One of the annual traditions in the metropolitan Motor City is the Woodward Dream Cruise. Held annually on the third Saturday of August, the cruise is a day-long celebration of car culture. Instituted in 1995 as an effort to raise money for a children’s soccer field in Ferndale, Michigan, the event now attracts more than 1.5 million visitors. Featuring more than 40,000 muscle cars and street machines, the Woodward Dream Cruise is now considered the world’s largest one-day vintage car event.
Woodward Avenue was chosen not only for its central location – it is the unofficial divider of metropolitan Detroit’s east and west sides – but more importantly for its significant muscle car history. It is rumored that John DeLorean found inspiration for the Pontiac GTO – considered by aficionados as the original muscle car – while driving home from General Motors in downtown Detroit to his home in Bloomfield Hills. In the glory days of muscle car culture, young men in their Chevelles, Camaros, Challengers, and Barracudas could be spotted on summer evenings drag racing from light to light down the long suburban expanse of Woodward Avenue. The original Dream Cruise was true to this vision; the two right lanes were devoted to classic muscle cars and hot rods, while auto enthusiasts and curious spectators lined up curbside to take in the style and sounds of the magnificent machines of the past.
However in recent years, the cruise and the cars that drive in it have changed. While there are still a few true muscle cars in attendance they have been taken over by modern muscle. This was nowhere more evident than at the traditional “Mustang Alley” display held each year in Ferndale. Once populated by classic Mustangs, 9 Mile Road is now the place to park the new generation of pony cars. What has also changed are the folks who own them. As a product of the 60s and 70s, classic muscle cars are overwhelmingly driven by members of the baby boomer generation. Now in their 70s, the grey haired men are less inclined to take an unreliable 50 year old car into the stop and go traffic of Woodward on Dream Cruise day. The newer cars reflect a changing population of muscle car aficionados. The younger generation, while acknowledging the Mustang’s significant history, prefer the speed, safety, economy, reliability and superior power of modern muscle. And once discouraged, if not outright banished, from participating in muscle car culture, women now take pleasure and pride in the power and excitement the new cars have to offer. Women are now credited with purchasing over one third of Mustangs, suggesting not only that the female motorist has become more car savvy, but also that the masculinity associated with Detroit muscle is ever-so-slowly shifting.
A recent Detroit Free Press article made note of the changing automotive population, referring to the 2022 Woodward Dream Cruise as ‘a celebration of tradition and new.’ As an aging boomer who has done extensive research on the muscle car, I miss seeing the panther pink and grabber blue muscle cars of the past driving down the Woodward Avenue of my youth. But as one who writes about women and cars, I am delighted to see women challenging gender stereotypes and embracing performance and power through the purchase and display of fast and noisy modern muscle.
Note: One month after this blog was posted, Phoebe Wall Howard, an auto writer for the Detroit Free Press, spoke to a number of Mustang-owning-women – which she refers to as ‘Mustang Mamas’ – in an article to promote the Detroit Auto Show.
While in graduate school during the 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 examine how – in the years following World War II – automotive style was reconfigured from a feminine trait to one that suggested masculinity and male power.
As the originator of the utilitarian, mass-produced automobile, Henry Ford had little respect for style. Ford believed the ultimate value of the motorcar rested in its reputation as a safe, efficient, and reliable mode of transportation. The car’s outward appearance, in Ford’s estimation, was of little consequence. History suggests that Ford was a rather narrow-minded man, and as such, adhered to racial, ethnic, and gendered stereotypes. His opposition to automotive style, therefore, was based not only on the belief that the car was defined primarily by functionality, but also because beauty and design were considered feminine characteristics, and should have no association with masculine automotive technology. In Ford’s “manly, efficiency-obsessed world of work,” concern for beauty was not only unwelcome, but was an indication of gender deviance (Gartman). Ford’s long-standing estrangement with his only child, Edsel, was often attributed to the elder’s intolerance of his son’s artistic leanings and suspected unmanliness. Like the “tough guys” who followed him, Ford believed “beauty belonged in the parlor and questioned the masculinity of any man who tried to put it on a car” (Gartman).
The emphasis on car design rather than function was the brainchild of one of Henry Ford’s staunchest competitors. Rather than work on improving automotive technology, which was a rather costly proposition, General Motor’s Alfred Sloan concentrated on “aesthetic innovation ” (Gartman). By changing the cosmetic appearance of the car, Sloan could offer the public a wider variety of styles and models without considerable financial investment. While this proposition made sound business sense, the association of auto design with femininity presented a considerable obstacle. Auto historians offer a number of factors that contributed to the eventual acceptance of the stylish and beautiful automobile. However, there was no greater influence than that of the flamboyant and charismatic automotive designer Harvey Earl.
Earl called upon both his larger-than-life personality and his personal design philosophy to change the way consumers felt about automobile design. While Earl has been described as a “dandy” in both dress and mannerisms, he overcompensated for such characteristics by cultivating a rather crude and super-masculine demeanor. Earl personally embodied both the stylish and the masculine through his large, impeccably attired frame, off-color language, and overbearing personality. In many ways, Earl was the ultimate personification of the automobiles he designed.
Social changes also contributed to the acceptance of automobile styling and its feminine associations. As former GM designer Leonard Pilato attests, “it is hard to separate auto design from human and social factors.” Auto historian Gartman suggests the gendered division between beauty and utility was breaking down during this time, as “men subjected to the savage utility and efficiency of mass production were looking to the home and its non utilitarian consumer goods for compensation.” Earl’s automotive designs, inspired by images of fantasy and flight, provided drivers with modes of entertainment and escape. While style may have been considered feminine, the forms on which Earl based his designs, which conjured up images of jet planes, speed and futuristic spacecraft, were examples of masculine technology and ideals. The emphasis on style rather than function also created new cultural meanings for automobiles. Rather than modes of transportation, cars became symbols of status, success, and power. The image, rather than the technology, of the car provided its owner with a new identity. As Gartman writes, the increased size of cars offered consumers “psychic compensation […] to convince them that their lives were indeed better.”
Auto historians often maintain that auto design became embraced once it became distanced from femininity. However, I would argue that beautiful cars became desirable because they were, in fact, regarded as female. The cars of the post World War II era were extremely feminine in appearance. The smooth curves and softened angles are reminiscent of women’s bodies. The pastel tones of 1950s automobiles are mirrored in the clothing of 1950s women. Many of the cars of this period are exceptionally “pretty” by today’s standards. The pink 1956 Thunderbird and lime green 1954 Corvette on display at the Henry Ford are extremely feminine cars that men often coveted. While men are known to drive particular cars to lure the opposite sex, they also seek to acquire mastery over the cars they drive. In a patriarchy, men seek to maintain power and control over women. If an automobile is considered female, power over the car may equate power over women. This equation had special significance to many men in the years following World War II.
After returning from the Second World War, men often discovered that the women they left behind were infused with independence and self-sufficiency, garnered through well-paying war time work. Uncomfortable with women’s developing autonomy, men took back the work in the public sphere and sent the women home. Husbands and fathers sought to regain the dominance of the prewar years as breadwinners and heads of households. They sought to purchase cars that symbolized this reassumed status. The cars many drove were masculine in size yet feminine in appearance. They were often given feminine names and referred to as “she.” The stylish car becomes the beautiful woman men conquer by owning and driving. As Gartman writes, “in the ultra-macho subculture of auto designers, sex was surely an important appeal.” Sex and the automobile have become intertwined not only because the automobile is a site of sexual encounter, but also because the car is often perceived as a spirited woman that male drivers seek to tame.
Men with style, especially white men, have always been sexually suspect. Equating stylish cars with beautiful women allows men to appreciate automotive design while keeping masculinity intact. Harvey Earl was instrumental in making style an integral part of the auto manufacturing process, and was influential in the acceptance of the importance of auto design. It is unfortunate that the equation of stylish cars as beautiful women to be controlled and conquered remains a mode of such acceptance for so many drivers.