It may seem difficult to conceive today, when even a Prius has close to 200hp and will do 0-60 in a tick over seven seconds, but a car’s ability to climb steep grades without losing speed or overheating was a very serious concern for roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th century.
Back in the day, “grade anxiety” (as modern marketers would surely have coined it) was the equivalent of our contemporary EV range anxiety, and car manufacturers preyed on it to the point of making it one of the most common of all ad tropes. I even got to experience grade anxiety firsthand growing up as my dad’s 1981 Pontiac Bonneville Diesel struggled to climb the Rocky Mountains, so I know exactly how much angst a steep grade can cause in an underpowered car.
As it turns out, the car climbing a grade trope is almost as old as, well, the hills. I found literally dozens of examples in my research, so I’ll only be posting a small sampling here today.
This 1910 Cartercar advertisement is the earliest example of this trope I could find in my brief research. Doubtless, our readers can find older examples. While 30-35 horsepower doesn’t sound like much, by the standards of 1910 it is not bad, considering a contemporary Model T produced just 20 horsepower.
Cartercar made lots of hay out of this, doing demonstrations across the country, rapidly cementing this into trope status.
This ad for a Chevrolet Superior from sometime between 1923 and 1926 shows the trope is not quite fully developed. Rather than showing the car climbing to its destination, the car and its passengers are shown as having already reached the apex of a hill. This makes sense when you think about it: Making it to the top of the hill is the actual goal, not just the climbing part. But this is a lot less visually exciting, which is why the vast majority of hill climbing ads focus on the actual climbing part.
Hill climbing ability was as important as acceleration to early buyers. Chevrolet curiously got the trope backward in this 1939 ad, touting the climbing prowess while showing the car driving downhill (or on a flat surface, depending on the perspective).
Chevrolet got it right in 1940, showing the car charging uphill.
I love the style and artistry of this 1941 Lincoln ad. The tagline is clever as well.
This trope reached its (ahem) peak in the 1950s when full-size cars with over 100 horsepower started to become the norm, powerful enough to back up these hill-climbing claims. The grades in the ads quickly became more exaggerated as a result.
I just love this Chevrolet ad from 1955 (the first year for the V8). It embodies this trope perfectly and concisely: Car charging up a grade (in the passing lane, no less). At first glance, the road doesn’t seem too steep, but the forced perspective of the road curving away and vanishing off into infinity gives the appearance of great steepness and height. Is that a 1955 Cadillac that I see getting passed in the right lane?
Pikes Peak, one of the steepest and highest roads in America, is frequently name-dropped in this trope, like in the 1956 DeSoto ad above. (Fun fact: The road to the summit of Mount Evans in Colorado is actually the highest road in America. At 14,265 feet it is 150 feet taller than Pike’s Peak).
This 1957 Chevrolet ad is probably my favorite and again epitomizes the trope perfectly: Family car effortlessly charging up an impossibly steep grade, while Dad grins. The locomotive, trailing behind the car and heading into an underpass (and presumably a tunnel) at a lower grade sends an unmistakable message about Chevy: More powerful than a speeding locomotive.
Normally for my trope posts, I prefer to use ads with photos over illustrations, as photographs typically look more ridiculous. But illustrations really serve the hill climbing trope well, presenting impossibly steep grades and transitions that you would never see in real life. This 1960 Oldsmobile almost looks like it is driving straight up a wall.
This 1960 Corvette ad is notable for several reasons: Not only does it embody the hill-climbing trope, but it is also one of the first Corvette ads to feature a woman behind the wheel, reflecting the slowly changing gender norms of the era.
While I normally focus on American makes in this series, foreign automakers were not immune to the hill climbing trope, as demonstrated by this 1964 Hillman ad.
Lastly, while the brilliant 1960’s VW ads from Doyle Dane Bernbach are legendary for subverting tropes (and therefore are unlikely to ever appear again in this series), even VW succumbed to the irresistible lure of the hill-climbing trope, as shown in the 1962 ad above.
The word “remnant” might be a better descriptor for these ads. Once upon a time roads followed the natural contour of the ground, something which only started to change (and slowly) with the rising popularity of the automobile. Roads as we are accustomed to seeing them are still a fairly recent development. The maximum grade one is going to see on an interstate highway is like 7% or 8% and even that is rare.
In turn, not everyone resides in an area having flat, friendly terrain. Thus, there was a need for people to know and be reassured their automobile was capable of pulling hills – particularly hills that could be at a 50% grade (even for a short distance) as stated in the Cartercar ad. Add to this a hill that was little more than natural ground along with all the mud, dust, and rutting that could be added to the fun.
Those of impressionable ages when hill-climbing abilities were a thing due to vastly different road networks in the early 20th Century likely still paid attention to such things, despite it being of dwindling relevancy.
Roads were being improved rapidly in the mid-20th Century, with the interstate highway system being the most obvious example of improving and homogenizing the driving experience. Such wasn’t always the case.
Sure your car can climb hills, but what what kind of gas mileage do you get going up those grades? 🙂
These are great!
I have first hand experience with hill anxiety from a 1984 (AMC) Jeep “Wagoneer” (the then-new Cherokee with fancier trim) and a 4 cyl engine and 5-speed manual. I was commuting in and out of Cambridge, MA in those days. There’s a fairly long hill on MA route 2 going from the relative highlands out by “Route 128” down to Cambridge (‘by the banks of the River Charles’) – and a freeway speed limit. That Jeep would struggle mightily with the outbound, uphill commute, requiring several downshifts and still losing speed.
Actually, the 2019 Subaru Crosstrek I have now (with 6-speed manual) also struggles with the typical hills of northern New England. So, this isn’t 100% a ‘solved problem’ even in the 21st Century. 😉
Oh, and we have a car-ad-worthy hill on our (dirt) road, that really starts to get interesting just past our driveway. Especially in “Mud Season” (early spring). Photos don’t really do it justice. I’ll share one anyway. https://flic.kr/p/2kKhsrx
ahh, heck, why not two? 🙂
As a fellow New Englander, well familar with mud season as well as unpaved roads and driveways, your driveway does indeed strike me as one that commands respect!
Your car isn’t struggling, Mark – it’s doing you a favor. What good is a manual shifter if you don’t need to use it?
I just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying this series. Ford wasn’t going to show a Mustang II MPG going up any. Actually, I remember having to turn off the a/c to go up freeway entrance ramps in most of the cars I’ve had regular access to.
I had an ancient professor at my Colorado university who told me that when he and his college friends wanted to travel through the Rockies, hills could be so steep that not all of the cars could climb them going forward. So they put the same cars in reverse and climbed the hills backwards.
That was a lot time ago, but I can’t forget that image.
I had to do that in Nicaragua once. There was a concrete road heading down into Laguna de Apoyo just outside of Granada. Probably a 7% grade, not too bad. Unfortunately about a half a kilometer down I went around a corner and the grade got much, much steeper. I turned around when I could but could not get the rented five speed manual Fiat to go up the grade no matter how much I slipped the clutch. So I turned it around again and backed it out; not easily, but I got back to the top.
And it’s probably seep at the side of the road, too. That’s exactly where you’d least want to be stunt-driving in reverse!
Nothing like trying to climb a steep hill in a 1966 VW Van. NOT.
Laughs! We had a 1978 Dodge Aspen station wagon with the “Super Six.” Despite the claims, I knew its limitation. One summer we were six of use with Grandma included climbing out of Cherokee, NC. I knew that if I kept the speed up that the altitude would not affect me. But, NO, some old lady in a 1978 Ford Fairmont was ahead of me and dropped the ball. She slowed down and then we went F-L-A-T and struggled up the hill at 20 MPH, as did she. So much for hill climbing! Fuel injection has certainly helped to overcome hill climbing with lower horsepower engines. After that we went through the mountains and stopped at a lookout to feed a bear, a moocher, who stayeb below a lookout knowing that people stopped for the view. I;’ll bet the stinker never foraged because of the daily visitors who fed him.
Cars made in the Plains were especially obsessed with showing hills. Here’s the Great Smith, made in Topeka, doing the Pikes Peak race and surviving.
And here’s the Spaulding, from Grinnell, doing the capital steps routine.
The Stanley Steamer was one of the first hill-climbing cars:
And that was in 1899.
Shortly after this, the ubiquitous bumper sticker was invented. 🙂
(whoops, needed a smaller file)
My 75 hp 1982 Honda Accord, with 4 adults on board (2 of which were rather well fed) and the A/C on, had trouble maintaining the posted speed limit going up long and rather gentle highway grades.
I knew that in advance and went down to 4th gear but even that wasn’t a full solution.
So next went the A/C (the compressor of which was only a bit smaller than the engine block). That helped a lot.
BTW, with just me on board the little Accord just flew (*) up those hills.
(*) at the posted limit of course.
In the early 80’s I dated a young lady who lived on the other side of the hill that I grew up on. Her father had purchased a 1978 Honda Accord with Hondamatic and A/C. He gave it to her as a high school graduation present in 1981.
It was a nice enough car, but like so many of those of it’s era, it had no power with: A.) the automatic transmission. B.) the A/C operating while driving up hill C.) more than one occupant. If/when all three of those conditions were met, it was faster to walk up the hill.
In the early days when the Ford Model T was the car to beat, hill climbing was the Model T’s Achilles heel. With its gravity fed fuel system and the fuel tank under the front seat it would starve for fuel on long steep grades. Backing up steep grades would work if conditions allowed it. Not ideal. The early ads were hitting Ford where they were weak.
Have to admit these outdoors up hill ads are impressive. If I remember correctly, Lincoln and Mercury had quite a few like this back then.
Didn’t Zora Arkus-Duntov race a 1956 full size Chevy up Pike’s Peak for some kind of record?
Yes he did. It was in the summer of 1955, so the ’56 was disguised some. It had the new Duntov 30-30 solid lifter cam and dual quad carbs that would be available on the ’56 Chevy and Corvette.
Yes, that’s it! Thanks for sharing.
Unlike some of the other tropes in this series, the hill climbing trope hasn’t faded into oblivion. It received a big boost at the dawn of the SUV age with ad like this one from 1985 (“Just for the hill of it“) and countless others, placing the advertised car in situations that were often implausible.
There are still good hills out there. My brother once arrived at an airport in Pennsylvania on his way to Nanticoke, I think it was, having pre-arranged for something like a Chevy Aveo to rent. This was maybe 15 years ago. Upon arrival at the rental counter, the agent asked where he was headed. “Nanticoke.” The agent replied, “You’re not getting there in an Aveo, it won’t handle the hills,” and upgraded him to a solid six-cylinder midsizer.
In my hobby of exploring the old roads I occasionally find a solid hill on an old alignment. Here’s a section of old US 40 near Gratiot, Ohio. That concrete dates to 1914.
I had the same rental counter experience a few years back when I went to Lake Tahoe via Reno. They asked where I was going, and when I told them Tahoe, they “required” me to upgrade from a 4-cylinder car to a six.
This reminds me of the whole, stated practical purpose of the big V8 was the creation of the nationwide highway system in which much was still two-lane. The theory was that cars ‘needed’ that cruised on those highways needed a big engine and a killer carburetor kick-down that opened all the venturis ASAP to be able to pass safely.
Of course, John DeLorean ran with that when he put the same big, full-size V8 in an intermediate Tempest.
Sounds like the rental agencies have figured out a good upgrade scam. Our Gen 2 Prius with a lot less than 200 hp could run up to Tahoe above the speed limit with no effort. And get 40 mpg up and 80 mpg down. It’s also been over Sonora and Tioga Passes with much steeper grades than I80, plus higher elevation. I do think my carbureted 66hp Fiesta did need first gear a few times on some of the Sonora Pass switchbacks … with four people and camping gear on board. I find these upgrades frustrating, as not only are you paying more for the car, but more for the fuel, whether you pump it yourself or pre-pay. One of my most memorable, in a good way, road trips was driving my friend’s early diesel Rabbit (Golf Mk1) up I5 from the Bay Area to Eugene. Lots of grades on that drive and down to 3rd gear often, and fun slipstreaming and trying to pass loaded semi’s. A lot more engaging than just setting the cruise at 65 in a big V8. Anyway Tom, thanks for another great post. Some of that older artwork is just that, art.
For quite a few years I owned Saab 96 V4’s and belonged to the Chicago Saab Club, with its newsletter published by Dick Grossman. Jack Ashcraft, who was a real Saab expert (he’d owned a dealership for a while) and a mainstay of the newsletter, once wrote an article about climbing steep grades without overheating. The advice could apply to any car, but I think he was thinking of Saab 96’s:
1) If you’re using the a/c, turn it off. 2) Shift down a gear to keep the water pump revved up. 3) Turn the heater and the heater fan on full blast. It’ll be uncomfortable in the car, even with the windows open, but it beats an overheated engine.
I don’t think the cooling system of the 96 V4 was grossly deficient, but the car’s country of origin is better known for cold winters than for hot summers.
I’m too young to really understand this, but I do recall my parents talking about a car they had (maybe a Nash??) that had trouble making it up some hills in the town we lived in. Dad said that if you could make the turn fast enough and with enough momentum and it the correct gear, you would make it. Otherwise, forget about shifting mid-hill. Apparently he had a few times practicing backing down that one!
Hill anxiety was common to anyone who started out riding small motorcycles. It was quite embarrassing to find that my 50cc Honda couldn’t climb some of the very long and steep hills in the Oakland foothills, even in first gear! I had to wait until I graduated to a 160cc Honda Twin to be able to climb Lincoln Ave, and continue all the way onto Skyline Drive. Upgrading to larger motorcycles was a practical need, to be able to handle hilly freeways like the MacArthur Fwy. and stay out of the way of traffic. (And automobile grilles!) It took a 300cc four stroke, or 250cc two stroke machine to have adequate power. Up in the Sierras, even my four cylinder 750cc Honda was affected by the altitude, my 1,000 cc Harley Sportser was much better on the twisty uphill back roads.
The only really low powered car I experienced was my ’75 Hondamatic Civic, but it could pull pretty well if I could keep the speed up. On two occasions I have towed a loaded car trailer up US101 from Southern California. Fully loaded at 6,000 lbs. my V6 F150 had no problems on level ground or slight grades, but cresting the Cuesta Grade n/o Paso Robles, I had to drop in behind loaded big rigs that were only going 25 mph. I wished that I had a V8!
A Triumph Mayflower ad showing the car’s ability to handle the ‘excitement of the unexplored’.
Ah yes, the Mayflower. I used to have a fairly rare LHD version, before I found it, the little Triumph had been the mascot for Group 44 racing. When the late author Richard Langworth found out I had a tiny Mayflower in addition to my collection of Packards, Cadillacs, Rolls-Royces and other large cars, he presented me with a wonderful full color poster featuring a Mayflower parked in front of a palatial home. The caption read: The Triumph Mayflower – It makes your house look so big!
Four-Cylinder Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas from till at least the mid-2000’s and the like still struggle going up hills (at least they do in my case!) Slant-six powered Dodge Vans and full-Size pickups, as well as their corresponding Ford and GM competitors, also did back when they were still available.
This marketing trope series is a great idea and very interesting to me as a long-time lover of old car ads. You could say using tropes was an advertising trope for the industry!
In my mind, the word trope has kind of a negative connotation. Maybe because the meaning is similar to cliche? Anyway, I don’t think it ought to be negative. There are only so many good ideas and it’s inevitable that something that works will be used again (and again) until it no longer does. There’s nothing wrong with going to the playbook, though mixing some original ideas in periodically is also preferable.
I’ve had a few cars that gave me hill anxiety, so I can understand the appeal to car shoppers. I occasionally give thanks that all my current cars have no problems with inclines.
You are absolutely correct, Jon. TVTropes.com (which provided me with the inspiration for this series), puts it like this:
“Tropes are not the same thing as cliches. They may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. It’s pretty much impossible to create a story without tropes.”
They go on to say that a story without Tropes would be pretty much impossible, or at least very boring.
Tropes are a useful shorthand that most people instinctively understand because they have been previously used. I can’t blame advertisers for falling back on tropes when you only have a single page to get your message across.
In the modern era, late 70s, early 80s Subaru, comes to mind as the manufacturer that most promoted hill climbing as a feature of their cars. In their memorable US Ski Team ads.
They probably could have marketed a ski team-themed graphics package, with white steel wheels. The wagons looked sharp.
Winter badging of those Subarus persisted well into the 90s in OZ ads promoting the long way home climbing mountains were the theme. then the Liberty/Legacy arrived without on demand 4×4.
I am almost sure this pic—or another like it—was used in at least one magazine ad, but I can’t find my stack of ’em at the moment, so here it is from the ’60 Valiant brochure. Lookit; the airbrusher’s made sure you can see that the car car is zooming uphill!
I sense that the photo has been tilted, to lend the impression of hill climbing.
Besides the areas that have been blurred to evoke motion, the edges of the shadow under the Valiant seem especially sharp-edged. Photo retouching you’d see today!
No “cumbersome”, driver side mirror to hold the car back!! lol
39 Chevy first on hills, ah no, they are kinda slow actually second gear struggling slow and thats on our hwy 1 the main road, up the Pohuehue viaduct for those that know where it is,
That particular uphill stretch was a local tryout spot for cars and many older models of any underpowered badge had to downshift some more than once, Not a lot of flat going where I come from and 0-60 in a VW required a downhill run, uphill you row them with the gearlever no amount of optimistic advertising could change that,
Steep grades and sharp corners are the best kind of roads, sleep inducing motorways are not.
An editorial pic by Michael Lamm from the October 1975 issue of Popular Mechanics, showing the hill climbing prowess of the then brand new Dodge Aspen. With the one barrel Slant Six, this would have been a silly adventure. Trusting, they didn’t just back it up to the edge, for the photo shoot. 🙂
Even our “79 Lebaron”, V8 equipped, was a lousy hill climber.. Unless one was already at “cruising speed”, approaching the hill.
The “lock up torgue converter” would do it’s job.. That long wait to “40” when it let go … by then the top of the hill was often in the “rearview mirror”.
With a motivated driver, any car can climb.
Each time I hear, read “Hillman Imp”, I laugh. Something about signing the papers to purchase and “Imp” just gets me.. lol
(or asking a parking attdt for the “blue Imp”)..
And I read this thinking, “I wish my odd, boxy little rear-engined European sedan had a nice name like that.” Instead, I owned an NSU, which sounded like a social disease.
Is it a Prinz?
My friend inherited a Prinz from his father, who bought it mostly for its engine for some reason. A friend of his is restoring it. He recalls when it got stuck in snow, if he had a husky passenger they could just pick it up and put it somewhere the traction was better.
The NSU in the photo is the later Version of the company’s car offerings, with a air-cooled I-4 OHC motor of between 1000 and 1200 cc.
The original Prinz motor was a slant 2 [side by side] air cooled version, below is a factory drawing of the Prinz motor.
In the early 1970s a friend of mine and I bought the entire Washington DC NSU dealer inventory of cars, spare parts, literature, signs, ect when they closed for good.
I’ve explored some of the early alignments of Route 66 in northwest Arizona, mostly from Oatman to Seligman. There are some serious slopes on those roads, my “modern” 1.5L Toyota needed 3rd gear at times. I can’t imagine doing it Joad family style, in a worn-out vehicle with all my worldly possessions inside.
A motivated driver
My father would often talk about a hill near their farm that they had to back up as the car could pull itself up the hill going forward, Model A or maybe a Model T.
I once drove an 80 2 dr Chevette thru Colorado, 1600cc 3 spd automatic and A/C.
It couldn’t pull high gear on some of the grades and was screaming in second. It also took out the valve guide seals, went from minimal oil usage to about a qt every 150 miles. Put some new seals in and back to minimal usage. In Nebraska I checked fuel economy, A/C on and A/C off, 31 mpg vs 24 mpg. My 2018 F150 SuperCrew 4×4 will do 23-24 mpg at 70 mph.
Drove many trips thru the mountains with vehicles that struggled up the passes, really nice to finally get some power and gears to get thru at speed.
“so I know exactly how much angst a steep grade can cause in an underpowered car.”
Meh ~ that’s what the lower gears are for .
When I drove my old Mercedes back to Colorado to bury pops it had a near dead hole so some of those steeper tertiary back roads were climbed in first gear, throttle pinned and walking speed…..
One of the things they hammered into us back in the day was : always descend a hill in the same gear you _ascended_ it in for safety .
Having trouble posting a picture of a motivated driver.
Times have changed, for better and worse.
I’ve driven many a low powered car up steep mountain passes, say a 40HP VW bug up Loveland Pass, which now is only listed as 11,990, but I swear at the time was 11.998. everyone was doing 30 MPH. Cars, trucks, everything. Just chugging on up, down ~40% on power due to elevation, chug along in 2nd gear, like everyone else. A decade or so later in my first BMW, a Bavaria, which with 192HP in the early 80s was a rocket ship. Going up the famed Grapevine in California and I didn’t even realize I crested it.
The Reno rental car. I know they’re out to sell, but that was, or should have been embarrassing. I lived in Tahoe for 3 years, wasn’t the fastest, but not an outlier speed wise in my Simca with 60 gross HP, and made the climbs many times. Even once out of Carson with a dead cylinder, literally, pushrods pulled, so no pumping losses. Yeah, slow, but not so slow I was a traffic hazard, just slow.
Now I’ve been on dirt roads where 4WD low range was required, but paved road? Just move the shift lever, no big deal.
The Ford Rotunda in Dearborn had a test track located adjacent to the building so that visitors could take a ride in a new FOMOCO product.
I recall the track had a 35% grade to demonstrate climbing prowess as well as a high speed banked circle. Sadly it burned down Christmas 1962.
Allison Transmission has a hill off the track at their Indianapolis transmission plant. They had IIRC 6 tri-axle dump trucks loaded to the gills that you could drive around the track which was pretty much a street type layout and then there was the really steep hill. Optional to go up and over it. The best part was stopping half way up, then release the brakes and as the truck starts to roll back floor the throttle. Then up the hill you crawled to slide over the top and head down. Don’t know what the grade was but it was steep. They did have one identically loaded truck with a manual transmission that you could try to get up the hill with it. Didn’t try, I took their word for it that it wouldn’t make it.
It was a bragging and selling point that “Brand X will go up the xxx hill in top gear.
I’ve read testimonals about the FX Holden ” Flies up the Toowoomba range in top gear’ and ”even with a full load, it does it in second”
I grew up in a particularly hilly part of Northeast Ohio, so the ability to climb hills was an issue when buying cars. Sometime in the late 60’s, my dad went on an economy kick. He traded our ’62 Fairlane for a ’67 VW Fastback, which was great on fuel. Lousy on the biggest hill in town, where we lived by the way, as the approach to starting up the hill was governed by a traffic signal. If you had to start up the hill after the red light, it was a second gear grind up that hill. If you could get a running start, it was a second gear grind up that hill in the VW. Our previous V-8 cars could crest that hill pretty easily.
My mother never quite got shifting a manual transmission and coordinating a clutch pedal. I think the VW created a lot of stress between the two of them, so dad went back to domestic cars. Except, he cheaped out and got a six cylinder Mercury Montego. It had an automatic trans, but it also had a 200 cid six that was just adequate for a small body Falcon. The larger Montego body weighed a fair amount more and with all of us kids in that car, it was a second gear grind up that hill.
Dad eventually got it through his head we were never going to conquer that hill with a six cylinder/automatic mid sizer, so he finally gave in and got a Montego with a V8. But by then, we had gotten used to using second gear to get up that hill…
Many roads built prior to WW2 had much steeper grades than the roads constructed in the 1950s and later. The reason for the difference in grades was the ability to move large amounts of earth had changed, along with a large number of earth moving machines deemed war surplus and sold off cheaply. Prior to the war, building roads was still a labor intensive effort, with horse & cart still dominating in the process of excavating large hillsides.
A great example of how America’s roads changed can be seen on many of Virginia’s US routes like Rt 50 and Rt 7. These highways were built as 2 lane roads prior to the war, and in many places were straight-line, mile after mile, undulating up and down due to the cost of leveling the land.
In the 1950s & ’60s 2 two more lanes were added [with a median], creating a 4-lane devided highway. To save money, Virginia’s department of highways kept the undulating older roadways in place, while the new roadways were flattened, thanks to the lower costs of excavation. Many of the state’s non-Interstate main roads still look this way today. One travel direction is going up & down, with the opposite side is fairly flat.
With the flattening out of roads all across the states, along with many main roads now having more than one lane in each direction, passing a slow truck was no longer as fraught with danger This meant fewer Americans considered hill climbing as a major consideration in buying a new car. By the 1960s, car advertising suggested that plenty of power was more of a sporting thing than something necessary for long trips.