Car dealerships are beginning to use virtuality reality to sell their vehicles, but once upon a time, sealing the deal required carmakers to pass out printed matter. The folded car dealer brochure was a carefully planned work of artful design intended to show the promise and prestige of the newest makes and models.
Automobile Design Graphics is a new book, edited by Jim Heimann, that covers the evolution of automotive advertising from 1900 to 1973. Over the course of this era, Americans began to shop for cars as a reflection of their identity and metaphor for freedom and success. The book includes more than 500 reproductions of both big names from Chrysler and Ford to obscure makes and models such as the Jeffrey and the Jordan. Contributor Jim Donnelly sums up the ethos of selling cars over the last 100 years, "Stripped bare, the function of automobile advertising is to hold up a looking glass into which the fascinated customer peers, seeing a car reflected back at him — along with a satisfied version of himself."
The ads capture the way marketers viewed desire. In the early 20th century, they showed cars set in art deco motifs and beautiful pastel landscapes in hand-drawn renderings. Later advertisements depict men and women in stereotypical gender roles. An ad for a 1946 Ford shows a military man returning home to share a picnic with a woman and the text "You'll be on the beam." It's clear that car dealers anticipated the postwar boom in auto sales.
In the mid century the art became sharper and more people were featured along with the car. The guys look like they're straight out of Mad Men. The women appear as seductresses, housewives, or as glamorous companions, like a 1956 Cadillac ad showing a woman in the passenger seat wearing an elegant tea-length dress. By the 1960s, dealer ads began to show more women in the driver's seat. A 1966 Ford Fairlane ad shows a carefree woman driver in a mod black-and-white backdrop and a 1966 Dodge Monaco shows a photograph of a woman in a blue pantsuit sitting on top of the car, swinging her legs.
As we move into the 1970s, the cars begin to appear more like superlative characters. A 1972 Volkswagen illustration for the Type 181 became more commonly known as "The Thing - the car that can be anything." While many of the cars in this book represented progress in their day, today you'll find them presented as esteemed collectibles at the premiere vintage car show, Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
Automobile Design Graphics is available for preorder for $51 on Amazon, shipping in early September.