Cars

These Stylish Vintage Ads Reveal How Much Car Culture Has Changed

Taschen's Automobile Design Graphics is a wealth of 500 car advertisements from across eight decades. Obscure brands such as Tucker, Ajax, and Columbia are showcased along with mainstream General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Their messages are unique specimens of how car buyers' desires have changed over the years, illustrated by the best American illustration and graphic design of the last century.

  1. DeSoto, 1960
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    DeSoto, 1960

    In the 1960s wide gaps between well-made, reliable cars and paltry junkers still existed. Consumers wanted brands they knew they could trust, especially since most households had only one car rather than two or three, as many do today. DeSoto was an American brand manufactured and marketed by Chrysler from 1928 to the 1961 model year; more than 2 million DeSoto models were made. Its ads emphasized 'Quality' above all else, exactly what discerning buyers wanted when they made the large purchase of a family car. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  2. Sun, 1916
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    Sun, 1916

    The little roadster cars from Sun automobile were originally made in Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1900s. Then the company moved to Elkhart, Ind., in 1916, where its slogan was, "The Sun Outshines Them All." Ads then emphasized sunny family days spent meandering along smooth roads in outdoor playlands. The scenario was idealistic at the time, since many roads went unpaved, and the cars often broke down, but that, of course, was the point of the advertisement: It was selling the dream of the long, leisurely, simple drive in a car that could "outlast" the others (not break down). At the time. that prospect was novel enough to serve as a major selling point. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  3. Studebaker, 1916
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    Studebaker, 1916

    “Benedikt Taschen often comes over to my storage facility and spends an hour looking at stuff and then says, ‘OK, let’s do a book on this,’” Jim Heimann, who curated the book from his own personal collection of ephemera, said over the phone. “So when I get a green light like that, I start to flesh out certain categories so that we can do a book.” The most exciting part of the collection is the graphic aspect, he says.

    Buyers during the early 1900s often bought cars to use for weekend drives in Sunday best. The idea of closing the heretofore wide gap between visiting relations had a strong pull for consumers of that era. Here Studebaker, with its co-ed mix of well-dressed folks on a country drive, is selling the dream of strengthening family bonds, courtships and even advancement in society at a time when consumers were beginning to conceive of upwardly mobile lives. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  4. Buick, 1946
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    Buick, 1946

    Buick was one of the premier car companies at the time of this ad in 1946, so it had massive advertising budgets to hire artists to design original sketches and illustrations like this one. "It’s pretty easy with this category to find great graphics—there were such large budgets for it,” Heimann said. “The best young designers of the time worked on these things.” The allure here is one of patriotic freedom (note the USA on the plate), with a masculine blue car flanked by a trophy blonde. The aesthetic is simple and clean, with bold overtones of wild adventure; it was meant to appeal directly to post-war buyers who would notice the military-style outfit on the woman and Navy-style coloring on the car. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  5. Chevrolet, 1958
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    Chevrolet, 1958

    Illustrations like this Corvette add were produced in a flurry after initial public response to the concept car was overwhelmingly positive. Again, patriotism played a big part, the red and white stripes echoing the American flag. The rough edges of the "CORVETTE" font signal a hard-working sensibility targeted directly at postwar buyers proud of American industry ad ingenuity. But by the mid-1960s, illustration starts to get phased out, said Heimann. “The 1973 gas crisis coincided with the shift from illustration to photography, and as photography took off and become much more inclusive, that became the more competitive way to sell.”

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  6. Moon, 1924
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    Moon, 1924

    "Until 1938 you really were reliant on illustration to portray these cars," Heimann said. "There was German poster art, Art Nouveau, the 1920s was really a time of lush, great jazz graphics, and then it swings into Art Deco. Then the graphics get more serious just before the war—and in the war, it’s nothing—then postwar, it all blows out because everybody wants a car."

    The look here is very basic, straightforward, and slightly whimsical, with light curled fonts and light sketching throughout. Cars still held mystery at the time for many buyers and the allure of far-flung places attainable by motorized vehicle. It's no accident the word 'MOON' is the largest text on the brochure; it's the most exotic locale conceivable. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  7. Chrysler, 1939
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    Chrysler, 1939

    "People were looking for innovation," Heimann said. "In each era the brochures really play up what that means—either safety devices or even the emotional appeal of new color in the car."

    Aerodynamic improvements such as the curves on this vintage Chrysler were one way buyers could one-up their neighbors with their latest car purchase. This ad emphasized that innovation and the idea of color choice—you could choose a red or a black version of your car to differentiate yourself from the guy up the road. What's more, escapism before WWII was a big allure for car buyers: The small faces nearly hidden in the rear windows signified secret worlds, glamorous parties, and chic destinations attainable only by those who could afford a Chrysler.

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  8. Volkswagen, 1957
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    Volkswagen, 1957

    Postwar consumers were anxious for progress and new ideas: The straight-arrow shot through the VW logo at the top of this ad indicates the forward thinking nature of the brand and the car. "The introduction of foreign cars happens very heavily after World War II," Heimann said. "Every year after that was an improvement" in the level of graphics used in advertising. And in the quality of the cars being sold. Here, the lady in the rear looks out the window beckoning consumers to join her in progress. "Onward," she seems to say. "Join the rest of the world moving forward, now that war is far behind us."

     Courtesy of Jim Cherry

  9. Ford, 1967
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    Ford, 1967

    "Very early on, the marketing teams in these places focused on women," Heimann said. "'Easy for a woman to drive' or selling points like that, because women were often the decision makers when it came to making a purchase." This ad paints a domestic scene meant to appeal directly to women who needed a car to cart children to school, to church, and on errands. The "pert, peppy" car is parked mildly beside mother and child and surrounded by nature, perfect for the novel idea of a feminine driver. The floral pattern on the mother's dress and her circular glasses compliment that setting, along with the green hues of the car, text, and background, and overall speaks to the emerging numbers of consumers influenced by the hippie and free-love movements. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  10. Lincoln-Zephyr, 1940
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    Lincoln-Zephyr, 1940

    This rarity, from just before WWII, shows a car that stands guard like a sentinel over its driver. The tall, strong front nose and fence-like grill, paired with headlights like alert eyes at front, communicates a stalwart machine in the face of global uncertainty. Consumers then were looking for a sense of security; the visuals and bold monotone coloring of this ad promise it unequivocally. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  11. Mercury, 1964
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    Mercury, 1964

    "I go to the flea market every Sunday, and I’ve been doing that for 40 years," Heimann said about his methods for collecting graphics. He also visits paper sales and swap meets, stashing his many rare finds in a storage facility in California. Here Mercury is speaking to buyers anxious to distinguish themselves as cosmopolitan and worldly. The car sits in a city center flanked by a stylish woman and showing off headlights set like diamonds in a wristwatch. This ad coincides with the rise of fashion in advertising: It draws the connection between the two for consumers searching for urbanity and subtle glamour, in a time when suburbs were king.

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  12. Lexington, 1921
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    Lexington, 1921

    Lexington car company sold cars from Connersville, Ind;, from 1910 to 1927. (It was founded in 1909 in Lexington, Ky.) Its best cars were short-wheelbase roadsters, one of which won the iconic Pike's Peak road race in 1920. Company founders used ads like this to emphasize the stalwart, powerful nature of their car and its progressive engine. The messaging here sells "revolutionary" engineering meant to attract buyers who (yes, even then) wanted to be sure they were buying the latest and greatest automobile available. This was around the same time, too, Heimann said, that automakers began to produce new cars each year, rather than every few years, as they had done before. Most of the improvements each year were marginal and cosmetic, but they helped sell cars and feed consumer appetite to buy the latest and greatest. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  13. Pierce-Arrow, 1930
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    Pierce-Arrow, 1930

    The Pierce-Arrow Motor Cars company was based in Buffalo, N.Y., and made cars from 1901 to 1938. In the 1930s, cars were still considered major luxury items. Owning one, especially by such a renowned brand as Pierce-Arrow, confirmed status and prestige on its owner. Ads made in the best color tones, such as this rich blue and blush pink, and drawn by the best artists money could buy reflected the glamour. The clean swoop of the lines and woman dressed like a wealthy socialite, resplendent in diamond and fur, told would-be buyers this vehicle would fit in perfectly with their already lavish lifestyle. It's notable that no actual car is shown in this ad; the look of the lady alone was enough to communicate the elite class of the car. If you looked and lived like her, you too could be one of "Those Who Own." 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  14. Oldsmobile, 1937
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    Oldsmobile, 1937

    "Nowadays you no longer go to a dealership and pick up a brochure and take it home and look at it with the family," Heimann said. But for decades, that's exactly what American car buyers did. Cars were caricatured like these, emphasizing their massive engines ('Six' and 'Eight') and the ability to choose which color and style you wanted. The appeal of choice, power, and strength (those massive front grilles look like tractor and farming equipment) spoke directly to the increasing numbers of consumers coming out of farming age and moving into city's industrial life. Big, bold, brute strength—all depicted in colorful drawings that would not lose their allure after hours at home pouring over every detail—were king. 

    Courtesy of the Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN

  15. Automobile Design Graphics
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    Automobile Design Graphics

    "By the mid-1960s illustration started to get phased out," Heimann said. "You start to see a decline in the material then because it becomes very much the same. The manufactures are all trying to show the best shot of the car, and how much more unique can you get besides location and models? That thinned out the creative aspect of it." Social media have done away with hand-drawn car brochures and even old authentic photographic creativity, but many of the desires of car consumers over time—for reliability, power, revolutionary engineering, and the ability to choose unique details that will distinguish your car from others—have remained generally the same, he said. Automobile Design Graphics ($59.99) will be released in September.

    Source: TASCHEN