Life in the Gilmore Library

By on

by Dar Davis, courtesy of The Herald-Palladium

What was I thinking?

Last week at the Gilmore Car Museum library in Hickory Corners, northeast of Kalamazoo (MI), I was asking myself that question as I sat at a work table sorting through a box of old car brochures. For the past several weeks, I have been hopping into my Verano and driving the Buick eastward on I-94 for 70 miles two days a week to take up a residence at the library.

The reason being I have donated my collection of car brochures – all 29 boxes of them – to Gilmore and also volunteered to sort through the stockpile and assess each and every one.

Going through the piles has been a history lesson for me. It has shown me how significantly the automakers have changed in the way they designed, equipped and, most importantly, how they promoted their products as time marched on.

I’ve not taken the time to count how many brochures there are in each box, but there are thousands. They come in all sizes. Some brochures measure more than 15 inches square and can be 1/8-inch thick. Others are little more than a large sheet of thin paper printed on both sides and folded several times to make a small handout.

I have gathered my collection from two main sources. I picked them up either at auto shows or from dealerships. Auto shows were a good place to pick up smaller-sized brochures. Car dealerships were the place to go for the good stuff. At one time in my collecting years it was my goal to try to get a brochure for every domestic brand being sold that year. Only three of the 29 boxes hold foreign car brochures.

From the get-go dealership salesmen made it clear that the beautiful, colorful brochures on display are free but not cheap and they didn’t take kindly to a young kid taking them at will. It was risky to be seen walking out of a showroom with your arms full. It didn’t take long to realize that a scheme was needed to remove all the desired brochures without raising suspicion. Clever me, I simply went to the dealer more than one time and eventually got all the brochures I needed. I had to keep a check-off list of all the brochures I had gathered so I wouldn’t accidently forget a nameplate or two.

I also learned early on that the automakers often produced more than one version of a brochure, especially for the higher end, luxury brands. On display for the general public (especially for kids like me) were the smaller, reduced-sized handouts. However, for serious (and wealthy) buyers, the automakers often produced a larger, glossy and expensive piece of literature. Naturally, those were kept hidden in a back room and were the ones I wanted but seldom attained.

Over the years I did establish a reputation with salesmen at certain dealerships, and they were very generous and gave me a whole pile of literature, both the economy size and the more elaborate offerings.

Presently I’m sorting through box No. 11, which has auto literature from the early 1990s. I started with the earliest brochures in my collection in box No. 1. It was filled with examples published in the 1950s and early 1960s. By box No. 4, I am already up to brochures from 1977 and I have 26 boxes to go. The explanation for the big increase in the number of brochures collected for each ensuing year is easy to explain.

First, early on I was a teen without a car to traverse around hometown Lapeer looking for car brochures. So few were gathered in the 1950s. While at college from 1961-65, without a car, I didn’t have too many opportunities to seek out dealers either. So few 1950s and early 1960s brochures found a home in my collection, much to my disappointment. Regular readers know that vehicles from that era are my favorites.

The second reason for the big leap in the number of brochures collected was the rapid increase in the number of nameplates each automaker produced and sold. For example, Chevy sold just the full-size family car (Impala/Bel Air/Biscayne) and the Corvette in 1959. Seven years later the GM division was tempting car buyers with six nameplates. Besides Impala (and Caprice) and Corvette, the Bow Tie brand also was selling the Corvair, Chevy II, Chevelle and Camaro. And that’s just the cars, additional truck models also joined the big Chevy pickup in the showroom.

New nameplates also proliferated quickly across the whole industry starting in the 1960s. A good example is the pony car segment created by Ford. Ford introduced the Mustang in April 1964. Plymouth two weeks earlier had introduced its Barracuda, but it was not the sales success of the Ford.

Following Mustang’s immediate success, Mercury rushed to market its Cougar and Chevy its Camaro in 1967. In mid-1967 model year Pontiac wowed us with the Firebird, then AMC teased us with its Javelin in 1968, and Dodge, Hemi and all, delighted us with the Challenger.

In just one segment – pony cars – the number of brochures in dealerships jumped from one for the Mustang in April 1964 at Ford dealers to eight for the Mustang and the other seven by fall 1969 in the other domestic dealerships. This is the reason I have so many boxes of car brochures from the ’70s, ’80s and onward.

During the brochure collecting years I would often gather more than one brochure of the same vehicle. For example, I counted seven brochures in my collection for highly influential 1986 aero-styled Ford Taurus. My hunch why this happened is this. Way back in the day when I was younger I probably nurtured the idea of maybe in retirement becoming a car brochure vendor at big car meets like Hershey and Auburn. Naturally you want extra copies to replace the ones you sell.

What are some of the significant changes I’ve noted in automobile design, equipment and promotion? Perhaps most noticeable is the reduction of choices in vehicle types. Convertibles and station wagons, once taking around 5 and 10 percent of the market, respectively, now only sell in few numbers.

Also, with a very few exceptions, the once hugely popular pillar-less, two-door and four-door hardtop models have departed the scene. Today we have only four-door pillared sedans, various sizes of crossovers and SUVs and pickups.

Exterior and interior color options available on cars have changed enormously. Back in the ’50s and ’60s it wasn’t unusual for an automaker to offer upwards of 20 exterior colors choices and six or eight interior colors. I was amazed to notice in one brochure for a medium priced car that it has three choices alone of tan/beige/brown! Wouldn’t it be nice if car interiors today could be ordered in not only black and grey but also red, blue, tan or green like in the good old days?

Needless to say, I’m thoroughly enjoying going through my car brochures one more time. It’s hard to let them go, but it’s very satisfying knowing that they will be preserved and enjoyed by generations of car buffs. The process to sort and accession the entire collection may take many months (years!) to complete, but it will be very enjoyable to do and time well spent.

Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at drd43@sbcglobal.net.