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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
My ‘take’ on this is simply that any form of personal private flight, be it ‘powered’ or ‘non powered’ is associated with wealthy individuals who lead exciting lives. The association is the suggestion, that if you own one of these cars, your weekends are full of flying your own aircraft and other expensive hobbies.
The reality, particularly in todays world, is that your weekends are needed to get ready for next Monday to Friday working week, but of course this reality would not sell cars.
Imagine an advert that illustrated a car owner, mowing his / her lawns or hanging laundry out while his / her car sat waiting to take that owner to work on Monday morning. No the owners of these cars have fun filled exciting weeks year round.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing them and clearly they sold cars. On a related note 1949 to 1968 Chevrolet passenger car advertising in Australia always showed the Chevrolet in very formal upmarket settings not unlike that used by Cadillac in the USA.
The reason for this was simply that 1949 to 1968 Chevrolets were sold as high end luxury cars in Australia. Of course in the USA these cars were sold as family cars for average wage earner.
One of the myths of the “idle rich” is that most of them are anything but idle. Sure they may own multiple mansions, have garages full of expensive cars, not to mention some personal aircraft and a yacht or two, but they also tend to work 60+ hour weeks, and have lots of obligations to neglected family members or charities and “causes” that also want their expertise, status, and money. Which is why most of their mansions and “toys” are rarely used and spend most of their time gathering dust, unless they also have a staff of caretakers to keep them up so that when that rare free weekend pops up they can dash out to their Ferrari or classic Packard and find it ready for action instead of with a dead battery, flat dry-rotted tires, congealed fuel, or low on fluids from dried out gaskets and hoses.
My first thoughts when seeing the 1958 Pontiac/Glider ad is that they were going to use the Bonneville to “auto-tow” the glider.
The same thoughts occurred to me with the 1960 Chevrolet but clearly not so with the Sprite or the MGB.
Like a water ski tow boat, it is recommended that a driver and observer be in the glider tow vehicle.
I was looking for the tow rope on the top picture, as that Corvette would certainly have made a good tow car.
My new car money in 1960 would have been spent on a Plymouth instead of a Chevrolet, but that one in the ad with a 4 bbl 283 and a 3-speed OD transmission might have tempted me!
I had never really thought about gliders being a trope (or sub-trope), but I now see that they are indeed!
I am also intrigued by the 73 LTD ad copy. Let’s work through this – the 73 LTD is quieter than the 65 LTD that was quieter than a Rolls Royce. Is this a clever way to avoid saying that the 73 LTD was not quieter than a 73 Rolls Royce? Clever writing can obscure many unpleasant truths.
I’ll vouch for the ’73 LTD, Jim. 😉
I grew up in the Elmira, NY area, home of Schweizer and a hot bed of glider activity. I always wanted to take a ride in one but never got past my fear of small craft flying. Loved to watch them all circling over Harris Hill outside of Elmira though.
I associated gliders with a more youthful, modest, and athletic lifestyle, than small aircraft. Explains why, they were also a popular prop, in beer commercials. Of the ads shown here, why I only really connect the Sprite and MGB (and to a lessor degree the Corvette), with the gliding hobby. I find the placement of the gliders, don’t really enhance the LTDs specifically. Or full-sized cars. Like the mature LTD owners are taking their kids to the gliding club. Not convincingly engaging in the youthful lifestyle, themselves.
As a little kid, I noticed so many 70s British Leyland ads in the big US car magazines, were in black and white. Wished more were in colour, and also a bigger investment/risk. It created a unique look, but it also lent the impression, they were tier two cars.
Slightly off topic, but the music video for one of the biggest global dance hits of the 1990s, featured a ’70s Country Squire wagon, and a model glider. Two vintage elements that gave the memorable video, a strong ’70s feel.
Great story, Tom–with a smiley ending! These ads do allude to the experience in the car–when the plane is flying–and the social standing of the owner — when it appears as a symbol of a link between pilot and driver.
Seeing these ads did remind me of a macabre episode of the science fiction anthology show, “One Step Beyond”, that scared the bejeezus out of 9-year-old me, In “Reunion”, the vulnerability of the pilot when ceding control of the craft to a towplane is exploited:
A 777 with no engines, a glide distance of around 100 miles, and a flight time of over 20 minutes is little comfort when flying the Great Circle route SFO – NRT or SFO – SIN. Call me old fashioned, but I was much more comfortable in a 747 or a 340.
Up until 2007 or so, the FAA generally agreed with you. FAA ETOPS (Extended Range Twin-Engine Operations Performance Standards) limit the maximum amount of flight time that a twin-engine plane could fly from an emergency landing point.
For many decades this was only 60-minutes, effectively limiting twin-engine planes to overland routes, and giving rise to the tri-jets like the DC-10, L-1011 and 727.
Recognizing the improving reliability of jet engines, the ETOPS standard has been increased over the years, to the point now with ETOPS-180 and ETOPS-240 twin engines can now effectively fly just about any route a four-engine plane can.
This as much as anything is what killed the 747 and A380, as long-haul twin jets like the 787 and A350 are much more efficient than the quad-jets like the 747 and A380.
Thanks to current ETOPS standards, Southwest Airlines can now fly a relatively small twin-engine 737 all the way to Hawaii.
737s are used on transatlantic flights:
Continental flew 757s IAD to AMS and United continued that service some years after they bought out Continental. I liked it, a single aisle plane hopping across the Atlantic. But it was only eight or so hours. I’ve taken 777s SFO – HKG & – SIN and they’re fine flights. It’s just that I’m an old fogy who’s more comfortable having four engines available for a 16-hour flight crossing the Pacific Ocean.
Mentour is the man!
I took a flight in a glider, many years ago, and I’m not surprised the 1973 Ford LTD is quieter – the wind buffeting against a lightweight and ill-fitting Perspex cabin hood is VERY noisy.
82 decibels is very much not quiet. it is loud.
In 1972 British Leyland attempted to create an ad where they dropped an MGB from a plane. As this picture demonstrates, the parachute failed.
Clearly, an MBG is no glider.
Wow. Not much savable from that one!
Probably the Lucas systems kept on working as usual…..
The Corvette is pictured with a Laister-Kaufmann TG-4/LK-10, a surplus WWII-era US Army training glider. This one was “flat-topped” with a single-pilot bubble canopy for (marginally) increased performance. The Bonneville is pictured with a surplus Pratt-Read TG-32, a WWII US Navy training glider (what, you didn’t know the Navy had gliders?). The fourth ad doesn’t show a Schweizer 2-22, it’s a single-seat wood design that I can’t quite place. The ’69 Ford ad shows a mid-60s US-built Laister LP-49 single-seat metal/fiberglass 15 meter glider.
The AH Sprite and 1-26 are a good match, both were small low cost sports vehicles that were slow, but fun to toss around. The 1-26 could also be flown with an open top sport canopy, which made it one of the only convertible gliders.
And finally, the MGB is accompanied by a Glasflugel 401 Kestrel 17, a more modern late-60s German-built all-fiberglass 17-meter span open class racing glider. Contemporary single/two seat racing gliders are generally made from carbon fiber with wing spans ranging from 13 to 25 meters. New ones cost anywhere from US$150,000 to $500,000 and are primarily made in Germany and eastern Europe. Most are now equipped to self-launch (and return home) with retractable two/four stroke engines, battery electric motors, or even jet engines.
I was a long time glider pilot who has flown several of the models pictured. It’s more of a rich person’s sport now than it was back in the 60s/70s, but those of us who aren’t rich can still participate by joining clubs, buying older used gliders, or buying a new glider with several partners.
Wow Tom, I love your article.
Reason: I like classic cars and fly gliders myself 🙂
I guess that’s why your article popped up in my newsfeed.
Those ads would make a great decoration in the clubhouse of my gliding club. If you know where to find those pictures with a greater resolution please let me know!
A few more: