Each of the restored steam, gas and electric cars from the late 1800s through 1920s, on display at the Seal Cove Auto Museum, look ready to roll out for a Sunday drive.
“Not only are they works of art, but we are telling a really transformative part of American history,” said the Tremont museum’s Executive Director Raney Bench.
Some of the 47 brass-era vehicles (1896-1915), which range widely from a 1912 Crane to an 1886 Benz Bentley, still function and get a periodic workout during the Mount Desert Island museum’s monthly Demo Days. Then visitors get to go for a spin in one of these century-old vehicles featuring brass fittings.
“These were primarily really luxurious cars designed for very wealthy people. They’re toys. You couldn’t take this out on a rainy day,” Bench said while pointing to a 1904 Searchmont touring car. The black leather seats, resembling plush drawing-room chairs, shined under the overhead lights.
Running through 2019, the museum’s special exhibit explores the power of advertising, allure and buzz surrounding these vehicles and their promotion as a status symbol of the time.
“We really wanted to look at the art of how these cars were marketed because it was so beautiful,” the historian said.
At first, advertisements were text-heavy using words to convince consumers to buy certain cars. Because most brass-era vehicles were not practical purchases, car makers needed to employ other selling strategies.
“We can’t imagine the world without automobiles, but in this window of time they weren’t a given,” Bench explained. “Everything was new. Everything was changing.”
During this time, visually driven advertising emerged and evolved as the dominant form. Rather than pitch cars in words, images and illustrations were created to evoke an emotional response.
“Appealing to luxury, beauty and lifestyle, it’s something we take for granted now,” Bench noted. “But it was invented with these car ads.”
To see the ultimate extravagance, check out the museum’s 1912 Model 3 Crane touring car owned by American philanthropist Helen Hartley Jenkins. At the time, when Americans’ annual income averaged about $700, the sleek, light blue touring car was the most expensive ever sold at $15,000. Today, the Crane would fetch between $350,000 and $400,000.
After women gained the right to vote, more car advertisements geared toward women took stage. At the time, electric cars were marketed for women. They were made to be elegant; the engine didn’t need to be cranked, and they were quiet.
One of the most famous ad campaigns of the time was for the Jordan Motor Car Co., “Somewhere West of Laramie,” which depicted a woman speeding next to a horse in a blue automobile.
“‘Somewhere West of Laramie’ creates that sense of adventure,” Bench said. “It’s appealing to women, showing women having adventures, being more independent.”
One thing Bench said she hears all the time is people saying they weren’t car buffs before coming to the museum, but they still found the experience entertaining and enriching.
“It’s historically fascinating. It’s aesthetically beautiful, and it tells a really interesting slice of history that is not featured in most other places,” she said.
The Seal Cove Auto Museum is located at 1414 Tremont Road in Seal Cove. For more information, visit www.sealcoveautomuseum.org or call (207) 244-9242.