The 80s: a time of astonishing excess. Subtlety, suggestion and understatement went out of the window. That meant some of the most visually exciting, baffling and downright boring adverts in televisual history, and since the car industry tends to flash more cash when it comes to commercials, this phenomenon is seen most clearly in TV car adverts of the 80s – a decade of big suits, lager and massive cuntery.
Cast your nostalgic mind back to the Castrol GTX ads of the time; boggle at the baffling wonderment of Grace Jones advertising the Citroen CX; shake your head at the pride-before-a-fall braggadocio of the Rover 800 ad; shake your fist at Noel Edmonds; doze off to Ford’s neverending snoozefests.
These are the best and worst car adverts of the 1980s.
Best and Worst Car Adverts of the 1980s
Land Rover Advert
All Land Rover ads seem to portray their owners as inveterate show-offs. If they’re not charging to the top of a mountain in their Rangeys – what do they do when they get there? – they’re scaling dams for the sheer hell of it.
Still, this one’s a good effort and features a bit of slightly dubious music to boot. Nowadays Land Rover has gone the whole hog and admitted their adverts are aimed at snobs.
Volkswagen Jetta Advert
Painfully British, painfully 80s, but a neat and simple idea well-executed. This ad shows a parade of German and British luxury cars being gently dissed. You see the new Jetta is wider, has more legroom and a bigger boot than, er, one of those.
The bearded chap in the ad does miss out when not pointing out that, er, any of those have about a thousand times more character.
The Jetta remains one of the lesser-spotted cars on British roads, filing a niche that has all but died out – the ‘shatchback’, as coined by PetrolBlog.
Saab 900 Advert
Saab still relied on this trick of pushing its aerospace heritage – right up to the point where it finally succumbed to bankruptcy anyway – as if the idea that aeroplane manufacturers should automatically be good at building cars was unquestionable. Still, the 900 does look great blasting up a quarry at night.
Understandably the company was less keen on extolling the range of devastating weaponry its erstwhile sister company sold, though an advert showing a crazed exec in his 9-5 blowing the living daylights out of his office block with a Saab-built anti-tank gun would be amusing.
It’s a sign of how slowly reputations change in the automotive industry when Audi has only very recently achieved parity with BMW and Mercedes – for decades itplayed catch-up with the premium Germans and Jaguar – much as they were when this ad was made in 1987.
The message here seems to be that if you’re ready to drive like a madman it’s time to buy an Audi. Although driving an Audi seems to guarantee a reputation as an undercutting tailgater, appealing directly to crazed lunatics may not be de rigeur these days, but this is the 80s after all.
Ford Orion Advert
Utterly lacking in humour and self-awareness, Ford’s adverts in the 80s really were the nadir.
Despite showing anyone driving a Ford to be living in some sort of Thatcherite nouveau riche fantasy world, complete with misty country estates and assorted Victoriana, the subtext for this Orion advert – the Escort with a boot – seems to be ‘it’s not as a bad as you think it is’.
Which it almost certainly was.
As Bird’s Eye will attest to in 2008, stick Suggs in your ad and people will buy your product. This trend was started by Honda in the early 80s with this advert featuring Madness flogging the City, er, city car.
This is a stroke of genius. Unable to compete with the more established manufacturers of the time – the British Leyland group, Ford, Vauxhall, Renault, VW, Audi, BMW and Mercedes – Honda could only take them on on price.
Establishing yourself as cheap and cheerful does little harm to brand new budget manufacturers – undercutting the rest of the pack with an advert emphasising your innate loveability really can’t do any harm at all. Skip forward 30 years and look how Honda does it now – it’s a fascinating exploration of how brand equity and image changes over the decades.
Citroen CX Advert
Truly the most bonkers advert ever produced – and I include Tony Kaye’s Dunlop acid trip in that too. I have no idea why a Citroen CX is coming out of a giant Grace Jones head, and why anyone thought that would make people buy it.
‘La Beauté Sauvage,’ says Grace at the end, although at first I heard ‘A Bout de Fromage’, which means ‘A cheesy end’ rather than ‘Savage Beauty’.
Renault 5 Advert
We can only assume that the makers of Ford’s adverts would all have immediately suffered heart attacks if they’d seen this early-80s effort advertising the Renault Five.
It’s an advert so garish, childish and ingenuous it rather defies critical description. All we know is they don’t make them like this anymore, which is probably good news for epileptics.
Rover 800 Fastback Advert
An advert of such bafflingly undeserved hubris, it’s impossible to believe it ever got off the drawing board.
This advert for the Rover 800 Fastback tilts the executive saloon of the likes of BMW and Mercedes by having Germans in awe of its capabilities. Rather oddly, Citroen tried to do the same thing for the 2008 C5 (Reassuringly German), probably with more success.
The omens are not good for Citroen though. Six years after this advert was made Rover was sold to BMW, who struggled to make anything of the marque before offloading it to the Phoenix Consortium in 2000. MG Rover collapsed in 2005.
Austin Rover Advert
Noel Edmonds. The new Austin Maestro. Surely a marriage made in heaven. 30 years is a long time, but still not long enough to believe adverts like this – taking in a stultifyingly dull tour around some new Austin models, with Edmonds doing his best to appear as earnest as possible – ever passed muster.
According to Edmonds, who also talks about ‘the Magic of Metro’, the new MG Maestro ‘looks really terrific on the road’, while the bearded wonder thinks the Montego is ‘the most stylish estate car ever devised’. As if he gives a fuck!
Just before he delivers the coup de grace – ‘I’ve enjoyed finding all about the new cars’ – Edmonds packs his small children into a rear-facing shelf in the Montego’s boot, presumably to guarantee their instant deaths in the event of a rear-end shunt.
Really, all you need to know about the end of the British car industry in the 80’s is in this advert. While the rest of the pack were employing dry ice, explosions, animation and genuine celebrities, Austin went for Noel Edmonds walking around a factory in the Midlands.
Peugeot 309 Advert
A man dreams of exciting escapades in his Peugeot 309 – perhaps the least-exciting car ever made, and actually a Talbot reject from the mid-80s.
The 309 was a hodge-podge of Peugeot and Talbot bits’n’pieces and was designed in-house and built at the now-defunct Ryton plant. As such it didn’t get the Pininfarina styling that the rest of the Peugeot range did, and looked a bit crap.
There’s nothing too exciting about this ad, barring the fact that our hero is clearly shown to be bored of spending time relaxing with family, dreaming instead of spy adventures, and furtive sex with dangerous Russians.
Interesting pitch from Peugeot, that.
Austin Metro Advert
No-one does jingoism like the English, with this advert for the Metro urging you to send the invading visitors back where they came from, showing a bunch of Fiats, Nissans, Volkswagens and Renaults taking the ferry back to Johnny Foreignerland.
Accompanied by The British Grenadiers and Rule Britannia, the ad goes to great lengths to extol the Metro’s British roots and white-heat technology – split-folding rear seats, nearly 60mpg on the motorway and a 12-month service interval.
The Metro actually lasted longer than most Austin Rover models from the 80’s, but the lingering suspicion that the humble supermini was a little off the pace put paid to it by the time BMW came along. So much so, in fact, that it was the first car to be awarded just one star in NCAP safety tests.
Vauxhall Cavalier Advert
The car of the future: four-wheel drive, an onboard computer, ABS. The stuff of a madman’s dreams in the mid-80s, according to this Vauxhall advert anyway. Can you see where this is going? Yep, it’s the Vauxhall Cavalier, which has all of the above and more.
The car of the future indeed, if by that the advert meant car most likely to be used by taxi drivers in the future. If that kid in front of the telly had time travelled to the mid-80’s and found that the Cavalier was the height of mankind’s endeavours he’d have deleted himself from existence by going back in time and killing his own Granddad.
Still, all is not lost. A later advert for the Cavalier is one of the best car adverts ever.
Peugeot 405 Advert
Explosions, a soundtrack by Berlin, crashing waves, swirling vortices of downed leafs. If all of these make you think of the Peugeot 405, a French car manufacturer would like to talk to you.
Ignoring the sheer excess of this advert, it’s unclear why anyone thought of hawking a fairly boring mid-size saloon aimed at families using huge explosions and the biggest rock ballad ever made.
It’s all testament, surely, to the amount of cocaine being taken in the advertising industry in the 80’s. Obviously no-one in advertising takes cocaine these days though.
Ford Sierra Advert
Another incredibly conservative ad from Ford, but this one’s shilling the Sierra, a car that stirs up a surprising amount of nostalgia – not least because of its then-radical jelly-mould styling. The Sierra was everywhere when I as a nipper and when I got the chance to drive a vintage model courtesy of Ford I ignored all the other blue-oval exotica and went straight for the Sierra.
“It’s a hatchback, a saloon, an estate,” says the voice in this ad, belonging to the head of a local masonic lodge, over a Bontempi backing track.
Compare this effort with more recent Ford adverts for the Mondeo and you can see just how far cars – and car adverts – have come in 20 years. But there’s always the nagging doubt that the cars, and the adverts, of the past had more character than the new models ever will.
Your kids need the toilet, you’re running low on petrol and you’re being stalked by a tiger. Time to stop at an Esso service station!
But hang on, the lavs aren’t slippy with unidentified liquids, the wares are surprisingly wallet-friendly and the cashier isn’t dead-eyed and sullen. It can only be an advert.
People stop at petrol stations because they absolutely have to, not because they’re warm, friendly oases of peace and welcoming smiles – so why advertise them at all? You’re not going to drive another 50 miles because the next circle of fuel-sale Hell has an Esso logo on it.
The idea that service stations are anything other than places of depressed and possibly dangerous loners, bafflingly expensive pasties and furtive purchases of pornography seems an especially strange one.
Austin Metro Clubman Advert
Oh dear, the curse of Austin strikes again. In this one Michael Barrymore takes us through the options in the new Metro range, and to be fair it’s pretty funny. “Aw white, aw red and aw Bwitish racing gween’…”.
Apparently the Metro Clubman also featured a digital clock, though it seems unlikely that this was ever a deal-breaker. What’s also striking about this one is the bafflingly expensive Metro Clubman – nearly six grand for a base model at 1989 prices and around the price of a brand new Ford Ka in 2008.
Barrymore outlasted the Metro, but both came to sticky ends in the 90s: A bad time for British cars, and British entertainers.
Castrol GTX Advert
One of the best car adverts from the 80s, Castrol’s ads were always something to look forward to. What obstacles would the oil have to traverse this time? And why the sinister music (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony)?
Castrol has rather updated its adverts these days, the frightening music consigned to the empty oil can of history, but they still feature the classic motifs of the 80’s.
Everything you need to know about car adverts of the 1980s is right here: an advert so ridiculously overblown it could only hail from that benighted decade. This effort from BP could have been summed up with two words: ‘buy petrol’, but instead takes us on a whistle-stop tour of BP’s operations around the world that unsurprisingly stops short of taking in BP’s documented oil spills and government-sponsored persecution of farmers in pipeline regions.
The advert’s last scene features a pizza delivery boy being deliberately exposed to the chill vacuum of space, inevitably resulting in a violent and rather messy death. Cheers, BP.
Car Adverts of the 1980s: Vote
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