Inside the American Car

In a recent Jalopnik article, auto journalist Elizabeth Blackstock poses a question to her reading audience. When she asks, ‘what’s your favorite car book?’, Blackstock is looking for reading material that has changed an individual’s perspective of a car, or altered his or her perception of the auto industry. Blackstock’s question led me back to my days in graduate school when I selected Car: A Drama of the American Workplace to review as an assignment. Mary Walton’s book – a first-hand account of the 1996 Ford Tauras development and launch – was both educational and illuminative. Written in 1997, Car offers an inside look into an industry that was, at the time, struggling for survival. For those who have an interest in the inner workings of the auto industry in a particular moment in time, I offer my slightly updated review of Mary Walton’s Car for your edification and enjoyment.

Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, written by Mary Walton, follows the lifecycle of an American automobile, the 1996 Ford Taurus, from conception to production to purchase. Walton, a veteran journalist, was provided with unprecedented access into the inner sanctum of the Ford Motor Company for this assignment. For three years, Walton became a part of the Taurus team, as designers and engineers, planners and analysts, and manufacturing and product managers worked diligently and ceaselessly to develop “The Car That Would Save Ford.” In her reporting and analysis, Walton is both critical and kind. Over the course of the Taurus launch, she develops respect and affinity for the individuals she encounters, yet rarely allows those relationships to get in the way of objectivity. For those unfamiliar with the auto industry, Walton offers remarkable insight into the problems and obstacles that plague American car companies. At a point in history when American automobile manufacturers were in danger of going out of business, Walton’s insightful examination not only uncovers weaknesses and vulnerabilities within Ford, but also identifies possible contributors to the impending industry collapse.

The Ford Motor Company has a long and determined history. Its founder, Henry Ford, was an individual who found change difficult, so much so that he built the same car, the Model T, for nearly 20 years. This ideological resistance to change, Walton discovers, is endemic within the current Ford corporate culture. Invention and innovation, in both product and policy, are most often met with apprehension and obstinacy. As Walton astutely observes, the failure to think “outside the box,” to take chances, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an automobile company such as Ford to stake a claim as an industry leader. The redesign and reinvention of the 1996 Taurus presented the possibility of such a position. However, the goal of the Taurus team was never to create a great new car, but rather, to “beat Camry.” It was not to build a better vehicle for its own sake, but to build one equal to or better than a vehicle, the Toyota Camry, that already existed. As Car suggests, developing new products in this manner situates Ford as a competitor rather than a leader. Building a car as a response rather than an introduction guarantees that Ford is always playing catch-up, with the consequence that the company is continually years behind its closest competitor in product design and development.

Walton also paints a revealing portrait of Ford management, a bureaucratic structure of almost unfathomable proportions. It is a complicated, multi-level system that not only stifles creative thinking, but also creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among the rank and file. There are so many approval layers that decisions made by lower echelons may reach the top only to be arbitrarily dismissed by those in power. Superiors often have little knowledge of the factors that went into such decisions, yet possess the ability to change or kill a concept at will. Walton also observes a culture in which white-collar workers are held hostage by an entrenched corporate promotion system based on job level categories. Ambitious Ford employees will do just about anything to rise through the ranks of this elaborate system, and fear staying at any level for too long a period. There is a tremendous amount of competition for promotions, and “rocking the boat” most often decreases an individual’s chance of advancement. Thus individuals are uneasy speaking up to or disagreeing with those in authority. As Walton writes, “the higher you went up the executive ladder, the less people spoke out.” Dick Landgraff, the head engineer on the Taurus project, was often “frustrated by how hard it was to find out what colleagues really thought” (87).

1996 Ford Taurus

Walton describes a white-collar atmosphere in which every aspect of a project is discussed ad infinitum. She remarks, “one of the problems at Ford, one of the many problems at Ford, was that people were afraid to be specific, to make commitments, because they might get nailed if things went awry” (46). Ford engineers and designers often spent more time in meetings than actually working on projects. Walton relates the story of management consultant hired by Ford, who attended seven meetings totaling twelve hours in length. She remarks, “He counted 155 people and one decision. This means 155 people spent 11 hours ‘sharing information’”(146). The time spent in meetings not only causes individuals to lose focus on the project at hand, but it also exponentially increases the time from concept to completion. While the Japanese are able to get an automobile to market in just over two years, it takes Ford almost five to complete the same process. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the preferences of the American car buying public five years in advance. Automobiles developed in such an extended time frame are often out of date before they reach the public. As Landgraff remarked to Walton, “if the Taurus were going to save Western democracy, the war would have been over by the time we got it on the street” (118).

However, perhaps the most lasting and illuminating impression Walton provides in Car is of a company that has lost its way. The endless meetings, strict hierarchy, inability to make decisions and fear of innovation reveal a corporation unclear of its identity and direction heading into the twenty-first century. The redesign of the 1996 Taurus was undertaken with the goal of meeting or exceeding the success of the original version, which had been the best-selling car in America in 1992. Yet as Walton discloses, “the amazing truth was that Ford never quite understood precisely how or why it had scored with the original Taurus” (52). To achieve success with the redesigned Taurus, Ford believed it was imperative to attract the import buyer rather than expand its own customer base. Yet Ford misunderstood its target, defining the new Taurus customer as the former “varsity football player and his cheerleader wife,” a family configuration more reflective of the 1950s than the upcoming millennium. As a consequence, the new Taurus appealed to no one, not the import buyer nor the traditional Ford customer. As Walton notes after the Taurus introduction, “the press was saying, after a fashion, that the car was too good” (343). Body engineers such as Steve Kozak detected the implication that “Ford had done something almost un-American by elevating ‘America’s car’ beyond the reach of the guys with blue collars” (343). Rather than develop a car to please the American car buyer, Ford’s goal was to out-Japanese the Japanese. The result was a car that cost more than the Camry, making it inaccessible to the average Ford customer, yet with limited appeal to import buyers. Walton adds, “during the four-year journey from Dearborn to dealers, the market had shifted,” a trend noted by the manufacturers of the Camry.  In 1996, the year of the new Taurus, a redesigned Camry debuted with “conservative styling, fewer niceties, and lower prices than the previous model.” Unlike the Ford Motor Company, Walton tells us, “ever-vigilant Toyota had responded to the latest market shift” (347). In 1996, the Camry became the number one car in its class; the Taurus finished a distant third.

When Mary Walton was granted permission to document the development of the 1996 Taurus, she couldn’t believe her good fortune. Yet as she remarks, “sadly, after reading the completed manuscript, Ford management came to regret having allowed a journalist such a candid look at its operations” (xi). The reaction to Car questions how Ford allowed Walton to infiltrate its headquarters in the first place. Perhaps gender played a role, as the presence of a female journalist was perceived as non-threatening to an overwhelmingly male, technologically driven constituency. Normally isolated and introverted, it is possible many of the engineers actually welcomed Walton’s intrusion and used the opportunity to open up to her. Walton’s lack of automotive expertise may have also worked to her advantage. Ford employees may have spoken freely because they assumed Walton would have difficulty understanding what they were talking about. Ford executives, individuals with considerable egos, may have felt themselves to be above reproach; thus their actions and motives would not be questioned nor referred to in a negative manner. It is also possible that Ford offered Walton unprecedented access because it believed that the Taurus was destined to become a remarkable success. Therefore, the book would paint a glowing picture of Ford and its ideology, personnel and structure. 

Finally, perhaps Walton was welcomed for the simple reason that Ford believed if readers could understand what really went on behind its famed glass walls, the image of the corporation would rise considerably in the public imagination. While ultimately such a goal was not achieved, Mary Walton provides an intriguing and enlightened look at the inner workings of an American car company. And while it was written over 25 years ago, Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, provides important and relevant insight into the problems and obstacles that faced Ford, as well as General Motors and Chrysler, at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Muscle at the Henry Ford

One of the benefits of living in the metro Detroit area is access to automotive museums and collections. While taking a class in material culture as a PhD student a number of years ago, one of the assignments was to write an object biography. As I was researching muscle cars at the time, I chose the 1965 Pontiac GTO on display at the Henry Ford as the subject of my essay. What follows is the result of my investigation, which I attribute to successful detective work and a lot of luck. [As this was written in 2010, the Henry Ford exhibit is no longer as described here].

GTO on display at the Henry Ford.

On any given day at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a small crowd, most often male, can be found gathered around a 1965 white, two-door Pontiac GTO on display. Part of the museum’s The Automobile in American Life exhibit, which opened in November 1987, the GTO commands attention through its considerable size and sleek design, privileged position on the exhibition floor, and as a representative of a particular era in American car and cultural history. The GTO, over 17 feet in length of gleaming sheet metal, stands slightly apart from the main exhibit, in a section described in Henry Ford literature as The Automobile as American Symbol (Hyde, 1989, p. 108). The hanging sign overhead that reads simply “power” , the console mounted high-performance Hurst shift lever controls and four-speed manual transmission found within the interior, and the polished V-8, 389 cubic inch, tri-power engine visible under the propped-up hood leave little doubt as to what the GTO was, in fact, built to symbolize. Produced during the height of America’s dominance in the automobile industry, the Pontiac GTO was manufactured to reflect the power of a nation, a car company, and by association, that of the man who drove it. 

The text that accompanies the GTO display consists of a short paragraph that places the automobile in a cultural context as a “symbol of 1960s youth culture” (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). A 1965 black and white print advertisement – which compares the GTO to a prowling tiger– is situated next to it. The label adhered to the base on which the GTO stands offers little background to the car’s origin. While it provides information as to the automobile’s manufacture – General Motors Corporation, Pontiac Motor Division – the life history of the 1965 GTO, as a product, generational icon, as well as personal transportation for a particular individual, is notably absent (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Yet upon observation of those who stop to stare at the 45-year-old automobile – aging baby boomer men, young male professionals, middle-aged blue-collar workers, and gangly teenage boys – it becomes evident that the GTO contains meanings that extend well beyond its role as a means of transportation. 

“Power” display.

In creating the exhibit, the Henry Ford was certainly aware of how particular characteristics would resonate with visitors. As Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest, curators are instinctively attracted to objects through “their aesthetic qualities, their cultural resonances,” as well as what is known “about the drama of their individual histories” (p. 145). Therefore, in order to better understand the importance of the 1965 GTO to the Automobile and American Life exhibit and its visitors, it is helpful to construct what Wehner and Sear define as an object biography. Such a process will not only examine the automobile’s history as both product and symbol, but will also attempt to uncover the route of the Henry Ford GTO – Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) 237275P339452 – from the assembly line to the museum floor (Benson Ford, 87.70.1).

The 1964 Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omolgato) is often credited for being the first “muscle car.” It was the brainchild of John DeLorean, who became chief engineer of Pontiac, a division of General Motors, in 1961. Searching for a way to address the flagging sales of the Tempest, Pontiac’s disappointing entry into the mid-size automotive market, DeLorean found inspiration for the GTO on the streets of Detroit. During his daily drive down Woodward Avenue from his Bloomfield Hills home to the General Motors downtown offices, DeLorean couldn’t help but notice the increasing proliferation of teenage boys engaged in illegal street racing. This untapped growing consumer market – male baby boomers of driving age – suggested to DeLorean there was money to be made by appealing to the large number of young men “with money in their pockets looking for excitement” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177). Reexamining the dimensions of the Tempest, DeLorean realized that a 389-cubic-engine V-8 engine had the same external size as the current Tempest option, a 322-cubic-inch V-8. Calling upon the California hot-rod philosophy of the 1950s – light weight plus big engine equals fast car – DeLorean found he was able to deliver sixty-seven more horsepower in the Tempest simply by placing the more powerful engine under the hood. And in removing all the luxury frills from the Tempest – i.e. air conditioning, power windows and FM radio – DeLorean produced a crazy-fast car for a price ($3200) street-racing teenage boys could afford. 

V-8, 389 cubic inch engine.

However, DeLorean was faced with one minor problem. In 1963, General Motors made a ruling that forbade the use of engines larger than 330 cubic inches in their intermediate sized automobiles. Realizing that it would be impossible to receive permission to install the larger engine before the 1964 product introduction, DeLorean devised – and got away with – a scheme to offer the 389 as part of an option package. An extra $296 not only provided the buyer with a more powerful engine, but also included pseudo hood scoops, chrome air cleaner and valve covers, four-speed manual transmission with floor-mounted Hurst shifter, heavy-duty clutch and suspension, B.F. Goodrich Red Line nylon tires, and chrome GTO nameplates on all four sides (Zavitz, 1989, p. 19). As Mark Foster (2003) writes, “DeLorean and his men found themselves playing with a very hot set of wheels, which was fun to drive” (p. 75). The immediate success of the Pontiac GTO inspired other American automakers to follow suit; the streets of Detroit were soon rumbling with an assortment of muscle cars that included the Dodge Charger, Plymouth Roadrunner, and Chevrolet Chevelle. Auto journalists also got on the muscle car bandwagon, and wrote about them in glowing – albeit masculine – terms. John Campisano (1995), former editor-in-chief of Muscle Cars magazine, remarked, “Muscle cars are about screaming big blocks revving to the redline. They’re about full-throttle power-shifts at the drags. […] They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone” (p. 8). Automobile magazine founder David E. Davis depicted the muscle car driving experience as “losing your virginity, going into combat and tasting your first beer all in about seven seconds” (Mueller, 1997, p. 17). As an important component of urban male teenage culture from the mid 1960s to early 1970s, it can easily be argued that the Detroit muscle car – of which the 1964 GTO was the acknowledged forerunner – was the automotive product most strongly associated with masculinity. As a “dominant icon in car culture America” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177), the GTO offered its young male drivers – literally and figuratively – possibilities of unlimited power.

GTO nameplate.

The information gleaned from an investigation of the 1965 GTO on display at the Henry Ford often parallels that of the product’s own storied history. The object folder provided by the Benson Ford Research Center provides clues to the automobile’s personal 45-year trajectory. The automobile’s VIN – located on the left front door hinge pillar and noted in the museum object report – not only indicates the color, model, and body style of the car, but also reveals that the GTO was manufactured at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Pontiac, Michigan. As the Florida license plate suggests and the original bill of sale confirms, after production, the GTO made its way from Pontiac, Michigan to the Colonial Pontiac dealership in Miami, Florida. Auto dealer B. Green sold the car to Otis Wegley on July 20, 1965 (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). The Guardian Maintenance Coupon Book, included with the car’s purchase, indicates that the GTO’s scheduled maintenance was never performed. Perhaps this was because Wegley only drove the car for seven months and 4220 miles before transferring ownership on February 24, 1966 to Anthony Vassilakakis (Tony Vass) of Hollywood, Florida. As the documents in the museum folder show, the GTO eventually wound up in the hands of Jeffrey D. Burch of Fort Lauderdale, who sold the car to the Henry Ford in 1987. With this transaction, the cycle was complete; the GTO returned to the state of its origin for a long and comfortable retirement.

Items within the object folder hint at the negotiations that took place between Burch and Edison Institute (renamed the Henry Ford) transportation curator Randy Mason on the transfer of the GTO. Burch sent Mason fourteen color photographs of the car, accompanied by handwritten descriptions on the back of each, to confirm its condition and authenticity. In the memo dated March 26, 1987 included with the photographs, Burch suggests that the museum’s offering price for the GTO does not reflect its true value (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Perhaps the argument that the car would be preserved for posterity in a museum convinced Burch to accept a reduced payment. While the object folder provided information on the car’s ownership, there was nothing to indicate when, why, and from whom Burch purchased the GTO. Using the information at hand, a little detective work was performed to uncover more of the car’s personal history.

Display description.

After compiling a list of questions, an attempt was made to contact Burch by phone and email to fill in the blanks of the 1965 GTO’s biography. However, although current contact information was available on the Internet, both the number and the address provided were no longer valid. However, a chance “Googling” of “Burch GTO” produced an August 26, 1987 article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that, surprisingly and miraculously, answered almost all of the proposed questions. “Classic Auto Drives Into Place in History,” reported by Pat Curry, tells the story of Burch’s acquisition of the GTO as well the circumstances that led to the car’s journey back to Michigan. As Curry discovered, Florida native Burch had a personal history with the GTO. In 1967, recently graduated from Stranahan High School, 18-year-old Burch purchased a red, four-on-the-floor Pontiac GTO through the classifieds. However, in just one year’s time, an excessive number of speeding tickets – inspired by the tiger under the hood, no doubt – forced Burch to sell the car. However, Burch never forgot his teenage experience with the GTO; as Curry remarked, “the memories hung on like the squealing tires on quiet Broward County back roads.” 

Benson Ford documentation.

Almost twenty years later, after settling down and raising a family, Burch got the urge to once more drive the car of his youth. A chance encounter with an exterminator working in the neighborhood led Burch to Tony Vass, who had owned, but rarely driven, the white 1965 GTO. Once Burch saw the automobile, memories of his past experience, and his teenage years, were impossible to ignore. As Curry (1987) wrote, “There he was with the guys, […] hanging out and bragging about his car. He was sitting behind the wheel of his old GTO, a hot red monster of a car just made to go faster than the law allowed.” Burch talked Vass into selling him the car, and spent the next two-and-a-half years restoring it, taking it to car shows, and coming home with first place prizes. It was at one of these shows – the Antique Automobile Club of America regional – that Randy Mason came across the GTO, and convinced Burch to sell it to the Henry Ford. Within Florida, with its warm climate and absence of salt on the roads, Mason hoped he would find just the right car for the new exhibit opening in the completely redesigned Henry Ford. Once the transaction between Burch and Mason was completed, the museum sent a semi-truck to Burch’s home to pick up the car; upon arrival it was installed into The Automobile and American Life exhibit where it has remained ever since.

The comments made by the original owners Vass and Burch, included in the article written over 20 years ago by Pat Curry, provide insight into the attraction of the 1965 Pontiac GTO to today’s visitors to the Henry Ford. Of his experience driving the car, Vass remarked, “It had a certain feel to it. When you shifted, you were in full command.” This sentiment is reflected in the ad that accompanies the Henry Ford display, as it informs the reader the GTO “Snarls when you prod it” (Frumkin, 2002, p. 127). More recent literature describes the GTO, and all muscle cars, in this manner: “They’re about power that pins you to your seat. They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone. They are about a bygone era that changed America (and the automobile industry) forever” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8). What these quotes suggest is that the meanings ascribed to the GTO by its owners, drivers, and admirers haven’t significantly changed since the automobile’s introduction. Yet what was once experiential meaning is now often encased in nostalgia for a “more innocent age […] when men were men, women weren’t, and fewer rules ruled, so much so that next to no one worried about the implications of the unlimited sale of raw horsepower” (Mueller, 2004, p. 18).

How I tracked it down.

Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest that museum objects most attractive to visitors and curators alike are those with strong personal stories and provenance that link the object to a person’s life (p. 145). The commonality of experience and meaning shared by past owners and current admirers of the GTO serves to link them to the automobile and to each other. Mimi Sheller and John Urry (2000) suggest the automobile, as a container of meaning, is deeply entrenched in the ways individuals inhabit the world. As they argue, the car “not only appeals to an apparently ‘instinctual’ aesthetic and kinaesthetic sense, but it transforms the way we sense the world and the capacities of human bodies to interact with that world through the visual, aural, olfactory, interoceptive and proprioceptive senses. We not only feel the car, but we feel through the car and with the car” (p. 228). For a particular group of individuals, the 1965 GTO not only recalls a past driving experience, but also represents how they once envisioned themselves in the world.

 The GTO, to those who remember it and those who long after it, contains meanings that extend far beyond its function as a means of transportation. It represents an era in which the USA ruled the auto industry, when America was positioned as a “leader, not a follower” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8), and a time when teenage boys proved their manhood behind the wheel of a fast and powerful automobile. 

References

Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Object folder: Pontiac GTO, 1965. Acc. 87.70.1.

Campisano, J. (1995). American muscle cars. New York: MetroBooks.

Curry, P. (1987). Classic auto drives into place in history. SunSentinel.com, 26 Aug 1987. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-08-26/news/8703090934_1_car-symbol-henry-ford-museum

Foster, M. (2003). A nation on wheels: the automobile culture in America since 1945. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth.

Frumkin, M.J. (2002). Classic muscle car advertising: The art of selling horsepower. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.

Heitmann, J. (2009). The automobile and American life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Hyde, C. (1989). The automobile in American life: An exhibit at Henry Ford museum. Technology and Culture. 30.1,105-111.

Mueller, M. (2004). Motor city muscle. St. Paul: MBI Publishing.

Sheller, M. and J. Urry. (2000). The city and the car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 24.4, 737-757.

Wehner, K. and M. Sear. (2010) Engaging in the material world: Object knowledge and ‘Australian Journeys’. Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. S. Dudley, ed. London: Routledge.

Zavitz, R.P. (1989). Post war scripts: When the GTO got going. Old Cars Weekly. 31 Aug 1989, 19-20.

Mustangs and the Woman Driver

1966 Mustang print advertisement

When muscle cars congregate at classic car shows across southeastern Michigan, there are always a large number of Ford Mustangs in attendance. One of the most successful vehicles to ever drive off Ford’s assembly line, the Mustang remains popular after over 50 years. With the introduction of the Mustang in 1964, Ford created what would evolve into a new class of muscle car – the pony car – the only muscle car class that still exists today. However, the Mustang was not originally conceived to fulfill demand for a high performance vehicle.  Rather, as a quick, sporty, and fun-to-drive automobile with an affordable price tag, the Mustang was designed to appeal to both the young and young-at-heart. The wide selection of options available provided consumers with the opportunity to create a Mustang to meet automotive needs and personal desires. Lee Iacocca, who spearheaded the development of the Mustang, recognized the potential of the massive college educated baby boomer market. With the introduction of the Mustang, Iacocca sought to change Ford’s “stogy” image among boomers entering the workforce (Clor 10). Unlike the development of the Pontiac GTO, which was geared specifically to young men with a need for speed, the Mustang attempted to reach a much more diverse audience.

However, the Ford Mustang’s lack of power, especially in those production models with smaller V-6 engines, contributed to its growing reputation as the “secretary’s car.” Writes Clor, “the hard core muscle-car performance crowd wasn’t embracing the Mustang as a true muscle car in the same way they recognized the GTOs, the big block Galaxies, Impalas, and a handful of torque-laden Mopars” (30). While he recognized the demand for a more powerful Mustang, Iacocca could only do so much with the existing powertrain. Therefore, he relied on a partnership with Carroll Shelby to create a high-end, low volume “halo” performance car that would not only create “buzz” and give a boost to the Mustang’s street cred, but would also drive sales of the “more practical, affordable, and plentiful regular Mustangs” (Clor 30). It wasn’t until 1967 – inspired by the introduction of pony car competitors such as the Chevy Camaro, Plymouth Barracuda, and Pontiac Firebird – that Ford designers and engineers “went back to the drawing board to give ‘America’s Favorite Fun Car’ more style and power” (Clor 37).

1966 Mustang print advertisement

While the original Mustang was available with either a V-6 or V-8, the demand for the more powerful (relatively speaking) V-8 was high, no doubt inspired by the introduction of the GTO and other intermediate sized high performance muscle cars the same year. In the first year of the Mustang’s production, nearly three quarters of buyers demanded the V-8, which led to a surplus of the pedestrian six-cylinder model. Young women were targeted as buyers for the less powerful car; Ford cited the superior fuel economy of the smaller engine to entice the female buyer. An ad with the headline “Six and the Single Girl,” which played off the title of Helen Gurley Brown’s best seller, promoted the “practicality and sporty style of the six-cylinder Mustang” (Clor 22). Other advertisements in a similar vein soon followed. Through the application of gender to engine size, Ford was able to successfully define and market two different cars under one brand. While young women were encouraged to embrace the “secretary’s car,” the GT version, boasting 271 horsepower, became the popular choice of young male performance enthusiasts.

The Mustang was not conceived as a muscle car, but evolved into one as a response to the growing young male market hooked on power and performance. While the majority of classic Mustang owners today are male, the appeal of the Mustang to female drivers remains strong. The classic car hobby is built on nostalgia; those who participate in it often do so as a way to connect to a younger self. As the owner of a 1965 Mustang convertible told me, “this car lets me return to being a teen and crazy and I can relive all those things in my mind while I drive” (Interview). Unlike its automotive predecessors, the Mustang was designed to embody youth and freedom rather than functionality and practicality. Its buyers were attracted to its clean design, sportiness, affordability, and its promise as “fun-to-drive.” And unlike the GTO, Dodge Charger, and other “true” muscle cars, the Mustang – albeit the less powerful “secretary model” – was advertised to women. Thus many classic Mustang owners today remember the original not only in the context of muscle cars, but as an automobile driven and admired by women.

Classic Mustang owners often recall how female friends and family members reacted to the car’s introduction. “The year the Mustang was born,” writes the owner of a ‘65, “a good female friend of the family would point them out and say that is a classy car!” (Interview).  Women also remember Mustangs owned by mothers and big sisters. “When I was 13,” exclaims a classic Mustang owner, “my girlfriend’s mom owned a hard top automatic Mustang. I could not reach the pedals because my legs were too short so my girlfriend used her legs and I steered the car.” (Interview). Today’s classic Mustang owners often had teenage boyfriends with the more powerful models. Some had the opportunity to drive them, while others simply longed for one of their own. As one woman remarked about her recent purchase of a classic ‘65, “I wanted something that kind of brought back memories to me about that Mustang back in my younger days” (Interview).  Perhaps because driving a Mustang – rather than a GTO or ‘Cuda – was in the realm of possibility to those young women coming of age during the 1960s, purchasing the car 50 years later provides an opportunity for a once young woman’s dreams to come true. Driving her classic 1965 Mustang today, a graying 59-year-old woman remarked, “if we didn’t have to look in the mirror, inside the body feels [like] that young person again” (Interview).

1984 Mustang print advertisement

The Mustang is the only pony car with uninterrupted production. After the 1973 oil embargo brought the muscle car era to a close, the pony car returned to its original origins as a fun, stylish, and sporty car with more style than power. During the 1990s, the introduction of electronic fuel injection, turbochargers, and overdrive transmission resulted in more powerful ponies. However, the pony car didn’t return to its former incarnation as a powerful muscle machine until 2005, when Ford introduced a redesigned “retrofuturistic” Mustang on the SN-95 platform that married the iconic style elements of the late 1960s fastback models with modern automotive technology. As the first of what would become a growing stable of “retro” pony cars, the Mustang was resounding success. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the woman driver. While classic Mustangs are owned primarily by women of the boomer generation, the “retro” Mustang has been embraced by new generations of female car enthusiasts. In fact, the Mustang is not only the most popular retro muscle car among female buyers, but nearly a third of new Mustang owners are women (hedgescompany.com). Whether single and seeking a bit of automotive independence, or as married empty nesters looking for a new lease on life, many women have found that getting behind the wheel of a modern day Mustang has the ability to change the way they view themselves and the world around them.

2016 Mustang named Women’s World Car of the Year

Throughout multiple generations, the Mustang has been a popular choice for the woman driver. As noted by auto site thenewswheel.com, “There’s an old stigma that muscle cars and performance vehicles are basically the automotive equivalent of G.I. Joes—i.e. toys made pretty much exclusively for boys […  ] Fifty years of women owning Mustangs makes this demonstrably untrue (particularly when one considers that the first person to buy a Mustang was a woman), and the fact that women are buying a ton of Mustangs certainly helps dispel that silly misconception.”

Clor, J. (2007). The Mustang dynasty. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC.

Could Women Have Saved the US Automobile Industry?

A Honda ad from 1974 directed toward the woman driver.

This is an editorial written while a graduate student for a journalism class in 2009, a low point in the American auto industry. It has been somewhat updated with subsequent research, but most of the original points remain and have continued relevance today.

American auto manufacturers have never quite figured out the female car buyer. Certainly domestic car companies recognize women’s value as consumers. After all, women purchase over half the automobiles sold in the USA each year. Yet while Ford, GM and Chrysler rely on women to buy cars, they have never developed an appreciation for women as drivers. Year after year, American auto companies attempt to appeal to women’s practicality, frugality and rationality by offering them vehicles that are safe, efficient, functional and just plain boring. The female driver, in the minds of the US car manufacturer, only desires a car that will aid in the performance of her domestic role as caretaker and consumer. The notion that a woman might desire a vehicle that is small, nimble, sporty and reliable, as well as fun to drive, is rarely a consideration. Thus the woman who desires more from a car than functionality, who enjoys the driving experience as much as the car that provides it, must often turn to imports to meet her automotive needs. While it may be an overstatement to suggest that the bleak state of the US auto industry is due to its historical dismissal of women’s driving interests, there remains enough evidence to suggest that the failure of domestic auto manufacturers to build a car that appeals to women is a contributor to the industry downslide.

The relationship between US automakers and women has been problematic from the start. There can be little argument that the American automotive industry is a very masculine culture. In the minds of many auto execs, therefore, attention to women’s automobile preferences not only leads to the devaluation of a particular car, but also of the industry that produces it. In order to keep women as customers without alienating male drivers, US auto companies have traditionally called upon a strategy that affirms women’s culturally approved gender role without disrupting the masculinity associated with the automobile. Cars deemed appropriate for women are reconfigured as a form of domestic technology, tools that enable women to fulfill the prescribed role of wife, mother, consumer and caretaker. This approach provides automakers with the opportunity to market functional and practical vehicles – the wagon, hatchback and ubiquitous minivan – as “women’s” cars, while positioning big trucks, sports cars and performance automobiles as suitable for men. And perhaps more important, it allows the community of conservative male auto executives to take an active part in reinforcing traditional gender roles in which all women are moms, and where men have all the fun.

It didn’t take long for women to stop buying into the monolithic US auto industry philosophy. In the post World War II years, home alone in the suburbs, women drove the big cars men purchased for them, often bolstered by cushions in order to reach the accelerator. When women entered the workforce en force during the 1960s, however, they began to look for cars that would not only accommodate their smaller stature, but reflect their newly liberated status as well. Dissatisfied with domestic automobile choices – big and expensive, or cheap and spartan – female drivers began to notice that the economical, well-appointed and well-designed Asian and European cars “fit” them better. As they switched to imports, women found the vehicles to be more reliable, durable, and have greater resale value than the domestic cars they left behind. They were also a lot more fun to drive.

When interviewing elderly women about their early automotive experiences a few years ago, I found the switch to Japanese automobiles to be a common theme. While women drove domestic cars in their early driving years, many transferred their allegiance to imports once they no longer felt pressure to buy American. Economy, reliability, comfort for their smaller-than-masculine bodies, and resale values were some of the reasons cited for downsizing to Japanese models. 

US car companies were certainly capable of producing similar automobiles. Ford-Europe and GM-Europe had been building small, stylish, fuel-efficient vehicles for the European and Asian markets for years. Yet US automakers refrained from producing such cars for domestic use. Rather, they continued to build the big, powerful and gas guzzling automobiles, convincing themselves that they could make more money building big cars than small ones. As the self-proclaimed “big boys” of the car world, US automakers remained convinced of their invulnerability to foreign competitors. And as they repeated the mantra “bigger is better,” domestic carmakers failed to consider that the diminutive half of the US population not only might prefer a smaller car, but now had the resources to purchase one as well.

Arrogance, and the fear of becoming “feminized” prevented automakers from considering the needs of the increasingly diverse car-buying public. Cloistered with individuals very much like themselves, Detroit auto men became incapable of viewing the car industry through eyes other than their own. While American automakers continued to build one standardized product in the largest possible volume, import manufacturers considered the divergent needs, driving styles and economic means of its potential buyers, and produced cars accordingly. European and Asian car manufacturers worked hard to appeal to a wide variety of drivers, which of course, included women. US auto manufacturers, on the other hand, told consumers what to buy based on their own monolithic vision. Detroit automakers continued to profess they knew what women wanted without bothering to ask them.

In the past fifty years, the American car buying public has slowly but emphatically switched its allegiance to imports. New studies reveal that members of Generation Y, those between 24-39 years of age, prefer Japanese and European brands to their American counterparts. Young women fresh out of school often start with an inexpensive import, get a minivan during their child-rearing years, then switch to a small, sporty and “fun to drive” vehicle when the kids leave home. While the US automakers may have these women for a few years, they invariably lose them coming and going. In fact, in a recent article published by CBS news, 9 of the 10 top automotive brands for women are imports. 

Could women have saved the US auto industry? On their own, certainly not. Robust sales of full size pickups – overwhelmingly purchased by men – have historically kept US auto manufacturers afloat. But female drivers represent an enormous segment of the automobile market uniformly patronized if not ignored by domestic car manufacturers for a very long time. The monolithic vision of the US auto industry, coupled with a cultural outlook based on arrogance and sexism, allowed foreign competition to lure female drivers away when US automakers simply weren’t looking. 

Car Advertising and the Woman Driver

1983 Buick Regal Ad.

In an article posted a couple of years ago, Jalopnik blogger Elizabeth Blackstock discussed the lack of automotive advertising directed toward women. Although, as she noted, women compose over half of licensed drivers, 62 percent of all new cars sold in the US are purchased by women, and 85 percent of car buying decisions are made by women, advertising most often portrays the universal driver as male. When women are featured in car commercials, it is most often in the most stereotypical of roles. As Blackstock writes, “In the off chance that women are driving—sheʼs with her female friends staring at Ryan Reynolds, sheʼs picking the kids up from soccer practice, sheʼs by herself, or sheʼs marketing (dear God) car insurance. Youʼll be bombarded with those before you get one ad telling you to defy labels and pick the vehicle that truly suits you.”

The root of automakers’ failure to advertise to women is, plainly stated, masculinity. Car manufacturers are uneasy when automobiles become associated with femininity and the female car buyer. As I argue in my article about the chick car, women’s attraction to a particular automobile causes members of the male population to question the car’s technology. As the article states, “The assumption that women lack technical expertise creates a reverse kind of logic in the minds of many male consumers. They believe that since women cannot appreciate the finer technical characteristics of a car, such as power, handling, and performance, the cars women purchase must be technologically deficient. Women’s approval, in the minds of many men, leads to the devaluation of the car” (525). Consequently, the majority of cars that are, in fact, marketed to women are those of little interest to men.

This practice of selective car marketing is not a recent phenomenon. Over 35 years ago I worked in the creative department at a Detroit automotive advertising agency. My [female] partner and I were assigned the Buick Regal, which had been designated as the “woman’s car.” This classification was not due to its popularity among female consumers nor to any “female friendly” automotive features. Rather, it was because sales figures for the outdated Regal were dropping. Reconfiguring the Regal as the Buick offering especially appropriate for the woman driver was a dubious strategy to reinvigorate the brand. Traditionally, automakers have attempted to market unpopular cars to women when “authentic” automobile aficionados –  male drivers – would no longer buy them. 

Since the Regal held no apparent benefit for the woman driver, we decided to invent one. My partner and I put a clever spin on a tired female stereotype which suggests that attractiveness and brain power are mutually exclusive. Both the print ad and the television commercial feature a blonde, professional-looking woman posed next to a 1983 Regal. The print headline – “Good Looking Outside, Good Thinking Inside” – relies upon an often used and effective advertising strategy which calls upon a common positive attribute to link the product and the person who uses it. In this case, the line could be talking about the automobile or the woman standing beside it. The ad copy goes on to expand the misconception often applied to women – “that someone, or something, that’s got a lot in the good looks department, may be lacking in the good thinking department” – to include the smart and stylish Buick Regal. It mentions the beauty of the vehicle’s exterior, while also remarking on the vehicle’s powerful engine and intellectually designed interior, intimating that the woman who drives it is attractive, powerful, and intelligent as well. 

While I don’t recall the exact words of the television commercial, a similar message was delivered by the same woman featured in the print ad. The technique called upon was what is known in the ad community as a “talking head” – the actor delivers the entire commercial speaking directly to the camera. The 30-second commercial ends on a somewhat prophetic note, as the spokeswoman turns toward the imagined audience and remarks,  “Whoever’s in charge at Buick; she must really be something”. Who knew?

Although this campaign for the Buick Regal was created primarily to address an automotive sales issue, it did, at least, noted an automotive blogger, construct the female consumer as “classy, smart, and hard-working” (Kubin-Nicholson). The same could not be said for automotive advertising today. Women are stuck in minivans while the auto industry, ever fearful of offending the male customer, just keeps marketing cool cars to the guys.

As Blackstock notes, advertisements have an effect on the people who see them. As she writes, “If we’re bombarded with car commercials catered specifically to men […] we aren’t going to see women as interested in cars, so women won’t be as interested in cars, and, maybe more importantly, women aren’t even going to feel capable of understanding what makes a good car.” It’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself. Blackstock asks, “when do the girls get to take the wheel?” I enthusiastically echo her sentiments.

Blackstock, Elizabeth. “If Half the U.S. Drivers are Women, Why Aren’t Auto Manufacturers Doing a Better Job of Marketing to Them?” jalopnik.com  8Aug 2018.

Kubin-Nicholson (blog) “The Evolution of Car Ads.” Kubin.com 13 Apr 2013.

Lezotte, Chris. “The Evolution of the Chick Car: Or Which Came First the Chick or the Car?” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.3 (2012): 516-531.

Lezotte, Chris. “McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising.” Manuscript in Press, Automotive History Review.

‘Women Auto Know’ Revisited

Women’s Car Advice website A Girls Guide to Cars

A number of years ago I wrote a journal article – Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice – that focused on four popular online car advice sites for women. While, at the time, an online Google search revealed nearly one million car advice websites, only a very few were geared specifically for the woman driver. The women’s car advice websites I came upon did not function as forums or social networks but rather, were constructed as reputable and important resources for automotive knowledge and the acquisition of negotiation strategies and skills. In addition to providing advice and information, a few of the sites endeavored to revolutionize the male dominated automobile market to become more “woman-friendly” through an integrated auto dealership rating system. As I argued in the article, these online locations were significant not only for the hard facts they made accessible to female visitors, but for what women gained – as drivers, consumers, and political actors – by accessing them. 

Although we are now accustomed to finding just about anything on the Internet, at the time the original research was conducted – 2010 and again in 2013 – the idea that women could find online automotive information that addressed their specific needs, concerns, and experiences was rather new. The four online locations cited – AskPatty.com, Women-drivers.com, Road and Travel Magazine, and VroomGirls – could be considered revolutionary for the time. Nearly ten years since I first visited these online locations, these four car advice websites continue to provide useful information and negotiation skills to the woman behind the wheel.

While browsing women-and-car articles online a few days ago I came across a recent addition to the women’s car advice scene. As noted on the site, A Girls Guide to Cars was introduced in 2018 in an effort to provide women with a fun, fresh, and informative automotive source. Described as “Cars on Your Terms, and a Car Site for Women,” A Girls Guide to Cars provides many of the services of the older sites. It also shares a philosophy of not only providing information, tactics, and strategies to make a smart and comfortable automotive decisions, but to empower the auto industry to develop a better relationship with female customers. 

While it builds on the strengths of its online predecessors, A Girls Guide to Cars reflects a younger, more technologically savvy, and perhaps more economically stable population of women drivers. The regularly posted articles – which fall into categories of luxury, style, technology, travel, car buying, and news and opinion – are written by a diverse group of female staff and outside contributors from all over the US and Canada with various interests, occupations, and hobbies. They are authors, bloggers, podcasts, content creators, and journalists, whose common interest is a love and fascination for the automobile. As the contributors note, “we are not car enthusiasts, but regular women who spend time in cars, make car buying decisions, and think about how women are changing the automotive world.” There is a plethora of automotive information available on the site, as well as a good dose of automotive/human interest stories. All content is well-researched, well-written, and enjoyable to read, written from a definite female perspective.

Like the car advice sites that preceded it, A Girls Guide to Cars recognizes that when it comes to cars, women often have different needs, uses, and perspectives than the male driver. If you are a woman who is into cars, desires car buying information, or is just looking for a good automotive read, I suggest you take a look at A Girls Guide to Cars. 

Reiss, Scotty. A Girls Guide to Cars: Empowering Smarter, Happier Car Owners. agirlsguidetocars.net (2018).

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

Have you ever visited an online car advice site? How was that experience? Do you have any that you would recommend? Your comments are welcome.

Designing Women

Harvey Earle and the General Motors ‘Damsels in Design’

In the past month, two articles of particular interest appeared on my automotive feed. Both were focused on a subject matter rarely covered in the automotive press – the female automotive designer. The first in Autoblog – while featuring multiple photos of Jay Leno – announced the 2020 Automotive Hall of Fame inductees. Included in this year’s class is Helene Rother Ackernecht, believed to be the first woman to work in automotive design. The second article – which appeared in Automobile magazine – noted the unexpected discovery of what is considered the first car designed by a woman, on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Perhaps not coincidently, these stories follow the 2018 publication of Constance Smith’s Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry. Although women have been active in the auto industry – albeit in small numbers – for over 75 years, the stories of women who influenced car design have just begun to surface.

Shortly after the release of Smith’s book, I attended a small panel in downtown Detroit that featured Smith, Liz Wetzel – Director of Design at GM Global Design, and Mary Ellen Green, a designer for General Motors during the early 1950s. It was a fascinating, enlightening, and sobering discussion. While Greer spent most of the time describing her duties and projects while working for the notorious Harvey Earle, she also subtlety referred to the daily harassment she faced while working as a female in a male dominated profession. Like most of the women in automotive design, Green was relegated to interior design, sculpting, color and trim, or graphic design.

Helene Rother – featured in Smith’s book as well as the Autoblog article – worked at GM during the same period as Green. A former fashion designer, she fled wartime Europe to take advantage of the “shockingly radical” GM female design team (6). She left General Motors after a few years to work with the famed Italian designer Battista Pinin Farina on groundbreaking post-war vehicles for Nash.

As Wetzel notes in the introduction to Smith’s book, “designing an automobile is extremely challenging and exciting – it is perhaps the most complex consumer product.” She adds, “not many women know about automotive design as a career.” (7). Perhaps it is because, as Wetzel remarks, women like Green left the industry as suddenly as they entered it, for reasons alluded to but not mentioned. There appears to have been a considerable gap before the automotive industry once again welcomed the female designer.

During the early 1980s, Marilena Corvasce was hired by Ghia, the European design studio purchased by Ford in 1970. She was assigned with the task of developing a concept car in the style of the Ford Probe. While Corvasce designed the automobile from start to finish, her name was left out of all the press releases. It was only after the car was selected for display at the Peterson Automotive Museum that she was recognized as the 1982 Ghia Brezza chief designer.

Since Corvasce, only a few women have made their marks as automotive designers. Mimi Vandermolen is responsible for the Ford Probe, Diane Allen for the Nissan 350Z, the first BMW Z4 is credited to Juliane Blasi, and Michelle Christensen was the designer of the second-generation Acura NSX. As Wetzel explains, although the careers of these designers suggest that women have made considerable advances, the number of women in the design studio is still relatively low compared to men.

Perhaps the induction of Rother into the Automotive Hall of Fame spurred this sudden journalistic interest in female automotive designers. Or perhaps it was the publication of Smith’s impressive book that brought newfound attention to women in the automotive industry. Whatever the reason, scholars, journalists, and students of automotive history have embarked upon the important yet painstaking task of recovering the work, lives, and histories of female designers. As Wetzel hopes, perhaps this recognition will not only bring attention to those who have heretofore been lost in the automotive archives, but will inspire young women to consider a future in automotive. As Wetzel writes, “if you are a creative woman who loves solving problems and want to be on the journey to create the greatest advances in mobility of our time, I encourage you to consider a career in the auto industry” (7).

Gustafson, Sven. “Pioneering Designer Helene Rother Ackernect joins Jay Leno among Automotive Hall of Fame Inductees.” Autoblog.com 6 Feb 2020.

Rehbock, Billy. “The 1982 Ghia Brezza is the First Car Designed by a Woman.” Automobilemag.com 27 Feb 2020.

Smith, Constance. Damsels of Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry 1939-1959. Atglen PA: Schiffer, 2018. 

Have you ever considered working in the auto industry? What qualities do you think are important for success in a male-dominated industry? Any and all comments are welcome.