Marketing goods and services to motorists has been around as long as the car itself. Novelties like billboards — and I’m talking about the creative ones, not the boring ones that just show a photo and text — that feature three-dimensional graphics and clever expressions. Giant representations of symbols of a geographic area are well represented, as well as compelling architecture to amuse and intrigue the passing driver and, in days past, the restless station wagon passengers searching for a distraction from the monotonous miles.
Few have driven the I-95 corridor who haven’t seen “Pedro’s South of the Border” billboards displaying kitschy expressions or a huge cactus. As many discovered the advertising was more entertaining than the attraction itself.
Burma Shave, the first successful brushless shaving cream to be manufactured, erected a series of signs along major roadways between 1925 and 1966.
Typically five or six signs were erected with rhyming stanzas, the final sign bearing the Burma Shave logo. The wolf ... is shaved ... so neat and trim ... Red Riding Hood ... is chasing him ... Burma Shave. Don’t pass cars ... on curve or hill ... if the cops ... don’t get you ... morticians will ... Burma Shave. These simple white lettered on red signs were seemingly everywhere and helped keep a driver’s attention while unmistakably hawking their product.
Lobsters and lighthouses are well represented in Maine, New Hampshire and Cape Cod, and adorn numerous business establishments, mostly restaurants. Silos and barns are the symbol of farm and farming and silo-sized milk bottles that reached into the sky frequently meant a dairy bar and ice cream in times past. Big cowboy hats and boots are all over Texas and cactuses are symbols of the desert Southwest.
Sinclair gas stations began using a dinosaur in the 1930s to promote their fuel and even created some gas stations in the form of a gigantic dinosaur to attract attention. When the family needed a break you know the kids would prefer going into a cool building in the shape of a Jurassic period creature over a boring slab-sided structure. The Sinclair dinosaur represented fossil fuels and some people still refer to conventional oil as “dino” oil.
Buildings in the shape of teapots and coffee pots drew attention to cafes and it seems that, for a while, giant doughnuts were the preferred strategy of setting apart shops that sold these easily consumed confections from the more mundane bakeries.
In the days of service stations before they became convenience stores that sold gas, independent owners and corporate sponsors alike looked for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition often located across the street or on the next corner.
Shell created structures that simulated their seashell logo on a human-sized scale. Union 76 created a station where the roof looked like an upside-down funnel and remember those hats and boots from Texas? Texaco, which began as the Texas Co. but soon adopted the nickname Texaco, built a gas station in Seattle with a big cowboy hat for a roof and a giant boot for a building.
Airplanes were a frequent symbol of the future and transportation and following World War II, military aircraft were plentiful and cheap. In 1947, on a bet, a gentleman named Art Lacey purchased a surplus B-17 Flying Fortress from an army airbase in Oklahoma with the intention of making it into a gas station. An experienced pilot, though in much smaller, single-engine aircraft, Art decided to fly the 4 engine bomber back to Oregon.
Surplus aircraft lined the runways and taxiways and Lacey was told to pick one, which he did. He then read the manual, got comfortable taxiing the plane, and took off with a mannequin in the co-pilot’s seat in lieu of the required crew of two.
Unfortunately, that second crew member was indeed needed, and Lacey promptly crashed the B-17, totaling it and another on the ground. The military wrote the wrecked planes off as “wind damaged” and told Lacey to pick out another one. This time, with friends, they made the flight back to Portland, Ore., where the big bomber was disassembled and hauled by trucks in an illegitimate convoy to his gas station in Milwaukie, Ore. There it was hoisted above his pumps, the huge wings acting as a canopy, and the gimmick immediately brought the attention Art hoped for.
The B-17 was named Lady Lacey for Art’s wife and stood over the family operation for more than 50 years serving as the gas station, a restaurant, and a tourist attraction. The “Flying Fortress," now an exceedingly rare warbird, has been removed from its stanchions and is undergoing restoration.
In the days before video games and streaming entertainment, a road trip was an interactive experience. Technology is great ... when driving a car ... but then again ... just maybe ... we’ve gone too far ... Burma Shave.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 26 Portland St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.