Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Somewhere West of Laramie

If you have never heard of Ned Jordan, then you have never taken a course in marketing, creative writer or advertising.

Jordan was an advertising man in the very early 20th century.  He had an idea in the 1910s - long before GM hired Harley Earl to give its cars some style - that well to do stylish people were driving - or being driven - around in dumpy, blocky cars.  And most of those cars were black because "Japan Black" laquer dried the faster than any other color.

So he gathered some friends, bought some land in Cleveland, Ohio, and decided to assemble a car that wealthy people would enjoy driving.  Note that I said assemble.  Jordan's brilliance, and long before anyone else dreamt up the idea, was to use outside suppliers to build everything from the engine (Continental units) to his ignition switches (DELCO) and his folks at the factor would build the bodies and put it all together.

While not a rousing success, he made a lot of money.

One night while dining and dancing at the Mayfield County Club, while his wife sat on the sidelines, the fortysomething Jordan danced with one Eleanor Borton, who said, according to Jordan, "Why don't you build a swanky roadster for the girl who loves to swim and paddle and shoot, and for the boy who loves the roar of the cutout?"

Jordan thought about it for about five seconds and thanked her.  The next day he designed the Jordan Playboy - a lightweight sportscar with superior a suspension and lightweight body.  While not a stunning car, what brought the Playboy into the national psyche were the ads that Jordan used, not so much to sell features and benefits of the car, but of the magic and the charmed aura of the vehicle.

Ads to that point in U.S. ad industry as weren't creative as they were practical. From the Model T to the most expensive Pierce Arrow, ads either told you about the car in dry factual language ("The Ford Model T is the sensible car for the American family...") or they said nothing at all, preferring to show a photograph and the makers name.

But Jordan was an ad man.  He knew little about engineering a car, but he knew everything about how one could spin words together to entice the soul and ignite yearning for escape and adventure.

Take the ad above.  No facts.  Not even a picture of the car.  But from the text, which I invite you to read if you have not done so by now, can you see in your mind's eye a car that streaks through the great open west, a young woman at the wheel with a zest for life and that she is driving for the sake of driving - not going anywhere, but driving where the road takes her.

While the Jordan Playboy never became a bestseller, Jordan's seductive prose made the car and its "aura" an instant classic.  And people responded.  They started clamoring for cars that weren't simply black.  Cars of any color were available at the time, but they required custom paints jobs as red, blue, green, gray and white all took longer to dry and cure than the standard Japan Black laquer bodies that could be painted and cured in hours, instead of the days and weeks the other lacquers required.

When DuPont developed a bright royal blue lacquer that dried as fast as Japan Black, it quickly became the most requested color for people ordering production regular vehicles. People now saw the car not only as something to keep up with the Joneses, but it became the vehicle transport the soul and its desires.

And for a while, girl babies enjoyed a break from being named Mildred and Mabel and quite a few were named Jordan in honor of the girl in the ad.  F. Scott Fitzgerald named Daisy Buchanan's best friend, the athletic, lean and aloof Jordan Baker as a nod to the spirit of Ned Jordan's girl in the advertisement.

Emboldened by the accolades, Ned Jordan penned other advertising prose. But he soon tired of making automobiles.  Like the girl in the ads, he was beginning to yearn for something beyond what he had amassed.  And that marked the beginning of the end of Jordan Motors.

While America flirted with the story of Preston Tucker and his automobile of the future in popular culture, Ned Jordan has simply faded from the American psyche.  All that is really left of Jordan Motors in Cleveland is Ned Jordan's private residence near Rockefeller Park in East Cleveland.  No movie maker has ever flirted with the task of trying to capture that girl behind the wheel of the car - cloche hat over her head, the setting sun on her face against the darkening sky in the background. No one.

Jordan Motors, which Ned Jordan had relinquished day to day responsibility in the late 1920s, went bankrupt in the early 1931.  The cars it produced, save for its small "Country Club" line, are recognized by the ACA as classics, not for their engineering or their power, but in tribute to Ned Jordan and how he taught American's that a car was more than the utility vehicle from going from point A to point B.  Ned Jordan, who went onto a bright career in advertising, showed that an automobile could also be the conveyance for those who dared to dream and desire, to see what was waiting somewhere west of Laramie for them.


  1. I had never heard of Mr. Jordan. "West of Laramie", oh dear ...