Midcentury Auto Advertising: New Books Take an Up-Close Look – Car and Driver

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We review ‘Glamour Road: Color, Fashion, Style and the Midcentury Automobile’ and ‘Art Fitzpatrick & Van Kaufman: Masters of the Art of Automobile Advertising.’
During the midcentury era, we witnessed profound shifts in the automobile industry. Driven by an immense variety of socio-economic factors, the car became a literal and figurative vehicle of change. This was all visible, literally on the page, in automotive advertisements.
Two new well-researched and lavishly produced books explore the ads of this time. And while they nod at these shifts and their repercussions, they are mainly paeans to an era of outrageous design and louche innuendo. They demonstrate how automakers worked to accustom Americans to an infinite buying cycle, unrelated to product improvement, consumer benefit, or need.
Adman Robert Keil’s Art Fitzpatrick & Van Kaufman: Masters of the Art of Automobile Advertising (Advection, $55) takes a deep dive into the lives and work of a pair of collaborative midcentury automotive portraitists. Together, “Fitz” and “Van,” as they were known, built a Warhol-like factory that turned out hundreds of vehicular illustrations, utilized in period advertising to stoke this emergent appetite.
Their images were chiefly used to advertise Pontiacs throughout the 1960s, and the image they engendered helped push the division to the number-three sales spot, behind Chevy and Ford. In addition to underscoring the unquestionable and underappreciated talent of their creators, the book explicates how the artists utilized a variety of crafty tricks in amplifying their message.
Dizzying reflection in painted surfaces embellished the richness of the paint, chrome, and surroundings. Cars were posed always in moments of leisure, prestige, or pre-coital sensuality, borrowing appeal from these milieux. Even the vehicles themselves underwent a sectioning enhancement—through intentional manipulation—to make them longer, lower, and wider. Eventually, as Keil demonstrates with compelling historical images, contemporary magazines couldn’t contain Fitz and Van’s cars on a single page.
Marketer Jeff Stork and design professor Tom Dolle’s Glamour Road: Color, Fashion, Style and the Midcentury Automobile (Schiffer, $65) takes a slightly more critical tack, with a focus in particular on the industry’s patronizing treatment of women—internally and in its messaging. It also showcases how leaders in fashion and design colluded with the domestic automakers to create a consumer multiverse of disposable acquisitions, rooted in unquenchable aspiration.
In one stunning thru-line, Lincoln marketers view a landmark Detroit museum exhibit on industrial Modernism, organize a wholesale rebranding campaign that appropriates the cachet of this refined European aesthetic to help the four-pointed-star brand leapfrog Cadillac, only to ditch the concept just a few years later in favor of the conventional splendor of manor houses and country clubs in Caddy’s messaging.
Witnessing the effort and innovation undertaken in the internecine battle for expansion in what was essentially a captive market (at peak, during this time, the Big Three had more than 90 percent of U.S. car sales) is strangely captivating. And the skill and sophistication of the artisans who created this work are indubitable and deserving of praise. Moreover, it’s compelling to see previously unsung innovators—especially women—receiving their due for their contributions.
Yet, like much in advertising, while the ingenuity on display is admirable, the underlying goals are often blandly acquisitive or even venal. Surveying a host of these ads bestows on the reader a sense of quizzical wonderment. Looking at a block-long Cadillac with towering tailfins, one is almost forced to think: This is absolutely amazing, but how was this ever allowed to happen? One day soon, we might marvel in the same way about the glorifying promotion of outsize pickups and SUVs.


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