If the best 80s car adverts betray a certain amount of naivety and excess in car advertising, the best car adverts of the 90s show the transition to a slick marketing machine – aware of the increasing power of women car buyers and reflecting the changing sociological make-up of the UK in this era.
More importantly they comprise a set of weird, funny, eye-catching, innovative and – occasionally – downright rubbish videos that tweak nostalgic memories.
The most obvious change in the way these 90s adverts ply their trade is the change in focus from single men and family units to more individual targets, particularly the amount of ads targeted directly at single women, often at the expense of men who are portrayed variously as gullible, boring, sleazy and downright idiotic.
Still, not everything is different. Ford’s adverts still seem pompous and staid; Rover’s ads seem confused and unfocused; Citroen’s commercials are still bonkers and oil company offerings still seem disingenuous.
What follows are the best 90’s car adverts to give a flavour of the decade: the rise of adverts focusing on the environment, female customers and developing technologies are rife. It was a brave new world – for a while.
Best Car Adverts of the 90s
Renault Clio Advert
I love Vic and Bob, obviously, but even I’m struggling to see the relation between Renault’s perennial supermini and the lovable North-Eastern comedians. Here the Papa and Nicole series comes to a climax, with Bob appearing at a wedding where it appears Vic Reeves and Nicole are to be married. Playing the Dustin Hoffman role is Bob, who whisks Nicole away in his trusty Clio.
Ad fact 1: only five words were ever uttered in this series of 90’s ads – the aforementioned ‘Papa’ and ‘Nicole’, ‘Maman’ ‘Yes!’ and ‘Bob’.
Ad fact 2: Nicole was played by Estelle Skornik, who would’ve been an internet search engine sensation if the web had been a thing in 1998.
Ford Cougar Advert
Dennis Hopper races a 60s Easy Rider version of himself in a Ford Cougar – a car bedecked in Ford’s late-’90s New Edge design, and looking more badly-dated all the time.
Rather than being frightened and bewildered by his apparent acid-flashback time-travel whitey, Hopper decides to have a cup of coffee with his younger, fictional self before racing off in his Cougar – a car that everyone thought was crap.
The subtext practically screams at you. Over-the-hill? Still hanging on to an iota of youthful vigour? Can’t afford a Porsche? Buy a Ford Cougar. Still, a damn sight better than Ford’s adverts of the 80s.
Ford Puma Advert
An absolutely cracking 60 seconds showing off the Ford Puma, as apparently driven by Steve McQueen as Frank Bullitt, eschewing his Mustang Fastback.
Often you can see the clammy fingers of advertisers all over film like this, such as the CGI nightmare of the Citroen Happy Days commercial, but this just works so perfectly. Where the Ford Cougar failed, the Puma excelled. And this advert played a huge part in its success.
90s Ford Advert
We build for the country’s needs
Wheels turn, power at your feet
High speed, but you know you’re in safe hands
Oh, in the dark we make a brighter light
And one spark to the horizon wide
You’ll trust and together we’ll tame the land
Oh, you’ll be forgiven if you think you’re dreaming
But we’re working night and day to make a dream come true
Yeah, everything we do is driven by you
Everything we do
Everything we do
Everything we do
Everything we do
Everything we do
Is driven by
Driven by you
Brian May if you’re wondering.
Ford Escort Advert
It’s the mid-90s and Ford still hasn’t got it. This one’s shilling the Mark VI Escort – the final and worst version of Ford’s trusty hatch – in the Si trim.
The conceit of the advert is that an architect named Alex is so busy driving around the the country in her company Escort that she’s not doing any work. The stupid male boss is suitably impressed. End of advert.
There were a series of these adverts in the mid-90s featuring the mysterious Alex that completely failed to capture the public spirit in the same way Papa and Nicole did. In other versions ALeX was driving the Escort LX – do you see? Calamity ensues!
90s Vauxhall Advert
Evoking British sitcoms seemed to be de rigeur in the 90s, in the same way that impressive event ads are popular among car manufacturers these days.
This series features Nigel Hawthorne and Tom Conti playing a manager and middle-manager continually at loggerheads over exactly how much the manufacturer should be offering its customers.
The haughty, greedy Hawthorne as JD was always wrong, but surely Vauxhall wasn’t suggesting that it routinely employs people desperate to screw over their customers?
Regardless, former Ford of Europe bigwig Karl Ludvigsen reckons Vauxhall’s ads featuring the duo were responsible for Vauxhall overtaking Ford in UK sales this decade, so the gentle comedy of these ads were clearly doing something right.
Vauxhall Nova Advert
An advert so dated it might as well have been dug up from an archaeological site.
This early-90s effort for the Vauxhall Nova supermini mines a rich seam in small-car advertising that presents the Nova as a cheeky, nippy and generally fun little car – basically the template for every small car commercial for the next 20 years and seen recently in Vauxhall’s maddening C’Mon! adverts.
A jolly and jaunty jazzy swing number and Griff Rhys Jones’ voiceover remind us that the Vauxhall is British, even though it was bought by GM over 80 years ago.
Citroen ZX Advert
Several car manufacturers associated themselves with a recognisable celebrity in the 90s. Hugh Laurie, Nigel Hawthorne, Joan Collins, Michael Barrymore and Ruby Wax all lined up to sell cars. Strangely, Citroen – a French manufacturer – went for Aussie Bryan Brown, the star of FX and FX2: The Deadly Art of Illusion.
Brown is quite an engaging chap, and maybe Brits naturally defer to Aussies because of our fondness for Neighbours and repeated whoopings in the Ashes. This series also featured Bryan Brown and Man United goody two-shoes Ryan Giggs – together at last and advertising the new Citroen ZX. How Citroen didn’t go the whole hog and commission a sitcom featuring the two of them together is a mystery.
Here, Brown taunts Giggs and lauds the Xantia’s magic carpet-ride suspension – no rock’n’roll – see?
Peugeot 106 Advert
Another 90s advert that reflects the changing way adverts depicted men and women in relation to buying cars – this time featuring the Peugeot 106. Once again the men are either slimy or useless, and the women independent-minded and spirited.
Contrast these adverts to those in the 80s which showed pretty much exclusively single men or complete family units and you start to get an idea of how society and advertising changed in that decade. This Peugeot ad evokes (rips off) Thelma and Louise pretty blatantly, and was part of a series of ads that showed our two heroines on a road trip around the world in their trusty French supermini and getting into various crazy scrapes.
Peugeot 406 Advert
All middle-aged, middle-class white men dreamed of sleeping with Kim Basinger in the 90’s (those that weren’t dreaming of Nanette Newman). It’s fair to say that few were dreaming of waking up to find a brand spanking new Peugeot 406 saloon sat outside their bedroom window, but kudos to Peugeot for trying.
Nicely subverting expectations, and with the big-name appearance of Kim Basinger it’s a clever and well-shot little ad that could actually make you believe that the rubbish French saloon was worth buying.
Rover 400 Advert
The message in this expensive-looking Rover advert for the 400 saloon seems to be that it has a comfortable suspension. It’s rather odd, then, to discover that the Rover has chosen to communicate this message with a 50-second ad about a bomb-disposal expert scarred by his childhood memories of the blitz and driving to a freshly-discovered WWII shell in the North of England.
Is this a good advert, or a bad advert? We don’t really know – it’s just a weird advert, and looking at it you can’t really figure out what the ill-fated manufacturer was trying to say about its products.
Rover Redux Advert
A well-made pastiche that looks great, evokes the period perfectly and features a fairly witty script. Only, it’s got absolutely sod-all to do with a Rover Metro.
Apart from a couple of forced lines about how good the Metro is in the city, and how it’s the car of choice if you want to ‘Pick up a Penguin’ (what?) the ad has nothing to do with the product it’s shilling. Hard to imagine Christian Bale getting involved.
Remember when airbags were the most astonishing thing ever? These days car-buyers expect at least 14 airbags as standard in new cars, with separate bags for feet, shoulders, elbows and ears. A mere decade ago they were the stuff of a madman’s dream, hence this Volvo ad explaining the concept in layman’s terms.
The visual spectacle of a car genuinely driving off the top of a building and landing on an airbag is undeniably impressive, and it’s a simple and effective message. ‘Volvo=safe’ is a time-honoured meme – reinforcing that message does the Swedish manufacturer no harm at all. For me it’s one of the most memorable car adverts of the 90s.
Volkswagen Polo Advert
An amusing Volkswagen ad from the 90s showing one of VW’s spokesmen driving the new Polo off a tower block. The Polo stops sort of the ground courtesy of ABS brakes, which here are specified as anti-grav as well as anti-lock.
This advert features yet another timid, possibly emasculated and non-threatening middle-aged man in a 90s car advert (see also Tom Conti in the Vauxhall adverts, the stupid boss in the Ford adverts, the cuckolded husband in the Fiat Uno advert) – all of which makes you wonder what exactly was going on in this apparent battle of the sexes in the 90s.
Fiat Uno Advert
Are you male, boring and English? Like cricket? Wife own a Fiat Uno? She’s having an affair you boring bastard! With a sophisticated Italian, Frenchman or Spaniard! While you’re dozing away in front of the test match! When you thinks she’s out doing the shopping!
French bread is a euphemism for adulterous sex! You poor, poor boring fool. And all because you let her buy that Fiat Uno.
Nissan Primera Advert
Two things are interesting here: the 1995 Nissan Primera was apparently possessed with a spirit that would drive your car around at night, wasting your petrol and wearing down your tyres.
The second point to make is that Nissan has obviously taken a leaf out of Ford’s book, portraying its customers as living exclusively in country houses.
Rock soundtrack – check. Dry ice at night – check. Kind to small animals – check.
‘You can with a Nissan’ was the Japanese manufacturer’s slogan at this time, though it was never explained exactly what that entailed. Have a sentient car, perhaps.
Toyota Carina Advert
A pair of swarthy and shifty-looking Mediterranean policemen get the brush-off from a pair of British ice maidens in this mid-90s advert for the Toyota Carina E. A typically-dull British voice-over tells us the Carina is now Built in Britain, hence the jingoism, while Enya sings in the background. It’s the perfect encapsulation of car adverts of the 90s.
It’s possibly the most middle-class advert ever created and is another good illustration of the way the Japanese started to muscle in on Western manufacturers’ traditional territory from the early-90’s onwards. Compare this 80’s efforts from Honda to see how the Japanese shifted their targets in Western markets.
The 90’s were amazing weren’t they? Airbags, widgets in beer tins and VCRs.
Someone at Mazda’s advertising agency obviously thought so, as this entire advert for the 323 is designed to be watched in slow-motion on your trusty video.
While such a concept may seem absurd these days there were a slew of adverts and programmes that would use this method of communicating bundles of information, apparently oblivious to the fact that most video players would render an image indecipherable when paused. This one particularly is by HCL, who gained fame (or notoriety) for the series of Tango adverts in the 90s.
Nevertheless in the days before the internet the ability to communicate exactly how many valves your new engine has must have been a valuable one. What they would have come with if they’d foreseen Youtube doesn’t bear thinking about.
Esso used tigers in its advertising on and off for three decades, and in this fetching ad from the early 90’s shows the Esso tiger apparently ‘married and mortgaged’.
This bizarre assertion isn’t the most ridiculous thing about the advert, as it goes onto explain that Esso is cleaning up its act and reducing emissions from petrol.
Laudable stuff, but a tad hypocritical when you consider that parent company Exxon Mobil was happily throwing millions of dollars at pressure groups that denied or underplayed climate change well into the 21st century.