Tuesday, November 25, 2008

50 Years Ago in Detroit

Last week the CEO's of the 'Big Three' Detroit auto makers arrived (by private jet) in Washington holding tin cups in their manicured hands. They warned of dire consequences if a taxpayer-financed bailout wasn't forthcoming. It was a sad testament to how far the Motor City had fallen.

Fifty years ago, Detroit was a different place.

Magazines of the 1950's were bursting with ads for cars and trucks, gasoline, tires - even for roads. America embraced the idea of getting behind the wheel and stepping on the gas.

There is an overwhelming sense of optimism in the automotive ads of the period. A bright-eyed confidence and muscularity that is reflected in the bold designs and colours of the vehicles themselves.

It was a great time to be an automotive illustrator. "Detroit Is Busy" is the headline of an article in a mid-50's issue of Art Director and Studio News.

"While there are jobs for artists and art directors of almost all styles, sizes and shapes, the big demand is for youth."

"Young men, with experience enough to be productive, and with potential, will find opportunities everywhere in the area - probably more than in any other major art center in the country."

"This condition is due to the huge volume of advertising prepared in this area, coupled with the toll taken in young artists by the armed services in the past few years. Numerous ad agencies and most of the art services have found this to be true."

"Quite a lot of experienced talent has moved into Detroit recently, which indicates activity on that level. A survey provided this information on specific talent:"

"1. Art Directors - a number of jobs open in the $5,000 to $10,000 a year bracket, with a variety of accounts to work on."

"2. Studio Layout Men - several studios are looking for young layout men with individual design ability. One known studio needs an art director for its layout department."

"3. Illustrators - young illustrators with potential can get all kinds of experience here. One studio guarantees $300 to $400 weekly to the right man."

"4. Automobile Artists - the volume of business lead one studio owner to state that automobile artists are needed more than at any time in the history of the industry."

And just consider how short the history of that industry was. Only 50 years earlier, Henry Ford had tinkered away in a little shed behind his house, trying to get a gas engine to do the work of a horse, while his wife, Clara, darned socks by lamplight.

Could he ever have imagined how explosive the combustion of his little engine would be? How profoundly it would impact the lives of people all around the world? And for our purposes, how it would create, for a time, an area of highly specialized illustration, both creative and lucrative for those artists with the expertise to participate in its creation.

This week, let's look at a few of those artists - and at a happier time in the age of the American automobile industry.

Let's look at Detroit in its heyday: 50 years ago.

* My Auto Ads Flickr set.

* AND be sure to check out Charlie Allen's latest installment of the CAWS at Charlie Allen's Blog!


  1. Leif, it looks to me as if not much has changed-- an illustrator in Detroit could make $300 a week back then, and I'll bet they could make the exact same amount today.

    That flying, tinsel covered Buick at the end is an astonishing cultural icon. Wow!

  2. Maybe that's what Detroit needs to do to start selling cars again, David: slather them in chrome and diamonds!
    (And if they actually flew, that might move a few off the lot as well)

  3. John Frye11:47 AM

    Wow, that painting of Ford in his garage was a Norman Rockwell piece?

    Looks like he didn't have full creative control to me because it is so very stilted and weak. Just my opinion

  4. Again, fine reading as well as watching. Just love to look at the cars.
    A heyday not only for illustrators, but for those car-designers as well. Almost no limit to a designers imagination: Shapes, double colour schemes, the mirror effects of all that chrome, no worry about fuel efficiency...
    In comparison, nowaday's cars somewhat look pretty alike and utterly streamlined.

    The first picture with the red chrome laden example, mirrored in that window...with those rikshas in the background, the red maple tree, the whole far east setting...

    Far out...WOW!

  5. Hee hee, the Detroit Diesel was the technological breakthrough which allowed long haul trucking. These two stroke, overblown, fuel efficient and surprisingly low-polluting engines are still in use, virtually unchanged today. I note that none of these features were advertised. This set of pics goes a long way to show the value of fluff in marketing. And that it is possible to "fluff" a dirty old engine!

  6. I've recently made it a hobby to collect these vintage automotive signs. Any idea where I can find these for sale online? Thanks!

    Car Window Tinting Grapevine TX