Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


Have Car,
Will Travel

The traffic in Singapore’s town centre at the turn of the 20th century was fairly chaotic and unregulated. One would expect to see bullock carts alongside horse carriages, bicycles, and rickshaws sharing the main thoroughfares around town. The introduction of motorised vehicles in the early 1900s revolutionised the way people moved around Singapore, with the advent of buses, taxicabs, and privately owned motorcars and motorcycles.

The first car was imported to Singapore in 1894, and wealthy car enthusiasts in Singapore were eager to get their hands on cars of their own that offered the freedom and convenience of personal transportation. However, private car ownership remained out of reach for the majority of residents on the island until the 1920s. Until then, most availed themselves to private companies that offered public transportation in the form of buses and taxis.

No matter the form of transport, advertising was prevalent in newspapers, magazines, and directories, stressing economy, convenience, safety, and even luxury. This section explores the many and varied forms of vehicular goods and services available to the early Singapore resident, from carriages to cars.

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Marvel of the
Homeless Carriage

The first motorcar brought in to Singapore was a single-cylinder, 5-horsepower Benz. The Katz Brothers, a general goods importer, imported the car on behalf of a Mr B. Frost of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company in 1894. It likely caused something of a stir among automobile enthusiasts on the island, as many would have been anticipating the introduction of motor vehicles to Singapore ever since the first publicly available cars emerged in Europe and America in the 1880s. Initially designed to look like carriages run without the aid of horses, motorcars were sometimes referred to as ‘horseless carriages’ even in advertising.

Later, the term ‘automobilism’ was coined to describe the emerging interest in automobiles, with motor vehicle enthusiasts referring to themselves as ‘automobilists’. However, interest in cars in Singapore itself grew slowly among the general population for practical reasons.

At the time, cars had the latest technology, but production was small scale and prices were exorbitant. Motorcars were an expense only for the wealthiest members of society. Additionally, there was little road infrastructure in Singapore town for cars, and roads were congested with all matter of transportation.


Economy and Style

Cars would eventually enter the mainstream consumer market in the 1920s, particularly after the introduction of assembly plants that were capable of mass-producing vehicles, significantly reducing manufacturing costs. This created a whole new global market for cars, and their use in Singapore skyrocketed.

In 1913, Singapore had 550 cars to a population of about 333,000 people. By 1940 there were 11,000 registered cars on the island. In the 1930s, it was already clear that Singapore’s road situation was inadequate to meet the rising number of cars on the road. In 1938, a study showed that there were about 15,500 vehicles of all kinds being used in the town centre, on roads that were planned and built for half that number. A traffic committee was set up to oversee traffic infrastructure improvements, including members of the Singapore Automobile Association.

As a result of more affordable car prices, advertising for cars changed as well, reflecting the idea that, with smart financing, almost anyone with a middling income could potentially own a car. The dream of car ownership had become that much more real. Car dealers and makers were sure to emphasise the affordability of their cars in their ads, including features like fuel efficiency and safety.


At the

In the post-war era, as automobiles became the norm in Singapore with improved roads and more affordable cars, motor clubs turned the public’s eye to racing.

While the Singapore Motor Club (SMC) routinely held car and motorcycle races in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, nothing quite approached the scale of the Grand Prix. The first ever Singapore Grand Prix, organised by SMC, was held in 1961. It was funded by the Ministry of Culture as a part of the government-sponsored ‘Visit Singapore – The Orient Year’ tourism campaign.

The rally was held at a temporary street circuit that ran along the old and new Upper Thomson Roads, among fields and trees where spectators lined the track to watch the race. Drivers would come from all over the world to participate in the race, which ran for 13 editions before it was discontinued in 1974, with the official reason being safety concerns after a number of fatal crashes. That was the end of the Singapore Grand Prix until it was revived in 2008 as the Formula One Singtel Singapore Grand Prix.

Many car manufacturers took advantage of the widespread public attention paid to the races and advertised their car brands by sponsoring drivers with their cars. The Grand Prix also featured a parade of cars and models before the race – the perfect advertising opportunity. This strategy also extended to car makers’ print advertising. Car models that were used to win races were celebrated in ads for their speed, good handling, and economical use of fuel.


Cars of Luxury

Even after cars entered the mainstream consumer market as expensive but affordable investments, they continued to be marketed as luxury goods. Most car makers made the distinction between ‘economy’ or ‘family’ car models, and ‘luxury’ cars, and the dream of being successful enough to own a luxury vehicle lives on to this day. This idea was crafted and reinforced in car advertising over the decades, with cars used as a symbol of wealth and prestige.



Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.