Q: Greg I would like if you could tell us your feelings on auto TV and newspaper advertising and the spokespeople in them from when you started to notice. Thanks, Charlie L., Daytona Beach, Florida.
A: No problem Charlie.
Let’s start with Groucho Marx and Dinah Shore, both huge stars in the 1950 decade on television. I was born in 1949, just a young toddler early in that decade. However, I remember these TV shows and newspaper ads well and enjoy seeing them to this day.
Groucho Marx, one of the five Marx Brothers (Zeppo, Gummo, Chico and Harpo), became famous for his endorsement of the DeSoto automobile thanks to his hit TV Show “You Bet Your Life.” DeSoto was his major sponsor for many years and prior to Groucho, DeSoto also used Walt Disney and Spencer Tracy in print ads as far back as the 1930s. Bing Crosby did the same back then for Dodge, as did child star Shirley Temple.
However, when it comes to the most influential car sponsored show of the 1950s, it was Dinah Shore’s Chevy Show that was number one. Her variety show began in 1951 and lasted until 1963 and always had Dinah singing, “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” No other show of the decade came close to promoting a car brand like Dinah Shore did.
Prior to the television show, Dinah had a regular radio show and it was called the Dinah Shore Ford Show. Yes, Ford had her under contract in 1946 and 1947 and let her go.
On the subliminal level, I’ll give a pat on the back to Nash. It was the Nash car brand that supplied cars to the early Superman TV series, as characters always arrived in Nash automobiles. More trivia? Nash was the first ever-corporate sponsor / car company to officially sign a deal with NASCAR racing.
As for one special spokesman, I feel Ricardo Montalban was the top car guy. Appearing in the 1970 decade and already a famous actor who starred in the TV hit “Fantasy Island,” Montalban added his famous face and voice to Chrysler’s new 1975 Cordoba, with special emphasis on its Corinthian leather interior. The many Cordobas sold came with Montalban’s popularity and to this day is one of the most famous car advertising campaigns ever, both print and television.
Personally, I always enjoyed performance-marketing themes, like the George Hurst of Hurst shifters AMC Scrambler and Mark Donohue Javelin/AMX. Both are performance and racing legends, and were joined by other racing legends like Carroll Shelby with his Cobras, Mustangs and Chargers. Hurst came in again with the Hurst 442 W30 Oldsmobiles, while Dick Harrell and Don Yenko, noted racers, joined the Chevy special performance car craze thanks to Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago and Yenko in Canonsburg, Pa., respectively. They were joined by the most famous MOPAR hi-performance dealer, Mr. Norm’s Grand Spaulding Dodge near Chicago, where you could buy a ‘67 440-V8 Dodge Dart no problem.
Instead of spokespeople or performance names, I also enjoyed cartoon character based performance cars, like the Plymouth Roadrunner. These Roadrunners came complete with the Warner Brothers famous “Roadrunner Bird” decal and special “beep-beep” horn. Roadrunner’s nemesis, however, namely the Coyote, was limited to a “Coyote Duster” ram air intake system on MOPAR muscle cars.
Movie and TV fans couldn’t miss the late Farah Fawcett, especially in her Mercury Cougar television ads. How about Dustin Hoffman and Wilt Chamberlain? Turns out both endorsed Volkswagen along the way. Ford utilized the services of Sir Jackie Stewart, Formula 1 champion, and Rick Mears, Indy car Champ, for many of its Mustang and performance based commercials.
I also remember Chevrolet was quick to sign Lorne Greene from the Bonanza TV western as its official Chevy spokesman. Bonanza was a big TV hit with missions of viewers every Sunday night.
Actor Sam Elliott deserves mention, as his deep voice is now the expected “voice over” for all (Dodge) RAM truck ads. Before Elliott, if you were a Dodge fan it was the late great Ed Herrmann who did a fine job. Herrmann, noted actor and gentleman, lasted from 1992 to 2001 as the main Dodge spokesman. From Chrysler savior Lee Iacocca appearing in ads himself to Jill Wagner for Mercury, both deserve note. As for a car dealer himself, you’ve got to check out the late Cal Worthington on YouTube pushing his cars and special deals for many decades.
Those early TV shows, which carried major sponsors like Texaco Star Theater and then became the Buick – (Milton) Berle Show to the Goodyear TV Playhouse they all centered on the automobile. It was such a splendid era.
Miss anyone? Write and let me know as there are literally hundreds more I could have mentioned. Thanks for your question Charlie.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist. He welcomes reader input on auto nostalgia, collector cars and old-time racing at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at email@example.com).