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Cool Car Ads of the 1980s

…and a few that weren’t so hot

The 1980s may not have been the best decade for cars—not for starters, at least—but it was a great decade for car ads. The malaise era was drawing to a close and the economy was picking up speed. Cars were getting better, people had money to spend, and automakers were keen to get at those dollars, so they spent lavishly on car magazine ads. But where was the beef? We combed through car magazines from the 1980s looking for gems, and this is what we found.

1980 Chevrolet Citation

Ah, innocence. How sweet it is. This ad was put out in the early days of GM's infamous X-Cars, when all Chevrolet thought they had to was convince buyers why a compact front-wheel-drive car was a good idea—a challenge, to be sure, but nothing compared to what lay ahead. What the public had yet to realize is what a miserable failure the X-Car would turn out to be: one of the worst cars of the 20th century, with a recall record that would not be fully eclipsed until the Takata airbag debacle. And yet when this ad was written, the Citation's future still seemed bright, and all Chevy had to do was talk people out of their Impalas.

1980 Dodge Aries Qualifiers

This ad was an early pitch for the Chrysler K-cars, and you gotta love the headline: "America's only front-wheel-drive 6-passenger car rated 25/41 [mpg]". That's a bit like saying that I, at 5'6", am the tallest Automobile staffer born east of the Rockies and west of the Hudson during the Nixon administration in the fourth week of a month without an R in the name. Hey, we all need a claim to uniqueness, just like everybody else. The irony here is that the K-cars didn't need the hype—they were the right cars for the time and they went on to save Chrysler.

1981 Citation X11 Works

By '81, it was becoming clear just how bad the Citation was—and yet Chevrolet still had to hawk the sporty X-11 version. They did it with this ad that extolled the car's performance features (and truth be told, when it wasn't busy falling apart, the X-11 wasn't as terrible as you might think). Still, you have to love the not-so-subliminal message to a public already growing wary of the X-Cars, an unsubtle (and, arguably, blatantly false) assurance in the headline that their Citation wouldn't leave them stranded: "It works."

1982 DeLorean DMC12 Live the Dream

Seems hard to believe now, but yes, there was a time when John Z had to actually sell his new sports car. Back to the Future was still three years, er, in the future, but the DeLorean, with its stainless-steel finish and gullwing doors, had already burned itself into the retinas of America's car culture. But DeLorean was a salesman, and sell he did. Note how the ad positions him in front of the puffy white stuff, a vision that would turn out to be more prophetic than anyone imagined.

1982 Ford Quality is Job 1

Back in the early 80s, the ass-kicking of the American auto industry by the Japanese was in full swing, with its foot now nearing the top of its arc, firmly planted between the Big Four's collective buttocks, and showing no signs of stopping. Ford and GM ran a series of ads attempting to convince the public that they really could build cars worth a crap. "We want everything to fit together as it was designed," this ad shouts, which shouldn't be much of an accomplishment—except in Detroit factories of the early 1980s, it was.

1983 Pioneer Speakers Windows Up

There was a time, young children, when it was possible to upgrade your own stereo—and in the 1980s, most car enthusiasts did, changing both the head unit and the speakers. Stereo manufacturers spent liberally on car-mag ads, vying with cigarettes, booze, and radar detectors for the most ad pages, and this Pioneer speaker ad was one of the most memorable.

1983 Volvo Rear-Wheel-Drive

Thanks to companies like Chrysler, GM, Volkswagen, and (especially) Saab, front-wheel-drive was all the rage in the early 80s. So what do you do when you're Volvo and your entire US lineup consists of aging rear-wheel-drive cars? You do this, comparing your rear-drive boxcar to Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, and Indy and F1 racing cars. The ruse worked, and Saab spent the bulk of the 1980s vying with Volvo for yuppie buyer dollars.

1984 Dodge Caravan Transportation Revolution

We expect hype in car ads, to the point that we're almost disappointed when it isn't there, and to readers in 1984, this whole "transportation revolution" must have seemed like typical Madison Avenue hype. After all, car magazine readers knew that Volkswagen invented the minivan twenty-odd years earlier. But this turned out to be truth in advertising: Developed on the cheap, Chrysler's minivans became the go-to family cars of the '80s and '90s, so successful that even the seemingly unconquerable Japanese took over a decade to catch up.

1984 Cadillac of Tomorrow

It's always pretty cool to see what the ad writers do when given Mission Impossible. This ad from 1984 was just such a test: Cadillac's new 1985 front-wheel-drive DeVille was now roughly the size of a Honda Accord, and Caddy had to pitch these as equivalent to the land yachts they were replacing—and this at a time when the brand had already been mortally wounded by the Cimarron. Cadillac's ad team played it by the book, extolling the virtues of the new mini-Caddys as if nothing had changed.

1985 Porsche 944 For the People

In the 1980s, German car ads were pretty formulaic: Scenes of cars rocketing through twisty roads (usually at dusk with the headlights on), and copy touting superior engineering, using words with as many syllables as possible. TV ads were the same, with the addition of dramatic music and a deathly serious announcer. Then Porsche changed its tune and starting producing print pieces that looked like Honda ads: Bright colors and casual copy without the inherent condescension of  earlier ads. All of a sudden, Germany's best-of-the-best wasn't just a tool for rich tools, but your friend, a regular guy like you—just a bit better bred. It worked, and Porsche earned its reputation as the (somewhat) attainable supercar.

1986 Honda Civic Wagon

Hey, remember that time Honda invented the crossover and no one cared?

1986 Mitsubishi Who?

The Conquest TSi (sold as a Chrysler, Dodge, or Plymouth and also marketed under its given name, the Mitsubishi Starion) was a turbocharged wonder that was every bit as potent as its rivals from Nissan and Mazda (and, eventually, Toyota). All it lacked was name recognition, an issue Chrysler tackled head-on in this ad, headlined "300ZX vs. RX-7 vs. Who?" It was a great ad that didn't work—the Conquest never did get the recognition it deserved.

1986 Isuzu Impulse Screams

If the Mitsubishi/Chrysler Conquest lacked recognition, the Isuzu Impulse was almost completely unknown—a car so obscure that even Mitsubihi didn't acknowledge its existence. The Impulse was a rear-drive sportster (and, truth be told, more of a competitor for the Nissan 200SX than the 300ZX) that could be had with a 140-hp turbo engine. The ad campaign was pretty darn brilliant—"It screams when you step on it" is probably one of the best ad headlines of the '80s. A contemporary ad for the I-Mark Turbo asked "Have you hugged the road lately?"

1987 Joe Isuzu

Isuzu's witty headlines soon gave way to one of the best-known ad campaigns of the decade, even for non-car types: Joe Isuzu. He was most famous for his TV ads, like this one, this one and this one, in which he'd make some outrageous claim for some Isuzu sled or other, and the caption "He's lying" would appear. Unfortunately, the TV ads got a little dumber and then a lot dumber, but the magazine adverts like this one—"The 4x4 That Conquered Everest"—never quite jumped the shark.

1987 Saab Viggen

At the time Saab was fighting it out with Volvo for Muffy and Biff's hard-earned dollars, us gearheads were wondering when Saab was going to drag out the airplanes. After all, that was its claim to fame—Saab started out making airplanes while Volvo started out making ball bearings. Finally it did it, posing a lineup of 900s and 9000s in front of the supersonic JA-37 VIggen attack fighter. That and the hot-rod 900 Turbo helped establish Saab as the hot-blooded Swede that made the Volvo look stodgy, a reputation the guys in Gothenburg would have a difficult time shaking off.

1988 Oldsmobile For You

It's amazing how slow the gears can turn at a big corporation. Every car fanatic knew what Oldsmobile's problem was, but the company didn't seem to grasp the situation—until it did. "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," trumpeted the print and TV ads, and the message resonated with the public, especially as the car in the ad was the GM-10-based Cutlass Supreme, which was actually a rather slick car for its day. Oldsmobile tried pushing its performance credentials, but Pontiac was doing the same thing, and its rock-and-roll "We Build Excitement" ads were a bigger hit with the younger buyers Olds was seeking. Still, Oldsmobile very nearly had a renaissance of sorts, and this marketing campaign was the beginning.

1988 Subaru Ridiculous Headline

Some marketing puke somewhere figured out that most magazine readers only skimmed the headline, so they tried to put the entire message there—like this Subaru ad, which apparently expected you to pause your page-flipping long enough to read "The kind of car Mercedes might have built if they were a little more frugal and a lot more inventive." Erm… no. The ad was a miss and Subaru sales didn't pick up until decades later, when the brand picked a shorter tagline: "Love."

1989 Chevrolet Heartbeat of America

Pontiac had "We build excitement," Oldsmobile had the "Not your father's Olds" thing, but Chevy may have had the best tagline of them all: Heartbeat of America. For whatever reason, Chevrolet was (and arguably still is) closely tied to the American psyche, and the brilliant Heartbeat of America campaign, which ran from 1985 until 1993, took advantage. All Chevy had to do was show a car and write "Heartbeat," and everyone knew whose ad they were looking at—and that's the kind of brand recognition most ad execs would sell their own mothers to get.

1989 Infiniti Car Ad Without a Car

Before launching its new Infiniti luxury brand, Nissan ran a series of ads that talked about the nature of luxury. The idea was to explore what went into the creation of a luxury brand and whet the appetite, but most consumers just found the ads confusing. When the Q45 finally appeared, it was already several paces behind the rival Lexus LS400, which ran ads that extolled the virtues of the car… which they actually showed. Infiniti never quite recovered, and it has been playing second fiddle to Lexus ever since.