Visit to the Gilmore Car Museum

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan as part of my newest project that focuses on women’s representation in automotive museums and collections. I last visited the Gilmore a number of years ago during a muscle car event as part of research conducted for my book. As that car show was held outdoors, I never had an opportunity to explore the many buildings on the expansive Gilmore complex.

‘Quiet, Clean, and Easy to Operate’

The Gilmore Museum was originally established in the early 1960s as a place to store and display the growing automobile collection of Donald Gilmore. Although the museum has grown significantly since that time, inhabiting a number of buildings on the 90 acre parcel, it is still very much a collector’s museum, centered on the particular automotive interests of its founder. While the collection includes popular cars from the 1950s and 60s, the overwhelming majority of vehicles on display hail from the early auto age. Not only are there rooms in the main building devoted to steam powered automobiles, the Franklin Automobile Company of the early 20th century, cars of the 1920s and 30s, as well as early Lincoln models, but there are separate on site buildings featuring the Ford Model A and Cadillac LaSalle. These automobiles represent eras in which automobile production and car culture participation was very much a white male enterprise. This narrow focus on a particular automotive experience is no doubt responsible for the invisibility of women as owners, drivers, or influencers within the automotive collections and exhibitions. The introductory video – which visitors view before entering the museum – states that the museum’s mission is ‘to tell the story of America through the automobile.’ However, the stories that are told – beginning with those of the youngest car enthusiast – are filtered through a determinedly male perspective.

1886 Benz

Of the over 400 cars currently on display, only a handful have any female reference. One of those is the 1886 Benz. Bertha Benz, the wife and business partner of automobile inventor Karl Benz, is recognized as the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance. In doing so, notes the display placard, she brought the Benz Patent-Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales. Mrs. Benz is often rightly regarded as an ‘exceptional’ woman in automotive history, as both an influencer and outspoken proponent of women’s automobility.

The only other car directly linked to a woman is a 1971 Dodge Challenger Convertible donated to the museum by its original owner. Lena Plymale purchased the car at the age of 19, used it as a daily driver until 1978, and kept it in storage until its 2008 restoration.

Lena Plymale’s 1971 Dodge Challenger Convertible

The Benz and the Challenger are the only vehicles in the massive collection in which the ‘story’ is told by a woman. There are two others that refer to women in a general sense. The 1931 Buick Victoria Coupe is displayed alongside advertising that reflects the manufacturer’s efforts to promote this particular vehicle to women drivers; as the ad reads, the synchro-mesh transmission ‘makes every woman an expert driver, enabling her to shift gears smoothly and easily at any speed.’ The display for the 1915 Rauch & Lang Electric noted that both Mrs. Henry [Clara] Ford and Mrs. Thomas [Mina] Edison drove electric vehicles. Whether this was the women’s choice or whether they were ‘encouraged’ to drive electrics by their husbands is impossible to say.

The majority of reference to women in the museum is related not to cars, but to fashion. There are photographs, advertisements, display cases, female mannequins, and signage which link women to styles of the respective eras scattered among the various automotive displays.

What I found most disconcerting in my tour of the museum was the Automotive Activity Center geared toward the young car enthusiast, an enclosed area with auto-related play activities and information. Two of the walls were devoted to a display of vehicle designs produced by winners of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild competition held from the 1930s to 1960s. This national auto design contest, sponsored by the Fisher Body Division of General Motors, ‘helped identify and nurture a whole generation of designers and design executives’ (Jacobus 2). As the poster on display indicates, the competition was for boys only. This production of male technological knowledge, Ruth Oldenziel writes, ‘involved an extraordinary mobilization of organizational, economic, and cultural resources’ (139) in which ‘girls found themselves excluded as a matter of course’ (141).  A large collection of early automotive toys fills two display cases on an adjoining wall. Of the hundreds of toy cars on display, only two feature a female behind the wheel. A young girl entering this activity center would not see herself; rather, she would walk away with the impression that the automotive world is a male one, reinforcing the gendered assumptions that have permeated car culture for over 100 years.

For the future [male] Cadillac owner

Certainly much of women’s invisibility in the collection can be attributed to the original intentions and interests of its founder. The Gilmore is, in fact, a reflection of an older [white] male sensibility, an expression of an automotive education in which women were absent or excluded. However, what is distressing is that in the 60 years of its existence, very little effort has been made to integrate women into the history of the automobile. While the museum claims to tell the story of America through the automobile, it is a story in which women are most often absent in other than the most stereotypical of ways.

Jacobus, John. The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild: An Illustrated History. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2005.

Oldenziel, Ruth. “Boys and Their Toys: The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, 1930-1968, and the Making of a Male Technical Domain.” In Boys and Their Toys: Masculinity, Class and Technology in America, edited by Roger Horowitz, New York: Routledge, 2001: 139-168.

A Visit to Hershey & a New Project

While there have been many histories devoted to the automobile since it first appeared on the American scene in the early twentieth century, very few pay particular attention to women’s automotive involvement or interest. This absence is not only evident in the thousands of publications devoted to automotive history, but in locations such as the automotive museum as well. My newest project examines the representation of the woman driver in a dozen or so automotive museums. It will consider how each museum positions the role of women in automotive history, the methods by which women’s automotive involvement and impact is displayed, how women’s position in automotive history is regarded in comparison to that of men, and perhaps offer suggestions as to how museums might better address the role and influence of women in automotive history and American culture. While most of the museums I plan to visit are located in southeastern Michigan and neighboring states, I took the opportunity to stop by the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania while in town for meetings and events of the Society of Automotive Historians

The AACA Museum was originally conceived as an ‘automobile collector’s’ museum. While the museum has expanded to include both permanent and special exhibits, its foundation as a holding place for collected automobiles is evident. Many of the automobiles are accompanied by a placard which provides information about the car as well as the donor. Included are the specifications of the automobile as well as personal stories about how the car was obtained and used. As I walked through the building, I noted that there were a few cars donated or previously owned by women. These included a Berkshire green and white 1961 Nash, with a “Patti’s Met” front license plate, a 1940 Mercury handed down from father to daughter, and a 1935 White built especially for a prominent female Boston ophthalmologist. 

While female mannequins were featured in some of the displays, and photographs that pictured women in or around historical automobiles were placed in a few of the exhibits, how women used the automobile or women’s influence in automotive history was not addressed. Some of this has to do with the nature of the museum – the exhibits were often constructed around the donated automobiles in the collection. However, someone visiting the museum could easily get the impression that women were not, in fact, a part of automotive history at all. The absence of women reinforces the notion that automobiles and automotive history are a strictly masculine enterprise.

There was one exhibit – tucked away in a corner – that included a small section devoted to the role of “Women on Road Maps.” This was part of a special exhibit earlier in the year that was transferred to the permanent road map display. As the press from the April event reads, the display highlights “how women were portrayed on map covers through the 20th century. As motoring became more accessible and popular with women and families, women were portrayed sometimes as navigators, sometimes drivers, sometimes in glamorous style, and sometimes as moms. We salute the role of women in motoring and the artistic renderings gracing map covers and travel promotion.” While the information on the map collection was interesting and informative, with full-color samples of the representative map covers, the signage was placed so high above the main display it was nearly impossible to read. It is unfortunate that the only display to address women’s automotive history in any fashion was hidden in a corner and inaccessible to all but the most determined museum visitor.

This first stop on the museum project – the AACA Museum in Hershey – was not only a nice break from the myriad of SAH activities, but further convinced me that women’s representation in automotive museums is a topic very much worth investigating. 

Evening at the Automotive Hall of Fame

Automotive Hall of Fame – Dearborn Michigan

On Tuesday, December 1, 2021 I was honored to present “McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising” to an avid group of auto historians and enthusiasts at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan. Organized by the Leland Chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians, and led by President Brian Baker, it was an amazing opportunity to share my experiences working as a woman in automotive advertising nearly 40 years ago.

There was a great crowd on hand who were gracious, enthusiastic, and attentive despite my bumbling presentation style, as well as a few surprise guests in the audience. Brian hosted a question and answer session after the presentation and I enjoyed interacting with the audience and giving a few shout outs to folks – I mean you Top Hat John – who have helped my woman-and-car journey along the way. It was great fun to share stories and memories with knowledgeable Detroit area folks.

Detroit auto photographer Jim Secreto with the author

It was an evening I will not soon forget, and I thank Automotive Hall of Fame President Sarah Cook for the opportunity and Brian for encouraging me to share my story. And I can’t forget the absent-but-present-in-spirit National SAH President Bob Barr, who was the individual responsible for convincing me to write the article.

Trip to the ACD Museum

The author [first row, second from right] with other SAH members and the ACD staff at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn IN

When I became a member of the board of the Society of Automotive Historians, I was assigned the task of chairing what was to be called – in the absence of a better term – the ‘Brick and Mortars’ committee. Although the SAH has been in existence for over 50 years, it never had a permanent home for its extensive book collection. In fact ovver the years, it became unclear just where those accumulated materials might be. Thanks to the perseverance and detective work of a few SAH members, it was discovered that for a number of years the annual SAH book winners [Cugnot Award] had found their way to the ACD [Auburn Cord Duesenberg] Museum in Auburn Indiana. After a Zoom meeting this past spring with members of the ACD staff, the SAH reached a tentative agreement to form a partnership with the ACD. On August 4, a few of us made the trip to Auburn – joined by a number of virtual attendees – to work out the arrangements. As Auburn is just two hours away, I was happy to make the trip, and was treated to a tour of the facilities by our very gracious and enthusiastic hosts. I look forward to the organization’s new relationship with ACD. And if you have never had the opportunity to visit the ACD museum, it is a trip every auto enthusiast should consider making.