(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #100, January 2013)
Is buying a car today too easy? If you are in the market for a new car there is a high probability that you have visited an automaker’s website, learned detailed pricing information, and looked at a 360-degree digital view of the car from the comfort of your office chair. Oh yeah, you’ve probably read a few performance reviews and even shopped around for the best price at dealers in a 50-mile radius. You can do all of this in your pajamas and likely before your cup of coffee gets cold. Naturally, this process has not always been so easy.
With more than 5,000 automobile manufacturers existing in one form or another before World War II, it is obvious that competition was extremely tough. Add in to the equation that most people could only shop at local dealerships and you realize that early sales literature was really the key to get customers through the door. Once on site completing a sale could still be a challenge. The solution? Make your sales literature and sales aides interactive, eye catching and fun.
When Charles Knight first introduced the smooth and quiet sleeve-valve engine to the United States in 1904 there was little interest. By the 1910s, however, several American companies had success marketing the technology most notably the F.B. Stearns Co. In 1912, to show off the engine, the company produced a 4 ½” X 6” booklet that included a moving cardboard model of the Stearns-Knight engine. No small engineering feat in itself, this little model fully displays the position of the two sleeves and piston during the entire four-stroke process. These booklets weren’t just mailed out; they were sold for $0.50 (about $12 today) and would certainly entertain a customer if not fully sell them on sleeve-valve technology.
By the 1920s and 30s, a traditional sales catalog with basic illustrations and vehicle highlights could easily get lost in a pile. To combat this problem, some automakers made their vehicles come to life right in the comfort of a prospective buyer’s office chair through stereoscopic glasses. Packard used this tactic several times in the 1920s. Their brochures from 1924 highlighted how slowly Packards depreciate and the benefits and value of routine maintenance. In 1929 the company took a different approach, chronicling a family’s decision to purchase a Packard. A step-by-step catalog highlighted the vehicle’s performance and safety features and also addressed many of the issues a prospective customer may be struggling with.
In 1932 Pontiac used “Blue Glasses” and “Rose Colored Glasses” to illustrate how Pontiac cars outperformed every other car in the low-price field. The blue glasses would illustrate the competition’s inadequacies while the rose colored glasses not only emphasized the benefits of Pontiacs but also turned the customer’s frowns into smiles -talk about seeing the world through rose colored glasses!
In terms of the most customer interaction, a Chevrolet dealer catalog from 1940 is the one piece that can claim that distinction. The title, “Chevrolet Invites you to Sit Behind the Wheel”, delivers its promise and the only thing it is missing is engine noise and potholes. Page after page brings a new model ranging from a demonstration of the vehicle’s suspension and braking to gear shifting and lubrication system facts. In all, the catalog features 13 visuals and does a great job of selling the vehicle. This catalog was likely used by many salesmen during the 1940 season to seal the deal once the customer walked into the showroom.
While technology, reach, and quantity of sales literature has increased during the last 100+ years, the same basic sales tactics remain the same – grab a customers attention, get them in the door, make them fall in love with the car and complete the sale. I would love to hear about some of your favorite pieces of unique, attention grabbing pre-war sales literature!