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The 10 best TV car ads of the 1980s and ’90s

These retro car commercials are the TV equivalent of an automotive time capsule.

For car lovers, nostalgia is a key part of the enthusiast experience. After all, how can one appreciate the automotive creations of the present without the context of the past?

And if you're craving a journey back in time, there is perhaps no better way to traverse the decades than via the audiovisual treasure trove that is vintage car commercials.

While today's car ads are typically elaborate, high-concept affairs dominated by sleek slogans, celebrity cameos and cinematic camera angles, the 1980s and ’90s were a far simpler time.

Marrying the decades’ trademark excesses with the limited technical capabilities available – retro car ads from this era were simultaneously cheesy and brilliant, with a healthy dose of hyperbole for good measure.

So cast your mind back to when motor shows dominated the calendar, sedans ruled the streets and Tesla was just the name of a Serbian-American inventor. Here then, are the 10 best TV car ads of the ’80s and ’90s, in no particular order.


1. Lexus LS400 'Balance' – 1989

"Designed to stir the soul and not much else," was the catchphrase for this brilliant commercial showcasing how smooth Lexus' flagship sedan was – capable of hitting 145mph (233km/h) without so much as rattling a tower of champagne glasses.

The clever clip cemented the Japanese luxury brand's arrival in the US market and, to celebrate 30 years since its anniversary, Toyota president Akio Toyoda recreated the champagne clip in 2020 (you can watch the new version here).


2. Datsun 280ZX 'Black Gold' – 1980

You're unlikely to ever find something as quintessentially ’80s as Datsun's 'Black Gold' tribute to its 10th anniversary edition 280ZX.

A moustache to rival Tom Selleck's, a woman who looks suspiciously like a young Debbie Harry, a synth-laden soundtrack and lashings of gold lighting were the perfect way to celebrate this extremely extra limited-edition sports car.

This ad is regularly touted as the greatest car commercial of all time. We're don't disagree.


3. Land Rover Defender 'Dam' – 1986

Remember how we mentioned hyperbole? Well this is perhaps the best example of it: Land Rover showcasing its off-roading prowess by having a Defender scale the vertical wall of a dam.

"Next time you're late for work, it's worth remembering that nothing – nothing – gets in the way of a Land Rover," a movie-level voiceover declares over the commercial's epic soundtrack.


4. Volvo 740 Turbo Intercooler Wagon 'Radar Gun' – 1987

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, competition between car brands was less of an unspoken understanding and more of an overt challenge.

Take, for example, this 1987 American Volvo ad for the Swedish marque's turbo-powered 740 wagon, which literally pits it against a Porsche 944 in a drag race.

The kicker? The not-so-humble tagline: "To you they're completely different cars – but to a radar gun, they look exactly alike."


5. BMW 325i Convertible 'Ultimate Tanning Machine' – 1990

These two ads for the BMW 325i Convertible look more like scenes from blockbuster Hollywood romance movies than car commercials, given how much attention is given to the antics of the good-looking lead actors.

Still, our personal favourite is the second clip, in which an unidentified woman covers herself in suntan lotion while sitting in the drop-top car, as a man's voice declares that the 325i is "the ultimate tanning machine". Because, priorities.


6. Nissan 300ZX 'Toys' – 1996

Towards the ends of the ’90s, car commercials started becoming more elaborate, high-concept affairs.

Take, for example, this 1996 Nissan advertisement, which saw the Japanese carmaker win over a generation of American kids with its play on the classic Barbie and Ken romance.

Spoiler alert: Barbie ditches Ken in favour of GI Joe and his kick-ass red 300ZX. Can you blame her?


7. Chevrolet Corvette 'Taking Charge' – 1984

Talk about a big build-up. For "the most advanced production car on the planet", Chevrolet had to go big or go home.

Hence this Tron-inspired epic about the Corvette that came with its own custom theme song, plus one-and-a-half minutes of an extremely ’80s voiceover listing off its many, many attributes.

Four speakers?! We're sold.


8. Ford Falcon XR8 ute 'Jet-powered Car' – 1998

Because this list was sorely missing a local entrant, and because "must be stuck in third" remains eminently quotable to this day.


9. Porsche 944 Turbo 'For Lunch' – 1994

Simple, powerful and incredibly sassy, this Porsche entrant is a masterclass in advertising.

The ad opens on the title, "What to feed a Porsche 944 Turbo".

The answer? "For lunch, a Porsche 944 Turbo generally prefers Ferraris, although it has been known, occasionally, to snack on Corvettes." Boom.


10. Volkswagen Golf GTi 'Casino' – 1985

It's teeters on being politically incorrect at points, but this ad was a hilarious way to communicate Volkswagen's reliability message.

It's best if you just watch it yourself and let the toffy British voiceover do the talking...


Which ’80s and ’90s car ads are we missing? Tell us in the comments!

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