I’ve known for decades that the best magazines for collecting American automobile advertising are Look, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post. Magazines such as Holiday are for the highbrow collector, as one will find ads for Lincolns, Cadillacs, Thunderbirds, and Imperials far more readily than one will in the workaday periodicals. With that being said, I recently paid four dollars at a rural antique store to augment my overstuffed collection with two Look magazines from 1963. Although the ads themselves are the primary draw for someone like me, the culture that evaporated when these weekly magazines disappeared bears pondering.
I’ve long considered the apogee of automotive advertising to be 1955 to 1964, and these dates roughly coincide with the beginning of a downward trend of the weekly general interest publication. Life was the most widely read of the bunch, and as I dutifully stripped my decades old magazines of their best car art, I wondered how much culture we’ve lost as a result of the demise of the popular periodical. All of these magazines were filled with educational and cultural content; topics were broad and all-encompassing. Not only did they cover graphic images of war and political intrigue; but they also included articles on famous artists, philosophers, warriors, and movie stars; along with short stories from famous authors and discussions about religion, civil rights, theatre criticism, fashion, and much, much more. Every week, millions of Americans perused a magazine filled with thought-provoking content and iconic images of the world. Every week, Americans got an education in their own homes without having to search for it. Sure, there was some fluff, but most issues, and I’ve read hundreds of them, were far more substantive and nuanced than your average internet clickbait.
The Life cover above is a perfect example. Millions of people in America had access to an instructive, long article on Greek mythology, and it was a MULTI-PART piece. One could find similar articles about the Civil War, the Space Race, and Jesus Christ. One of my favorite articles from 1960 was titled “What is Existentialism?”
Whether or not the blurb on Ted Kennedy next to the Trojan Horse above was an example of editorializing, I’m not sure.
With the colorful pictures and interesting articles came the ads, lots and lots of them. Almost every magazine had at least a half-dozen automobile ads, along with ads for kitchenware, flooring, TV dinners, cigarettes, and liquor – so much liquor. You’d be excused for thinking that everyone in the world was a lush in the 1950s and 1960s. *Fun tagline? Tareyton Cigarettes – “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.” Everyone in those ads had a black eye.*
One of the best car ads from my recent purchases was the Bonneville convertible above. General Motors ran a campaign in 1963 using the header “Coming from GM…(enter phrase here) means a whole lot more,” and these ads invariably extolled the virtues of the entire GM line of cars. I have at least a half-dozen examples, my favorite showing a blue Riviera beside a lake (beauty means a whole lot more); it’s an all-timer for me. This Bonneville in the midst of a coniferous forest is now the runner up in this series.
One can’t forget the “Car of the Year,” the new Rambler Classic with its electric shaver grille and stylish owners dressed for a night out on the town. Even Rambler tried to sell a glamorous life, far from the drudgery of actual day-to-day car ownership. With that being said, wasn’t the ’63 Classic a clean design? I still like it.
Oldsmobile used a mixture of both photography and illustration through the early-to-mid 1960s, but they never pulled it off like Pontiac did (nobody pulled it off like Pontiac did). This ad for the small Cutlass, the last model before the evergreen A-Body took hold, was a little dull for my taste: I like the car, but the ad leaves me underwhelmed. It’s not colorful enough.
Here’s an example of a car that nobody wanted in an ad that catches the eye. The hapless Mercury Meteor lasted two whole model years before being unceremoniously discarded for an upgraded Comet. There was nothing wrong with the Meteor; it just seems that most people saw through its “more expensive Fairlane” suit and passed on to something else. This ad, however, is a good one: The deep reflection in front of a simple deep blue background frames this quite attractive wagon nicely, with just a hint of airbrushed sparkle from the brightwork to show that this new Meteor is “out of this world!”
And then there was Plymouth…as a fan of advertising, my opinion is that the most boring ads were produced by Chrysler Corporation in 1962 and 1963, even though the cars themselves were unique. There was an occasional winner, but this dark Fury four-door hardtop on a wet test track does not sell the lifestyle to me. It was, however, a “tiger on the road.”
Dodge didn’t do much better; the car was better than the copy in this case. There’s too much white space and small font here; most Dodge ads from 1963 looked like this.
On the other hand, this Plymouth ad is on the right track, with more color and background scenery, in addition to a story to tell that doesn’t involve “our couples retreat at the Chelsea proving grounds.” The implication? The fellas will like your new red Fury convertible, young ladies.
This GMC ad also pushed all the right buttons. It’s colorful with a mixture of photography and illustration, and it has an engine hanging out in the center of the page; plus, that big red alligator-mouthed truck takes up most of the ad. It’s bold, and that’s what people want in a truck.
Like Plymouth, Chevrolet wasn’t immune to glum, rainy settings, but this ad also tells a story: Your new inexpensive compact wagon has room for your entire growing family, Mr. Average 1960s Guy. I really like this wagon, as I do most compact wagons from the 1960s.
Compared to General Motors, Ford used advertising sparingly in the 1960s, but they had some interesting campaigns, and one of them took advantage of the Falcon’s relative success in the Rallye Monte Carlo, or Monte Carlo Rally to English speakers. Curbside readers may be aware that Ford entered souped-up Falcons in that well-respected event, of all things, in 1963 and 1964. In 1964, they earned second place, and they would have won if it weren’t for the labyrinthian and changeable rulebook cooked up by the Monegasque contingent. Ford even concocted a “Monaco Edition” Thunderbird Landau to celebrate the product tie-in. It wasn’t a bad idea, and the scenery is spectacular. Who wouldn’t want to drive their Falcon Sprint up the Col du Turini?
A car more likely found on the Col du Turini is this Renault 8. Later in the decade, Renault ads would become legitimately apologetic for the quality of imports such as the Dauphine, but that was still a few years off in 1963. I’d love a Renault 8 Gordini by the way, but the closest I’ll likely come is a scale model that sits on a shelf in my car room.
In addition to their Monaco campaign, Ford also ran this colorful ad extolling the quality construction of their entire line, including enamel paint, aluminized mufflers, stainless steel fasteners, and built-in fender wells.
AC Filters and Spark Plugs ran some fun illustrated ads as well. Insofar as that smiling drop of oil is concerned, I always wonder if it is being disingenuous. In reality, being rammed through microscopic gaps between spinning and stationary objects just to be squeezed through a hot paper filter and unceremoniously discarded in an nonenvironmental way can’t be anything to smile about.
Chevy trucks printed many of these two-page ads in 1963, showing Chevy trucks rumbling through rugged country everywhere, such as the Baja peninsula in this ad. I’ve always found there to be too much small text and too many pictures. Unlike the Dodge Dart ad, which had excessive white space, this ad doesn’t have enough. It’s busy, like the trucks it portrays.
I’ve saved my favorite ad for last, because it includes one of my favorite cars, the original Buick Riviera. One of the most beautiful American cars of all time, Buick’s advertisers were smart enough to know that they had something special in their new lineup, so most Riviera ads from 1963 to 1965 let the pictures do the talking. In the 1963 ads, most of the Rivieras were painted silver, which seems to be their signature color.
Collecting paper, like collecting old cars, comes with all sorts of pitfalls. Old magazines smell bad, they take up space, and they aren’t worth much money. Over the years, I’m sure I’ve spent thousands of dollars on them, and they will certainly be unceremoniously discarded someday when I’m gone; I might even eventually throw them away myself. There’s more to these old periodicals, however, than a pile of mold spores. There’s more than just ad collecting. These magazines now tell a story of our daily past. What concerned the average American in March 1963? What were our hobbies, fears, and triumphs? What ancient topics were we interested in? What slang words were we using? To me, and I don’t mean to be controversial, they spoke of an America that was more day-to-day literate, and I haven’t even touched on the downfall of newspapers. We often communicate in memes, quips, headlines, and photos today, and some of us may not have the attention span to read a multiple-part piece on Greek mythology.
Whether that matters or not is up to you, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the ads.
Google Books has digitized every issue of Life magazine so you don’t have to store smelly old magazines in your basement. See the link below.