Traveling by air today is little more than riding a Greyhound bus with wings, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the golden age of Aviation, which ran roughly from the late 1940s to the early ’70s, flying was a more upscale experience that people got dressed in their Sunday finest for. So naturally, airplanes and all the trappings of air travel were fertile ground for yet more “luxury by association” auto ads.
Per my now well-established pattern, I will start this piece with the oldest example of this trope that I could find, which in this case is the 1930 Marmon ad above. While Marmon is a relatively obscure brand today, back in the day it stood toe to toe with Cadillac, Duesenberg, and the “Three P’s” in the upper echelons of American luxury cars. Indeed, Marmon was the only manufacturer other than Cadillac to produce a V-16 engine in the 1930s (sorry Peerless, but you went under before you could bring your V-16 to market).
Of course, it didn’t take long for this trope to trickle downmarket. In this 1940 ad, we see Ford parking a car on the tarmac next to a plane (a DC-3, in this case). There is also one other trope at play here too, one that we’ve seen before: That professionals can somehow drive and park their personal vehicles wherever they want, whether it is at airports, golf courses, or movie sets.
I never knew that TWA originally stood for “Transcontinental and Western Airlines.” Growing up, it was always Trans World Airlines to me, or simply just TWA. The Stratoliner mentioned in the copy (and pictured in the background) is in fact the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, derived from the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress. If you’ve never seen one, don’t feel bad: Production of the civilian B-17 variant began in 1940, and only 10 Stratoliners were built before WW2, compared to the 12,000+ B-17s that eventually got built. After the war, the 307 Stratoliner would have been quite obsolete compared to the B-29-based Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, so production of the 307 was never resumed.
As for the Pontiac, it appears to be a top-of-the-line 1941 Torpedo Streamliner Sedan Coupe, with Streamliner being GM-speak for fastback. I have a real soft spot for these pre-war GM fastbacks, so I don’t think that GM is being too immodest by calling it “A General Motors Masterpiece.” Jack Frye, founder and president of TWA and pictured admiring the Pontiac, was tragically killed by a drunk driver on February 3, 1959. If that date sounds familiar, that is because it is also the Day the Music Died, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper all died in a plane crash.
Chrysler’s 1956 “Forward Look” models might not have been as sleek as the ’57 models that followed them, but picturing a 1956 model in front of a fighter aircraft helps drive the point across. The fighter jet pictured in the background is a North American F-86 Sabre which, having come out in 1949, wasn’t all that advanced of a fighter by 1956.
According to the military aircraft registry, F-86 serial number 3969 was manufactured for the Ejercito de Aire (Spanish Air Force) so I’m not sure why it is shown here in USAF livery, unless the number in the photo was retouched from something else. By the way, the large numbers on the fuselage are known as the “Buzz Numbers,” so called because they are meant to discourage pilots from “buzzing” (making high-speed low-altitude passes) over ground targets. The first two letters indicate the plane type (FU=F-86 Sabre) followed by the last three digits of the serial number. The buzz numbers were to be “as large as practicable” to assist civilians in reporting offending pilots to the authorities.
Here’s a second 1956 Chrysler ad, with the entire lineup parked on a runway with another F-86D in the background, this one with all the markings airbrushed away. This photo seems to be heavily airbrushed, so much so that it blurs the line between a photo and an illustration.
By the late 1950s, showing military hardware largely fell out of favor in car ads. Views of militarism and the Military Industrial Complex were starting to change (gradually at first, but would accelerate rapidly in the 1960s). By this time, it was pretty clear that the war against communism was not going to be fought like WW2. Rather, the Cold War was going to be a decades-long slog of sanctions, spheres of influence, and proxy wars.
So advertisers turned their focus to private planes as an indicator of status. And nothing says status like a twin-engine plane.
The 1958-1960 generation of Lincolns was polarizing when new, and they are still dividing Curbivores 70+ years later. You may want to click and enlarge this picture to see the full details, where it appears the gentleman by the plane is trying to load his children into the luggage compartment of his Beechcraft Bonanza. Wave goodbye to your mom, kids!
The reason I didn’t better crop this image is the photo in the upper left. Look closely – The gentleman in the driver’s seat appears to be using a car phone! This has to be one of the first-ever appearances of one of these devices in a car ad.
Lincoln used a similar twin-engine Cessna 310 in the 1967 Continental ad shown in the lede photo.
Compared to the Cessna 310, The single-engine Cessna 172 in this Oldsmobile ad is downright attainable. Apparently, it is not even interesting enough to capture the gaze of the passenger, who is looking the other way.
While there is nothing particularly exceptional about this 1965 Rambler convertible, the plane behind it is very unusual indeed. Specifically, it is Morane-Saulnier MS.760, a four-seat two-engine jet with a fighter-style canopy roof. While the MS.760 is typically used for military pilot training, it was marketed and sold for personal use as well. N706X appears to be such a civilian model and is still in service today (with the last airworthiness certification completed in 2020), and is currently owned by Aerotechnics Aviation Inc. in the UK.
The one notable holdout to military aircraft was of course Saab, who made hay out of their association with military jets for decades. The 1970 ad above is perhaps one of the earliest examples.
Paul has previously blogged about this particular ad before, but it bears inclusion here as well. Yet another example of the “professionals implausibly parking where they work” trope.
Lastly, we have this rather strange entry from Mercury in 1973. I’m not sure what is with the ten pilots standing around. It surely doesn’t require that many to fly the DC-9 in the background. Nor are they all likely to fit in the Marquis in the foreground (at least not comfortably). As for the “European town car?” It is hard to say for sure, but it appears to be a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, hardly the paragon of driving dynamics. Anyone care to write a letter to the address in the ad for documentation showing the proof?