(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #95, August 2012. This was the first time my work appeared in a subscription-based magazine nationwide.)
Bringing a Car Guy to the AACA Library is just like putting a pig in mud. I once witnessed a man literally squeal with excitement as I brought him a box of Hupmobile sales literature. I’ve seen dozens of visitors bribe their wives with stays at luxury hotels and outlet shopping in exchange for a few hours in the library. Of course there have been plenty of Car Gals here as well spending hours at a time with our material. When I get a chance to wade through our nearly one million holdings on my own I go directly to our depression-era literature.
If you take a look at some notable sales literature of the 1930s you would probably not be surprised to learn that Pierce-Arrow and Packard produced some of the most beautiful catalogs and portfolios. One Packard catalog from 1931 features a limousine that moves across the page when you open the cover. Also impressive is the catalog announcing the 8-40 and 8-45 models. It is full-color, 36-pages and the cover has an embossed company logo. Pierce-Arrow wouldn’t be outdone that year and contributed its fair share of colorful and expansive sales literature. Of course cars in the $3500+ range had to outdo each other to secure the limited amount of buyers in that price range. In 1931 Packard sold over 16,000 new cars while Pierce-Arrow barely reached 4,500.
Interesting and beautiful sales literature was not only limited to luxury cars in the 1930s. In 1931 Willys produced a catalog for its eight cylinder models that included a textured cover like the Packard catalogs although it was not quite as many pages in length. In 1934 Chevrolet featured a sailor with movable arms that used semaphore to extol the virtues of that year’s cars. Late decade Pontiac literature is also colorful and eye catching and featured very detailed 60-page catalogs and some simple color selector charts that allowed a potential buyer to fold a clear plastic model over a selected body color.
My favorite piece of 1930s sales literature was produced by Nash in 1935. This interesting sales folder instructed readers to “Ask the Magic Oracle what to look for in the car you buy.” It featured a series of questions on a disc ranging from safety to style. When the question was properly positioned and the cover closed, a metal arrow on the front cover “magically” pointed to the correct answer. I hate to ruin a good magic trick but I will reveal the secret that magnets moved the arrow.
Of course Pierce-Arrow wouldn’t live past 1938 (their sales peaked in 1929 and dropped significantly thereafter) and only one of the manufacturers mentioned above still remains today. The decline certainly wasn’t due to a lack of effort from the advertising departments, it was simply economics.
I believe the sales literature from the 1930s with all its manufacturer diversity and ability to implement color and gadgetry was the greatest decade for automobile sales literature. I suppose some people will argue that the 1950s should claim the title for greatest advertising decade, but for me, if it has pontoon fenders it is beautiful. Visit any automotive library and see pieces like this for yourself; just be prepared to spend a few hours drooling!