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Hands off the grab bar, Charlie

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1964 Pontiac ad. Images courtesy of the Automotive History Preservation Society.

Ads from automakers today tout things like fuel economy, display screen size, and cargo space. In 1964,  Pontiac took a completely different approach in advertising its B-body fullsize models, the Catalina, Star Chief, Bonneville and Grand Prix – it promoted optional engines without showing a single automobile, in the most literate of manners.

The headline “Hands off the grab bar, Charlie, you’re tearing out the dash!” tells a prospective performance-minded buyer everything he needs to know about Pontiac performance, in a single sentence. Were that not persuasive enough, the copy that follows is filled with rich visuals and sounds: the click of a fastening seat belt, the bark of a wakening large-displacement V-8, the rise and fall of a fender as the the engine is revved.

And then, this: “A rumbling boom as of distant thunder. Dust sets to swirling suddenly in the path of a pair of downward pointing exhaust pipes. Someone has just prodded one of our 421’s into fire-in-the-nostrils, show-me-a-road-any-road life.”

That’s the kind of verse that Shakespeare might have written, had he been born 350 years later, and employed by an ad agency. “Hark, what thunder from distant horizons booms? Zounds! ‘Tis a Tri-Power 421 on full cam, methinks!”

At the bottom of the ad, Pontiac laid out the 421 options available, starting with the Trophy 421, topped by a single four-barrel carburetor and rated at 320-hp and 455-lb.ft. of torque. Next up was the Trophy 421 with Tri-Power, which produced 350-hp and 454-lb.ft. of torque, thanks in part to the trio of two-barrel carburetors and a bump in compression (from 10.5:1 to 10.75:1). Finally, there was the Trophy 421 HO, which was also fed by a Tri-Power setup and carried over the 10.75:1 compression, but produced 370-hp and 460-lb.ft. of torque.

Nowhere did the ad mention or show the Catalina, Star Chief, Bonneville or Grand Prix models, but consumers in the know still understood exactly what Pontiac was shilling. Another classic ad from 1964 carried the less-is-more theme even further, failing to reference anything beyond the barest of specifications, and then only in the fine print.

“There’s a tiger loose in the streets,” the caption read, showing an evening scene of a vacant, well-lit garage, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “And if you gaze long enough into the garage, the garage will gaze back into you.”

Of course there’s equally poetic copy in the body of the ad, setting the stage: A quiet night, so quiet one can hear frogs croaking. But then,

After a while a big-engined Something rumbles by in the night. It checks for a moment at the lights, then swings out onto the highway.

Suddenly a rising moan overrides the rumble as a bunch of extra throats get kicked wide open and start vacuuming air by the cubic acre. The moan gets drowned out in its turn by a booming exhaust note that someone ought to bottle and sell as pure essence of Car.

Three times the sound peaks, falls back, peaks again.

Anyone who’s ever wound out a four-speed V-8 muscle car on an empty stretch of road is immediately drawn into this scene. The rush of the night air, the glow of the instruments, the ever-more-blurry surroundings and the chirp of the tires as the next gear is grabbed and the throttle dropped. It’s no longer an ad – it’s a movie, played back over and over from fond memories past, in Sensurround.

Perhaps its best that ads like this don’t exist anymore, even if the cars needed to produce such memories do. There aren’t enough open roads left (any time of day or night), and the beauty of such carefully crafted copy would fall flat on a populace that sees driving as a necessary evil, and not an experience to be savored.

But we know differently, don’t we?