Ten Iconic Car Ads

Ten unfor­get­table car ads from the past four dec­ades that tran­scen­ded both cars and advert­ising and came to sym­bol­ise an age

grey Ten Iconic Car Ads

by Mark Simpson

Fiat Strada – ‘Hand Built by Robots’ (1979)

A fact­ory full of robots assembles cars to the strain of Rossini’s Figaro – with nary a soul to be seen.

Today this legendary ad dir­ec­ted by Hugh Hudson seems like slightly dull doc­u­ment­ary, but in 1979 it was thrill­ing Sci-Fi. The grace­ful move­ment of the cars and robots set to clas­sical music seems inspired by the weight­less scene in Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968). It was also proph­etic – prof­fer­ing a vis­ion of a world without a work­ing class; a world where fickle people are replaced by much more reli­able, much cleverer, much shi­nier, much more obed­i­ent things.

Famously sat­ir­ised by Not The Nine O’Clock News in a sketch that con­tras­ted the British real­ity of over-manned car man­u­fac­tur­ing in the 1970s: ‘Built By Roberts’.

Renault 25 – ‘One of Your Better Decisions’ (1984)

After drop­ping Jasper and his violin off at a leafy prep school a couple dis­cuss their plans to take over the world on the drive back to their coun­try pile, while fid­dling with plastic but­tons on the Renault’s dashboard.

An ad that every­one loved to hate (that woman’s voice; that man’s arrog­ance) but it summed up the go-getting Thatcherite entre­pren­eur­i­al­ism of the early 80s – ‘I’m start­ing my own busi­ness’. It also plays, briefly, with the idea of divorce, which by the 1980s was becom­ing a major theme in people’s lives.

Despite (Margaret) Thatcherism, it’s a ris­ibly sex­ist ad. Rather than dis­cuss life-decisions that ‘con­cern the house, the kids’ – and his car – ‘David’ presents ‘Joanne’ with a fait accom­pli, which she just gushes over: ‘David, that’s fant­astic.’ Essentially she’s the posh ver­sion of the woman in this 1974 Ford Cortina ad:

VW Golf Mk2 – ‘Changes’ (1987)

A Princess Di lookalike (Paula Hamilton) storms out of a mews house, shoves her wed­ding ring through the let­ter­box, hurls her pearls and fur coat – but stops before drop­ping her car keys down the drain. She keeps the car – which turns out to be a Golf. ‘If only everything in life was as reli­able as a Volkswagen’

Directed by David Bailey this is per­haps the defin­it­ive 1980s ad, cap­tur­ing the unabashed mater­i­al­ism and shoulder-padded glam­our of the age – but also the ‘changes’ that Alan Price is singing about (the song was writ­ten for a friend of his going through a divorce). Allied to that, car advert­ising is now recog­nising women’s increas­ing inde­pend­ence – one of the main reas­ons for the rising divorce rates – and appeal­ing to them as drivers rather than passengers.

Like many iconic ads it also proved proph­etic: it wasn’t until some years later that news of Princess Di’s troubled mar­riage reached the public.

Peugeot 405 – ‘Take My Breath Away’ (1988)

A car drives through a field of burn­ing and – unac­count­ably – explod­ing sugar cane, while a Rolexed hand coolly changes gears, all to the power bal­lad strains of Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’.

Today this ‘high concept’ ad looks like a guilt-tripping pub­lic inform­a­tion film about the evils of global warm­ing, but in the 80s it sym­bol­ised per­fectly the after­burner ambi­tion of that fab­ulously psychotic ‘Top Gun’ dec­ade – par­tic­u­larly that of the British advert­ising industry itself, which was a kind of Soho Hollywood, man­u­fac­tur­ing glossy, glam­or­ous 45 second dreams that set Brits aflame with con­sumer lust.

Renault Clio – ‘Papa? Nicole?’ (1991–8)

A haute bour­geois father and his young, svelte daugh­ter sneak and nip around the South of France in their respect­ive Clios, both con­duct­ing ‘secret’, very French, very styl­ish affairs.

Probably the most pop­u­lar UK car advert­ise­ment ever made, run­ning in vari­ous instal­ments for most of the 90s, saw ‘Nicole’ recog­nised by more Britons than the then Prime Minister John Major. It caught the grow­ing yen of the British middle classes for a piece of the Dordogne (or Tuscan) dream. The 1990s were the dec­ade when we learned to ‘stop being so English’ (as the IKEA ad had it) – and become much more con­tin­ental in our aspir­a­tions and mores.

The tra­di­tional chau­vin­ism of car ads is now reced­ing into the dis­tance: Nicole is a single young woman shown driv­ing rather fast down nar­row wind­ing streets – to sow her wild oats.

Audi A4 – ‘Not My Style’ (1994)

A vul­gar squash-playing, loud­mouth yup­pie ste­reo­type test-drives a clev­erly pho­to­graphed car the viewer assumes is a BMW – before he gets out, reveal­ing it’s actu­ally an Audi, and announces: ‘It’s not my style, know what I mean?’.

This ad exploits the early 90s back­lash against/guilt over the vul­gar excesses of 80s mater­i­al­ism, but clev­erly, and some­what hypo­crit­ic­ally, man­ages to asso­ci­ate the Audi brand with the excite­ment of BMW – while mak­ing it clear that Audi drivers are a much bet­ter class of cus­tomer than the people who drive BMWs. Even the dis­dain­ful Audi dealer looks like he’s deal­ing art rather than cars.

The final off-screen mobile phone call, ‘Gabby, tell Charles I’m on me way’, has become a time­less clas­sic end-line.

Peugeot  – ‘Search For the Hero’ (1995)

A long mont­age of heroic, occa­sion­ally arty thoughts, appar­ently those of a square-jawed exec driv­ing the Peugeot, all to the uplift­ing strains of M-People’s ‘Search For the Hero’.

By the mid 1990s the back­lash against the pre­vi­ous decade’s selfish­ness had pro­duced a yen for vaguely eth­ical, uplift­ing and ‘pro­gress­ive’ car advert­ising – before envir­on­mental issues had become the defin­ing middle-class con­cern. This search for a vaguely eth­ical hero was answered just a couple of years later with the elec­tion of the square-jawed exec Tony Blair. And we know how that turned out.

Honda Accord – ‘The Cog’ (2003)

A Heath-Robinson style con­cat­en­a­tion install­a­tion made entirely of Honda Accord parts, filmed in two con­tinu­ous 60 second takes.

Perhaps the most fam­ous and mem­or­able UK car ad of the 21st Century, ‘The Cog’ got around the prob­lem of increas­ing frag­ment­a­tion of media and audi­ences by becom­ing an ‘how did they do that?’ event – and also by employ­ing ‘vir­al­ity’. In the UK the 120 second ver­sion was first aired dur­ing a com­mer­cial break in ITV’s cov­er­age of 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix and garnered acres of edit­or­ial. In most other mar­kets the cost of such a lengthy TV seg­ment proved pro­hib­it­ively expens­ive and instead the ad was viewed online – quickly going viral.

The Cog’, which appears to have ‘bor­rowed’ heav­ily from the 1987 art film The Way Things Go, cap­tured the grow­ing interest in mod­ern art install­a­tions in the UK: the Tate Modern, Bankside had opened just three years before, prov­ing a ‘run­away’ success.

Skoda Fabia – ‘Cake’ (2007)

An army of work­ers in white hats and over­alls assemble a Hansel and Gretel car entirely out of mar­zipan, sponge and jelly, lub­ric­ated with Golden Syrup.

Another kind of TV art install­a­tion, but a much tastier one, this ad for Fabia cars was snapped up by the British pub­lic, bring­ing as it did together two of their greatest loves: cars and cake. Targeting couples over 35 in gen­eral – and per­haps Jo Brand in par­tic­u­lar – it no doubt benefited from the rise and rise of cook­ing and bak­ing TV shows/food porn in the Noughties.

The ad sug­gests a kind of ‘artisan’ car, lov­ingly assembled by swarms of happy, highly-skilled work­ers – the oppos­ite prom­ise of ‘hand made by robots’, two dec­ades earlier.

Toyota GT86 – ‘The Real Deal’ (2012)

“Can you feel it? Can you feel the thrill of being alive?’ asks a pixel man driv­ing around a driver-assist, vir­tual world. ‘Neither can I. There is no ‘real’ in this town.” He then dis­cov­ers a Toyota GT86, escapes unreal­ity at high speed, pur­sued by heli­copters, crash­ing through the CGI bar­rier into ‘the real’.

The digital, sterile, pos­sibly sex­less future proph­es­ised by ‘Hand built by Robots’ has come true. Much too true for some. This ad for a sports car exploits that Top Gear–ish frus­tra­tion, but like many iconic ads it wants it both ways. On the one hand the irres­ist­ible red-blooded real­ity of this car will save you from the anaemic Uncanny Valley of mod­ern, online life – on the other, it’s sug­gest­ing that it might be almost as excit­ing and fast as the cars that you drive on your Xbox.

Appropriately enough, the ad was banned by the ASA.


Copyright Mark Simpson 2013

 Special thanks to Simon Mason

This art­icle ori­gin­ally appeared on LeasePlan


  • Mark Simpson wrote:

    You obvi­ously didn’t have a big enough budget.

  • Exploding sugar cane, lol! We used to burn ours before har­vest to clear out the trash and ver­min, but it didn’t go off like that.…

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