A Visit to the Pontiac Transportation Museum

The Pontiac Transportation Museum is the newest entry into the Southeastern Michigan automotive museum collective. Housed in a former elementary school in Pontiac, Michigan, it will officially open to the public in mid July 2024. As a member of the MotorCities National Heritage Area, I was able to attend a private tour and presentation this past Wednesday evening. The museum will be constructed in stages; while phase one is currently complete, there are three more phases scheduled to be developed over the next few years. Our group not only toured the completed section, but were also offered a ‘sneak peek’ at what’s to come.

Pontiac factory workers

The Pontiac Transportation Museum is an institution of both place and auto manufacturer. While the museum tells the story of the auto maker’s rise and fall, it also endeavors to connect to the community and is involved in energizing its development and revitalization. As noted in a story in the Detroit Free Press, the intent of the museum is to reflect the ‘place, people, and its stories.’

Restroom Photograph

As a new museum with limited artifacts on display, I did not expect to find many representations of women in the automotive exhibits. My first encounter with such images was in, of all places, the women’s restroom, which displayed three oversized color photos of women driving Pontiac vehicles from the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was later told by one of the tour guides that much consideration was given to the restroom as ‘that is what is most important to female visitors.’ I had to squelch a guffaw.

Woman’s car story

Other representations in the museum included advertisements, photographs, and promotional materials. There were interactive displays which featured photos of women in various decades of the automaker’s history as drivers, consumers, and workers. As was mentioned during the tour, the majority of vehicles on display are donated and are primarily ‘one owner’ cars. There were a few automobiles with female donors that included stories of how the car was acquired as well as personal automotive histories. While touring one of the yet-to-be developed sections, our attention was brought to three Pontiac Firebirds specifically developed for the female market. As our guide explained, the Skybird [blue] was offered from 1977-78, the Red Bird for 1978-79, and the Yellow Bird in 1980.

Yellow Bird

While there weren’t a lot of examples of women’s relationship to cars on the floor, the slide presentation provided a philosophy of the museum that was very much geared toward diversity and inclusion. As is noted on the museum’s website, ‘a very significant part of the PTM’s mission involves educational outreach to the community – particularly STEAM-related education in Pontiac primary, secondary, and vocational schools.’ The museum is positioning itself as not just a collection of cars, but as a source for Pontiac’s social history; i.e. how the car manufacturer affected the city in which it existed as well as the people who drove its cars and made its products. The presentation also made note of the PTM’s ‘female empowerment mission’ and included photographs of visiting girls and women’s groups as well as influential women within the industry.

Girl Power

Living in the auto-rich area of Southeastern Michigan has provided me with unique opportunities to not only visit a number of automotive museums, but to attend special events such as this private tour of the soon-to-be-opened Pontiac Transportation Museum. I look forward to watching the PTM’s progress over the next several years. 

Special Exhibits and the Woman Driver

From the Seal Cove Auto Museum Special Exhibit

In my quest for evidence of women’s automotive history in museums centered on the automobile, one of the categories I encountered from time to time was the ‘special exhibit.’ These exhibits are often put together to commemorate certain events in women’s history. The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 1920, which unfortunately occurred during COVID, was an occasion to assemble various artifacts related to women’s attainment of the vote. The automobile was an important tool in the suffrage campaign. In the spring and summer of 1916, the transcontinental suffrage tour from New York to San Francisco was one of the actions taken to spread the word of the importance of the women’s vote as well as “to persuade male party leaders to include woman suffrage platforms at both the Republican and Democratic national convention” (Lesh 136). The automobile was not only called upon as the primary mode of transport, but also served as a platform on which to speak and the means of a quick getaway should crowds get hostile. It is not surprising, therefore, that the anniversary of women’s enfranchisement was a popular motive for a women’s automotive history exhibit, even though the pandemic caused many of the displays to be postponed a year or two.

‘Women Who Motor’ at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House

‘Women Who Motor’ was such an exhibit. It made its debut at the historic Edsel and Eleanor Ford house in the Detroit suburbs, then moved to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan. The display featured a reproduction of the Motorwagen driven by Bertha Benz to advertise her husband’s invention, an 1899 Locomobile steam runabout like the one Joan Newton Cuneo purchased to enter the AAA’s inaugural Glidden Tour, as well as stories and photographs featuring female automotive legends including Alice Ramsey, Helene Rother, Margaret Elizabeth Sauer, Audrey Moore, Betty Skelton, and Danica Patrick. As the Gilmore teams notes, “this exhibition offers a glimpse into the world of women and the automobile. It is designed as a jumping off point for your own exploration into how the automobile has influenced women, and how women have influenced the automobile.”

Special Exhibit at the Saratoga Automobile Museum

Women’s History Month is also an occasion to draw attention to women’s automotive achievements. While many museums create special displays to honor women in automotive, they are often are a collection of artifacts the museum already possesses, grouped together for the month of March. As Helen Knibb writes, “The first and often only opportunity curators may have to introduce women’s history to the public comes through temporary exhibitions on special themes. But temporary exhibitions exist for a fixed period and are then dissolved” (356).

Chrysler driven by Vicki Wood, on display at the Henry Ford Women’s History Month exhibit

The Henry Ford created a number of these exhibits in March 2024. While the displays included female achievements in a wide variety of endeavors, special attention was given to women’s relationship to the automobile. Within the Henry Ford museum a display was created to celebrate women in racing. Featured artifacts included the Chrysler 300 driven by Vicki Wood at Daytona Beach in 1960, the racing glove worn by Janet Guthrie in the 1977 Indianapolis 500, as well as Sarah Fisher’s racing suit, worn during her third place finish at the Kentucky Speedway in 2000. The Ford Rouge Factory Tour, park of the Henry Ford experience, focused on significant innovations and contributions to the automotive industry made by female inventors and entrepreneurs. Accompanying the main exhibit were interactive displays that offered adults and children the opportunity to engage in Women’s History Month activities

‘She Drives’ exhibit at the Automotive Hall of Fame

I recently had the opportunity to visit a special exhibit at the Automotive Hall of Fame. ‘She Drives’ celebrates racing’s pioneering women. The exhibit includes stories of 11 inspiring women “shaped through their stories artifacts, and cars that shaped their paths.” Featured race car legends include Bertha Benz, Janet Guthrie, Lyn St James, and Shirley Muldowney. There is also an opportunity to participate in the She Drives Road Tour, which includes a visit to the exhibit at AHF as well as stops at other museums and places of interest in the metropolitan Detroit area.

Lowrider at the California Automobile Museum special exhibit

While racing and suffrage are common women-in-automotive-history exhibit themes, the most unusual and fascinating exhibit I encountered was that of female low riders featured at the California Automobile Museum this past April. This exhibit was not just a collection of artifacts packed away in the museum’s archives, but a carefully constructed original display that imaginatively reflected the region’s lowrider history and culture. I suspect that this is a traveling exhibit that will eventually make its way to other museums in the state.

From The Henry Ford

While special exhibits provide an opportunity for automotive museums to draw attention to women’s relationship to the automobile, it is unfortunate that such attention is most often limited to special occasions. Such exhibitions, Knibb argues, require museums “to reassess the balance of exhibition theme and included the ‘underside’ of history, topics which have traditionally been poorly documented or under-represented in exhibition” (357). As Knibb notes, museum collections are often shaped by what the museum has – the ‘survival of objects and the personal tastes of donors’- rather than by any planned efforts to collect and develop artifacts representative of women’s automotive participation (361). Perhaps increased attention to women’s automotive history within the museum would plant the seed for additional informative, educational, and inspirational donations so that women’s contributions would not only be pulled out for ‘special’ occasions, but would be permanently on display as integral to the museum’s automotive collection.

Knibb, Helen. “Present But Not Visible: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections.” Gender & History 6, 3 (November 1994): 352-369.

Lesh, Carla R. Wheels of Her Own: American Women and the Automobile, 1893-1929. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2024.