Vintage Ad Tropes: Gliders!

1958 Corvette Ad

Gliding is an amazing thing.

A Boeing 777 flying at 40,000 feet with no engines has a glide distance of around 100 miles and a flight time of over 20 minutes. This is why pilots are instructed not to panic during single or even multiple engine failures – unless the failure occurs during takeoff, you’ve got plenty of time to find a safe place to land (just ask Captain Sullenberger). This is also why the search area for MH370 was so large, and why (as of this writing) it hasn’t been found yet – it could have glided for dozens of miles in any direction after running out of fuel over the Indian Ocean.

I stumbled upon this sub-trope when researching my trope post on cars inside airports. At first, gliders in car ads didn’t make any sense to me: With no engine, they seem to be the opposite of the petroleum-swilling, overpowered vision of automobiles that Detroit was pitching for much of the 20th century.

But then it hit me – gliding is smooth, effortless, and silent, which is also how Detroit pitched their wares for much of the 20th century. So how exactly did advertisers square this circle of being both brutish and powerful, yet at the same time quiet and graceful? Let’s see.


1958 Pontiac Ad

The earliest example of this trope I could find was this 1958 Pontiac ad. The glider was just a prop that appears in the background but otherwise not alluded to in the copy. In this sense, the glider could have been anything: A wedge of cheese, an umbrella, or a garden gnome. Unlike later glider ads, no attempts were made here to draw any analogies between the smoothness and quietness of the glider and the car being advertised, even though they seem obvious to modern eyes.


1958 Corvette Ad

1958 Corvette Ad

While Pontiac may have stumbled, Chevrolet nailed the trope in the very same year in this 1958 Corvette ad. I often crop out the copy on these vintage ads to better focus on the pictures, but in this case, I kept the text and highly suggest reading it.

Soundlessy soaring, buoyed by invisible rivers of the upper air, a sailplane moves with a serenity that has its road-borne counterpart in the arrowing flight of a Corvette.

That, my friends, is pure poetry. Was Robert Frost secretly working for Chevrolet in 1958? Probably not, but this sentence does check in with a 15th-grade reading level, something we would never see in an advertisement today. In any case, Chevrolet mic-dropped the glider trope on their very first attempt.


1960 Chevrolet Ad

Chevrolet went back to the glider well again in 1960 with the ad above. The prose may not be quite as tight or flowery as in the Corvette ad, but calling the 1960 Impala a four-wheeled glider? Brilliant.


1963 Chevrolet Ad

By now you should know that one of the things I love doing in these trope posts is finding the real-world locations and objects used in these vintage ads. Even though it is just an illustration, tail number N3849A is (or rather was) an actual glider. In this particular case, it was a Schweizer SGU 2-22C, a two-seat glider whose design dates to the gliders used to train pilots during World War II. This particular example would have been brand new when it appeared in this ad, having been issued its airworthiness certificate on June 19, 1962.

The airworthiness certificate of N3849A was revoked in 1971 for unknown reasons (perhaps a crash?), and the N number has since been reassigned to a different aircraft.


1969 MG Sprite Ad

1969 Austin-Healey Sprite Ad

This 1969 Austin-Healey Sprite ad features N1154N, which is another Schweizer glider. This particular glider is a 1957 SGS 1-26A, a single-seat model that was built from 1954 until 1979. With few moving parts and no engines to overhaul, gliders can have useful service lives of many decades. N1154N was in service until 2013.

Be sure to note the cool triple wiper setup on the Sprite, which all US-bound Sprites made after 1969 had in order to meet federal safety standards.


1969 Ford Ad

1969 Ford Ad

For 1969, Ford is comparing their LTD to models from Cadillac, Chevrolet, Imperial, and Roll Royce, all in the same ad.  No comparison is made to the glider in the background, however.


1973 Ford Ad

1973 Ford Ad

Here we see Ford using sound meters to benchmark the quietness of the 1973 LTD against a glider. In this case, the glider is N1146S, a 1971 Schweizer SGS 2-32. This particular glider still exists and is currently owned by the Honolulu Soaring Club, where it has an airworthiness certificate good until 2028. N1146S has been retrofitted to carry two passengers and a pilot and is available for hire to perform glide tours of Hawaii.


Lastly, we have this 1977 MGB. At first glance, I thought the driver in the bottom picture was trying to push their car, perhaps in an effort to get his broken-down MGB out of the way of the glider that is about to strike him and his passenger. After all, a broken-down MGB is just as quiet as a glider! But then I realized that they are looking the other way at something even more interesting. Perhaps a wedge of cheese, an umbrella, or possibly a garden gnome?