It was an evening in June 1923, and a Union Pacific train – “The Overland Limited” – was working its way west across the wilds of Wyoming. Onboard was Ned Jordon, president of the Jordan Motor Car Company, making a trip to meet with car dealers in California.
The train stopped at an isolated station, and as it gained speed again, a young woman on a horse started galloping alongside, racing the train.
She reminded Jordan of his daughter.
Turning to a companion, he asked, “Where are we now?”
“Oh, somewhere west of Laramie”, was the reply.
Jordan picked up a pen and started writing, he always claimed it took him ten minutes on the back of an envelope, a sort of stream of consciousness jumble of words, which ended up changing the world of advertising copy. When the train arrived at its destination, he telegraphed the whole thing back to his factory in Cleveland, Ohio, and asked one of their usual artists to do an illustration.
It was printed as a full page in the Saturday Evening Post of June 23rd, 1923, and became one of the most famous ads in history.
“Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-
busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m
She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between
greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with
eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s
going high, wide and handsome.
The truth is – the Playboy was built for her.
Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when
the day is done of revel, romp and race.
She loves the cross of the wild and the tame.
There’s a savour of links about that car – of laughter and
lilt and light – a hint of old loves – and saddle and quirt.
It’s a brawny thing – yet a graceful thing for the sweep
o’ the Avenue.
Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with
things gone dead and stale.
Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of
the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon
of a Wyoming twilight.”
Edward Stanlaw Jordan was born in 1882, in the town of Merrill, Wisconsin, the only boy in a family of six children. He worked his way through university as a part-time newspaper reporter, once disguising himself as a railway worker, boarding a presidential train, getting a brief interview with President Theodore Roosevelt, and selling his interview to 150 newspapers for $20 each.
After a year working at the National Cash Register company, where he first learned about advertising and salesmanship, Jordan moved into the burgeoning automobile industry when he got married in 1906. His new father-in-law was Thomas Buckland Jeffery, who manufactured the Rambler car in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Jordan was soon installed as advertising manager.
He soon rose through the ranks to become secretary of the company, and by 1915 he had gained enough influence and raised enough money to break away and start his own company.
From the start he wanted to do things differently.
“Cars are too dull and drab. People dress smartly, so why should they drive prosaic looking automobiles? I think people are growing sick and tired of ordinary cars. Great careening arks of bulk and extravagance. The world is too full of the commonplace.”
As is maybe to be expected from someone without an engineering background, his cars weren’t innovative or in any way advanced. They were what was termed “assembled cars” in that Jordan bought engines from one company, axles from another, wheels from somewhere else, and then put them all together. The cars were always praised for their suspension, but there was little else remarkable about them. Jordan however had spotted what he thought was a gap in the market, and with bluster and showmanship, he aimed his product there.
They were mid-priced cars for people who wanted to move up from a Ford but couldn’t stretch to a Buick or Oldsmobile. They promised an air of luxury at a more restrained price. While most automobile manufactures limited themselves to a single colour combinations, and Ford relied exclusively on the fast-drying black lacquer which cured in a matter of hours, Jordan cars were available in no less than three colours of red – “Apache Red”, “Mercedes Red”, and “Savage Red”- as well as “Ocean Sand Gray”, “Venetian Green”, “Briarcliff Green”, “Egyptian Bronze”, “Liberty Blue”, “Chinese Blue” and “Blue Devil Blue”.
The cars themselves had names like Silhouette, Blue Boy, Sport Marine, and of course the most famous one, the Jordan Playboy. He took that name from the J.M. Synge play, “The Playboy of the Western World”.
Prior to Jordan, automobile advertising had been quite a staid business, with ads listing a vehicle’s mechanical facts and figures, performance and reliability. Jordan bypassed the nuts and bolts aspect of it all, and sold his cars mainly on emotion. His cars were a state of mind.
He particularly aimed his ads at women, and dismissed what he called “engineer’s language”.
“That’s all fine and dandy if you’re selling locknuts, but Eve doesn’t give a hoot about locknuts”, he wrote years later in his book “The Inside Story of Adam and Eve”.
Instead, he placed ads in women’s magazines, wrote everything himself (at least up until 1924), and came up with copy like this…
I am sick of four walls and a ceiling,
I have business with sunshine and the summer wind.
I am weary of dishes and doctors –
I am tired of going to stores and helping with meals.
I am going somewhere if it is the last thing I ever do
in my life.
I want to start somewhere in the early morning and be
somewhere else when it is time for bed.
Give me a Blue Silhouette Jordan – summer day
– uncluttered hours – mountains – landscape –
far silhouetted plains – freedom – relaxation –
moonlight on the open road…
When Spring is on the mountain and the day is at the door –
a golden girl from somewhere stands wondering,
expectant on the world’s far edge.
Somewhere beyond that unfathomable sky – beyond the purple
hills – lies laughter and joy and smooth delight.
Lithe and splendid, touched with a happy craving that will
not be denied, she is going to the place where fairy tales
Sales started off at a respectable level. The Playboy model came along in 1919 and was far more popular than they had hoped, but things really got a boost with that famous Playboy ad in 1923. The factory was flooded with orders.
One famous ad got the company into a bit of trouble with the Society for the Prevention of Vice. Dubbed “The Port of Missing Men”, it depicted a Jordan car outside a house on the edge of town, with a light burning in an upstairs window, and it was this light suggesting some carnal activity that the censors objected to.
The ad had to be reprinted with the light extinguished.
The mid-twenties were the boom years for the company, with a broad range of models. They had a car called the Jordan Friendly Three, because “seats two, three if they’re friendly”. The cars got bigger and better, but it was not to last.
In 1927 Jordan made a rare mistake, believing that what people wanted next was a compact car. He came up with one called the “Little Custom”, but it was expensive, and during those boom times in America nobody wanted a smaller car. Dealers refused to take them and hundreds sat outside the factory unsold. Around the same time, his marriage started to unravel and he took the ensuing divorce very bitterly. The 1929 stock market crash took care of the rest and the company stumbled and went into receivership in 1931.
The last few cars are very highly regarded. The 1929 Playboy and the 1930 Speedway Ace promised great things to come, but it was not to be. Ned Jordan took what was left of his money and retired to a Caribbean island where he basically did nothing but drink away his fortune.
He came back to the US after a while and settled in New York, where he got work in advertising, but nothing like the good old days where he ran the show.
By the late forties, he got to write a regular column called “Ned Jordan Speaks” in a trade magazine called “Automotive News”, where he reminisced about the early days of the car business. This led to some speaking engagements at car dealer conventions, and he was made an honorary member of the Antique Automobile Club of America. A little bit of late recognition. He died a few days after Christmas in 1958.
The big names of the pioneers in the automobile industry live on through their cars, but Jordan is very much a bit player in that regard. Unlike Rolls or Royce, Duesenberg, Chrysler or Ford, the name isn’t a household word.
His cars are relatively obscure but Jordan’s claim to fame is his ads.
In the words of auto historian Beverly Kimes,
“there had to be a Jordon automobile if for no other reason than to allow Ned Jordan the unfettered license in the prose he chose to extol it. And how that man could write, lyrically, romantically, emotionally.”
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