Other than love, nighttime has to be one of the most popular topics of popular music. In the Air Tonight. Nights in White Satin. Sunglasses at Night. We can all rattle off dozens of songs about nighttime. And it is not just musicians – Carmakers (and their advertisers) are also obsessed with this most peculiar time of day, as we shall see.
There are two main takes on the nighttime trope, one primal and one modern. The primal nighttime is a treacherous, scary, and potentially even dangerous time of day, one that apparently only your car can save you from. With its bright lights, locked doors, and warm heater, your car can quickly, reliably, and safely deliver you from whatever goes bump in the night, as illustrated by the 1933 Pontiac ad above.
While walking my dog after dark with the comfort of street lighting, lamp post lights, and landscape lighting, I often wonder how different nighttime would have been perceived in the pre-electric lighting days (which would have been within the living memory of some people well into the 20th century). The world must have looked a bit like the gloomy streetscape depicted in the 1960 Chevrolet Ad above, especially on moonless nights.
Don’t let all this doom and gloom get you down. This version of this trope is by far the less common one. Spoiler alert: There is no bogeyman. Luckily for us, the far more common version of this trope is the modern take: Nighttime as a wondrous, magical time, as shown in the remainder of the ads in this post.
There is actually some truth to this 1941 Lincoln ad. Speaking from personal experience, there is nothing more magical than driving at night in a convertible with the top down – Indeed, night is my favorite time for top-down motoring. So long as you don’t mind a few bugs, you are otherwise free from the oppressive heat of the day and can dispense with sun protection like hats and sunscreen. Nighttime is also a perfect time for top-down motoring if you are self-conscious, as you are not as “on display” at night as you are during the day in an open car.
Many of these nighttime ads naturally focus on exterior lighting (headlights and taillights) and their ability to lift the gloom. This ad is interesting because it focuses on interior lighting. But why exactly are there two cars? Did this couple drive separately for an illicit walk around the lake? Or is someone else watching them?
This 1958 Pontiac ad is rather strange. Most ads choose either a rural or city setting for their nighttime shots. The choice of a nighttime industrial environment is an unusual creative choice, but still visually compelling.
Stargazing is another activity you can do in your car after dark (although again easier in an open car).
While starlight and moonlight are all well and good, many of the after-dark ads focus instead on the hustle and bustle of urban life, like in the 1959 Mercury ad above (click to enlarge). The city just starts to come alive when the sun goes down.
Not surprisingly, the best ads in the nighttime trope are illustrations. Night-time photography is difficult owing to the low light and corresponding slow shutter speeds. Not helping matters was the low ISO large format film used by professional photographers at the time. That said, the 1961 Studebaker ad above does a pretty good job of turning the disadvantages of low light and low shutter speed into a creative advantage.
No discussion about nighttime ads would be complete without legendary automotive illustrators Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman. Even if you don’t know their names, you certainly know their work – Nobody did night better than they did. Most of their ads (like the 1960 Pontiac in the lede) have been featured here at CC in the past, but they are so fantastic I don’t think anyone will mind a few repeats.
Part of the Fitzpatrick/Kaufman magic was their use of color, at least in their earlier works. While nighttime is generally dark, bleak, and monochrome, AF/VK’s nighttime illustrations are bursting with color – rich greens, vibrant reds, and deep azure blues, among others. And those eerie ghostly headlights (high beams always on) that you can’t look away from. It is a bt like Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, but with cars.
Like most artists, Fitzpatrick and Kaufman’s style evolved over the years. The streetlights in this 1966 Pontiac ad also have a pleasing van Gogh-esque quality to them, even if the rest of the ad has an otherwise minimalist vibe to it.
I would say that roughly a third of AF/VK’s ads are set at nighttime, so I can only highlight a few here. We’ll close out with one of my all-time favorite AF/VK nighttime ads of one of my all-time favorite cars – the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix.