A Celebration In and Of the Car

The author and her husband participating in a drive-by 70th birthday celebration.

Since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, automobiles have gone beyond their original function as transportation. In its earliest years, the automobile was repurposed for use on the farm, the homestead, or family business. Through the process of what Kathleen Franz describes as “tinkering”, cars were often transformed into something other than what the manufacturer intended. Car engines were used to run farm equipment; makeshift pickups were created out of auto bodies and spare parts; bodies were chopped and streamlined for racing; cars were modified as campers for family outings. As the automobile became more available and affordable, it changed not physically and technologically, but the meanings ascribed to it were reshaped as well. The automobile became a place to demonstrate masculinity, authority, power, and skill. It offered the possibility of adventure, danger, exhilaration, and freedom. To the teenager, the car was a means to an expanded social life. The interior of the automobile became a location for conversation, escape, and lovemaking. It provided a space for alone time, with the opportunity to think, dream, wonder, and sing. 

To women in particular, the automobile often served as a tool of domestic technology, a necessary instrument for the performance of household tasks. It was the child conveyor, grocery holder, and errand runner. As women took on the role of family chauffeur and provider of household services, the station wagon, minivan, small SUV, and crossover became “mom’s taxi”. To the middle class American woman, Ruth Schwartz Cowan writes, “the automobile had become the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could most often be found” (85). Since its inception, the automobile has been adapted to the needs, desires, and requirements of the individuals who use it.

In the twenty-first century, we now find ourselves in a particular moment that has witnessed a new reimagining of the automobile. As a recent New York Times article notes, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, “the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time” (Hauser and Levitt). The automobile is the means through which its occupants can participate in religious services, enjoy a drive in movie, or view art and photography exhibits, all while maintaining a safe social distance. It also serves as a source of celebration. Birthdays, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries, and graduations are experienced through the windows of sedans, pickup trucks, and convertibles, as well as mom’s minivan or SUV.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in two 70th birthday drive-by celebrations for family and friends. While the children of the birthday recipients had originally planned on sit down gatherings to celebrate the momentous birthdays, the pandemic forced them to improvise. Thus the birthday men and women were seated on front lawns, treated to a traffic jam of friends, family, colleagues, and assorted well-wishers. Automobiles were decorated with signs and balloons; kids blew bubbles out of windows; dogs wagged greetings from the front seat; cakes and cards were left curbside for the celebrated to enjoy. Although the time spent with the guests of honor was limited, it was wonderful to witness the joy and surprise as my husband and I vigorously waved and wished them the best. And although we had to drive a distance for each celebration [we won the came-the-furthest award on both occasions], the look on the faces of my sister and my friends made the trips more than worthwhile.

When the automobile first made its appearance nearly a century ago to fill a need for transportation, I suspect its inventors and manufacturers never contemplated the various and changing uses to which it would serve over the succeeding decades. Although the automobile has been the subject of continual criticism if not disdain since its inception, the current situation in which we find ourselves has reconstructed the car as a vehicle for good. This reimagining not only demonstrates the adaptability of the automobile, but displays the creativity, kindness, and care of the individuals who own and drive them. 

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Franz, Kathleen. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Hauser, Christine and Judith Levitt. “Together, Alone: The Car as Shelter in the Pandemic.” nytimes.com 20 May 2020.

Built Sister Tough

Photo by Julia LaPalme for Road & Track

Women are a growing segment of pickup truck owners. This is evident in advertising, as the dominating narrative of trucks and masculinity has witnessed a slow but steady introduction of women behind the wheel. Female auto journalists are now as likely to review a pickup as an SUV or minivan. Manufacturers often emphasize “female friendly features” when promoting the latest F150, Silverado or Ram. In my own work, I noted how women often take on a ‘cowgirl’ persona as a means to become accepted within pickup truck culture. 

As a recent Road and Track article asserts, women have also successfully entered the historically male bastion of custom truck build and design. Two sisters from California, who grew up helping their parents in a family-owned collision and body repair shop, took over the business when their parents retired. With no sons to carry on the business, this mom and dad encouraged their young daughters to become involved in the care and building of cars. With the help, business sense, and hard work of their two truck-savvy daughters, what began as a small shop in the home garage now occupies a 10,000 square foot facility.

The Road and Track article reflects a common theme among women who achieve success in auto-related endeavors. As I noted in a number of past projects regarding women’s participation in automobile cultures traditionally associated with men, women who gain hands-on automotive experience at an early age – from fathers, mothers, brothers, and boyfriends – are as likely to become involved with cars in some capacity as young men with similar backgrounds. Working on automotive projects together with family members can encourage bonding and a sense of shared purpose. Such automotive togetherness can lead to the accumulation of auto knowledge, confidence in one’s skills, and pride in hard work. 

Theresa, the oldest daughter, left the business for a few years to acquire additional skill sets. She worked for a machinist during the day while attaining a graphic design degree at night. She returned home with new skills and new ideas, helping the business to grow and prosper. Theresa’s out-of-the box design skills have redirected the business from repair work to complicated custom builds. Now that her parents are retired, Theresa shares the running of the business with her husband and sister Sara, continuing the family tradition. 

The sisters have gained a reputation as skilled, hard-working, and creative. Their vehicles are presented at SEMA to great acclaim. The gone beyond the shop floor to give back to the automotive community in numerous and valuable ways. They have made a name for themselves, and the family business, in the very masculine world on custom built trucks. In doing so, they have demonstrated that given the proper training, encouragement, and opportunities, women can not only drive pickup trucks, but they can successfully, creatively, and expertly build them. 

Margaret Walsh

From “Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War.”

Margaret Walsh was one of the first scholars I encountered as I began my academic journey into the subject of women and cars. When I began my investigation close to home, I discovered a Walsh article – “Gender and the Automobile in the United States” – on a major web-based project sponsored by the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the Henry Ford. Not only did this project provide a comprehensive look at the history of women’s automobility, but included an extensive bibliography for individuals – like myself – interested in pursuing this subject matter further. As Walsh was a historian at the University of Nottingham at the time of this project, I was surprised to discover that the foremost authority on the history of women and automobility in America was, in fact, British. As it turns out, Walsh received both her master’s and doctorate in the United States. So although she didn’t grow up immersed in American car culture, Walsh’s years in the US no doubt impressed upon her the historical and cultural significance of the automobile to American women’s lives.

The work for the University of Michigan-Dearborn project was Walsh’s first foray into US women’s automotive history. As she noted in an 2009 interview, the project was an academic ‘by chance’ opportunity. While Walsh’s academic background included extensive research into transportation history – particularly the intercity bus industry – she had not yet expanded her research to the automobile. This project provided her with the opportunity to engage in scholarship on a subject that was – at the time – virtually non-existent. Walsh gained a reputation as an expert in the field not only because of her work, but because she was one of the very who considered gender and the automobile to be a subject worthy of investigation.

After the success of this web-based project, Walsh went on to publish a number of articles devoted to the history of women and automobiles in the US. While she never published a book on the subject, Walsh’s journal articles – which address women’s automobile use in the post war era – are on the reading lists of every scholar with an interest in the relationship between women and cars. A dedicated and determined researcher, Walsh relied on both primary and secondary sources – printed material, advertisements, federal government documents, qualitative data, policy documents and reports – to construct fascinating histories of the woman driver during a particular era of American life.

While I am not a historian, but rather take a cultural studies approach to the women and car relationship, my work is often centered in the work of automotive historians who accumulated the materials and the knowledge to create a discipline. I am forever grateful to scholars such as Maggie Walsh who through their work, offer guidance on the journey into the rarely researched subject of women and cars.