Classic Moments The First British TV Car Ad

As seen on television...

At 7.15pm came the opening ceremony live from London's Guildhall, followed at 8pm by a variety show from ABC's Television Theatre. At 8.40pm, the actor Robert Morley introduced three excerpts from plays, while half an hour later Terrence Murphy and Lew Lazar began trading blows in 50 minutes of middleweight boxing. Come on, stay with me - you can do it!

At 10pm came the news, and at 10.15pm was Gala Night at the Mayfair. It was followed, at 10.30pm, by Star Cabaret. A preview of upcoming shows was transmitted at 10.50pm, and proceedings ended just after 11pm with the National Anthem. For most viewers, however, the evening highlight must have come at 12 minutes past eight. This was when the variety show host Jack Jackson announced: "Here's the moment you've all been waiting for - it's time for a natural break."

Britain was about to see its first TV car commercial. It could, in fact, have been the first commercial shown on ITV, had the demand for the 23 slots available, costing £1,500 each, not been so intense. Lots had to be drawn for the pioneer, and so the first TV advert in the UK was for Gibbs SR toothpaste. In the event, Ford got its moment of glory during the Murphy vs Lazar bout. It was entitled Practice and Precision and was 57 seconds long. Most of Ford's promotional films are archived at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, but a copy of Practice and Precision has recently been unearthed in Germany.

To watch it today is to be transported back to a time when a mug of Bovril was about as close as most of us got to central heating, and a new car was a luxury for the privileged few.

The opening shot has gemstones being carefully tweezered into place on a velvet cushion. "The hands of the jewel-maker," explains the narrator "sense to one-hundredth of an inch..."

The scene cuts to vehicle components being tested in a laboratory.

"...Yet at Ford of Dagenham, every day the hands of craftsmen, as part of their normal tasks in making vehicles, use instruments to measure 100 times more accurately, to one ten-thousandth of an inch."

The viewer is treated to several scenes of artfully lit pistons and gears being caressed by gloved operators.

"This precision in every part of every vehicle is one of the secrets of Ford's success," the narrator decides.

A steering wheel is shown being slid with a tight, well-greased fit on to the steering column of a Ford Zephyr convertible. Then the picture cuts to the dashboard of a finished car, and the camera pans upwards to a factory door through which an army of Ford engineers is pouring. The background music builds to an urgent climax.

"On this historic night," concludes the Big Brother-like voiceover, "Ford pays tribute to the men who make your Ford cars, trucks and tractors with such jewel-like precision." The picture cuts to a still of a symmetrical arrangement of jewels on velvet, before fading into the final frame - the curly Ford typescript in gems surrounded by five stars, to reinforce Ford's long-running sales slogan of "Five-Star Motoring".

Obviously it's in black and white, and has the stagey, harshly lit atmosphere that characterised most early TV adverts. The British advertising industry had been spooked by accusations that this new television medium would be trashy and Americanised, and endeavoured to make its output stiltedly British.

In this company, Ford's effort appears extremely filmic and slick. Perhaps that's because it employed not a Soho advertising agency, but a young Karel Reisz to direct it. He was 29 at the time, an accomplished Czech film critic and the author of a classic textbook, The Technique of Film Editing. It was quite a coup for Reisz, since he'd never been on a movie set at the time. Later, however, Reisz won massive acclaim in 1960 for his feature film debut Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; his The French Lieutenant's Woman from 1981 was also a masterpiece. The career of Reisz's 23-year-old assistant on Britain's first car commercial was also remarkable. It was Terence Conran.

But the big hitters were unmoved by those early adverts. On 23 September 1955, Bernard Levin wrote: "I feel neither depraved nor uplifted by what I have seen... Certainly the advertising has been entirely innocuous. I have already forgotten the name of the toothpaste." The Observer noted that "there wasn't enough vulgarity to attack the ads".

But The Advertiser's Weekly of 30 September 1955, wasn't taken with the creative efforts of Reisz and Conran. "Nothing lyrical about the Ford offering that followed later," remarked its critic. "We were shown lots of precision machinery and told how that made better cars. I do not remember seeing one of these beautiful models. I was always taught to sell the finished product, not the process by which it was created."

Any talk of ITV's opening night invariably includes mention of the BBC's spoiler: it had Grace Archer perish in a fire in its radio soap The Archers.

But what's often overlooked is that most of Britain missed out on the grand opening anyway. Ford spent a fortune advertising itself to tiny numbers of viewers. Only homes in the London area could receive ITV, via the Rediffusion weekday franchise, and the region boasted just 170,000 compatible TV sets. Of these, only 100,000 were tuned in. And a quarter of viewers loyally watched the BBC.

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