Good news, Matthew McConaughey fans–Tinseltown’s improbable product pitchman is back for another round of Lincoln commercials. The enigmatic star of such films as Mud and Dallas Buyers Club has returned to help the luxury carmaker roll out the new Nautilus midsize crossover.
Celebrity car endorsements are nothing new, but the nature of the advertising that includes big stars has changed somewhat since the early days of television. There was a time when a company sponsored an entire program, a practice that afforded that advertiser the star power of the show’s entire cast–often deployed in live commercials lasting two or three minutes. These clips from You Bet Your Life, a popular Fifties television game show starring Groucho Marx, demonstrate how fully and overtly immersed in programming advertisers once were:
By the mid-Sixties, advertisers had largely backed away from the whole-show sponsorship thing, opting instead to target consumers more tactically via the 30- and 60-second commercials we are now all so familiar with. Thankfully, that transition did not mean leaving big-name celebrity endorsements behind.
Collected here are a dozen classic car commercials featuring some the most popular stars of the big and little screen. If you’ve got a favorite automotive celebrity endorsement you’d like to tell us about, you can do so in the comments box down below.
Classic Celebrity Car Commercials
Abe Vigoda for the 1968 AMC Rebel
Having appeared in both the cinema classic The Godfather and the TV sitcom Barney Miller, Abe Vigoda ranks among Hollywood’s more versatile actors. Mr. Vigoda is seen here poking around a 1968 AMC Rebel during its manufacture.
Robert De Niro for the 1970 AMC Ambassador
Long before he played a cabbie in Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro was piloting this ’70 AMC Ambassador through the streets of New York City. De Niro’s folks seem pretty impressed by the standard air conditioning.
Don Knotts for the 1971 Dodge Tradesman “Strong Box”
It isn’t entirely clear to us why the marketing folks at Dodge felt that Don Knotts was the guy to help them sell trucks, but the man known better to classic-TV fans as Deputy Barney Fife had worked with the brand long before this commercial was produced. In addition to Dodge, the man who starred in Disney’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet was also seen in commercials for Plymouth, Grape-Nuts cereal, and Gaines Meal dog food.
William Shatner for the 1971 Plymouth Fury and Satellite
Known best these days for his Priceline commercials, the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise was endorsing cars decades earlier. It will not escape Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan fans that this list features commercials made by both William Shatner (Admiral Kirk) and Ricardo Montalban (Khan). Montalban, of course, is also famous for his Chrysler Cordoba ads (see below). Fun fact: The ship Khan steals in Wrath of Khan is the Reliant, the name of another Chrysler Corporation product. Mind blown?
Glenn Ford for the 1978 Buick Electra
Perhaps most famous for playing a teacher in the 1955 classic film Blackboard Jungle, Glenn Ford returns to his role as an educator here, schooling us on the luxurious trappings of the Buick Electra.
Wilt Chamberlain for the 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit
This 1979 commercial features a reprisal of Wilt Chamberlain as Volkswagen’s too-tall spokesperson. The twist here is, though in a 1966 VW commercial Wilt did not fit in a Beetle (but a nearly-as-tall teammate did), he fits just fine in the Rabbit. And, for the record, Wilt did do a bit of acting.
Ricardo Montalban for the 1980 Chrysler Cordoba
Per Mr. Montalban’s lengthy resume, this commercial falls during the actor’s tenure as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, and just two years before his career-defining role as the eponymous bad guy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. To car geeks, hearing Montalban proclaim “I like what they’ve done to my car,” is no less fabulous then hearing him say, “rich Corinthian leather.”
Robert Stack for the 1981 Ford Lineup
The recession of 1981-1982 wasn’t especially noteworthy as far as economic dips go, but to hear Robert Stack tell it in this commercial, the country was going to hell in a handbasket (but Ford was going to save us). To be fair, a lot of consumers were chased out of the car market as result of the brutally high interest rates seen beginning in 1979.
Ruth Gordon for the 1982 Subaru BRAT
In the underappreciated classic film Harold and Maude, Ruth Gordon spends some time driving a hearse, so its not entirely surprising to see her here pitching another oddball ride: the Subaru BRAT. The timing of this commercial puts Gordon somewhere between her appearance alongside Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can and a recurring role on the TV show Newhart.
James Garner for the 1985 Mazda Pickup
We agree with the legendary star of Maverick and The Rockford Files–small pickup trucks can be fun to drive. What we can’t abide is Mr. Garner’s strange pronunciation of Mazda. Though famous for spending time behind the wheel of a gold Pontiac Firebird, Garner appeared in a number of Mazda commercials in the mid-Eighties, for cars including the 626, 929, and the RX-7.
George C. Scott for the 1988 Renault Medallion
What now? The man who played one of the country’s most beloved wartime generals went on to pitch French cars on TV? Almost two decades after playing the leading role in the film Patton, George C. Scott began hawking Renaults (right around the time that the French carmaker was investing in American Motors). It may be worth noting that there are few cars more deservedly forgotten by American consumers than the Medallion. At least France was an ally…
Ray Charles for the 1994 Peugeot 306
There is nothing about this commercial that isn’t pure awesome. Here we not only get to watch rhythm-and-blues legend Ray Charles drive for the very first time, we also get to hear him speak French. For those unaware, Charles went completely blind at age 7, and thus never spent time behind the wheel of a car. This commercial for the Peugeot 306 was filmed at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, a vast expanse of open space perfectly suited for the production of this ad.
Celebrity Car Commercials