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The American Automobile

April 2023
1min read

Advertising from the Antique and
Classic Eras

By Yasutoshi Ikuta; Chronicle Books; 120 pages.

“Columbia cars are BUILT in Hartford, Connecticut, a city where close caliper machine work has been a habit for 70 years.” That’s the entire selling copy on a 1910 Columbia Motor Car Company ad, and it doesn’t smack much of the bravado and eroticism that would be used to sell automobiles as the century wore on. But there are no calipers in the picture that accompanies this severe information. Instead a distinguished older couple hurries down the steps of a house a little larger than the Executive Mansion to greet the pretty young woman who has just arrived. Her young man is handing her down; the chauffeur is touching his visor in salute; and the agent of all this joy, the Columbia that brought them, stands in the drive, ablaze with polished brass and crimson paint and casual power. The Columbia ad team knew they weren’t just selling transportation.

There are 120 advertisements for automobiles in this book; they were produced between 1902 and 1936, and it is probably not surprising that all but a very few, very early ones are at least as concerned with ambience as they are with engineering. This is also a rather churlish and obvious point, given the really ravishing world that these pictures open on. All are reproduced in color, and the scenes they show are every bit as seductive today as they were when the Lozier was still to be found “at the country club, on the boulevards, at the seashore, in the mountains, wherever you meet people of wealth and discrimination.” There are a good many people of wealth and discrimination to be found in these pages, and their houses are here too —Tudor and Georgian palaces worthy of the magnificent machines in their garages. Sometimes the owners are motoring through romantic, beautifully rendered landscapes —frequently of autumn, which, as everyone knows, is the finest time to go driving —but more often they are simply standing in picturesque arrangements with their cars.

What makes all this so appealing is the quality of the illustration. A series of 1913 Fierce-Arrow advertisements is accompanied by Art Nouveau watercolor drawings precise and luminous enough to hold their own against copy like this: “Not only has the Fierce-Arrow turned the tide of imported cars so that there are today far less in proportion than some years ago —not only that, but the Fierce-Arrow in American hands has invaded Europe, giving greater satisfaction to its owners than a native car on its native heath.”

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