The First Car Ad Shows What Changed, What Hasn’t
Winton Motor Carriage Company’s ad may be long compared to today’s advertisements, but the concept hasn’t changed.
It’s hard to understate how much advertising has meant to automobiles.
Iconic ads over the decades have propelled people-movers and workhorses like the VW Beetle, Ford F-150, and nearly every other car on the road. For good reasons, the auto industry has a permanent parking spot on Madison Avenue.
But car ads are almost 125 years old by now, and their humble roots are always entertaining to look back on. The first automotive ad appeared July 30, 1898, in “Scientific America” by Winton Motor Carriage Company, based in Cleveland.
The ad follows a familiar formula that automakers still use today: Demonstrate a need and supply the answer. “Dispense With a Horse,” the headline says and touts the vehicle’s convenience, low running costs, and “handsomely, strongly and yet lightly constructed and elegantly finished” exterior. The first Wintons were sold for $1,000—more than $35,000, adjusted for inflation. Winton, Duryea, and Haynes were major early American automakers whose cars cost roughly twice the average yearly household income.
Winton Motor Carriage Company eventually folded into General Motors in the 1930s, and Winton focused on diesel-powered locomotives and marine engines toward the end of its life.
Wintons were driven across the U.S. for the first time in 1903, a trip that lasted 63 days. The automaker also set a land-speed record with a blistering 70-mph run. Their feats were impressive, even if the company didn't last much longer.
But Winton’s ads are what we’re here to look at, and there’s plenty. The car is touted not only as a replacement for horses but also praises the lower running cost and convenience of a horseless carriage.
Unlike today’s ads, the first auto ad is a reading test. Attention spans were much longer, according to the Star and people had more time to digest information. Now, we're served ads on our touchscreens for mere seconds.
Only 10 years after this ad, Henry Ford built the first Model T and changed automakers and advertising forever.