Selling the Sizzle – Early Auto Ads

By Jim Hinckley

Part One

1919 Raulang Electric Automobile – Baker R&L Company. Click for full view. Courtesy carlylehold on flickr

In the world of marketing, advertising, and sales, substance often takes a back seat to perception. Catch phrases, slogans, and jingles translate into revenue; even if the product being sold is little different from that offered by a competitor, or the product quality is a bit questionable.

From its inception the development of automotive advertisement was a sorcerer’s blend of alchemy, P.T. Barnum styled word pictures, and a hint of psychology. When it comes to the selling of the sizzle rather than the steak, the wordsmiths that worked for automotive marketing companies and advertisers were, and are, true artists.

However, the value in automotive advertisement is not always measured in dollars and sense. As vintage promotional material is a window into a lost world, it transcends its original purpose and serves as an invaluable time capsule long after the company being promoted has been relegated to the ash heap of history.

As an example, consider some of the earliest pieces of automobile promotional material produced in a time when there wasn’t even agreement on what to call the contrivance.

The Porter Stanhope of 1900 was “The Only Perfect Automobile.” Advertisement for the 1901 Oldsmobile proclaimed that “electric vehicles or vapor vehicles were the result of 15 years experience.”

The Porter was “safe, simple, and durable.” “It is free from all complications in its mechanism, so that an engineer is not necessary in its use.”

The Oldsmobile featured “pneumatic cushion tires” and “…carriage body free of machinery of any kind.” “It automatically regulates its speed; changes its spark for a high or low speed…”

The 1901 Phelps Tractor was simply a steam powered tricycle with reins stretching back almost three feet to the rear. “By attaching the Phelps steam powered tractor to a buggy, a surrey, a light spring wagon, or a cart, you transform horse drawn equipment into an automotive contrivance.”

Pulling back on the reins cut the speed, stopped the unit, and also served as the means for reversing. There were no brakes!

The Friedman Automobile Company of Chicago, Illinois proclaimed, “Try it and you will buy it.” After all, “every unit is guaranteed to climb any grade up to 30% with an engine produces six horse-power.”

Rather than trying to compete with other manufactures with claims of mechanical prowess, the California Automobile Company of San Francisco, California tried a different approach in 1902. “Our factory, where your machine is made, is at your disposal for any repairs or breakage. These can be attended to without the troublesome delays necessarily encountered when dealing with Eastern firms.”

During the infancy of the industry, gasoline or kerosene engines were for the most part, untested technologies fraught with issues. So, manufactures often hedged their bet. The Jackson Automobile Company of Jackson, Michigan offered a six horse-power “gasoline road car” and the steam powered Jaxon because “steam is reliable and easily understood.”

Jackson Auto, 1912 logo.

In those early days the marketing of simplicity often trumped mechanical advancement or advanced technology. The 1903 Fordmobile, “The Boss of the Road” produced by Ford Motor Company was so simple that “…a boy of 15 can run it.” The Wannaker was a car “…so simple in its operation that a child or woman could drive it.”

These vintage promotional pieces do more than mirror the evolution of automotive technology and related advertisement. They often also present a snap shot of the motoring experience.

The Pope Hartford of 1905 was, “An exceptional hill climber…” The Ford Model F manufactured in the same year “…seats five people and climbs hills on high speed.”

The Allen is “The King of Hill Climbers.” For the Jackson there is “No Hill to Steep, No Sand to Deep.”

The Gale for 1907 was the car that “climbs hills like a squirrel and eats up the road like an express train.” However, if speed was secondary to the need of a vehicle more suitable to rural driving, the prospective buyer might consider a Model produced by the Model Automobile Company of Peru, Indiana since “hills and sand become level land” with one of these cars.

Even though automotive technology made quantum leaps in the first years of the 20th century, and automotive advertisement rode on its coat tails, much of the promotional material from this period indicates there was still a great deal of confusion about what exactly an automobile was, or what its role in society was.

The Northern was “Silent and Dustless.” The Adams-Farwell offered motorists the advantages of a “revolving air-cooled engine” while the Lambert offered the simplicity of “the friction drive car.”

The 1908 Studebaker Suburban easily converted into a “smart runabout” or a “combination passenger and baggage car” or “a light four passenger car.”

Packard used the slogan “Ask The Man Who Owns One…” in this 1908 Advertisement. Click for larger view. Courtesy Mike Haney on flickr

In 1903, Packard launched a promotional campaign that changed everything. “Packard Motor Car manufactured by the Packard Motor Car Company of Warren, Ohio – Ask The Man Who Owns One.”

Soon slogans and jingles were replacing wordy or heavily technical promotional pieces. These early promotional pieces also offer a glimpse in the formative years of the auto industry, as well as into the dawning of the modern era of advertisement and marketing.

The Knox of 1904 was “The car that obviates the tow.” In the same year promotion for Cadillac proclaimed that it was “The automobile all makes hope some day to equal.”

“Equal to the $2500 kind but at one third the price” topped promotions for the 1904 Rambler produced by the Thomas B. Jeffery & Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The 1903 Roadster produced by Flint Automobile Company of Flint, Michigan proclaimed that “Every Part is the Best, Every Part is Accessible.” This was also a car with a “muffler that muffles.”

The American produced in Indianapolis, Indiana was “A Car for the Discriminating Few.” The Driggs was “Built with the precision of ordnance.” The Beggs was, “Made a little better than seems necessary.”

The Martin was “the little brother of the aeroplane” and the Moore was, “The World’s Biggest Little Automobile.”

By 1910, it was quite apparent that the automobile was a permanent fixture in American society. It was also obvious that for hundred of manufactures to compete for their share of a very limited market, the development of advertisement and promotion would need to become as important as producing an automobile that reflected the latest in cutting edge technologies.

It was the dawn of a new era.

© Jim Hinckley, Legends Of America – October 2013

Continue next page to Selling the Sizzle Part Two

Author Jim Hinckley

About the Author: Jim Hinckley is an award winning author and photographer, and an official contributor to Legends Of America through a partnership developed in October 2012. Hinckley is a former Associate Editor of Cars and Parts Magazine, and author of multiple books, including several on Route 66.  You can follow him on Jim Hinckley’s America.

Also See: 

Legends of the American Automobile

Jim Hinckley – Author & Legends of America Contributor


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