Scoop Review of Books

Car Talk

20th Century Classic Cars by Jim Heimann and Phil Patton (Taschen/distributed by New Holland, $39.99)
Reviewed by Jim Robinson


Since I became a copywriter in 1989, I’ve spent untold hours poring over ‘best of’ advertising collections. Annuals like D&AD (Design and Art Direction), and campaign reviews like the stunning Well-written and red (Economist newspaper) are glorious things indeed for anyone who appreciates that advertising can be creatively brilliant, as well as selling stuff.

So, while I’m no car enthusiast, I’ve had a good deal of pleasure reading 20th Century Classic Cars, by Jim Heimann (editor) and Phil Patton (author). Across a hefty 500+ glossy pages, the book shows car print ads from the early-1900s to the end of the millennium.

There’s a wealth of US vehicular sales creativity here, from Republic tyres (‘No Skid to Dread, with Staggard Tread’) to Lincoln (‘Look out for those clouds!’); from Oldsmobile (‘Hydra-Matic Drive!’) to Plymouth (‘SOLID BEAUTY’); from Renault (‘Le Fun Car’) to Pontiac (‘YOUR TIME HAS COME’); from Mercedes-Benz (Coupe d’Etat’) to Rolls-Royce (‘The heart and soul of a masterpiece’).

Best of all, there are a number of magic Volkswagen ads from the 1960s-1970s. These are of advertising legend. ‘Volkswagen’s unique construction keeps dampness out,’ with a photo of a floating VW. And, ‘2 shapes known the world over,’ with the opening line of copy reading: ‘Nobody really notices Coke bottles or Volkswagens any more….’

Another beauty: ‘We do our thing. You do yours,’ with a photo of a hippy-painted VW. And one of the best of them all, ‘Think small,’ with a tiny VW in the corner, and copy that’s as tightly and perfectly crafted as anything you could read:

Think small. Our little car isn’t so much of a novelty anymore. A couple of dozen college kids don’t try to squeeze into it. The guy at the gas station doesn’t ask where the gas goes. Nobody even stares at our shape. In fact, some people who drive our little flivver don’t even think 32 miles to the gallon is going great guns. Or using five pints of oil instead of five quarts. Or never needing anti-freeze. Or racking up 40,000 miles on set of tires. That’s because once you get used to some of our economies, you don’t even think about them any more. Except when you squeeze into a small parking spot. Or renew your small insurance. Or pay a small repair bill. Or trade in your old VW for a new one. Think about it.

Unless you’ve worked under the pressure of a creative brief and agency expectation, it’s difficult to understand just how — for most of us, impossibly — difficult it is to bounce around a creative proposition and a bundle of requirements, survive multiple rounds of red pen, and end up with something that says it so perfectly right. Even 40 years after it was typed.

So hats off to Mr Heimann and Mr Patton. There’s some magic copy and art held in this book’s pages, as well as a fair swag of the eclectic and amusingly dated. That said, I have a couple of significant reservations, which means their capable work will still go into my second-tier of ad books.

For a start, it’s small. Unlike VW, detrimentally so. The 195mm X 151mm format means the ads are heavily reduced in size, or worse, in some cases not shown in their entirety. Maybe you’ll feel differently if your focus is the cars, but if it’s the advertising, just seeing a photographic or illustrative extract is often annoying.

No doubt the downsizing was key to keeping the book’s price tag to its very reasonable sub-$40. As the promo says, it’s ‘A Taschen classic, now in a new size at an irresistible price!’ But it’s a major compromise, especially when many other ad books are fabulously (and fabulously expensively) presented.

I feel similar dissatisfaction with the captions. If you’re perusing purely for the cars, you probably won’t care a jot who the copywriter, art director or agency was. But if you’re in for the advertising creativity, that’s like being shown a stunning painting without being told who painted it — you lose context.

Admittedly, for the early ads, the names of the creators are probably lost. But for the more recent decades, the omission is unnecessary, and a flaw. Take Pontiac, as an example. Several ads are shown from the 1950s, with the style ranging. Does that shift reflect that the account changed agencies? Creative teams? Or was it simply changing fashion? Without information, you can’t tell.

These gripes aside, Classic Cars must show two- or three-hundred ads in full colour. Most of them, I’ve never seen before. Some are wonderful, and all help to open the horizon of understanding. What I’d really like to see now is the classic cars through advertising’s dramatic changes of the last 14 years.