Car Dealerships, Ferraris, and the Woman Driver

To the majority of folks, Jay Leno is a former stand-up comic who had a very nice 20-plus year run as host of The Tonight Show. However in automotive circles, Leno is recognized for a very different television offering. Since 2015, Leno has used his celebrity status to encourage interest in automotive history through “Jay Leno’s Garage,” the Emmy winning series in which Leno offers car reviews, automotive tips, and shares his automotive passion and expertise through his extensive and expensive collection of automobiles. Viewers to his show are treated to test drives of vehicles of every persuasion, from the common to the obscure, powerful to mundane, excessive to pedestrian. However, as noted in a recent article in The Drive, there is one automotive model that is notably absent from Leno’s car collection. Leno refuses to own a Ferrari not because of any particular automotive feature, but because of the arrogance and rudeness of Ferrari dealers. As Leno explains, “This is not an indictment of the car; it’s just that you’re spending a tremendous amount of money. You should be made to feel like a customer’”(qtd. in Tsui).

In his interview with The Drive, Leno appears incredulous that someone of his celebrity and status is treated in such a disrespectful manner by dealership personnel. As a white and [extremely] privileged male, Leno has most likely never had to deal with offensive and patronizing automotive dealers and service representatives. Although Leno is now recognized as someone extremely knowledgeable about cars, I suspect that due to his race and gender, he has been treated as a car savvy individual for most of his driving life. Therefore I find it interesting, and somewhat amusing, that Leno finds poor treatment at car dealership unconventional and surprising, particularly since rude and insolent behavior at car dealerships has been – and continues to be – an all too common experience among women drivers.

In 2014 – in an examination of women’s online car advice sites – I discussed women’s common experience at automotive dealerships, drawing particular attention to how it contrasted to that of men. As I wrote:

To the majority of car-owning women, visiting an automotive dealership or service establishment is an unpleasant, unnerving, and frustrating experience. When seeking to purchase or service an automobile, women are often subject to sexist, dismissive, and patronizing behavior from automotive personnel. Women must often tolerate unwanted invitations or inappropriate comments regarding their appearance or sexuality, are withheld crucial information due to an assumed lack of basic car buying knowledge, and are ignored or dismissed when accompanied by a male companion. Although women influence nearly 85 percent of new car sales (Muley), the experience of women at automotive dealerships differs significantly from that of male drivers. Not only are women subject to inferior treatment, but they also often wind up paying considerably more for a vehicle than a male customer (Ayres). It would seem that such insolent behavior—as detrimental to future car sales—would be discouraged in those who sell and service cars. However, its continued existence suggests it is part of a broader strategy to maintain masculine control of the auto showroom as well as to limit and contest women’s financial and automotive competence.

This inferior treatment, as I noted, is based on a number of underlying factors. The first is the longstanding association between automobiles and masculinity. The second is an outdated but ingrained automotive sales technique which has its origins in horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation.

Antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity have traditionally linked technological expertise with the male gender. During the early years of automobility, this association was effectively applied to cars. While early automotive accounts reveal a growing female curiosity in the gasoline-powered automobile, fears over what women might do with a powerful machine created anxiety among male keepers of the status quo. Consequently, attempts were made to stifle women’s interest in automobiles, often through the association of driving ability with physical strength and mechanical expertise, qualities considered lacking in the woman driver. As historian Julie Wosk remarks, “men had long been portrayed as strong and technically able, women as frail and technically incompetent, or at least unsuited to engaging in complex technical operations” (9).

In the years following World War I, industrialization threatened traditional sources of male identity. The physical strength and mechanical ability necessary for the operation and maintenance of automobiles provided a means by which men could reassert themselves as masculine. Linking automobile use to technical expertise established men as more authentic drivers and initiated the longstanding association of the automobile with masculinity. As Clay McShane notes, “when men claimed mechanical ability as a gender trait, implicitly they excluded women from automobility” (156).

The association between masculinity and automotive technology was exacerbated in the years following World War II. Male teens often engaged in hot rod or muscle car culture as a means to further their automotive education and construct themselves as masculine. Aligning masculinity with cars, mechanical proficiency, and risky driving placed young women on the margins of teenage car culture, as either passengers or “avid spectators” (Genat 47). The exclusion of women from these sites of automotive education and practice assured that automotive knowledge would remain in men’s hands. It could be argued that the computerization of the automobile in the twenty-first century has leveled the playing field, as mechanical ability is no longer a prerequisite for servicing automobiles. Yet despite the fact that auto repair personnel are more likely to be diagnosticians than mechanics, the association of technological expertise and masculinity stubbornly remains. Women often feel compelled to bring men along with them to the dealership when purchasing or servicing an automobile, not because a man is inherently more car savvy, but because his maleness is considered unquestioned evidence of automotive knowledge.

Horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation were incorporated into the bicycle and automotive trades that followed. As women were seldom actors in the horse-trading arena, they were unfamiliar with commonplace bartering methods and uncomfortable in the hyper-masculine environment in which such tactics were practiced. While women, in the twentieth century, were increasingly cast in the role of consumer, their experience as buyers was limited to that of one-price retailing. Consequently, most women were totally unequipped to participate in a car buying process that relied on aggressive bartering. Women’s discomfort was intensified by the misogynist atmosphere of the showroom, in which the negotiation process was often framed in the violent language of physical and sexual conquest. Salesmen often called upon such rhetoric to take advantage of the female car buyer, believing that keeping women drivers less informed and more easily intimidated was an effective means to guarantee higher profit margins. While the women’s movement of the 1970s, and the subsequent growth of women in the workforce, may have increased the auto industry’s awareness of women as a distinct and profitable market segment, as Gelber notes, “the message often failed to percolate down to the showroom floor” (158). Although in the twenty-first century, women make up nearly half of automobile consumers (Bird), a lack of automotive knowledge and uneasiness with negotiating techniques ensures they will be treated in much the same manner as their horse-buying counterparts of a hundred years past.

Women have become increasingly car savvy since this article was written, due in part to vigorous automotive research as well as participation on online automotive sites and forums. The rise of women in the auto industry, including an increase in the number of female auto dealers, has also somewhat weakened the association of cars and masculinity, resulting in a more comfortable and less confrontational car buying experience. But there is little doubt that bad behavior against female automotive consumers remains. Therefore, while Leno may be admired for his stance against Ferrari dealerships, he should understand that he is by no means alone. For women have been treated with disrespect not only by fancy luxury car dealers, but by salespeople of all makes and models of cars since the first Model T drove off the car lot over 100 years ago.

Note: portions of this blog are excerpted from “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice”.

Ayres, Ian. “Fair Driving: Gender and Race Discrimination in Retail Car Negotiations.” Harvard Law Review 104, 4 (1991): 817–872.

Bird, Colin. “Women Buying More Cars, Favor Imports.” 31 Mar 2011.

Gelber, Steven M. Horse Trading in the Age of Cars: Men in the Marketplace. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Genat, Robert. Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech., 2010.

Lezotte, Chris. “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice.” Feminist Media Studies (2014 ): 1-17.

McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Muley, Miriam. “Growing the 85% Niche: Women and Women of Color.” 2008.

Tsui, Chris. “Jay Leno Won’t Buy a Ferrari Because He Hates the Dealerships.” 4 Feb 2022.

Wosk, Julie. Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003..

The Motion Picture & the Woman Driver

While working on my master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in the early 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I provide a little background on the role of the automobile in film and conclude with a call to include more women in the cinematic driver’s seat. Over ten years later, I answered my own call by writing a paper on women and film that appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture. Here’s how that notion got started.

Henry Ford built the Model T as an affordable, utilitarian means of transportation. It wasn’t long after the first Ford rolled off the assembly line, however, that the automobile came to acquire meanings other than the basic mode of transport Ford envisioned. The motion picture industry developed almost in tandem to that of the automobile, so it is not surprising that film was instrumental in ascribing alternative meanings to the American car. In the infancy of the moving picture industry, the automobile is most often employed as a means to display the possibilities of the emerging film medium. Filmmakers experimented with both cinematic and automobile technology; they often called upon measures such as trick or stop-action photography to create outrageous scenes of “comic mayhem and dismemberment” (Smith 181). However, as the automobile became more familiar to the majority of Americans, audiences began to prefer films that contained a narrative. As Julian Smith writes in “A Runaway Match,” moviegoers began to respond more readily to “films that involved rather than excluded them” (181). Rather than a tool to demonstrate cinematic prowess, the car became an important element of the cinematic story.

1926 Ford Model T absconded by Clark Gable to drive Claudette Colbert to safety in It Happened One Night

The possibilities of both film and automobility were combined in a number of successful film scenarios. Elopement, rebellion, the chase, and the use of the car to instigate and resolve conflicts were some of the common themes in films that featured the automobile. Smith suggests the car in film was not just a means of transportation, but rather, was used to “transport characters – and the audience  – into new realms” (182). In these early films, the car is often a tool for escape, seduction and heroism. It brings about happiness, success and true love. In many films of the early twentieth century, the car appears as a vehicle of fate, justice and divine will. However, as Smith remarks, filmmakers during this period do not attempt to use the car as a commentary on the social condition. Rather, the automobile is a character in a narrative; it is a vehicle that literally and figuratively moves the story forward. 

As both car and film became more ingrained in American society, the car grew from a tool of storytelling to a symbol of both the culture and the individual behind the wheel. Powerful cars suggest powerful drivers; speed, control and risk-taking behavior are masculine attributes that are often used to tie the car to the man who drives it. As A.L. Reese notes in “Moving Spaces,” the car is often a disturbing presence in film, “in part because of what it can do (break down, explode or kill, for example) but also because of what it connotes” (84). Protagonists use the car as a weapon, calling on its strength and power to manipulate and destroy as an extension of themselves. For example, in the film Christine, the car is not only a vehicle of validation, but of personal vengeance as well. Automobiles in film became symbolic not only through appearance, but for where and how they traveled. The 1950s automobile was, as Eric Mottram writes, “heaped with adornment, worn as a badge of status, and admired as a piece of jewelry” (107). And during the 1970s, the automobile found a new role in the ubiquitous road movie; the car became the “major vehicle for a primary and traditional American hero” (110).

Christine on fire in the film of the same name

What is notable about the examples of the automobile in American film is that the individual behind the wheel is overwhelmingly male. Thus the male driver not only controls the car, but the narrative of the film as well. In film, the car as a symbol of escape, adventure, power, rebellion, self-discovery, control, desire and destruction is irrevocably linked with masculinity. If females are present, it is as passengers; they exist to be impressed, wooed or conquered by the car and the man who drives it. The car in American film not only reaffirms and secures the tie between the automobile and masculinity, but more importantly, suggests that only the male is capable of steering the course of the narrative. Feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in her discussion of the male gaze, asserts that the traditional role of men in cinema has been to move the story forward. When a man gets behind the wheel of a car onscreen, he is literally and figuratively determining the direction of the film, and the narrative within it. 

Ellen Burstyn takes the wheel in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

In The Road Story and the Rebel, Katie Mills discusses the advent of female automobility in the films of the 1970s. In the genre Mills describes as “New Hollywood,” young, ambitious auteurs, such as Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and Bogdanovich, embrace the road story as representative of the rebellious time period. As Mills argues, the filmmakers of this era sought to distinguish themselves as avant-garde, and often did so by creating road films with women as central characters. However, social activism did not spear the desire to create such films; rather, it was increased opportunity and recognition as groundbreaking artists that the filmmakers were after. Mills remarks, “there was a growing curiosity about the sexual revolution and growing pressure to represent women as more than just wives” (134). Yet while the New Hollywood films focus on women as symbols of progressive politics, feminist gender philosophy is rarely invoked. Women’s rebellion is portrayed as sexual liberation, which titillates, rather than challenges, both the male protagonists and audience members. The young, New Hollywood directors call upon culturally approved conventions in the depictions of female characters; women are, with the exception of Bonnie Parker, passive, and motherhood is often a motive for going on the road. While female automobility is the focus of road films such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, it is considered through a male lens. The women in these narratives act, in a sense, as “catalytic converters;” Mills remarks, “they get the men of the narrative into action, but their automobility does not represent social change” (192). It would take another 20 years before a film directly portrays women on the road because they are angry about patriarchy. As Carrie Khouri, screenwriter of the breakthrough film Thelma and Louise, tells us, “‘I just got fed up with the passive role of women. They were never driving the story, because they were never driving the car” (Mills 193). Thelma and Louise not only put women in the driver’s seat, but also brought national attention to female automobility as “the desire for autonomy from patriarchal structure and against male privilege” (Mills 194). The film effectively and purposefully skews the meanings traditionally associated with cars and those who drive them.

The automobile in American film has alternatively embraced a myriad of qualities, which include rebellion, adventure, romance, power, status, destruction and the American spirit. However, until very recently, such attributes have been primarily associated with masculinity and the male driver. The meanings traditionally ascribed to automobiles, in films and in real life, do not take into consideration the alternative relationship of women and cars. In order to disrupt such ingrained notions of masculine automobility, women must not only take their place behind the wheel in motion pictures, but more importantly, control the direction, and therefore the narrative, of the film itself. 

Mills, Katie. The Road Story and the Rebel: Moving Through Film, Fiction, and Television. Carbondale, Ill. : London: Southern Illinois University Press , 2006. 

Mottram, Eric. “Blood on the Nash Ambassador: Cars in American Films,” in Autopia: Cars and Culture. P. Wollen and J. Kerr eds. London: Reaktion, 2002.

Reese, A.L. “Moving Spaces,” in Autopia: Cars and Culture. P. Wollen and J. Kerr eds. London: Reaktion, 2002.

Smith, Julian. “A Runaway Match: The Automobile in American Film, 1900-1920, The Automobile and American Life, D. L. Lewis & L. Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1983.