QUAKER STATE'S "YEARS-AHEAD" CAMPAIGN
Part of a series of articles on ad campaigns featuring futuristic inventions.
Motor oil goes together with cars like other go-together pairs including love and marriage or horse and carriage. Referencing a 1955 Frank Sinatra song is appropriate because the 1950s were the Golden Age of the concept car, the "dream car" of an America shaking off the Depression and the War and leading the way into a sunny future of technological supremacy.
The major U.S. automakers fought desperate battles for attention throughout the decade, each year's new models introduced through giant shows with production numbers and hordes of beautiful models, both mechanical and human, striving to top one another with gaudier, eye-catching styling. The decade ended with stretched and low-riding behemoths of the roads spreading their tails like peacocks, laden with giant tail fins deliberately reminiscent of the fighter jets that were the definition of speed and power coming out of the war. (See The Look of the Future - Flying Cars for another take on these.)
By 1955 these concept cars were so numerous that an entire advertising campaign could be built around them. Who better to do so than Quaker State?
Oil wells are so associated today with the Wild West that most people forget that the earliest oil boom occurred in 1859 in not-so-wild northwest Pennsylvania. The first big strike was made in Titusville, but the entire area was saturated with petroleum and a new town called Oil City was born in 1862 about 20 miles south. Both Pennzoil and Quaker State established headquarters there, making sure to incorporate references to their home in their names, Pennsylvania oil products quickly gaining a reputation for quality. (I'm simplifying greatly. The companies were the product of a long series of mergers and acquisitions over decades and finally merged themselves and then were bought out by Royal Dutch Shell, itself named after a merger. They long ago left Oil City for Texas.)
The Quaker State Corporation formed in 1931 by merging 19 small companies, one of them called Quaker State. It's history was filled with cute marketing gimmicks. In 1914 the Franklin Motor Company sold its cars complete with a five-gallon can of Quaker State motor oil under the front seat. By the 1950s Quaker State was mass-marketed in stores as well as being the house brand at Amoco gas stations. Their ads were distinctive, almost always colored in magazines with a green tint to match the green backing of their service station signs.
Sometime in 1955, their ad agency came up with a new campaign for 1956. Quaker State was "years-ahead." That had multiple meanings. Not only was the product years-ahead in quality over its competitors, it would keep cars running well years into the future, and was so advanced that automakers used it in their experimental concept cars with their futuristic engines. To illustrate that future, the ads used images of those concept cars rather than generic autos.
It's hard to get exact dates for the campaign; most of the images online are torn out of context without any sources or dates. The ads appeared in several magazines, including U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, and Popular Mechanix. The best source is U. S. News, which conveniently labeled the cars. Popular Mechanix ran narrower one-column ads that didn't. There may be additional ads out there beyond the 16 I've found.
In the gauzy haze of hindsight, they make for a fascinating slice of 1950s overkill, a view of the would-be jet-fueled, panoramic, even atomic future that Detroit would pass along to the American consumer.
This appears to be the first in the series, from the February 1956 Popular Mechanix. The campaign started with the full pitch and kept hammering it home with ad after ad. Quaker State is "Literally years-ahead, in performance and protection." You'll be using it in your "cars of tomorrow." Women would frequently be pictured in the ads, reflecting their new role as suburban housewives who dropped their husbands off at the train station in the morning and then used the car for the rest of the day.
I've tried to find contemporary pictures of the real concept cars that match the portion of the car illustrated in the ads, with partial success. Apparently, real-world photographers never take pictures from the odd angles the artist used to make the images dramatic. Use your imagination just as the magazine readers needed to do.
The car is the Chrysler Flight Sweep 1, a modified 1954 De Soto with the "Forward Look" that would dominate Chrysler products for years. (Like the rest of the Big Three, Chrysler marketed a tiered series of brands from the basic Dodge up through the luxury Imperial. The Plymouth, DeSoto, and Chrysler lines fell in between. All but Imperial displayed concept cars in the 1950s but for whatever reasons Quaker State ignored them.) The Flight Sweep 1 was a convertible, the Flight Sweep II a hardtop, and yes, it got its own ad. They were test models for tail fins that would come into the Chyrsler line in 1957.
The Flight Sweep wasn't the only concept Chrysler tried in 1955. The Falcon, no relation to the later Ford Falcon, was another convertible, but this as a two-seater sports car. With a "super engine." Back then, super in italics meant a 276 cubic inch overhead-valve Hemi V8 engine, that put out 170 gross horsepower with 255 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm.
Ford Motor Company
While Chrysler displayed concepts that normally foretold later designs - the Falcon should have been its competitor to the Thunderbird but never made it into production - Ford went all-out into space-age dream cars. The bubble-top Ford Mystere was pure show, literally; it had no engine and couldn't be driven. Even so it made a huge splash at a 1956 Chicago auto show. The body was designed around a gas turbine engine that would somehow be fitted into that small rear deck. Gas turbines were destined to be the next step for auto engines, but the companies never could make them practical.
Carstyling.ru described the multitude of futuristic gadgets the Mystere contained.
Hinged at the back the canopy could be opened up 70-degrees, front seats would swivel outward and passengers could easily enter and exit through half-doors. The scoop at the top of the windshield supplied fresh air into the 4-passenger cockpit. A radiotelphone was housed in a console between the two rear bucket-type seats, and the aircraft-type steering wheel was a "throw-over," meaning that the car could be driven from either front seat. Other modern features were pushbutton ignition switch, padded dash and a television set behind the front seat.
No images seem to exist of the car with the canopy up, although it supposedly could be done. For probably the same reasons, you don't see any pictures of people sitting in the car, only drawings.
If the Mystere was a junk shop worth of futuristic components, the ultimate concept car of the era, debuted at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show, was the plopped-down-from-the-21st-century Ford FX Atmos.
The Atmos was pure car as fighter jet, drivable from the middle of the cockpit. Another auto show mock-up made of fiberglass, it was immobile for the same lack of an engine as the Mystere. But no mere gas turbine for the Atmos. As the name implied, nothing less than an atomic power plant could be worthy of such a vehicle. Yes, that indeed appears to be Betty Page at the controls in this publicity picture.
Ford had two brands over the basic Ford, the mature Mercury, and the luxury Lincoln. Both also made it into the Quaker State campaign. The long, low, 1956 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser was ... the perfect car to go riding with the hounds? Somebody had odd ideas about American life and aspirations. Shouldn't it have been merrily cruising down a turnpike?
This was to be the car to revive the fading Mercury brand, Ghia-designed and introduced at the 1956 Cleveland Auto Show to whet appetites for the actual 1957 model. Unfortunately that was a hardtop lacking the gull-wings and sliding roof but keeping the clunky lines. It failed badly.
Lincoln got it. The Lincoln Futura is exactly what a concept car should be, from the name to the cockpit scooped out of the tail like a pair of melon balls.
How completely, perfectly modern was this design? It became the Batmobile.
General Motors, the largest corporation in the world in the 1950s, had to attempt to out-do its competitors. All five brands introduced concept cars, although Quaker State didn't use any of the several Chevrolet models. Their ad people were in love with GM nevertheless. Let's start with Pontiac and work our way up.
If you liked the 1955 Chrysler Falcon, then you probably already liked the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville, designed by the legendary Harley J. Earl. (The automakers swiped lots of designs from one another and many odd pairings can be found.) The man who invented the tailfin dropped them for this two-seater sports coupé, debuted at the General Motors Motorama in 1954. The Bonneville name is familiar from the salt flats used for setting land-speed records and from the long-lived car of that name that Pontiac made starting in the 1960s. For whatever weird reasoning, that was a full-sized car.
For equally unknown reasons, Quaker State left off everything that made this car truly special.
The fiberglass body had gull-wing doors, a bubble top, and an awesome rocket engine blaster that seems to propel it off the ground while standing still. You have to think that the dog in the ad is wondering how in the world he catches this fabulous apparition if he chases it.
Two years later, Earl brought forth another sports car concept, the Pontiac Club de Mer.
An obvious descendant of the Bonneville Special, this differed in being only a mockup for a Motorama rather a working vehicle. Not shown in the ad - the artist loved air views of long, low hoods - is the bizarre rear fin that seems to belong in a Jaws movie. I'm fairly sure that it would eat you alive if you rear-ended the car. The Jetsons license plate is obviously a later addition, but a nice touch.
The Pontiac Strato Chief urged car buyers to think of jet planes soaring through the stratosphere. And Quaker State urged motor oil buyers to covet their Miracle Film. If you could figure out what that meant, it was a miracle.
The big problem with the Strato Chief is that it didn't exist. Not even as a concept. I'm not sure who was responsible for the mistake, but the actual concept car was called the Strato Star. The target-like taillight is a giveaway.
Pontiac did more than sports car concepts. The Pontiac Parisienne was a full-sized sedan, modeled after 1930s open-top, luxury town cars, illustrated fairly ludicrously with a chauffeur and a mink-coated women riding under a canopy in the back seat. This is Pontiac, remember, the second lowest on the brand ladder. Quaker State, admittedly, took its cues from Pontiac, which pitched it the same way. Like the Bonneville, the Parisienne eventually became a standard make for Pontiac, as a normal large sedan.
Oldsmobile fell into the middle of the GM full house. The Oldsmobile Golden Rocket. Jet plane or rocket ship, either would do for futuristic overtones in the 1950s. At least the Quaker State artist thought to include the gull-wing doors and the tail fin on the nacelle. The split-window look would show up again on the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
Buicks were non-flashy cars for well-to-do professionals, so turning them into gaudy concepts ran against what the brand stood for. Quaker State nevertheless choose two for their campaign. The Buick Wildcat had been introduced in 1953 to test fiberglass bodies. A Wildcat II, smaller and sportier, appeared in 1954. Quaker choose the 1955 Wildcat III, a longer, four-seat convertible. The "check-mark" chrome swoosh was adopted for use almost immediately and the Wildcat name was used for a sporty Buick in the 1960s and for several more recent concept cars. "Sporty," that is, compared to regular Buicks.
The other Quaker State choice was the Buick Centurian, the perfect car to lean against while you attend a flyover by sleek fighter jets, as one does.
The Centurion was designed inside and out with jet-derived elements. Niftiest of all, and "years-ahead" indeed, was the television camera mounted in the rear that eliminated the need for unsightly rear-view mirrors. Actually, most of the concept cars did without the mirrors, puny as they were by modern standards, but this was the only car that could justify the loss. A Centurion model followed the Wildcat in the 1970s as a sporty Buick.
If GM could do this to a Buick, what flair could they achieve by futurizing a Cadillac? GM churned out a half-dozen concept cars for the brand, the most wondrous of them being the Mararini or "kitchen-sink" Cadillac, because it had everything. A press release listed the wonders:
A specially styled roll-top cabinet occupies the right front compartment of the Maharani. The locker contains such appropriate touring conveniences as a folding table, a hot plate, a recessed toaster, a cutlery tray, a cooling unit and coffee and water dispensers which are supplied from tanks installed under the hood. A built-in combination safe and ladies vanity case are also in included.
Quaker State played it safe with the one roadster concept, the Cadillac La Salle II, posing it with a nouveau riche couple in front of their country estate.
Nice looking car but other than the chromeless styling, not much to excite anyone, even Cadillac owners. Cadillacs were the longest cars on the road, with the 1955 Eldorado Brougham a full 18 feet long. The La Salle was a mere 15 feet, longer than a Corvette but shorter than a Thunderbird, either of which had more interesting lines. Even the name was odd. La Salle was once the sixth GM brand, sitting between the Buick and Cadillac. Plastering a lower brand name on a Cadillac, the king of cars in 50s America, made no sense.
A number of smaller automakers staggered out of the hiatus of WWII, hoping to find a way to compete against the Big Three. One of the most storied was Packard, in business since 1899 and famed for their Depression-era luxury behemoths. A Packard meant status: after the war their top-of-the-line model was the Packard Patrician. None of that mattered in the 1950s, when the larger companies combined to crush competition. The company's last car was a concept car, the 1956 Packard Predictor.
Long (222 inches!), low, and with exceptionally clean lines and just a soupçon of tail fin, the car was an all-metal 6,000 pound juggernaut with doors weighing 200 pounds each. It could be driven, if you didn't mind a few electrical fires from the last-minute wiring job, necessitated by the mere 90-day advance time to enter it into the 1956 Chicago Auto Show. The wiring was a nightmare because everything in the car moved. Power windows, sure. How about power headlight doors and a retractable rear window, too? The seats swiveled out and the roof panel slid back when the doors opened. Everything that could be powered by a push button was, and the rest used phallic levers so you could pretend you sat in a, pardon the expression, cockpit. The panting public loved the car and its multitude of features, but not enough to encourage investors to pour money into a black hole.
Packard bought Studebaker in 1954 and the combined company lasted a few more years, eventually producing the stunning Avanti sports car that still looks futuristic to this day. One last concept car knocked eyeballs out at the 1958 Geneva Auto Show, just a bit too late for the Quaker State campaign. Not that they would have used it in any case. There's futuristic and then there's stuff from another dimension. It has no real place here, but I cannot resist sharing this video of the Studebaker-Packard Astral, the car the Jetsons should have owned.
Quaker State also did one collective, full-color ad for its campaign, the one whose cars I show at top. Just for the record, here's the complete ad page, from the October 20, 1956 Saturday Evening Post.
Quaker State continued its "years-ahead" campaign into 1957, with this ad appearing in the February Popular Mechanix. There's not enough information in that one headlight to identify the car. Anyone who can please use the contact page to get in touch with me.
March 22, 2020