It would be my first job in the automobile industry. It was 1975 and Mercedes-Benz of North America hired me to create their first audio-visual technical training system. I would be creating educational programs to train technicians at the dealership. I was thrilled to be working for the iconic three-pointed star – A good company, with good people and great cars. I had no clue that I stood on the brink of what would be a lifetime avocation.
It happened so serendipitously. One day early in my career at Mercedes-Benz I encountered the very polished Count, yes Count, Marcus Clary a Public Relations executive. He was discarding new car brochures from previous years. I asked if I could take some. Help yourself was the reply.
Thus began a lifetime of opportunistic dumpster diving at North American car companies as decade after decade I witnessed most automotive manufacturers indiscriminately discarding what they viewed as outdated sales literature and I saw as important future messengers of history.
Over 100 years ago the new car brochure came to life in a world cluttered with expensive hand built cars desperately seeking to be noticed.
Over coming decades the new car brochure would evolve as a powerful 20th century sales tool and a valuable reference for the future study of automotive history.
Now as we witness, with some sadness, the sacrifice on the altar of digital efficiency of the high quality, brilliantly photographed, aesthetically striking and increasingly expensive bibles of the new car sales effort, I would like to take an admiring look back at whence they came.
Evolution of the new car brochure
(Part 1 – 1900 to 1940)
In the early 1900s the emergence of the automobile as a commercial venture demanded printed material that would help present, position and promote this new contraption.
Over roughly the next one hundred years the new car brochure would tide a wave of evolution and sometimes revolution in design, technology, socioeconomic conditions, societal values, editorial style and graphic delivery.
One need look no further than the very first page of the very first Cadillac catalog to see the role set aside for the new car brochure. The year was 1903.
“Being unable to reach the majority of prospective purchasers of automobiles by Agencies or personal calls we hand you this catalogue which, in a measure, gives a knowledge of the Cadillac and its most important features and at the same time illustrates and explains the vital points so that comparisons may be made with other vehicles and thus enable you to satisfy yourself as to our claims for superiority over all others.”
Granted while that explanation makes for one hell of a sentence, buried within that mouthful of wordy formal prose resides the essence of the new car brochure for the next 100 years. Its purpose was established as a means to “provide a tool to engage, inform and persuade prospects to purchase the product.” Its progress would be marked by increasingly higher quality materials, idealized imagery and persuasive copy integrated ever more professionally to motivate a new car prospect to be a new car buyer.
It would do so, in part, with an emotional appeal that paired the purchase of a new automobile with a romantic vision of the real life experience that that automobile would deliver.
When the automobile arrived on the popular scene in the 1900s, it cost an average of $2000 to $3000 and up at a time when the typical American worker made around $500 a year.
In this early age of motoring most everything associated with the automobile, its operation and its value was an unknown. Skeptics abounded. Many viewed automobiles as the rich man’s toy and a passing fad. This skepticism posed a daunting challenge for those tasked with writing persuasive copy for the print automobile brochure. The challenge posed demanded that the early new car brochure advance a strongly substantiated value proposition to an often dubious populous dismissive of this new mode of autonomous mobility.
Early new car brochures displayed the work of journeymen graphic designers whose names have been lost to history. Brochure content displayed a visually staid countenance featuring a forthright presentation of product and corporate stability.
An image of an imposing factory was often a prominent feature to assure a wavering prospect that this manufacturer was stable, substantive and here to stay. Even then, the very concept of and need for the automobile required explanation.
Designs featured basic type with custom hand drawn fonts for graphic interest. Art was predominantly illustration. Color was used sparingly, Image reproduction employed the recently available half-tone technique. From this basic beginning would evolve a century of ever improving methods of putting ink on paper.
In this unsteady beginning all the automobile companies struggled. Then, late in the 20th centuries first decade came Henry Ford’s announcement, “I will build a motor car for the great multitude.”
The game was about to change. The age of the automobile was about to dawn and with it the selling power of the printed brochure.
Between 1908 and 1913 Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile with the model T and automobile production with assembly line mass production. Together those two achievements launched both the American consumer and American society into the automotive age.
By 1915 America was home to 100 million people and most everyone wanted an automobile.
Between 1903 and 1917 yearly new car sales skyrocketed over 1000 percent from roughly 18,000 units a year to 1.9 million units a year.
Through the teens the meteoric rise of the automobile business coincided with the ascent of the advertising agency foreshadowing a coming marriage made in sales and marketing heaven.
New Car brochures would soon reflect the increasing influence of professional copywriters. Copy now emphasized a more detailed, competitive, brand-specific, Feature-Advantage-Benefit message. Riding the tidal wave of automobile acceptance, brochure content, while still wordy, had started a decades-long journey to delivering a more crafted and focused message.
Paper quality received more attention for both its feel and visual appeal. Printing quality improved. However through the teens visual treatments continued to feature forthright mostly staid presentations of the product. The preponderance of images for the most part remained high quality illustration. This was about to change.
The Roaring Twenties arrived fueling a profound transformation of automobile ownership from the exceptional to the commonplace. Automobiles were not only for the wealthy, adventurous or early adaptors, the automobile was for everyone.
Model T price
1908 – $800 1914 – $490 1921 – $310 1924 – $265
By 1925 40% of the work force earned $2000 or more. The average work week had shrunk from six days to five. People had more time, more money and America had 700,000 more miles of paved roads. And just as more people had more money to spend, Henry Ford was lowering the price of new car ownership
New car brochures entered the decade employing an almost clinically cold display of technical features. That would quickly change. With the suddenly booming economy and exploding appetite for new cars, brochure graphic treatments fanned the flames of desire by displaying automobiles not just as sturdy servants but as sources of excitement, pleasure and fashion. Evocative graphic treatments linked automobiles and lifestyle.
The emergent advertising industry to which manufacturers had delegated much of the responsibility for new car brochure production rose to the challenge and embraced the opportunity with creativity and skill. Visual presentations employed exceptional artistic executions including illustration, etchings, photography and a more compelling use of color.
Automobile ownership soared in the 1920s
YEAR NUMBER OF CARS SOLD
1910 0.45 Mil
1915 2.30 Mil
1920 8.10 Mil
1929 23.10 Mil
America’s love of the automobile had forever changed American life. Depression and war was about to change the world.
“We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile”
Just at the point when the North American new car brochure was coming into its own, the American economy hit the wall. The depression crushed the automotive industry. By 1932 new car sales plummeted by 75%. Luxury automobile sales literally dried up. Over 30% of the American workforce was unemployed and 40% of nation’s mortgages were in default.
Faced with the challenge of economic conditions, new car brochure copy reflected both an economic reality and, some might say, a Pollyanna-like optimism. Reference to de-contented models, reduced prices, high value, promotion of trade-ins, and financing from GMAC and Ford credit all spoke to the economic truth of the times. However…
As the 1930s progressed, new car brochure content, not unlike the glamorous fantasy world portrayed by Hollywood, displayed a comfortable even luxuriant lifestyle that for many was at best a memory.
When present, people depicted in new car brochures were decidedly of the upper middle class or higher. Even lower end brands such as Ford utilized imagery that portrayed the product with a bold countenance.
Luxury makes such as Cadillac employed richly illustrated depictions of life being enjoyed to the fullest. Stronger visual imagery and more graphic layout design gave new car brochures vitality that foreshadowed the evolving visual character that would continue in the post war years.
The creative use of embossing, foil stamping, even 3D imagery together with photography, illustration and true 4-color printing sought to bring glamour to a marketplace and world that was anything but glamorous.
Through the Depression, the automobile industry had battled to fight its way back to solvency with technical innovation. As well, the sales literature that promoted those new products displayed a sophistication reflective of the same level of advancing capabilities. But, now, the automobile industry and the world were about to face an even more virulent challenge – World War II.
Very interesting, and one of my favorite topics! Can’t wait for the next entry…
Thank You. They really are car themed history books.
Very interesting article Burton! Most car enthusiast are always interested to find an original brochure that matches the car or cars in their collection. Why? Because the brochures actually do a better job of capturing the way the world was when their favorite car was built….than the car itself does! And while there have always been people who collected cars or simply kept them in the family and protected for decades, most people simply discarded the brochures after they had purchased their new car. In many cases, the brochures are now way more rare than the cars they were created to sell! Thank you for sharing this story and reminding us of these often overlooked or forgotten artifacts of our car hobby.
Thank you. Your points are all spot on.
Great article Burton! Unless you were closely involved in the creation/production along with all the tiny details that went with it, few people would realize what it took to get that printed book in the customers hands. Looking back pre-internet, maybe we were the “influencers” of the day before that became a popular buzz word. I do remember sometime back in the late 90’s when I was browsing thru old brochures at a vendor stand in Hershey and came across a 1982 Volvo 240 book. I thought, wow, I created that. The dealer mentioned that it was a classic piece…all of a sudden I felt old…
Thank you. That is high praise from a man who stood at the head of the pack in creating sales literature that was smart, on point and effective.
This article is so fascinating and so well presented. It’s a history lesson. Great job, Burton!
From a long time automobile industry guy, that is a real compliment.