Vintage Ad: 1976 Allison AT 540 Transmission – Clutching For Attention

1976 Allison AT540 automatic transmission ad

The world’s supply of amusing transmission ads is rather small.  Actually, this 1976 Allison ad is the only example I’ve ever seen – so it deserves a bit attention.  Somehow, the ad copy writers managed to fit in references to teen dating and goat roping in a bid to get magazine readers to read a bit more about the company’s AT 540 automatic transmission.  These days, we call this clickbait — whatever the term, it undoubtedly worked.

AT 540 transmissions were optional equipment on medium-duty trucks, such as dump trucks, delivery trucks, stake bodies and school buses.  When our featured ad was produced in 1976, the AT 540 was offered on Chevy/GMC products, Fords, Dodges and Internationals.

Allison Transmission ads

Allison Transmission ads from 1966 and 1983.

Allison regularly advertised in business and trade publications from the 1960s through 1980s, with ads focusing on the advantages of ordering automatic transmissions for truck fleets.  Ad copy tried to convince potential buyers that the additional cost of specifying an automatic would be more than offset by savings in efficiency, repair costs and driver training.  Or, like the ad on the rights says: “A driver that isn’t tired and irritated from battling the stick all day is more likely to do a better job for your company.”

These were typically no-nonsense ads for this type of product, featuring a succinct, business-oriented message.

1976 Allison AT540 automatic transmission ad

This ad, though, deviated from the norm.  No truck or transmission is shown here… just a group of five young men and a headline bound to catch readers’ attention.  The ad’s first paragraph is memorable, too:

“It’s no secret.  The new breed of pick up and delivery drivers know about as much about driving a manual transmission as they do about goat roping.”

Well, that might be an exaggeration.  But it got me to read further, as I’m sure it did for many people at the time too.  While the ad’s copy shifts into a more traditional sales pitch from there, it’s likely that more people read the full seven paragraphs in this ad than in any other Allison Transmission ad.

As for the obsolescence of manual transmissions in big trucks?  The warnings from this 46-year-old ad were just a tad premature.  As of 2018, about half of North America’s new Class 8 (Heavy Duty) trucks were still equipped with manuals.  Undoubtedly, that figure is much smaller for medium-duty trucks, but the manual is still clinging to life up there in the cab.  Goat roping hasn’t won quite yet.