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For Sustained Speed and Extreme Conditions: 1941 Shell Motor Oil ad

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Streamlined trains and divided highways, but oddly no airplanes, represented state-of-the-art transportation in 1941.

If you’ve seen those blue “Eisenhower Interstate System” signs with the General-turned-President’s five-star rank on them, you might have gotten the impression that before 1956, when Ike signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, America simply staggered around on a system of two-lane blacktop that was little changed from Native American footpaths and wagon-rutted settler’s trails. Popular histories don’t help, suggesting that Ike was simply copying the Autobahn system he’d encountered in Germany.

It’s not true, though. Limited-access highways in the vein of the modern superslab predate the war (the Autobahn concept even, goes back to the 1920s, as did New York State’s parkways), including this section of U.S. 41 between Chicago and Milwaukee. With those roads, cars were running sustained high speeds for longer than ever before. That meant new stresses on engines, and Shell issued this ad, which appeared in the June 16, 1941, issue of Life reminding consumers that new stresses could be met with its new X-100 oil formulation.

WARNING: These are new, extreme conditions. Until recently, no motor oil–even “the best”–was made to stand up under them. At sustained high speed, chemical changes may take place in such oil, lessening its protection. Motor damage, or a severe loss in performance, may follow.

Cleverly, Shell acknowledged without saying so that the automobile was a newcomer to an established tradition of high-speed running, by including a railroad overpass occupied by the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha passenger train. Streamlined passenger trains like the Hiawatha, which debuted in 1935, were the preferred mode of long-distance travel at the time. It’s surprising that Shell didn’t also include a DC-3 overhead, but perhaps the company didn’t want to remind folks that the airplane threatened to usurp the road trip just as the trains were already falling prey to trucks and cars.

Our favorite part, aside from the illustration, is probably the subtle call out to the lead footed in the crowd: “If…you sometimes call on your late-model car for ‘all-out’ performance, DRAIN AND REFILL NOW WITH SHELL X-100. It’s safety insurance for your motor.”

One last thing that jumped out at us as we researched this piece was that the Shell X-100 name actually returned to the market a few years back, not as a modern, high-speed oil, but one specifically formulated for classic cars. It even came in a neat retro can. We guess it’s still high-tech for 1941!