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).
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.