The 20 best car adverts of all time

by James Batchelor
8 June 2021 11 min read
The 20 best car adverts of all time

If a car maker wants to advertise their shiny new car, more often than not it’ll turn to the internet to create a viral video to get people talking. But things used to be so much simpler – and cleverer.

We’ve looked back through the archives to a time when print was king, and was the way a car manufacturer could stoke people into visiting their local showroom and putting their hands into their pockets. Here are 20 of the best, cleverest, most humorous and memorable car adverts that appeared in print of all time.

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Mini – You don’t need a big one to be happy

Mini advert

The Mini went through phases of being distinctly unloved by BMC and British Leyland, but one of the few moments when the Mini was in the spotlight was in the mid-’70s. BL unleashed a series of adverts that really majored on the Mini’s small size and cute character, but delivered a big punch.

Stars like Eric Sykes were rolled out and some very clever marketing lines were created, such as ‘Nips in and out like Ronnie Biggs’, ‘Better in jams than strawberries’, and easily the most memorable, ‘You don’t need a big one to be happy’. The latter featured Carry On humour tied to some truth as the 1275GT was the sportiest Mini BL produced between 1969 and 1980, even if it was a poor Mini Cooper replacement.

Ford Fiesta XR2i and RS Turbo – Madras or Vindaloo?

Ford Fiesta advert

The XR2i and RS Turbo might not have been the best fast Fords ever made, but that didn’t stop the Blue Oval from trying to make them sound good. In 1990 it published an advert featuring the pair and posed the reader a question: ‘How do you like your hot hatch?’. It emphasised the fact that while some rival car makers only offered one sporty model, Ford customers had a choice of performance shopping cars.

The fact that the XR2i had a 1.6-litre CVH engine that sounded like it was run on poppadoms at full-chat and the RS Turbo was more Jalfrezi than Vindaloo didn’t matter – here were two fast Fords and two spicy curries. A match made in heaven that only a Brit would understand.  

Jaguar – V12

Jaguar XJS advert

Jaguar founder Williams Lyons knew motorsport success could sprinkle magic on the showroom floor.  The Le Mans victories collected by the C-type and D-type were proudly shouted about in newspaper adverts, and even on the boot badges of various Jag models in the 50s. The British firm used the same tactic for this ‘V.memorable’ 1986 ad featuring three V12-powered models.

The XJR-6 (which nearly clinched that year’s World Sports Car Championship Drivers’ and Team championships) was powered by an enlarged 6.2-litre version of Jag’s V12, and Jaguar made it very clear it was the same engine available in the XJ-SC Cabriolet and the XJ-S Coupe. Quite why Jaguar didn’t also feature the XJ12 saloon – thereby showing the venerable V12’s sheer breadth of use – is beyond us, though.

Peugeot 106 GTi

Peugeot 106 GTi advert

This advert is proof that sometimes images speak louder than words. Peugeot’s new 106 GTi burst onto the market in 1997, and along with its Saxo VTS brother arguably kickstarted a hot hatch craze not seen for a decade. While the soon-to-be-launched 206 GTi was the proper successor to the immortal 205 GTi, the feisty 106, with its 120bhp 1.6-litre engine and dinky dimensions, was the better car – and this advert sort of shows Peugeot knew that too.

The advert itself even has a slight 1990s Volkswagen advert feel to it, but the airborne GTi is pure Peugeot in its humour and a perfect depiction of the French firm’s marketing slogan it used in the nineties – ‘The drive of your life’. 

Citroën 2CV

Citroen 2CV advert

It wasn’t just Peugeot that could turn out a good advert; sister firm Citroën was pretty adept at it too. By the mid-eighties, the 2CV was over 30 years old and looking decidedly pensionable when compared to other small cars like the Austin Metro, Renault 5 and Ford Fiesta. But some clever positioning secured the car’s place not just in Citroën’s range but in the public’s mind too, with the car’s value-for-money and tough character highlighted.

This 1984 advert is a true classic as it rammed home the car’s basic credentials in a humorous way. Of course, at full chat at 71.5mph, the 2CV could overtake a Ferrari Mondial driving along at 65mph. Just don’t ask what happens when there’s a rise in the road… 

BMW – Shaken not stirred 

BMW advert

Hagerty readers and die-hard BMW fans will know why the German firm favoured six-cylinder configurations rather than four-cylinders in the 1980s, but did the man on the street? BMW reckoned the inherent smoothness that comes with a six-pot needed to be made clear to potential buyers, hence this advert.

The story goes that advertising magnate Robin Wright was told by a BMW engineer that if a glass of water was placed on top of a typical 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine – as used by Mercedes, for instance – the water would shake, whereas with a 2.0-litre six-cylinder BMW engine the water would stay still. Wright took the idea and pictured it – a glass (now a vodka Martini) on top of a Mercedes 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine alongside the same glass on top of a BMW six-pot, and in so doing created one of the greatest car ads of all time. 

MG – Your mother wouldn’t like it

MGB advert

By the early 1970s, the MGB had turned 10 years old and that 60s freshness was starting to look a little too familiar. British Leyland’s accountants had also begun to make their presence known by 1973 as the B’s shapely leather seats, smart chrome grille and classic wire wheels were replaced with cheaper items, flittering away some of the car’s charm.

MG’s adverts took a different tone too – gone was the respectable and upright ‘Safety Fast’ slogan and in came something far more risqué. ‘Your mother wouldn’t like it’ appeared on a series of MGB adverts and it became a bit of a catchphrase. BL returned to the questionably sexist approach a few years later as for the rubber-bumper B it used the ‘Some day you’ll settle down with a nice, sensible girl, a nice sensible house and a nice sensible family saloon – some day’ advert line.   

Audi – Can’t stop driving    

Audi advert

Audi has a strong back-catalogue of great adverts and wasn’t scared at making it clear what type of driver bought its cars. From the mid-90s TV ad that showed a hangover-from-the-eighties yuppie rejecting the discreet new A4 20-valve saloon because “it’s not my kind of car”, to this 2009 print advert showing a failed bank robbery.

Just like the Peugeot 106 GTi advert already featured in this list, this ad shows paragraphs of soppy copy aren’t always needed. Whether you believe Audis are the choice of getaway drivers or not, or indeed are cars you can’t stop driving because they are so much fun to drive, it’s an advert that delivers a memorable message and image.

Land Rover Freelander

Land Rover Freelander advert

Much like Peugeot, Land Rover took a ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ approach with its adverts in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It published a series of ads in mags and newspapers that relied on a strong image and no gushing ad copy at all. In so doing, the adverts gave a sense that the products themselves were so well-known that they didn’t need to be sold to the viewer.

It’s hard to pick the best as some of the ads for the Defender and Discovery border on the downright clever, but our favourite has to be one for the Freelander. It’s simply two hippos swimming and a Freelander that’s also showing off its breaststroke competence, but the message is clear – the Freelander is a true Land Rover and can easily ford every stream. The fact that the Freelander actually looks like a submerged hippo is also nicely self-deprecating.

Volkswagen Polo – Small but tough

Volkswagen Polo advert

With the launch of the Mk4 Polo (or ‘9N’) in 2002, Volkswagen had established its image of being a car company that built reliable, dependable, classless cars that had superb build quality – a direction the brand had begun with the Mk4 Golf. The ‘Small but tough’ Polo adverts fitted perfectly with this new, cool and confident Volkswagen of the early noughties.

But it was such a strong marketing slogan that in 2005 VW found themselves fighting off critics for a supposed TV advert that showed a suicide bomber detonating a bomb inside a Mk4 Polo outside a packed café, ending on the ‘Small but tough’ line. It was later discovered the ad was created by two young ad execs, outside of Volkswagen, pitching for work and it was never meant to be seen. VW later threatened legal action and the advert was handed over to the company, but a copy still resides on YouTube. If anything, it showed how simple and powerful the original ‘Small but tough’ print advert really was.   

Vauxhall Cavalier – 4×4 = Grip

Vauxhall Cavalier advert

The Mk3 Vauxhall Cavalier came in a wide range of trims that would have pleased ladder-climbing middle management types in the late 80s and early 90s, but would confuse buyers of today. There were Ls, GLs, CDs, Diplomats, SRis and GSis which all came in a designated hierarchy, but the simplest of them all was the 4×4. It did what it said on the tin but it was perhaps the most unusual of all the Cavaliers. Like its Ford Sierra Sapphire rival, here was a normal family saloon car with four-wheel drive – normally the preserve of expensive Audis.

This advert from 1990 set out the 4×4 Cav’s credentials in a bold way, even if the image made the car look distinctly heavy rather than grippy. The copywriter had a free hand at artistic licence too as the Cavalier’s four-wheel drive system – which came with a 60/40 split in favour of the rear wheels from a 130bhp 2.0-litre 8-valve petrol – could help the mid-range Vauxhall in ‘muddy terrain’, making the car a ‘confirmed mudlark’… 

Fiat 500

Fiat 500 advert

When Fiat brought back the 500 in 2007 to mark 50 years since the launch of the original, it sparked a deluge of special editions over the next 13 years and most had a cutesy advert bigging up the car’s retro style. One of the lesser well-known adverts, but easily the cleverest, was its 2009 campaign highlighting the car’s green credentials.

Three adverts were created that showed a 500 being crashed in a stunt similar to the EuroNCAP test, but look closer and there’s no dummy at the wheel but an animal. Depending on which advert appeared in your magazine at the time, it was either a panda, a walrus or a couple of penguins. Accompanying the unusual imagery was the tagline: ‘Engineered for a lower impact on the environment – The lowest CO2 emission car range in Europe’. The fact that the animals were perfectly safe in their 500 also gave the ads a double meaning. Subtle and clever.  


Rolls-Royce Cloud advert

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Rolls-Royce’s adverts tended to follow a similar pattern – stuffy. They quite often featured a large image, normally an artwork, showing a Rolls-Royce model parked in front of a stately home, under the headline: ‘The best car in the world’. That was until 1959 when a man called David Ogilvy ripped up that formula and created one of the greatest car adverts of all time.

Ogilvy, an advertising mogul and Rolls-Royce fan, turned the ‘best car in the world’ statement into a question, and made the advert explain why. The imagery became more informal and quite often pictured a family instead of an-awaiting chauffeur, and he coined probably one of the most famous lines in motoring advertising history and one that has stayed with the luxury car marque ever since: ‘At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock’. 

Peugeot 205 GTi

Peugeot 205 GTi advert

A series of clever 205 GTi adverts in 1987 used age as a key theme, and tackled the notion head on that Peugeots were driven by sensible, mature types. The ads used the headlines ‘Sticks to corners. Takes some licking. (They ought to commemorate it on a stamp)’ and ‘The 205 GTi demonstrates its traditional skills’ – the latter showing the 205 ‘weaving’ through a slalom course, tackling a forest track (‘woodturning’) and, in a sly dig at the Fiesta XR2i, outpacing the Fiesta under the title ‘Taxidermy’.

Perhaps the cleverest was the ad that carried the headline: ‘The perfect car for anyone between 50 and 70’. The copy suggested that at this time of life the body starts to slow down, but the picture showed how ideal the GTi was at overtaking between 50 and 70mph.  

Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI advert

From one GTi to another GTI, Volkswagen’s Golf GTI advert of 1989 took a different path from Peugeot – and indeed all other car makers making GTI equivalents. This advert nabs a space in this top 20 because it beautifully epitomises not just VW’s talent for producing a great advert, but also brand values which the company still lives by today.

The ad clearly shows a Vauxhall Astra GTE with its driver itching for the lights to turn green, and we know, thanks to the ad copy, it’s a traffic light Grand Prix Astra man will win because his car is faster. But in mocking its own car for being slower, Volkswagen cleverly emphasises the fact its car is ‘sharper around the bends’, ‘more solid in the straights’ and put together better with a tighter ‘fit and feel’. In four small columns of copy, Volkswagen created a template by which all Golf GTIs would follow – they might not be the fastest but they’re the best all-rounders.

Citroën BX 16v

Citroen BX 16v advert

While the 2CV advert was all about truthful humour, the BX 16v advert of 1989 showed Citroën could do arty and glossy too. This printed advert was joined by a television ad that really upped the drama by using Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as background music. Both feature Marcello Gandini, the famed Lamborghini designer who penned the Miura, Countach and, as the advert neatly hints at, the soon-to-be-launched Diablo.

Why? Well, Citroën wanted to make it clear that Signore Gandini also designed the BX, and it has to be said that painted in black with the ’80s de rigueur red stripe on the bumpers, the 16v (which had just replaced the BX GTi) looked rather good. The headline is also very Volkswagen and has shades of VW’s classic Beetle advert which used the line: ‘Have you ever wondered how the man who drives a snowplough gets to the snowplough?’. It’s unclear if Gandini ever drove a BX 16v to work, though.

Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon

Volvo 740 Turbo advert

The Lamborghini Countach made an appearance in another advert in the 1980s, but this time around it was more comical rather than being based on a grain of truth. Although the Lambo’s name is never mentioned specifically, the meaning is very clear – Volvo’s new 740 Turbo estate (sorry, wagon, this is an American ad after all) is one fast wardrobe. Volvo wasn’t done with the analogy either because it created another print ad and a TV advert using the line, ‘Until Ferrari builds a wagon, this is it.’ The firm also used the same set-up with a Porsche 944 with the headline, ‘To a radar gun they look exactly alike’.

During the 1980s, Volvo’s advertising strategy was really on point, with strong imagery and even stronger humour, all topped with Volvo’s classic ‘Volvo Broad’ font. Other classic Volvo ads of the time included, ‘The Volvo Turbo as most commonly viewed from a BMW 318i’, ‘At last, an irrational reason to buy a Volvo’ and ‘The world’s fastest baggage handler?’. 

Skoda Fabia

Skoda Fabia advert

It’s fair to say no car maker has tackled its brand perception so hard as Skoda. In Britain the Czech brand had a real image problem in the seventies and eighties, and despite Volkswagen snapping it up in the early nineties, buyers still kept away. By the later part of the decade, Skoda was churning out some seriously good cars in the shape of the Fabia and Octavia, but instead of wooing buyers with adverts bigging up how good the cars were, Skoda took a different tack.

Much like Volkswagen did in the 1960s, Skoda used its slightly naff reputation as a way of supposedly taking the mick out of itself, but really it was sowing the message that its cars were rather good. It worked as sales took off in the early 2000s and for a time Brits liked the inverse snobbery – something which Dacia would also later enjoy.    

Daihatsu Hijet

Daihatsu Hijet advert

Making comparisons with Lamborghinis seems to be common practice in the world of automotive advertising. Perhaps the funniest and easily the most memorable was Daihatsu’s 1996 ad for its new Hijet. We can only guess at what a headache the very unsexy and very Japanese mini MPV caused to the ad agency, but the resulting advert was a modern classic.

The bold headline, the cheeky image and the suggestive language relating to the reclining seats was distinctly British in flavour – and it could easily have been an advert from a couple of decades prior. A great advert it might have been but it didn’t translate to sales – the Hijet was more ‘hip op’ than ‘Brit Pop’ and disappeared from sale shortly afterwards. Daihatsu withdrew from the UK market some 15 years later.  

Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle advert

We’ve left arguably the best, but certainly the most famous car advert of all time, to last. Volkswagen’s 1959 ‘Think Small’ US advert, which showed a tiny Beetle and three columns of copy, was more self-deprecating than salesy. Ad agency DDB didn’t want to waste effort in advertising Volkswagens to Americans only interested in ‘Yank Tanks’, so concentrated its efforts on creating ads that showed Beetle ownership to be like a club and that owners were pretty much brand ambassadors for VW.

‘Think Small’ arguably changed car advertising forever, and throughout the sixties (and well into the 2000s), every Volkswagen advert followed the same style – but the most famous was ‘Lemon’. When readers of the magazine in which the advert appeared in turned the page, an explanation was given as to why this Beetle was a lemon – the chrome strip attached to the glove compartment lid had a blemish, apparently. The ad copy went on to describe that this ‘lemon’ had been fixed by one of VW’s 3,389 quality control inspectors, and finished with the now famous line: ‘We pluck the lemons, you get the plums’. The advert was so ground-breaking the term ‘lemon’ to describe a car that’s faulty or sub-standard is still used today.

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  • Ted says:

    You missed the best – Ford’s ad for the GT40!!

  • Dr Nigel Clarke says:

    Don’t forget, “Citroën” means “lemon”

  • Victoria Preston says:

    Best tv ad was VW’s ‘how does the snowplow driver get to work?’ Total genius.

  • Richard Dennison says:

    The Daihatsu Hijet campaign was actually hugely successful. The dealer franchise sold out of every unit they could import within two months of the campaign running. A first for the brand.
    The model continued to sell well for several more years.

  • DAVID DALY says:

    WHAT. No SAAB adverts?
    E.G. ‘Not one of our low flying aircraft. Just a SAAB rally car.’
    My memory is poor as to the exact wording, but I remember this from an FIA Handbook printed in the 1970s.

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