The 1936 DeSoto Airflow: Ahead of its Time

February 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Vintage 1936 advertisement for the DeSoto Airflow III, with illustrations by Floyd Davis

The Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow in Florida: "The nation's social capital moves South."

This ad is from the March 1936 edition of National Geographic, with graphics courtesy of the well-known American painter and illustrator Floyd Davis. I suppose that with most of the country still in the grips of winter weather, these scenes would have helped associate the car with a casual, fun-in-the-sun elegance. Not that it helped much, however: the DeSoto Airflow was produced for three years, from 1934 – 1936, and was essentially a failure, at least as sales were concerned. Time Magazine’s 2007 special on the “50 Worst Cars of All Time” had this to say:

“Twenty years later, the car’s many design and engineering innovations — the aerodynamic singlet-style fuselage, steel-spaceframe construction, near 50-50 front-rear weight distribution and light weight — would have been celebrated. As it was, in 1934, the car’s dramatic streamliner styling antagonized Americans on some deep level, almost as if it were designed by Bolsheviks….Sales were abysmal. It wouldn’t be the last time American car buyers looked at the future and said, ‘no thanks.'”

Here is a contemporary shot of some of those aerodynamic curves, which to me look pretty nice.

DeSoto Airflow detail

Contemporary photo of a 1936 Airflow, showing how the air could flow (courtesy of

Floyd Davis, for his part, illustrated ads for everyone from Texaco to Nabisco to Johnnie Waker to Grape Nuts, and by the early ’40s would be called the “#1 illustrator in America” by Life Magazine. During WWII Life sent him to England to cover the war, where, as a WWI veteran, he was given permission to fly in the Raid on Hamburg in 1943, a sojourn which resulted in one of his most famous paintings. He and his famous artist wife Gladys Rockmore Davis actually became the first husband and wife correspondent team ever to cover a war together.

A 1942 article in American Artist described Davis as “the friendliest and most considerate of men,” while noting that the art editor of the Saturday Evening Post praised him for being “equally at home with hill-billys and Park Avenue.” Here are a couple more of his pieces, the first a poster for the film Citizen Kane, the second an  illustration he did for Life of the bar at the Hotel Scribe, a watering hole for journalists in Paris during WWII.

Floyd Davis poster for the film Citizen Kane

More of Floyd Davis' work: Citizen Kane promotional poster

Bar in Hotel Scribe, Floyd Davis painting from 1944

Floyd Davis "Bar in Hotel Scribe" Oil on Canvas, 1944 (Hemingway near bottom)


1959 Renault Dauphine: “Men in Motor Science Predict…”

December 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Vintage 1950s Renault Dauphine car advertisement

The 1959 Renault Dauphine: "Where is the Engine?"

The thing that jumps out at me about this 1959 Renault advertisement is the claim – in the lower right quadrant – that Renault pioneered the engine-in-the-rear idea and that “men in motor science predict all autos will be thus in a few years.” Well, that “détail essentiel” seems to have escaped most car designers in the years since.

The Dauphine arrived in 1956, and the next year the US magazine The Motor called the car the “prettiest little four-seater in the world.” In 1958, Time Magazine noted in an article titled “Renault on the Go” that “The Dauphine is already outselling Volkswagen in eleven U.S. states… So brisk is demand that Renault and the French Line have formed a new shipping company CAT (Compagnie d’Affrètement et de Transport). With six freighters that ferry up to 1,060 Dauphines each across the Atlantic.” The car cost about $1,600 at the time and got about 40 mpg.

Here is a great commercial that carries on the balloon/”make driving fun again” theme from the ad above.

In 2008 The Independent wrote a piece on the history of the Dauphine that noted that it “certainly possessed an undeniable sense of elegance” (it “was a small car in which a housewife could dream of being the Audrey Hepburn of the suburbs”), but it was “so compact that it is incredible to think that it was often used as both a Parisian police car and a taxi,” and it had an “abysmal corrosion record.” And Time rather cruelly claimed in a special feature on the 50 Worst  Cars of All-Time that it was “a rickety, paper-thin scandal of a car that, if you stood beside it, you could actually hear rusting. Its most salient feature was its slowness, a rate of acceleration you could measure with a calendar. It took the drivers at Road and Track 32 seconds to reach 60 mph, which would put the Dauphine at a severe disadvantage in any drag race involving farm equipment.”

That was, in any case, their take on the 1956 model. Some people, though, seemed to like them. Not this person, however, who left the following comment earlier this year on the site “In the late 60′s when I was but a wee lad I lived in suburban St. Louis, MO. My next door neighbor drove a red Dauphine convertible. It was a weekly event for it to be delivered to his driveway on the hook of a tow truck. Even as a five year old I knew this had to be a bad car.”

Tiger Power: “Flying A” Gasoline

November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

1951 Flying A gasoline advertisement

The power of Flying A gasoline, 1951

Not exactly a car ad as such, of course, but close enough – a 1951 ad that appeared in a Polack Bros. Shrine Circus program for “power-packed” Flying A ethyl gasoline. It definitely has some great graphics going for it, including that station attendant with his pump at the ready.

Flying A – at least for most of its existence – was a product of the Tidewater Oil Company, which was founded in New York in 1887. Tidewater started selling gasoline in the years leading up to WWI, though at that point it was not using the “Flying A” moniker; that only came into existence in 1932, coined by J. Paul Getty’s Associated Oil Company for its premium-grade gas. When Tidewater merged with Associated in 1937, Flying A became its main brand.

Flying A gas stations lasted until 1966 on the West Coast, when Phillips bought Tidewater’s western network, and 1970 on the East Coast, when Getty dropped the name in favor of its own. The logo, however, lives on; it was registered by a northern California company called Royal Petroleum. As they explain on their website: “North of the Golden Gate Bridge in Sonoma and Marin Counties, three consignees joined forces to create the Royal Petroleum Company in 1975. Since the Flying A logo was no longer in use at the time, the three former Flying A consignees registered the trademark for Royal Petroleum’s use.” The company, which employs 31 people, “is a locally owned business providing custom fuel and lubricant service to the agricultural, construction, and commercial business communities of Sonoma and Marin counties.” You can actually buy Flying A T-shirts and other items on their website.

Pennzoil, Ab Jenkins and the Pierce-Arrow

October 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Pennzoil ad with speed-record holders, including Ab Jenkins

Pennzoil ad featurng test driver Ab Jenkins and the Pierce-Arrow

I’m not sure what year this ad for Pennzoil and featuring test driver Ab Jenkins appeared, but in 1932 (as related here), “Jenkins took to the Bonneville Salt Flats…with a stripped 452 V-12 roadster prototype that had already done 33,000 miles. It promptly ran 2710 miles in 24 hours at an average speed of 112.91 mph. Jenkins commented: ‘The car was stable at all speeds, more like a racing chassis.’ The car was stable enough that Jenkins could write notes to spectators and toss them out at speeds over 110.”

So I assume it is from some point about then, or perhaps the following year, when Jenkins went back and “set 79 world speed records over 251/2 hours, running as high as 128 mph. The road and weather conditions were more-difficult than the first trip, but neither car nor driver seemed to mind. Ab managed to shave during the final laps.”

In a recent piece in the Salt Lake Tribune on the documentary “Boys of Bonneville,” it says that Jenkins, a Utah native who had essentially discovered the Bonneville Salt Flats during a motorcycle ride to Reno in 1910, “set out to make Bonneville the place to race” in 1932, driving his 12-cylinder Pierce-Arrow for 24 hours, “stopping only to refuel but never leaving the driver’s seat.” At that point, points out John Greene, editor of the film, speed aficionados “had run out of room. Cars were better, cars were faster, and there was absolutely no place on Earth that they could go as fast. They had to build new tracks, but asphalt hadn’t been invented, really, so that’s not going to work. They had tried on Daytona, but people were getting killed, because as good as the surface was, they still had to go under piers and along hotel fronts. So Ab’s out here going, ‘Guys, I’ve got the answer.’ … Not only was it just bigger, it was a lot safer, because you can’t dig in, you can’t flip, you can’t run into anything.”

In 1940 Jenkins set a 24-hour speed record of just over 161 mph (meaning he averaged that over the 24 hours), a mark that would stand for 50 years. He also served as mayor of Salt Lake City during WWII. Jenkins died in 1956. His Wikipedia page notes that he is often called the “World’s Safest Speedster,” and claims that “There isn’t a race car driver alive today that rivals Ab Jenkins ‘humanity first’ mindset. The world speed record setter was prouder that he drove more than a million road miles without ever being involved in accident than he was of the dozens upon hundreds of speed and endurance records that only ended with his death at age 73.”

All in all, an amazing guy and a cool car-related ad, I’d say.

1973 Dodge Club Cab Pickup

October 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dodge Club Cab pickup advertisement from 1972

1973 Dodge Club Cab Sweptline pickup - Handy's the word for it

This late 1972 advertisement for the 1973 Dodge Club Cab pickup claims that the “easy-to-reach storage space” is something that “only Dodge gives you.” Does that mean that they was the first to introduce that now-common feature? I guess so: as this site on the history of pickup trucks says:

“In 1973 Dodge introduced the best new idea in pickups since the fully-enclosed all-steel cab of the mid-1920s — the Club Cab. The entire pickup buying public immediately embraced it. Everyone from the hard working construction workers and tradesmen to families who used their pickups for pleasure saw the advantages of carrying certain valuable items inside protected from from the weather, theft or damage.”

In any case, one thing for sure is that you don’t see those camper shells all that much anymore. As the same website points out, the energy crisis did not hit until late 1973, and “in the early 1970s when Dodge engineers and designers developed this new pickup series the nation was deeply immersed  in travel and camping,” and “a Dodge Camper Special was the option of choice for the family who carried a slide-on camper on weekend trips. The hard working Dodge pickup was very often used for business from Monday to Friday, then used for weekend fun.”

Pickups from that era are cool, and it’s great when you see them on the road today.

1967 MGB Ad – Written by Austin Powers?

July 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Print ad for the 1967 MGB automobile

The 1967 MGB: Watch the kick come back

“The 1967 MGB is considered by many enthusiasts to be the most desirable version out of all the years the car was produced,” says Marty Ray on his website. The MGB had been born in 1962, replacing the MGA, and was available as a 4-cylinder roadster. A coupe was introduced in 1965, with the six-cylinder MGC arriving in 1967. MBG/MBC production, Wikipedia states, continued until 1980.

It also points out (speaking of the “competition-proved engine” cited in the ad copy) that “specially tuned MGBs (including some made out of aluminium) were highly successful in international road competition events such as the Monte Carlo Rally. In 1964 it won the GT category, Sebring, the Spa 1000 km and the 1963, 1964, and 1965 Le Mans 24 Hour, beating more powerful cars in the process.”

In any event, what actually jumped out about this ad for me was the saucy, swinging ’60s concept, which sounds to me like it  could have been conceived by the Austin Powers. (“Yeah, baby!”) It does seem completely of its era, and I can’t quite imagine seeing an advertisement like it turned out today. That’s the beauty of these things, though.

Check out what one sounds like:

1965 Buick LeSabre 400 … and Music

July 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Buick LeSabre 1965 print advertisement

1965 Buick LeSabre 400: "First, you just look"

This vintage print ad is from the March 1965 edition of National Geographic, and to me it really captures something about that mid-60s era. The general zeitgeist was perhaps not yet quite as cynical and disillusioned as would become the case later in the decade, and something about the layout here sort of captures that, at least to me. The minimalist vibe, the angle, the girl , the car itself – to my mind it just works.

For some reason, too, this ad made me wonder what sort of music people were listening to at the time, what would have come blasting out of the radio if one were driving a LeSabre down the road that year. The list is pretty impressive, to say the least. I’m not sure what month all of these were released, but the following songs all came out at some point during that year: “Turn Turn Turn” by The Byrds, “The Last Time” by The Rolling Stones, “The Kids are Alright” by The Who, “We Can Work it Out” by The Beatles, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan, “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, “Do You Believe in Magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, “California Girls” by The Beach Boys, “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett, “King of the Road” by Roger Miller,  “The Tracks of My Tears” by The Miracles, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, “Tired of Waiting for You” by The Kinks, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals, “Here Come the Night” by Them, “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers, “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones, “Hang on Sloopy” by The McCoys, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Burt Bacharach – the list goes on, and is absolutely unbelievable, and I have only mentioned one song per artist. If you wanted to cite more by The Beatles, for example, you have “Nowhere Man,” “Day Tripper,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Yesterday,” “We Can Work it Out,” and of course more. The Who also released “My Generation,” Bob Dylan “Highway 61 Revisited,” The Stones “Get Off of My Cloud,” etc., etc.

It’s pretty humbling, actually, just contemplating that. What sort of immense talent was around at the time? I can’t imagine an equivalent amount of musical inspiration occurring now in a decade, let alone a single year. Maybe I’m out of touch, but will many of the songs that come out in 2011 still be fixtures in the way so many of those are today … in the 2050s? It’s frankly hard to think they will, but one could always be wrong. And will the cars of today match the ability of 1960s’ automobiles to find a more or less permanent place in people’s hearts 40+ years down the line? I personally have a hard time envisioning that. What has changed?

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