Geez, I’d like to take these things apart and see what makes them so great.”

In his teens he apprenticed at Mississauga’s luxury-car shop Hyphen Repairs, got his mechanic’s licence, then moved on to work at Rolls-Royce dealer Grand Touring Automobiles.

Though now a service manager for Ferrari of Ontario, he still has the Phantom III, which he likes to take on drives with the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club.

“When you go on these back-roads tours through these little towns, the people there have never seen anything like these cars in their lives,” Webb says. “And yet most people know what it is right away—not from the back, but certainly when they get around to the front and see that grille.”

HeapMedia264255

The Rolls-Royce grille is really a three-piece deal that includes the ‘RR’ badge; the radiator shell and vertical vanes of the ‘Pantheon’ grille, named for its resemblance to the portico of the ancient Roman temple; and the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ flying-lady ornament on top.

Those three pieces first came together around 1925, the year Rolls-Royce introduced its first-ever Phantom flagship; previously the cars had worn black mesh grilles, and one model, the Twenty, even wore horizontal grille vanes.

(The ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ specifically dates back even further, to 1911, and has her own history; she was sculpted by Charles Sykes, who used Eleanor Velasco Thornton, a secretary for magazine The Car Illustrated, as his muse.)

The grille was originally designed as a functional unit made of polished nickel-steel, with the vertical vanes hinged at the top and bottom so they could be opened or closed for better cooling. It largely resembled other marques’ radiators, but stood out for its impeccable fit and finish.

In pictures: Rolls-Royce’s ‘Pantheon’ grille

“It was a solid material, and they had to shape it—had to mitre the corners so it made that perfectly square edge, almost like a razor blade, and then hand-solder it all together,” explains Webb. “There’s not a lot of people who have the skills to repair them. When I used to work on them, we had to send them back to England.”

According to Rolls-Royce, early cars’ grilles were built by hand and lined up by eye by a craftsman who would inscribe his initials on it so that, in case of damage, it could be repaired by “the man who knows it best—the man who made it.”

Rolls also added a slight convex curve to the face of the grille to make it appear straighter and squarer, a principle known as ‘entasis.’

In the 1930s, the ‘RR’ badge’s lettering went from an optional black or red to standard black – for aesthetics, not to mourn Sir Henry Royce’s death in 1933, as is rumoured – and had the Spirit of Ecstasy kneel down for better driver visibility—she was eventually stood back up again, and just scaled down.

After that, the grille’s appearance remained largely unchanged through to the debut of the Phantom VI in ’68, by which point it had cemented itself as probably the most recognizable automotive design icon in the world. Rolls-Royce trademarked it in 1974.

HeapMedia264256

Today, the grille is so integral to Rolls-Royce, it essentially defines the marque.

“When BMW Group purchased Rolls-Royce [in 1998], we didn’t purchase the plant, or Bentley, or any of those assets: we purchased the name ‘Rolls-Royce Motor Cars’ and the logo, and then the Spirit of Ecstasy and the Pantheon grille,” explains Gerry Spahn, head of communications for Rolls-Royce North America.

“That is, from a business sense, how fundamental the Spirit of Ecstasy and the grille are to the company. They are the core of the Rolls-Royce brand.”

Every car in the current Rolls-Royce lineup wears a variation of the grille, with the flagship Phantom featuring the most traditional interpretation, the Phantom Coupé a slightly smaller, angled-back version, and the newer Ghost and Wraith models sporting a grille shaped “more like a jet intake.”

The hand-polished Spirit of Ecstasy is there on every car, too, now some three inches tall, half her height in 1925. Rolls-Royce says each ‘SoE’ still takes a week to produce using an ancient lost-wax process that renders no two exactly alike.

“The grille is a trademark for Rolls-Royce—a holy piece that as a designer you’re not really allowed to touch and change too much. Even when we do design exercises, they always have that grille,” says Daniel Starke, who’s been with BMW design since 2001, and Rolls-Royce since 2014.

That reverence for the grille extends into Rolls-Royce’s popular bespoke division, too, which is known for going to great lengths to customize buyers’ cars in any way they could think of—or, almost any way.

“The bespoke options are really fairly limitless, but we won’t alter the grille—that would actually impinge on the integrity of that grille as a trademark,” says Spahn. “Some of our owners do, and we fully support them doing what they want. We’re not the taste police. It’s not our car, it’s their motor car.”

If you ask Webb, real Rolls-Royce enthusiasts wouldn’t want to mess with the grille anyway. “It’s the kernel of it all, it’s the symbol of that brand,” he says. “It wouldn’t be a Rolls-Royce without that grille.”