Automakers have been an incredible boon for TV networks and local affiliates through the years, spending billions on car commercials. In the process, the manufacturers have left behind an intriguing look back at the past. Thousands of vintage car commercials are available on YouTube and other video websites, and like classic TV sitcoms, these commercials offer insight into the technology, behavior and culture of their era. Here’s a look back at 10 classic commercials, some bizarre, others featuring popular TV stars of the day, but all worth a quick look.
10. 1950s Family Imagines Bizarre Future For Cars
Spend a few seconds to take in the opening of this promotional film for General Motors’ 1956 Firebird 2 jet-powered concept car, then fast forward to the 1-minute mark to see these 1950s passengers stuck in a traffic jam imagining the state of American highways in 1976.
9. Bewitched, Bonanza Stars Tout 1965 Chevy Lineup
As interesting as it is to check out these various 1965 Chevrolets, it’s just as much fun to see these legendary TV icons in their heyday: Among others, look for Bonanza patriarch Lorne Greene as the host, Elizabeth Montgomery performing Bewitched-type magic, Michael Landon, Robert Vaughn, and Pernell Roberts. This video clip has enduring appeal almost 50 years later.
8. 1970 Dodge Charger Commercial Features Surprise Twist
This ad for the 1970 Dodge Charger pushed the bounds of decency when it first aired, and the driver’s behavior seems even tackier today. Let’s see, I’ll dump my steady girlfriend of three or four years for these beach girls because they like my new Dodge … sure, why not?
7. Automakers Get Silly To Sell Cars
The earnest style of advertising so common in the 1950s and ’60s gave way to humor in the 1970s, and automakers were at the forefront of this trend. In this clip, a salesman comparing a car to an apple is just some of the strange behavior in this short collection of mostly small car ads from the 1970s and ’80s.
6. Don Knotts Gets Animated Selling Dodge Van
The zany actor from The Andy Griffith Show fame is in true character for this 1971 Dodge van commercial.
5. Chevrolet Pitches Corvair As Alternative to Mustang
Ford scored an immediate hit when it introduced the Mustang model in April 1964. Chevy tried to counter with its Corvair model, which Car and Driver magazine that year called “… the most beautiful car to appear in this country since before World War II.” This Chevrolet dealer training film shows salesmen how to pitch the Chevy Corvair as a better option than the Mustang. Good luck with that. Almost a half-century later, Ford’s Mustang is now in its fifth generation and remains a popular seller. The Corvair was famously featured in Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The car never recovered from the bad publicity and ended production in 1969.
4. 1950 Ford Boasts 100-Horsepower V8 Engine!
Ford was the first American car manufacturer to use 8-cylinder engines on a widespread basis, and one of the talking points for this Ford is its “smooth, 100-horsepower V8 engine.” For some perspective on how auto technology has changed, the 2012 Toyota Prius features a 4-cylinder engine that has 98 horsepower.
3. Ricardo Montalban Touts Cordoba
Really, you couldn’t have an article like this without including Fantasy Island star Ricardo Montalban saying the word, “Cordoba,” again and again in his distinctive European accent.
2. 1971 Honda Commercial Heralds Invasion of the Imports
American automakers ruled the U.S. market for decades, but Japanese and German manufacturers began making serious inroads into the U.S. in the 1970s. At the time this commercial aired in 1971, Honda’s reputation in the U.S. still revolved around motorcycles, but that soon changed. Spurred by two gas crises in the 1970s, Americans developed an affection for smaller, more fuel-efficient import cars. By 1989, the Honda Accord had become the most popular car in the country.
1. A Dead Earnest Pitch For A Youth-Oriented Car
Think of the popular car commercials today and from recent years that are aimed at younger drivers. The Kia Soul brought us hip-hop hamsters in the hilarious “This or That” campaign (which by the way is credited with boosting Kia’s sales by 78 percent since 2008). Toyota’s Tacoma pickup starred in commercials in which it survived a meteor strike, an alien invasion, and an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster. Now, contrast those humorous, irreverent styles with the dead-earnest approach of this pitchman touting the 1969 Pontiac Firebird. In the era of flower power and hippies, one would have expected a much more “hip” approach.