Fun Stuff

Vintage Car Brochures: Collecting Three Decades of Motor City Propaganda

Advertising has been around ever since the first humans starting scrawling inscrutable pictograms on cave walls. Have an extra loincloth or spear to sell? Scratch an image of it into the rock outside your cave: one gently used Cro-Magnon hat, made of the finest mammoth fur, asking price of three pebbles – no lowball Neanderthal offers, I know what I’ve got.

Gearheads will say Detroit’s automakers and their marketing agencies have created some of the most persuasive advertisements in human history. Your author can name several occasions in which a new ride has appeared in a friend or family member’s driveway after seeing that new truck during a commercial break on Hockey Night in Canada. I’m pretty sure one of my cousins indirectly funded the entire college education of a sales manager at Hickman Motors, in fact.

This affliction starts early. Growing up in rural Newfoundland provided little opportunity for automotive excitement until a trip was taken to some larger centre in which there were dealerships. These sojourns offered the chance to beg my long-suffering parents to stop at local showrooms which, 30 years ago, still harboured plenty of ’70s-era decor mixed with the ingrained smell of Aqua Velva and king-size Du Maurier Lights.

Giving free brochures to an acne-ridden teenager probably didn’t rank too high on any sales rep’s Top 40. Some of the brighter sparks in those dealerships recognized if the kid with bad hair was eager enough to examine the finer points of the new-for-’92 Ford Probe, there stood a solid chance they’d eventually buy one with their own money. At the very least, they’d annoy their parents long enough to speed up the sales cycle of those with actual cash.

Brochures are a relic of the past, to be sure, with all manner of information now available digitally and the uncomfortable truth that annually printing thousands of glossy tomes is decidedly unfriendly to Johnny Polar Bear. My own son will never crowd with his buddies after one of them returns from Gander with a fistful of car brochures, poring over the changes Chevy made to the Silverado for 1995. They’ve their own rituals now, ones which include bouncing off walls in Fortnite and trading supplies in Minecraft. Life goes on.

This affliction is why your author nearly required several different forms of medical attention after finding half a dozen milk crates full of car brochures at a local antique shop. “That’s one for the ’94 Ram,” I muttered while sweltering through my now-mandatory-indoors face mask, soaking in pictures of the pickup truck that turned Detroit on its ear. “And that’s the car in which I learned to drive,” excitedly pawing at an otherwise unremarkable 16-page glossy of the 1989 Ford Escort.

Mustangs, Bonnevilles, and Lasers. Oh, my!

But from where did all this nostalgia appear? Clair Peers owns the Onslow Trading Company, an antique and property appraisal firm in the business of estate liquidations and household purchases, and was the one who found this treasure trove of nostalgia in the first place. He was kind enough to fill us in – and listen politely while your author excitedly rambled about the 1993 Intrepid’s place in automotive history.

“There were well over 1,000 brochures when I purchased the lot,” explained Peers. “It seems the guy who accumulated them would visit each dealer, mostly in the Halifax area, and collect one of each model for the upcoming year.” The man apparently began doing so in the late 1960s and continued doing so for nearly three decades.

Peers immediately recognized the value in this collection partially thanks to his experience as an antique dealer but also – as one might expect – thanks to his gearhead tendencies. “I bought a two-year-old Charger in 1969 and had it for three years before I got rear-ended. Back then, that full-width tail light cost a fortune, so the car went away.” How does one tell that Peers is a gearhead? Because he knows the exact name of the Charger’s colour: Medium Copper Metallic.

These days, anything relating to cars like that 1967 Charger is valuable, not just the cars themselves. This includes rare dealership brochures. “A collector in Frobisher Bay bought very nearly all the Mopar stuff,” he said, explaining some of the customers to whom he sold parts of the collection. “I’ve also taken them to markets and car swap meets. You just never know what ones will be interesting to people.”

Gearheads know nostalgia is a helluva drug, one that’s likely more expensive in the long run than anything on the black market. It affects everyone differently, explaining why our friend in Frobisher Bay e-transferred funds for a yaffle of ’60s and ’70s Mopar items while your author unholstered his debit card for a pile of brochures from the ’80s and ’90s.

The fond memories and rose-coloured details of youth define our purchases, especially for the misty-eyed sloppy dates who live and breathe cars. In my eyes, that ’89 Escort was a great machine, its 88-hp four-banger and propensity for guzzling copious amount of Motomaster engine oil be damned. As silly as it sounds to non-gearheads, I’m glad to have its brochure.

Just don’t expect me to sell it. Like the cave dweller with his mammoth hat, I know what I have.

Epilogue: While interviewing Peers, your author made the offer to sort and organize the brochures that remain in this collection. As such, my office is currently filled with Detroit propaganda for cars ranging from the 1969 Mustang to the new-for-’96 Dodge Caravan. I couldn’t be happier.