Vintage car manuals are more than mere service handbooks; they also offer a glimpse into a time when the automobile represented elegance and luxury, before it became an ordinary necessity. Service manuals also document the ever-changing standards in auto design, with the frequent addition of new features like cigarette lighters, FM radios, and air-conditioning units. The combination of scientific diagrams, operating instructions, and marketing devices, all simplified into layman’s terms, resulted in a novel form of consumer literature and written instruction.

Early car manuals were as much about advertising the ease and convenience of driving as they were about maintenance and repairs. The Ford Model T service handbook made operating a car as easy as possible for a novice owner, explaining all of the vehicle’s basic functions in a clear, question-and-answer format. Some of its 140 examples include queries like “How is the car stopped?” and “What about gasoline?” The Model T manual also highlighted the many rapid improvements in automotive technology, like the exciting advantages of a steam-cooled engine which were explained by the tagline “You can’t burn a boiled egg!”

After World War II, as automobiles became a symbol of middle-class success and an accepted part of everyday life in suburban America, manuals assumed a new importance. Drivers were expected to understand their vehicles and handle small repairs and trouble-shooting on their own. This knowledge became vital for the normal American male, as indicated by the reinforcement found in Ford and Chevrolet manuals from the 1940s and '50s that consistently refer to car owners, salespeople, and servicers each as an anonymous “He.”

Handbooks issued during this golden era of the automobile, from the '40s through the '60s, often featured colorful graphics and heavily-stylized artwork. But by 1970, car companies were producing designs more evocative of a “Summer of Love” concert poster than an instruction booklet, like the Plymouth Barracuda’s cover image of an attractive young couple silhouetted by a colorful, radiating heart shape. Cars could be groovy, too! However, the 1970s also brought an increasing awareness of safety features and regulations, visible in Buick’s manuals which clearly explain the best use of children’s car seats.

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The Old Car Manual Project

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