“A sexy new book about sexy cars and the sexy brochures that sold them to us…”
There was something viscerally tactile about the motoring experience of the mid-20th century. Cars growled, rattled and chugged; manual chokes were pulled out and pushed back, engines were gently coaxed into life and – occasionally – chassis were raised up on jacks for essential home maintenance, with suburban drives dominated by overall-clad legs protruding from beneath chrome bumpers. There were blocks and – indeed – tackles. Car interiors were frozen on winter’s days, intricate ice patterns forming on their tiny, triangular windows. And, on blisteringly hot summer’s days, they were filled with the overpowering stench of baked leather, their fittings and upholstery reaching virtually volcanic temperatures. 8-track cartridges and tinny radios alike soundtracked our daytrips with Abba and Peter Frampton.
Clearly entranced by the vintage motoring experience was the young Jonny Trunk, experienced ferreter of retro titbits and now head honcho of the legendary Trunk Records. His forthcoming book, Auto Erotica, will be published by Fuel and will showcase the impressive collection of vintage car brochures he amassed as a child in the 1970s and 80s. It’s currently crowdfunding here:
Auto Erotica is the follow-up to Jonny’s 2019 book Wrappers Delight, which showcased a sizeable chunk of the extraordinary collection of sweet wrappers, crisp packets, fizzy drinks cans and associated ephemera that filled the house of Stockport hoarder John Townsend. I wrote about the book, and my encounter with John’s son Robin Sunflower and his wife Paula, in a feature for the Fortean Times – it’s here. Auto Erotica will follow the same format as its predecessor: a sumptuous collection of vintage art and design; an evocative reminder of the typesetting of yesteryear. For those of us who find our fancies irresistibly tickled by such things: font porn.
I spoke to Jonny on the phone last week. He was as ebullient as ever: he’d spent the afternoon at the Imperial War Museum and was just heading to the off licence to buy non-alcoholic beer. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: I’ve known you as a collector of all kinds of things over the years, but was intrigued to discover that car brochures were the first thing you really went for. What made you start?
Jonny: Do you know, I can’t even remember. It’s such a long time ago! I was about nine, and I suppose I was out every weekend in my local town – which had some large garages. There was a really flash one called the Tourist Trophy Garage which dealt with second-hand Mercedes and modern Jaguars, things like that… and the occasional novelty car, like a Beetle convertible! I guess it was a boy’s thing… and it’s a bit geeky, it’s all about numbers, isn’t it? 104GTX, all that.
So I used to stand on the bypass and watch them all go past. “Oh yeah, there’s a Porsche Carrera, there’s a Jaguar XJS…”
I need to pinpoint locations here – which bypass are we talking about?
The A325, going through Farnham. My house was right on the border of Aldershot and Farnham, so I had the choice of going to either. But Farnham had the A325 going towards Alton, and there were four lanes of traffic going past the station. And, more importantly, a traffic light junction with an island in the middle. And we used to stand there all day looking up and down the road. Left and right. Me and my mates.
Oh, were there a few of you? I wondered if it was a solitary pastime…
No, it was a couple of us. It was a solitary activity when I occasionally went to London, to stand outside Harrods or in Sloane Square. And that’s where you got to see endless supercars – Lamborghinis and Ferraris. So, on my birthday, I’d come up to Knightsbridge. There’s a big railing outside Harrods where you can stand without getting in anybody’s way; and in Sloane Square you had cars coming from five angles, so it was pretty amazing. I wouldn’t do it now!
Were there notebooks involved? Did you jot down the numbers?
No, it wasn’t like trainspotting, it was just about seeing these weird cars whizzing past.
Did this come out of an interest in your family car? What did you all drive around in when you were a kid?
A totally shit Mini Clubman Estate. I think I just grew up in a time, in the 1970s, when you still had that overspill of 1960s cars – as well as modern cars coming in. So you could see all those classic robber-style Jags everywhere, and really old interesting weird cars all over the place as well: You’d see Jensens and old Triumph TR4s and Bugeye Sprites. They were still very much on the road.
But I don’t think I was into the designs at the time, it was more “Oh my God, I want to get a Ferrari brochure – how can I do that? Tell you what, I’ll write to Ferrari UK…” I used go the Motor Show, in Birmingham or at Earl’s Court, and get the addresses of the main distributors, and you could write to them and say [In whiny, geeky boy voice] “Got any car brochures…?”
Which company was the best at getting back to you?
None of them. They were all shit. Well… I got some good stuff from Ferrari once, but if you wanted really good stuff you had to go to the Motor Shows or the top garages.
So what kind of collection did you amass here? How many brochures are we talking about?
Oh, I don’t know… three or four hundred? All quite good ones… I got some flashy Mercedes brochures, and some good Beemer ones… stuff like that. The best one for me at the time was the Jaguar XJS. It came in a big white envelope, and it had all these weird tracing paper inserts with a grid pattern that went over the top of the pictures. It was all quite flashy, really.
When I watch British films from the 1960s and 70s, I love looking at the cars that are parked in the streets…
That’s totally what you watch old films for!
…exactly! And the cars just seem to be much more individual. I genuinely can’t tell most modern cars from each other, but when I look at 1960s and 1970s cars they’re all really different.
Well I’ve got a car here in London, a little old Triumph. And it’s a four-seater Drophead car, about half the size of every other car in the road – they’re all the standard boring SUVs, and they all look the same. Mine’s a tiny little car that takes up half the parking space – it’s at least a foot and half narrower than all the others. And that was the standard four-seater car!
Is that the car you’re taking some of your crowdfunders out in? I noticed that was one of the rewards…
Yeah, two people have bought a ride. This is, of course, providing we get the funding! We’re about 55% there. I think, at the moment, it’s quite hard – we’re nearing Christmas and purse strings are quite tight.
Do you know who the two people are?
No, I haven’t looked yet.
They might be a right pair of weirdos…
[Laughs] Well Fuel said to me, “That sold fast, can we do some more?” And I said no, because I don’t know who it’s going to be. My friend Pete did a crowdfunding thing, and one of the rewards was to spend a day with him, and he couldn’t get rid of them…
I notice you didn’t specify how long the car journey would be. You could feasibly just take them round the block for ten minutes.
Exactly! [Laughs] It depends on the person, I guess…
The one thing that really struck me about Wrappers Delight was that it gave you a great idea of what it was like to live in the era in which those designs were produced. But I know much less about car brochures than I do about vintage sweet wrappers and crisp packets. Do you get the same kind of feel from them?
Totally, 100%. You can look at any one of those brochures, and go, “Oh, that’s very early 60s. And that’s definitely late 60s, and that’s definitely 1970s, and that one’s 1980s.” It’s really easy to spot the eras from the art direction and the fonts. But, at the same time, there’s some odd, experimental stuff going on that you wouldn’t expect. It’s really interesting.
What kind of thing?
Just the strange use of illustration, and weird ideas about typography. In the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia brochure, you don’t see the car for the first eight pages. It’s full of pictures of glasses of wine, saying “Memories are made of great nights…”. And then finally you see the car, but only in the distance! It’s just odd, really.
There are some great 1980s graphics, too. The TR7 brochure is really good, and so is the DeLorean brochure – it’s about a foot and a half long with a graph paper kind of look. It’s just weird. I find it very exciting, and I think people into graphics and photography are going to really like the fact that it’s quite… groovy.
Some of the Ford brochures are amazing. And some of the Citroen brochures are out of this world! They’re just cool, with mad art direction. Unlike anything else. And the Reliant Robin one is mad… they’re trying to sell this three-wheeler car, and it’s just really funny.
We had a Reliant Scimitar when I was a kid…
Great car! Fibre-glass, so it would never rust. With chrome bumpers. Yeah, the Scimitar GTE… Princess Anne had one of those.
Blimey, she did as well. I knew that because my Dad was a member of the Scimitar owner’s club, and we used to get the newsletters. Princess Anne seemed to be in a lot of them.
One of the Scimitar GTEs has got the most hilarious brochure. There’s a double-page spread that just says “LOADSWALLOWER”…
Blimey. As in L-O-A-D?
Maybe that’s what attracted Princess Anne…
Did the way in which cars were marketed change a lot over the decades? I can imagine 1960s cars being sold as groovy accessories that will make you look like Michael Caine… and then by the 1980s, they seemed to be promising cars that could drive across mountainsides and remote deserts.
It depends on the car. A lot of the 1960s stuff is really quite naïve and charming. In the 1970s, it’s all quite practical and quite engine-based… they’re showing off the sports engines, that kind of thing. I mean ultimately, they make all their money from selling family cars… so there’s a little bit of the Swinging Sixties, with girls in black and white mod outfits and crazy backgrounds, but not much.
Is there a futuristic element to some of the cars as well? Are they promising us a science-fiction lifestyle? I guess the DeLoreans had an element of that…
Only really in the 1980s, that’s when it gets a little bit Space Age and they start experimenting with different paper stock and art direction. It all goes a bit mad, which I like.
What are attitudes like throughout? I went to the Motor Show at the NEC in Birmingham in 1988, and remember being taken aback to discover there genuinely were girls in bikinis sprawled across the bonnets of sports cars. I thought that king of thing only happened in 1970s sitcoms…
No, I’m sure. What’s interesting with these brochures is that you don’t get that. Not at all. There’s one moody picture of a woman in a Ford Escort where she’s looking a little bit “Are we going back to yours now?” But apart from that there isn’t anything. I think there’s a tendency to mix up car brochures with pornography that uses cars. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, things like Playboy would feature cars all the time: there’d be sports cars with sexy ladies, and guys with black leather driving gloves, that kind of thing. But the sales brochures really didn’t use sex to sell cars.
I’m really surprised by that, given the whole cliché around cars being penis extensions. They don’t play on that kind of masculinity at all?
No. I mean, I’ve called the book Auto Erotica because it’s my personal opinion that some of the brochures and the cars are really sexy. But not in that obvious way.
You mention in the crowdfunding blurb that you’d kind of forgotten about your brochure collection until quite recently – what revived your interest in it?
I just started getting back into looking at old cars, and getting really excited about them. I think it might have something to do with ULEZ, the Ultra Low Emissions Zone in London. That’s come in… it’s in the Congestion Charge zone, and it’s about to move out to Greater London. And it means that, for any car less than 40 years old, you have to pay a £12 daily fee for using it.
But if you’ve got a car that’s more than 40 years old, you don’t have to pay it. So I thought: “Well I can’t afford to buy a massive new hybrid car that’s ULEZ exempt…” You know, I’ve got a family of four and we do journeys out to Cornwall and Yorkshire, and a big car is £25,000. I just haven’t got the money. So I thought if I bought an old car for a few thousand quid, it might be a lot more interesting.
Originally I was thinking of a Mark 1 Golf for three or four grand – what a brilliant car to drive around in! So I started looking at my options, and I got back into it all. I know all these cars, I remember them.
So I started wondering if it was worth revisiting all this stuff, and got digging around. And a lot of the brochures I’d collected weren’t particularly interesting… the Fiat range from 1982 or whatever… that was just a bit dull. But when I started investigating the scene a bit more, the stuff I started finding was just amazing.
Could you ever be a John Townsend, do you think? Did you ever look at his collection and think “There but for the grace of God…”
No, I’m not selfish enough. To do what he did, you have to do that one thing, and nothing else. Did you see that strange auction last week in Lincoln?
I didn’t… what was that?
Oh, that was really weird. That was next level. 4,000 auction lots from quite a young man… younger than John Townsend. And he collected chemistry sets, science sets and microscope sets, plus anything to do with Bruce Lee, John F Kennedy or the Beatles. It was insane. You’ve never seen anything like it. Hundreds and hundreds of the same chemistry set. It was mad.
Did you bid for any of it?
No, I just don’t need it. I looked at it, and found it really depressing that this man had 600 chemistry sets all exactly the same. And 32 copies of Enter The Dragon on VHS. When it gets to that level, and it’s the same thing repeating itself, it’s an illness.
It’s not the same as John Townsend, who was very studious. This was on another, stranger level where the man just couldn’t control himself. Especially when it came to chemistry sets.
Have you ever had the Collector’s Dream? Does that mean anything to you?
I’m friends with the writer Harry Pearson, who collects toy soldiers, and he once asked me that same question. And I knew exactly what he meant: it’s the dream where you go into a shop, and everything you need to complete your collection is there, onsale. All the rarities, all affordable. I’ve had it with Star Wars figures. But you then you suddenly realise it has to be a dream, and it’s just such a crushing feeling…
No, never had that! Well, I might have done but I can’t remember it. I have dreams when I’m going somewhere where I know a collection has arrived. The night before, I’ll be thinking “Oh my God, I hope that’s there…” I still get very, very excited about certain things.
When I spoke to Robin and Paula, they said that – the first time you visited John Townsend’s house – you just ran up and down the stairs going “This is amazing!”
Totally! You know what I’m like. And I’m pleased you’re enthusiastic about Auto Erotica, as it’s a harder thing to sell… it’s just a different area that’s not as instant or as cute as sweet wrappers. But there are car people out there… and Bob Stanley is doing the foreword. He phoned me up when I launched the crowdfunder and said “Oh my God, I used to do exactly the same thing! Go to all the Motor Shows and pester all the garages, annoying everybody…” We both agreed we could watch any 1960s film and name all the cars.
And what’s next for Trunk Records? Anything lined up?
Yeah, a few bits. I’ve got loads coming out next year… I’m putting stuff together now, but there’s a mad vinyl goldrush.
I’ve heard about this – nobody can get any vinyl pressed at the moment?
No, not for 14 weeks. Everybody wants to start a record label and reissue something that shouldn’t be reiussed! It’s become fairly crowded. I’m getting e-mails saying “Pre-order Nancy Sinatra’s 2-Disc set!” and I’m thinking “No-one needs that…” I’ve got every bloody Nancy Sinatra LP going, because there were in every car boot fair and charity shop for years.
Yeah. stuff that I bought in charity shops for £1 a few years ago is now getting reissued for £20!
I think it’s for a new market that wants to have a curated record collection, rather than go out and get grubby like we do. I don’t know what’s going on…
Are you still doing stuff with Ron Geesin’s soundtracks?
Yeah, I’ve got Ghost Story coming out – that’s one of his horror soundtracks. Good record, that. And I’ve got a really awesome one, Sunday Bloody Sunday. It’s a brilliant Glenda Jackson film with beautiful music… not electronic, just beautiful. And we’re putting out the music he did for the Viv Richards Channel 4 documentary in the 1980s, too. I’ve got masses of stuff. To use a medical term: I’m slightly backed up.
And next year it’s Trunk 25!
Got any big celebrations planned?
No! I’ll probably do a big compilation, and then I’ll work out what I can reissue. Some of the albums have got expensive, so I’ll repress those for a new audience. You know… we plod on!
Thanks to Jonny for his time, as ever. The Auto Erotica crowdfunding page is here: