18 great car print ads aimed at the U.S. market

After we shared a story about great automotive print ads—written by our friends in the U.K. from their European perspective—we heard, uh, loud and clear from you readers that we should compile our own story that centered on car ads that ran prominently in America.

With input from members of our team, and numerous suggestions from you, here is our list of the greatest (most impactful? memorable? timeless?) car ads in American-market print. The vehicles aren’t all American in origin, but the list is heavily weighted on that side of the ledger. You’ll find no television commercials here (perhaps for another story?), and there are no Peugeots, Citroëns, Vauxhalls, or Skodas on the list, so you can put the pitchforks down. Finally, the ads are listed in no particular order. If we missed one of your favorites, let us know in the comments below—nicely, if it’s not too much trouble.

1923 Jordan Playboy: Somewhere West of Laramie

Great American print ads - 1923 Jordan Playboy - Somewhere West of Laramie
Jordan Motor Company

It’s all about image, and this may be the first ad that sold image first and a car’s tangible features second. Published in 1923 magazines and advertising the Jordan Motor Company’s Playboy roadster, the promo focused on the lure of the wild west and directed its message toward women (much earlier than other marques), twice breaking with car advertising norms of the day.

“Somewhere west of Laramie, there’s a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony—that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place that it hits—can do with 1100 pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide, and handsome. The truth is, the Jordan Playboy was built for her.”

There is no mention of the Playboy’s attributes. Zero specs. Just an image of a rider on horseback keeping pace with a roadster. Although Jordan went out of business in 1931, it set an advertising precedent: focus not on the car but what it says about its owner.

1969 Dr. Oldsmobile

Great American print ads - 1969 Dr Oldsmobile

Not just a single ad but an entire campaign, the eye-catching Dr. Oldsmobile series brought attention to Olds’ 1969 muscle car line. The campaign, with scenes that look like they’re straight out of an old black-and-white horror film, centered around Dr. Oldsmobile, a mad scientist who created W-30 and W-31 muscle monsters for the street. The ads are a little creepy—and totally unforgettable.

1959 Volkswagen Beetle: Think Small

Great American print ads - 1959 VW - Think small

The only holdover from the U.K. story, we just had to include it. Ad man Bill Bernbach had a huge task on his hands when he was asked to promote this little German car in the U.S., less than two decades after WWII had ended and at a time when most American car owners were looking for power, not economy. Bernbach’s brilliant idea—1959’s “Think small” ad—was a game changer for the Volkswagen Beetle. Advertising Age called it the greatest print ad of all time.

1925 Ford: Opening the Highways

Great American print ads - 1924 Ford Opening Highways
Ford Motor Company

While the 1923 Jordan advertisement sold an image, Ford’s two-page ad in the January 24, 1925 edition of the Saturday Evening Post sold dreams … and for many, those dreams had already been fulfilled with the Model T. Henry Ford’s vision of providing affordable transportation to all is shown in this Ford Motor Company advertisement, titled “Opening the Highways.” The image shows a family overlooking a hilly landscape dotted with cars and Ford manufacturing facilities in the background (well, sort of in the clouds). Again, the ad says nothing about the iconic Model T’s specific attributes; it just implies that the car was changing the world … which it did.

1964 Pontiac: There’s a Tiger loose in the streets

Great American print ads - 1964 Pontiac - Theres a Tiger loose

Pontiac went all in to promote its 421 engine with a series of ads that included the tagline “the 421 makers – Pontiac.” One ad claimed, “There’s a tiger loose in the streets,” referring to the engine’s growl, which increased in volume “as a bunch of extra throats get kicked wide open and start vacuuming air by the cubic acre.” Who wouldn’t enjoy driving one of those?

1950s: See the USA in your Chevrolet

Great American print ads - 1951 Skyline Deluxe - See the USA in Your Chevrolet

In the 1950s, as recreational travel increased—and tourist traps popped up all over the country to cater to families willing to endure long road trips in a car—Chevrolet encouraged post-war Americans to get out there and “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” People listened. Some even “drove the highways of history with valve-in-head technology” and visited Mount Rushmore in their 1951 Skyline Deluxe. The artwork in the series is fabulous (not quite the stuff of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman, but definitely frame-worthy).

1964 Ford Mustang: The unexpected … here today!

Great American print ads - 1964-65 Mustang
Ford Motor Company

First released in newspapers on the day of the Mustang’s unveiling on April 17, 1964, this ad was completely oppo of the “image first” idea. It was jam-packed with information about the new pony car, which had a jaw-dropping base price of $2368. We’re not sure Ford could have jammed much more info onto the page. Regardless, the ad did its job. The Mustang was indeed unexpected, and so was the public’s unabashed love for it. Initial sales were so brisk that Ford could barely keep up.

1993 Mazda Miata: Before the spouse, the house, the kids, you get one chance

Great American print ads - 1993 Mazda Miata

We couldn’t find the Miata ad that kept bouncing around in our brains (“Beware of Expensive Imitations” … We aren’t just imagining that, right?), but this one is great too. To get the full effect, you have to read between the lines. Literally. Clever idea, for sure. However, even though Madza claims you need to grab your Miata before the spouse, house, and kids, we think it’s never too late.

1972 AMC Gremlin: It takes something pretty strong …

Great American print ads - 1972 Gremlin
American Motors Corporation

AMC confidently took on the giant of economy cars, the Volkswagen Beetle, when it introduced the Gremlin hatchback in 1970. Two years later, in need of a little NOS, so to speak, AMC offered buyers what it thought would do the trick: a beefed-up buyer protection plan. “It takes something pretty strong to make people trade in their Volkswagens.” True. And that wasn’t it.

1934–35 Duesenberg: He (or she) drives a Duesenberg

Great American print ads - 1934-35 She Drives a Duesenberg

Following the Jordan philosophy of advertising, luxury carmaker Duesenberg figured it didn’t need an image of a car to get its point across: Duesenberg owners don’t look or act like most of the rest of us. In a series of pencil drawings showing beautiful people doing beautiful things, the ads let us know that “He drives a Duesenberg” or “She drives a Duesenberg.” As if we had to ask.

Cadillac: Standard of the World

Great American print ads - Cadillac - Standard of the World

Cadillac’s iconic “Standard of the World” tagline dates to 1908, when it was awarded the Dewar Trophy of excellence by the U.K.’s Royal Automobile Club (R.A C.). Cadillac squeezed every last drop of notoriety out of that award; it used the “Standard of the World” line for decades. This 1948 advertisement presents the “new” standard.

1975 AMC Pacer:  America’s first wide small car

Great American print ads - Pacer - The first wide small car
American Motors Corporation

Believe it or not, there was a short period of time when the Pacer was considered the economical wave of the future—a big small car. Or, as AMC explained, “small was never this wide.” As we soon learned, “small and wide” didn’t sell as well as “small and thin.” VW wins again. Speaking of which …

1971 Volkswagen: Lunar Rover

Great American print ads - VW - Its ugly but it gets you there

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Volkswagen added seven more and nailed this one.

1958 Edsel: The most beautiful thing that ever happened to horsepower

Great American print ads - 1958 Edsel - The most beautiful thing
Ford Motor Company

Can an ad be great if the product was a dud? We think that’s precisely what makes this one so good. Current Edsel owners may think their car is “the most beautiful thing that ever happened to horsepower,” and “it steals the show wherever you go”—no matter what anyone else thinks. But one thing we can all agree upon is “you can guess a lot from the Edsel’s look.”

1977 Chevrolet Corvette: The role of a dream car in age of reality

Great American print ads - 1977 Corvette

Yessss. Isn’t car ownership—certainly aspiring to own a sports car, luxury car, and classic car—all about dreams? You know it is. That’s why you had posters of cars hanging on your bedroom walls. As Corvette explains in this 1977 ad, “Dreams. They sustain us. They spur us. Sometimes they simply help soften the rough edges of our days.” The same can be said for cars. Who hasn’t ended a rough day by taking a spin to get away from it all? Corvette dipped into the well again in 1995 with a similar ad: “The average dream last 6.6 minutes. This is not your average dream.”

Volkswagen Rabbit: How does the man who drives the snowplow … ?

Great American print ads - VW Rabbit - Snowplow driver

Volkswagen nailed its advertising so many times that we’ve lost count. This is another winner.

1983 Porsche: Nobody’s Perfect

Great American print ads - 1983 Porsche - Nobodys Perfect

Not to be outdone by its German counterparts, Porsche scored big with this simple yet powerful ad, which lists the top 10 finishers at the 1983 Le Mans 24 Hours—all Porsches except the ninth-place finisher—along with the words “Nobody’s perfect.” That kind of domination in an iconic endurance race like Le Mans is commendable, but even Stuttgart had to admit, “There’s always room for improvement. Even at Porsche.”

1968 Pontiac GTO on Woodward Avenue

Great American print ads - 1968 Pontiac GTO - Woodward

What makes this ad so great? It ran five years after GM banned factory-sponsored racing and decreed that no ad should encourage reckless driving. So, while this promo didn’t exactly come out and say it … it said it. So GM pulled it. You’ll be reading more about this brilliant ad in a future feature story.

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    Check out “Muscle Car Mania” An Advertising Collection 1964 – 1974. Published in 1981. “Son Of Muscle Car Mania”. More Ads 1962 – 1974. Published in 1982. Authored by Mitch Frumkin. Both of these books are nothing but Muscle Car print ads. Published by Motorbooks International.

    I’m partial to the psychedelic ’68-’70 Plymouth musclecar ads myself, but so many ads from the ’60s were entertaining. Doyle, Dane, Bernbach’s VW ads were especially humorous to me; it’s rare that any company advertises their product with such self-deprecating charm.

    Jeez. If you are going to mention the most beautifully written automobile ad of all time, the least you could do is provide the full text version:

    Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting, steer roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lighting and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome.

    The truth is – the Playboy was built for her. Built for the lass whose, face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame. There’s a savor of links about that car – of laughter and lilt and light – a hint of old loves – and saddle and quirt.

    It’s a brawny thing – yet a graceful thing for the sweep o’ the Avenue. Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things gone dead and stale. Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.

    Still gives me goosebumps every time I read it.

    Walter, you want “any color so long as it’s black…the first fifty years of automobile advertising
    Peter Roberts.” (btw, the book title is all lower case.)

    I liked the 1970 Chevelle SS ad where they had the car tied with large ropes and it says

    “Other cars wish we would keep it this way.

    The best ever ad is the Saturday Evening Post ad “Penalty of Leadership”. It is a direct worded response to Packard.

    It is said Elvis kept a framed copy.

    I framed the Mazda ad that you mention and gave it to my wife for her office, when we got her red 1991 Miata. It was her daily driver for decades. Now it is an occasional driver… 31 years and 205,000+ miles later. And the ad message still makes us smile.

    My favorites were the mod-style Plymouth Rapid Transit System and Dodge Scat Pack ads of the muscle car era. Loved the hi-impact colors.

    Absolutely fabulous magazine ads! Bravo ! Why not make this a monthly special feature and alternate every other month with ten famous T V ads? It would give us readers something to look forward to once a month. Very well done and we need to be fed more of the same on a regular basis.

    Hi, I’ve been searching for images of car print ads that I can use in a book. My book is a collection of car history, funny stories from my past. I’ve also had thoughts of including other folks stories ( Hagerty reader content?) Having a volume of print ads would be “the icing on the cake”. Could you direct me to a source to obtain and use such images?
    Thanks, Terry / Hagerty insured!

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