The Timeless Allure of Cocky Vintage Car Ads

The Instagram account @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain resurfaces the madcap print advertisements automakers used to rely on

June 12, 2023 6:00 am
Vintage car ads
Where do we sign?
Danica Killelea

When was the last time you picked up a print magazine? For many of us, the answer is likely “A long time ago.” In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, magazines were the way to get a message to the public, and advertisers took note. That was particularly true for the car industry, as automakers spent millions of dollars and months developing compelling print ads emblazoned with eye-catching specs and slick photos of their newest models.

The Instagram account @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain began with the intent to pay respect to these advertisements of yesteryear, and has gained quite a following since it was created in 2018. While most internet users today are determined to block, mute or scroll past every ad that gets placed in their way, over 62,000 people now follow an account devoted solely to retro ads. 

“Today’s [car] ads (for the most part) lack originality,” Zander Sutton, one of the two creators of the account, tells InsideHook. “With the exception of stuff like VW’s ‘The Force’ or the Polestar No. 2 ad, there isn’t a lot of variation in today’s advertising. You can sure find gems, but those gems have been buried much, much deeper.”

@MakeCarAdsGreatAgain, on the other hand, is exclusively gems. Scrolling through the account is like flipping through the pages of a magazine collection in a dentist’s office in the late 1980s or ‘90s, where you’d see a provocative Porsche ad (still holds up) opposite a spot for Kool cigarettes or chewing tobacco (not so much). 

The account works because even younger automotive enthusiasts wish they’d experienced “the good old days.” Most of us now get our news and entertainment from the tiny rectangle of impending doom in our pockets, and ads fly by on the screen without a second thought from the readers. It’s easy to forget that print advertising used to be fun, even cocky, and actually compelled readers to buy a car.

It used to be common to see horsepower, torque and acceleration numbers in this older era of advertising, even for pedestrian sedans. In today’s commercials, vehicles are mostly props. Looking back at the car spots that aired during Super Bowl 57, there was Ram’s funny “Premature Electrification” ad and three entertaining entries from GM, Kia and Jeep; but what it amounted to was more than four minutes of primetime television and not a single spec or performance number between them. 

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To be fair, car advertising steered away from nerdy specs and figures a long time ago, even in print. By the 1970s and especially into the 1980s, automakers started focusing on tech, features, fuel economy and safety. But, most importantly, they zeroed in on the emotions the vehicle stirs. Brands snuck a few specs in here and there, but ads during those times started making you want the car in ways only your therapist has heard you describe. 

We picked out six of our favorite vintage ads from Sutton’s account, ones that embody the spirit of classic car advertising. Even if you’re not an obsessive gearhead, if you don’t find these entertaining, take the advice from Porsche and check your pulse.

An old print ad for the Porsche 944 S2
Porsche 944 S2
Instagram: @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain

Porsche 944 S2

The Porsche 944 had a great run from the early 1980s to the early 1990s and was a fantastically popular car for the marque at the time. “Forget, for a moment, that it goes from 0 to 60 in 6.9 seconds. Or that it has a top speed of 149 mph,” the ad reads. “Simply judging on looks alone, it should be enough to send your pulse racing.” That sounds like a challenge, or at least a call to evaluate your priorities.

A magazine ad for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Tommi Makinen edition
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI
Instagram: @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI

The Lancer Evolution VI, or Evo 4, was not sold in the U.S., as we didn’t start seeing the rally-bred sedan until the eighth generation. The car had a short production run in the late 1990s and early 2000s, right around when Tommi Mäkinen was dominating World Rally Championship stages in a Mitsubishi. The tie-in with motorsport and a well-known (for some countries) name make this ad a winner. It gives detailed specs on the engine and output and rightly calls it a ready-to-race limited edition. 

A General Motors EV1 PrEView advertisement
General Motors EV1
Instagram: @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain

General Motors EV1

Today’s auto market is full of quick and futuristic EVs, but electrification wasn’t even on the map in the late 1990s. General Motors dipped its pinky toe into the EV waters in 1996 with the EV1, which looks like a retro UFO compared to today’s more refined designs. Customers weren’t able to buy the cars, but were allowed to lease them in select markets, including Los Angeles and Phoenix, Arizona. GM’s ad calls on drivers willing to take the leap to participate in a public testing program. Imagine seeing this in today’s litigious world. (Well, we don’t have to imagine: Tesla is trying the same thing with its so-called Full Self-Driving feature, offering a Beta version for drivers, and the blowback has been fierce.)

Land Rover Range Rover "wrong side of the road" print ad
Land Rover Range Rover
Instagram: @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain

Land Rover Range Rover

Some may think of the Range Rover as a Kardashian hauler today, but it’s always been a massively capable off-roader. Land Rover played to Americans’ desire to poke fun at the British with its ad, stating, “The British have always driven on the wrong side of the road.” The image and text accomplish that, but they also do a fantastic job of illustrating the SUV’s off-road prowess. At the same time, it introduces a cheeky hotline number for prospective buyers to inquire about a new model: 1-800-Fine-4WD.

A magazine advertisement for the Saab 9000 Turbo
Saab 9000 Turbo
Instagram: @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain

Saab 9000 Turbo

It’s easy to find Saab enthusiasts swooning over a brightly-colored Viggen convertible today, but the brand was an outlier in the 1990s. The 9000 Turbo was (and remains) an impressive bit of Swedish engineering, and the “first photos of Earth taken from the new Saab Turbo” ad was a great introduction to the quirky speedster. Turbocharging was a big deal back then, and Saab wasn’t shy about expounding on the feature and the car’s 6.4-second 0-60 time. 

A vintage car ad for the Porsche 911 Carrera
Porsche 911
Instagram: @MakeCarAdsGreatAgain

Porsche 911

Porsche is one of few automakers today that offers parts and support for older models, but that wasn’t the case 40 years ago. This ad shows the beginning of Porsche’s movement to pitch its cars as heirlooms that can last generations, and it plays to well-heeled buyers’ sense of value and money-consciousness by talking about resale value and durability. Of course, we know today that 911s from this era command a premium in the market, so it’s fun to see where things started.

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