My first visit to the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan was about 15 years ago. I remember being rather unimpressed; if, at that time, I had to describe what ATF was or what it was about, I would have remarked that it was an automotive institution devoted to the accomplishments of old white men. The current AHF website notes that the museum, established in 1939, was originally called the ‘Automobile Old Timers,’ which suggests my initial impression was not all that far off. The automotive industry is a historically masculine enterprise; it is not surprising that a museum focused on early industry leaders and innovators would reflect a single-minded and determined male perspective.
Due to the inherent nature of a ‘hall of fame,’ the AHF is not a typical car museum; it is not focused on automobiles but rather significant individuals in automotive history. As the promotional material explains, ‘The mission of the AHF is to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of individuals in the international motor vehicle history through awards and educational programs […]’ The AHF is a small museum occupying just one floor; a path winds its way through the exhibits that serves as a chronology of the industry’s important contributors, ending in the center hall which honors the AHF recipients.
Much has changed since my initial AHF experience. While there can be no argument that the early auto industry was dominated by white men, much effort has been made to include women and people of color influential in automotive manufacturing, sport, and culture. Attention is given to the early female hall inductees, including Alice Ramsey, Denise McCluggage, Shirley Muldowney, Bertha Benz, and Janet Guthrie. A prominent exhibit featuring 2022 inductee Lyn St James includes one of her race cars; it is accompanied by a running video in which celebrated women such as Billie Jean King and First Lady Jill Biden praise St James not only for her many motorsports accomplishments but also for her continued work on behalf of women.
In honor of Black History Month, the AHF developed an extensive exhibit centered on the automotive achievements of African Americans. Of the 19 individuals singled out, six are women. In the AHF entry hall, the funny car of ‘Nitro Nelli’ Goins – an individual who opened doors for black women in motorsports – is on display. The focus on Goins and St James serve, perhaps, as an introduction to the AHF women in motorsports exhibit planned for late 2023.
The transformation of the Automotive Hall of Fame from an institution focused on the accomplishments of a select group of homogeneous individuals to that which celebrates the hidden diversity within industry contributors is quite remarkable. It suggests that while the masculine origins of automobile history and culture are universally accepted and acknowledged, the automotive contributions of those who fall outside the mainstream are also worthy of recognition and respect.