Best Car Adverts of the 90s

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.

car adverts of the 90s

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
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.

Volvo Advert

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.

Mazda Advert

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 Advert

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.

Best and Worst Car Adverts of the 1980s

best car adverts of the 1980s

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.

Audi Advert

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.

Honda Advert

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.

Esso Advert

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.

BP Advert

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.

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