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.