Oldsmobile’s affair with Miss America

A lthough in recent years the Miss America Pageant has run into troubles finding and keeping a sponsor, during the 1950s and 1960s, it was one of the most-popular media events in the country. Every fall, when the pageant was broadcast live from Atlantic City, millions of Americans sat glued in front of their television sets to watch the outcome. It was a program everyone could enjoy. Ladies loved seeing the various evening gowns the contestants wore, while men enjoyed the swimsuits. As the different competitions played out ‘ talent, swimsuit, etc. ‘ viewers would discuss the relative merits of each contestant or how well they had performed the various stages of the contest. And, of course, everyone hoped the contestant from their own state would be the winner. In a very real sense, the Miss America Pageant was that era’s “American Idol.” Naturally, with that level of viewer interest, automakers wanted to be a part of it.

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This Olds Ninety-Eight obviously pleases Miss America for 1961, Nancy Anne Fleming of Michigan.

    But before we get into the automotive aspects of the Miss America Pageant, let’s give a little background on the event itself. It was created in 1921 as a way to attract more tourists to Atlantic City, extending the summer resort business beyond Labor Day. Originally, it was just a beauty contest and apparently a little on the seedy side, with lots of partying going on. Apparently, things got out of hand, and the pageant was dropped in 1928 when commercial sponsors withdrew support over what they saw as a shocking lack of propriety.

    In 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, Atlantic City revived the pageant but made it a more-dignified contest, with a series of well-chaperoned events. It was still mainly a beauty contest, with the winner receiving a chance for a Hollywood screen test. Then, in 1935, a new director began to transform the focus of the Miss America Pageant into a competition for well-rounded, exceptional young women with beauty, intelligence, poise and talent ‘ in other words, a search for the ideal American woman. Because of that change in focus and the attendant mass publicity the pageant enjoyed, a few forward-thinking automakers became interested in sponsoring it.

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Marie Beale Fletcher, Miss America of 1962, poses with her Olds Starfire.

    It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that Nash-Kelvinator’s Nash Motors division was an early pageant sponsor. As an industry innovator, Nash thought up ways to leverage its support of the contest by having Miss America make personal appearances at dealerships, trade events and auto shows. Nash sponsored the pageant from 1948 to 1955.

    After the departure of Nash, Oldsmobile decided to take a crack at it. The GM division must have considered the cost of sponsoring Miss America a bargain, because it continued its sponsorship for more than a decade. Like Nash, Oldsmobile considered the pageant a high-profile event capable of generating large amounts of positive press; after all, a press photo of a pretty girl next to a glamorous car was almost guaranteed to be printed in any paper it was sent to. Oldsmobile’s sponsorship was welcomed by the contestants, too, because each winner got a new Oldsmobile!

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Lovely Jackie Mayer of Sandusky, Ohio, wore the crown for 1963.

    In 1960, Miss Lynda Mead of Natchez, Miss., won the Miss America crown. Before long, she began appearing at official events in a shiny new Olds courtesy car. Oldsmobile’s public relations department reported that, “Wherever the lovely brunette travels in the USA, a new 1960 Oldsmobile ‘ her official car ‘ awaits her as personal transportation.”

    In 1961, both the car and the winner came from the “Motor State.” Eighteen-year-old Nancy Anne Fleming of Michigan was the winner of that year’s pageant, and the courtesy car she was given was a top-of-the-line Olds Ninety-Eight two-door hardtop. Miss Fleming was a down-to-earth young lady who loved to bake and had once won a Betty Crocker Homemaking Award. The summer before the pageant, she worked as lifeguard and a soda fountain clerk. Miss Fleming had no plans to build a career as a celebrity; she told the press that when her reign ended, she planned to enter college, because, “One year in the public eye is enough for any woman.”

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Jane Jayroe, nicknamed Jay-Jay, won the Miss America Pageant for 1967.

    North Carolina’s Maria Fletcher was the lucky young lady named Miss America for 1962. As part of her Miss America duties, Miss Fletcher even took a tour of an Oldsmobile assembly plant, chatting with workers and pausing for photo ops. Her official car was a sporty Olds Starfire hardtop.

    Oldsmobile received several benefits in return for its sponsorship dollars. Perhaps the most important was product exposure. Under the sponsorship contract, whenever Miss America made an official appearance anywhere in an automobile, that car had to be an Oldsmobile, so naturally everyone who saw her usually saw a shiny new Olds, too. And in addition to that, by paying a predetermined fee, any Oldsmobile dealer who wanted to could book Miss America for parades, appearances at dealerships or any special event. In addition, Miss America made appearances at many auto shows, greeting visitors and signing autographs.

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Lovely pianist Debra Dene Barnes, Miss America 1968, got a new Olds Toronado.

    For 1963, 20-year-old Jackie Jeanne Mayer of Sandusky, Ohio, was crowned Miss America. She was talented, with 13 years of tap-dancing lessons, six years of ballet, three years of piano and four years of clarinet. The pretty hazel-eyed young lady was given a big new Oldsmobile hardtop. Like her predecessor, Miss Mayer visited an Oldsmobile assembly plant.

    Oldsmobile broke the hardtop tradition in 1964 when a sleek 1964 Olds Ninety-Eight convertible was made Miss America’s official car. That year’s winner, Miss Donna Axum from El Dorado, Ark., was a perfect example of the type of well-rounded young woman that was most likely to be chosen to become Miss America. Age 21 and a senior at the University of Arkansas, she’d already had two years of modern dance class, three years of voice training, eight years of piano and had also studied dramatics. Her plans for the future included doing specialized graduate work in radio and television.

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Being crowned Miss America for 1969 was thrilling for Judith Anne Ford of Illinois, and being given a new Olds 4-4-2 convertible was icing on the cake.

    It was back to closed cars for 1965. Vonda Kay Van Dyke, a lovely and talented young lady who dreamed of becoming a teacher, was crowned that year’s Miss America. Miss Van Dyke, Michigan-born but hailing from Phoenix, Ariz., listed her hobbies as baking and ventriloquism. Her official car was an Olds Ninety-Eight.

    For 1966, Oldsmobile introduced one of the most-talked-about new cars on the market, the hot new Toronado coupe. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what t hat year’s Miss America, lovely 19-year-old Deborah Irene Bryant, received as her official car.

    Oldsmobile continued to sponsor the Miss America Pageant throughout the ’60s. Miss America for 1967 Jane Jayroe ‘ her nickname was Jay-Jay ‘ received a big Olds four-door hardtop as her official car. Twenty-year-old pianist Debra Dene Barnes of Moran, Kan., ‘ crowned Miss America for 1968 ‘ got a gorgeous new Toronado.

    In the final year of the decade, a Ford was given an Oldsmobile. In this case, the “Ford” was Judith Anne Ford of Iowa City, Iowa. Crowned the 1969 Miss America, she received Oldsmobile’s hottest car, a gorgeous new Olds 4-4-2 convertible.

    People sometime fantasize that the ’60s were a blissful, happy time filled with peace-loving hippies wearing flowers and spreading a message of love. In reality, it was a decade of immense cultural upheaval and social protest, when it seemed every tradition or standard was being examined and rejected. Protest groups focused on anything they felt represented old thinking, and this included the Miss America Pageant. By the end of the 1960s, female protestors were burning their bras on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

    In fact, during the first year of the new decade, a major landmark occurred in the history of the Miss America Pageant. In 1970, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa, became the first African-American to compete in the national pageant. She didn’t win ‘ the winner that year was Pam Eldred of Bloomfield, Mich. ‘ but it signaled the beginning of a new era.

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