By David Kelly –
Americans love their cars.
As long as there have been cars, there have been car dealers. But dealerships did not have the money or space to keep an example of every model in every color for buyers to choose from. This is why Promotional cars, commonly referred to as Promo or Annual cars were introduced as a selling tool. While automakers have always made small replicas of their cars, the 1950s and 60s are considered the heyday. Starting around 1950, US automakers began making highly detailed plastic miniature versions of their new car lines, in every body and color combination. These were released the same day as the new model year cars were & typically displayed in cases within the showroom. This was a two pronged strategy to get more people in for test drives, the other being that well behaved kids could get a free toy car if their parents seemed sincerely interested in purchasing the actual car.
Promo cars are 1/25 scale, which is approximately 6 inches long for an average car. These were not model car kits, these were complete cars built at the factory, many of which had a friction drive motor in them. The models were accurately rendered with many options visible, two-tone paint when available and detailed interiors. Many promos, especially Fords, had selling features molded into the underside of the cars. My 1961 Thunderbird, for example, has over 10 features spelled out underneath – Such as: “Cruise-o-matic drive, power steering and self adjusting brakes all standard equipment”, “New 12,000 mile or 1 Year Warranty” and ” Thunderbird…Unique in all the world”.
There were many manufacturers making promo cars for the US car companies. The most prolific were Jo-han, AMT, Revell, Monogram, Lindberg, and MPC. Many of these also made model car kits that you built and painted yourself, sold through hobby shops, which are still popular today. Dealer promo models were readily available through the 1970s & in limited supply into the 1990s. AMT, Revell and Monogram all still make car kits. Jo-han has changed hands several times, but is currently owned by Mr. Okey Spaulding, who is said to be using the original vintage molds to make limited edition replica promo cars, but no website could be found for Jo-han.
The original 1950’s and 60’s promos are highly collectible, as most did not survive their time as kid’s toys and even fewer exist with original boxes. Prior to 1964, many of the manufacturers used an acetate plastic that warped over time. Later models used styrene, which was much more stable. You can see in several of the photos, the warping of the bodies on the earlier cars. They typically range in price from $20-100 for common examples and rare, sought after cars going in the $200-500 range.
There were many other promotional items given away at dealerships in the 50’s and 60’s, but my other favorite is cameras. I have an example of an Imperial Savoy camera that was mailed to customers who test drove a 1963 Mercury Comet. Ford/Lincoln/Mercury used this promotion frequently in the 1960s. Imperial Cameras were just as colorful as the cars. For more info on colorful cameras from this period, please check last week’s article here, under the VINTAGE category in the menu bar.
Photos by David Kelly and Tom Costantini. For more photos of actual vintage cars, please check out: instagram.com/dkcomet or search the hashtags: #dkcars