It sounds quaint by today’s marketing standards, but for much of the 20th century, if you were a car company, and you wanted to sell some wheels, you made a brochure.
The brochures–handed out to prospective buyers, who took them home and ruminated on what kind of life a car might give them–perfectly distilled the evolution of America’s love affair with cars. Car sales brochures were selling more than just automobiles; they were selling a vision of superiority, a fairy tale rooted in the promise of money and pleasure. Decades of car brochure designs are printed in all their glory in a new compendium, Automobile Design Graphics, in which car historian Jim Donnelly and graphic design expert Steve Heller unpack the history and impact of car sales brochures alongside a stunning collection of examples from brands like Buick, Ford, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Dodge that dates from 1900 to 1973.
During the Gilded Age, cars were so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford them. But with the turn of the 20th century came mass-produced cars that were reasonably priced enough to appeal to the middle classes, and with them came the car brochure’s graphic marketing tactics.
The earliest car brochures were straightforward manuals that espoused safety and reliability and reassured customers that a car was a good investment. But they quickly became another place to sell customers on special features, from leather seats to air conditioning.
Fantasy was always a key element of the designs. Early brochures depicted cars as fun for the whole family. Illustrations from the 1930s made automobiles seem almost anthropomorphic, helping the customer view the car as a member of the family.
Other brochures positioned cars as beacons of the future: One Chrysler brochure from 1939 unabashedly proclaimed, “Go Modern, Buy Chrysler.” Later designs visually tied automobiles to a go-go lifestyle, where mobility was its own kind of wealth. “Detroit was not just selling machines; it was espousing the American ethos of economic superiority, rarely found in car brochures outside the United States,” writes Heller in one of the book’s essays.
Donnelly believes that the history and evolution of the car has been told from engineering and aesthetic perspectives, but that the brochures that accompanied that history offer insight into how American values have evolved over time.
“Unlike a billboard or an internet pop-up, a brochure could keep the message right in front of you, whenever you wanted to see it. They took you, in art and words, dancing across a psychic threshold,” he writes in Automotive Design Graphics. “Engineers made cars better, but advertising, via these pamphlets, is what made buyers crave them.”
[All Images: courtesy Taschen]