Car Ads Didn’t Used to Be So Bleh. They Were Serious Art
Wired Aarian Marshall Transportation 07.28.16
Car brochures were the original car ad. This one's all about the Oldsmobile Six and Eight models of 1937, the gold standards of prewar car design. The illustration, notes Automobile Design Graphics, is more children’s book than pin-up, with the vehicles’ large and gleaming grilles evoking images of adventuring ocean liners. Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
Before whiz-bang commercials, slapdash social media posts, and ridiculous concept cars, artists spent weeks—months, even—crafting gorgeous illustrations to depict the latest vehicles. Brochures were single-item catalogs, designed to sell not just a car, but a dream.
“An automaker could convince you that you were smart, a good spouse, and a hero to your kids if you picked its car,” historian Jim Donnelly writes in Automobile Design Graphics, a new book celebrating the beautiful brochures of yore.
Starting in the early 1920s, when automakers got serious about branding, Detroit made a dedicated and detail-oriented effort to ensure its advertisements were perfect. That included the typography, says Carlos Segura, a graphic designer and founder of the car design website cartype.com. Illustrators came up with colorful and flamboyant fonts to fit the shape and feel of the cars, which weren’t as homogeneous as they are now. “These brochures have so much personality,” he says, because up to the 1940s, cars “didn’t have model names. You either bought a Chevy or a Buick or a Ford.”
These ads are the work of some of the era’s best graphic artists. “I think that the automotive advertising was very reflective of the time,” says Segura. “It was a very artistic time and a very artistic age.”
An Advertisment for the 1924 Moon, right at the start of the 1920s car advertising renaissance. Mass production techniques meant more cars existed post-war than every before---makers just had to sell them. This St. Louis car company would go out of business just three years later, but look at that slick black trim!Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
Car brochure renderers of the 1930’s took care to exaggerate the proportions of the modern, mighty vehicles of the day. These 1939 luxury Chryslers are shinier (and cleaner) in print than they ever could be in real life. Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
OK, so this Lincoln-Zephyr came out in 1940, but its brochure Highlighted the car’s iconic 1930s design, which is echoed by the typography. The car’s curvy, horizontal-bar grille serves as the brochure’s main motif. Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
Behold: woman laughing with Buick, 1946, Her happiness made a lot of sense, as the country looked forward to a prosperous postwar future. Plus, brochures like this would usher in some of Buick’s best years.Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
A 1957 Volkswagon in an illustration by the stylish German artist Bernd Reuters. Compared to the ornate American car designs of the postwar years, Volkwagen’s were remarkably streamlined, stressing functionality over flourish. With the subtle branding looking on, the woman in this ad welcomes American consumers with a smile. Courtest of Jim Cherry
A muscular, patriotic 270-horsepower 1958 Chevrolet Corvette. Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
“If smart styling alone sold cars, De Soto would have likely survived”, the book notes. (Chrysler terminated the line in 1961) The car – and its brochures – had a definite love affair with space age, with streamlined lines and bold but simple designs dominating its design, ads, and typography.Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
By the 1960’s, car designs had pivoted back to minimalism, as had the ads used to sell them. The name of the game was sleekness, placed in chic contexts consumers might enjoy: Say, a romantical city street.Jim Heimann Collection/TASCHEN
Flower child? Maybe not. But the 1967 Ford Falcon’s ad certainly tips its hat to the fashions of the day, albeit in a more family-friendly way. Jim Heimann Collection/Taschen
An automaker could convince you that you were smart, a good spouse, and a hero to your kids if you picked its car,” historian Jim Donnelly writes in the new book "Automobile Design Graphics.Jim Heimann/Steven Heller/Jim Donnelly
Available at Amazon.com for $51.00.