‘Rucas y Curruchas’ at the California Car Museum

During a recent trip to the west coast we made a stop at the California Car Museum in Sacramento. As one of the volunteers told us, the museum began as one individual’s collection of every early model produced by Ford. While the museum has reinvented itself over time to incorporate other makes and models in its collection, many of the original Fords remain. The collection – while inclusive – is very much a museum of place. Among the historical artifacts exists a strong undercurrent of California Car Culture.

1984 Pontiac Grand Prix

This was very evident in the special exhibit taking place during our visit. ‘Rucas y Carruchas’ is an extraordinary collection of female-owned lowriders, accompanied by photographs, videos, artwork, and numerous stories of women’s involvement in lowrider culture. The individual vehicles are spectacular, ranging from first ‘pedal’ cars and lowrider bicycles to massive 50s era Chevys and 80s Pontiacs that have been restored and reconfigured to reflect the personality and character of the owners. Each car is accompanied by a story, relating how the car was acquired, the significance of the design and décor, and the modifications added to make each vehicle one of a kind. The narratives speak of family, community, friendship, heritage, and the meaning of lowriders to the women who own them.

1954 Chevy Bel-Air

Much emphasis is made on the importance of passing down this culture to daughters, who often start off with bicycles and move on to cars after obtaining their driver’s licenses. There are videos, posters, magazine articles, clothing, and a variety of artifacts that demonstrate the vast reach of lowrider culture in the community and the importance of the vehicles to individual and cultural identity. I was extremely fortunate to have caught this exhibit while in town as it will be replaced by another at the end of the month.

The general collection of the museum includes many of the ‘usual’ female automotive references; i.e. Bertha Benz, Amelia Earhart, the selling of electric cars to women, and the contributions of automakers’ wives to company success. However, ‘Rucas y Carruchas’ brings attention to how museums with limited artifacts are often able to create exhibits – whether from their own collections or through loans from other sources – to commemorate women’s achievements or to celebrate a certain moment in women’s history, automotive or otherwise. Such special exhibits are often put together during March to commemorate Women’s History Month. The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage [2020] was also an occasion for these notable displays, although the pandemic did postpone or reduce many of them. However, as special exhibits, the items often disappear once the ‘event’ passes; consequently, women’s contributions to automotive history remain unacknowledged and unknown.

This exhibit is also unusual in that it features the automotive involvement not only of women, but also that of women of color. Although many museums have made efforts to include notable women in automotive history in their collections, very few have endeavored to feature this important yet underrepresented group. The only other instance I encountered was at the Automotive Hall of Fame –  the spectacular “Achievement” exhibit included the contributions of African American women. As these exhibits demonstrate, although often rendered invisible, women of color have been important contributors to automotive history and culture in a number of significant ways.

1967 Chevy Impala

I was extremely lucky to come across ‘Rucas y Carruchas’ during my trip to California. Not only was it an educational and enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, but it brought attention to the importance of special exhibits as unique demonstrations of women’s unrecognized participation in automotive culture.

Trip to Chicago and the PCA

It’s been a while since I have attended the Popular Culture Association Conference. With the conference going online for two years due to COVID, and cancelations in subsequent years because of air travel complications, I have missed out on the opportunity to present at this annual gathering of nerdy pop culture students and scholars. This gathering in Chicago was almost a no-go as well. Because the session day and time was changed after hotel and plane reservations were made, the majority of presenters, including the Vehicle Culture area chairs, bailed, leaving just two of us to present to each other. Fortunately I was able to move my presentation to a session centered on Libraries, Museums, and Archives. The change, as it happens, turned out to be fortuitous. The many in attendance were attentive, asked lots of good questions, and most importantly, provided helpful feedback. I ran into one of my former BGSU cohorts, had a nice conversation with the BG School of Cultural and Critical Studies chair, and was approached by a respected publisher who expressed interest in developing my project into a book.

Although it was a quick trip – I drove into Chicago Friday afternoon, presented Saturday morning, then headed back home in time for dinner, it was well worth the trip [and the sleepless before-presentation night]. I don’t know how many more PCA conferences I have in me, but I enjoyed the opportunity to be surrounded by young and enthusiastic scholars who are making important and interesting contributions to the field of popular culture studies. 

Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 3

Unidentified women in Ford automobile – Ford Piquette Street Plant Museum

I am a native Detroiter, and have spent the majority of my life in car-centric southeastern Michigan. I grew up during the Golden Age of car culture, and spent part of my past life writing car commercials. Once I entered graduate school as a senior citizen, my motor city background and aging second wave feminism led me to the relationship between women and cars as a research focus. My subsequent projects have considered how women negotiate membership in historically masculine automotive spaces as well as how women’s connection to cars is represented in popular culture.

My current project centers on the representation of women in automotive museums. As a historically masculine space, I was interested in whether any effort had been made by automotive museums to integrate women into automotive history. As museums in general have slowly and often stubbornly moved toward a social history model, I was curious as to whether institutions devoted to the automobile had bought into the current museum trend or if they continued to reflect primarily male preferences and influence. As Jennifer Clark writes, ‘motor museums are conservative in style, with an influential – and overwhelmingly male dominated – collecting and visitor base’ (280). The answer to the either or question is, of course, is ‘yes’. Some museums have embraced the new direction while others have dragged their feet. Yet looking closely one can observe female influence and interaction with the automobile in most museum settings. As noted in previous blogs, female representation within the museum falls into categories which reflect women’s various roles in automobile culture. What follows are the three remaining themes I have developed in my observations of 12 automotive museums.

Consumers

‘Clean, Quiet, and Easy to Operate’ – Gilmore Museum

Women as consumers and drivers are presented in museums through photographs, advertisements, and the cars on display. Much attention is given to the connection between women and electric cars; electrics were advertised as appropriate for women for their cleanliness, quiet, and ease of operation. More than one museum mentions that Henry Ford purchased an electric for his wife Clara – whether Mrs Ford actually preferred the electric or it was acquired to keep her close to home is hard to say. However, the Piquette also features photographs of women driving the gasoline-powered Model T, which suggests women may, in fact, preferred the power and range such a vehicle provided. One of these photographs includes a caption that notes that, although women were routinely ignored by the auto industry, Ford recognized them as an important market for reliable, inexpensive cars. 

Nash advertisement – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

Women’s role as consumer is most evident through the promotional materials displayed at almost every museum I visited. Exhibits at the Wisconsin museum, for example, include post war advertising which features women as Nash consumers, test driving automobiles, and speaking with car dealers. At the Henry Ford, which focuses on car culture rather than particular automobiles, women are very much present as consumers, drivers, workers, and influencers. They are introduced as early proponents of bicycles and the Model T as well as the minivan. They are represented in promotions about style, design, and safety. Women’s changing roles in advertising – as objects, symbols, moms, and adventurers are also addressed.

Agents

Clara & Henry Ford – Ford Piquette Street Plant Museum

Women – as individuals who make things happen –  was an understated but underlying theme in many of the automotive displays. Wives of industry innovators – including Clara Ford and Bertha Benz – were often silent but important partners and contributors to their spouses’ success. Clara Ford worked with her husband on what was to be known as the ‘Kitchen Sink Engine Model’ as she helped with its testing in the Ford family kitchen. Bertha Benz not only invested her inheritance in her husband’s business, but through her cross country trip, brought the Benz-Patent Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales. The tour of the RE Olds Transportation Museum begins with a focus on the Olds family and homestead. Much of that is devoted to Metta Olds, the wife of the company founder. The artifacts on display –  photos, family trees, furniture, personal items, clothing, and a book focused on the couple suggests that Metta was very much a silent partner and supporter of her husband and his business. While ‘the woman behind the man’ is somewhat of a cliché, the attention to wives of industry founders within multiple museums suggest they were significant contributors to early automotive history.

Emergency Brigade Picket Line – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Women who served the automotive industry in other capacities were also acknowledged. The Sloan Museum recognizes women’s important role as members of the Emergency Brigade during the 1936 General Motors Sit-Down Strike. As noted in Jalopnik, a popular automotive site, ‘Many think of factory work, and therefore a strike in the automotive industry, as something primarily men would do. But it was the members of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, a paramilitary group of women inside the United Auto Workers union, who proved to be the secret weapon in that group’s triumph over General Motors.’

While not as prominent as the mostly male movers and shakers of the automotive industry, women on the sidelines often created important roles for themselves, as influencers and agents of change in the home, on the factory floor, and on the picket line.

Gatekeepers

Carriage to Cars Exhibit – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Transportation museums often honor those responsible for the preservation, maintenance, and promotion of automotive history. Women have served in these roles; their contributions are found in glass cases, museum walls, and foundations and positions bearing their names. The Dunning Carriage to Cars Exhibit in the Sloan is funded by the Margaret Dunning Foundation. Dunning, known for her love of classic cars, established the foundation to nurture the preservation and teaching of automotive history for all Sloan visitors, but in particular for residents of the county in which the Sloan resides. The exhibit is an important component of the museum’s interactive History Gallery, which intertwines local automotive history with stories of Flint life, employment, neighborhoods, schools, housing, and tourism. Helen Earley, the First Lady of Oldsmobile, was a long time RE Olds Museum employee who created a position for herself as the resident Oldsmobile historian. As a scholar, historian, and archivist, Earley established the Oldsmobile History Center and co-authored two books on Oldsmobile history. The museum ‘board room’ bears her name and her likeness; further information is contained in a glass case hidden holding a few photos and a self-authored obituary.

Many of the museums I visited – Automotive Hall of Fame, Saratoga Automotive Museum, the Henry Ford, Wisconsin Automotive Museum, RE Olds Transportation Museum, Stahl’s Automotive Foundation Museum, to name a few – have installed women as directors, managers, trustees, and other decision-making positions. This is a hopeful sign that continued efforts will be made to incorporate and include the contributions of women – as drivers, consumers, workers, and influencers – into the annals of automotive history.

Saratoga Automotive Museum Officers

The categories provided here represent my initial observations on the representation of women in automotive museums; as I delve deeper I will certainly uncover more. What this examination has uncovered is not only that women are vastly underrepresented in these locations, but that women have, in fact, contributed to automotive history in varied and important ways. As Knibb writes, ‘the absence of women’s history from the permanent galleries of a museum does not necessarily mean that the museums’ collection is weak in objects relating to women’s lives.’

Automotive history has been long been documented as an account of powerful men and male machines. Because women’s relationship to the automobile differs from that of men, and because women are most likely to be judged against male achievements, women’s history with automobiles has been considered less legitimate; consequently, it is less likely to be recorded. As I hope to demonstrate in this project, automotive museums, as collections of objects and artifacts related to the motor car and its industries, provide an important, if not imperfect, resource for the recovering of women in automotive history.

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.

Knibb, Helen. ‘Present but Not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections.’ Gender & History Vol 6 No 3, November 1994, 352-369.

Marquis, Erin. “‘Women That Would Gladly Give Their Life’: How The Paramilitary Women’s Emergency Brigade Battled GM At The UAW’s First Big Strike.” Jalopnik 9 Oct 2023

Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 2

As someone who has been immersed in car culture from a young age, I have visited a fair number of automotive museums. However as I became increasingly focused on the women-car relationship in my research, my car museum experiences became more analytical, particularly when considered through the lens of gender. As I made my way through the rows and rows of automobiles, and numerous historical displays that poured accolades on the great white men of the automotive industry, I continually asked myself, ‘where are the women?’ This question served as the impetus for my current project: an examination of women’s representation in museums devoted to the automobile.

Women as symbols of safety – Sloan Museum of Discovery

Women are almost absent from the motoring story presented in museums. As Jennifer Clark writes, ‘the motor vehicle is still seen as an object of male interest and is mostly displayed with that perspective foremost’ (286). Yet the reason for this absence is not due to lack of female automotive participation but rather the value placed on women’s automotive roles by male automotive institutions. Women’s relationship with cars, and female participation in car culture, differs considerably from that of men. Because of that difference, women’s engagement with cars – more social than technical – is regarded as less worthy of attention by the male museum establishment. As Clark argues, ‘women need to be rediscovered in the motoring story – and with them, the stories of families, holidays, personal independence, social and economic change’ (286). The themes I developed in this project draw attention to the numerous and varied roles women have occupied throughout automotive history. While I considered both the exceptional and famous women in a previous blog, there are other roles that emerged from my examination of a dozen museums that are of equal, if not greater, significance.

Patti’s Met – Antique Automobile Club of America Museum

Storytellers

The automobiles which line the halls of car museums are often accompanied by placards that provide information on the model, year, and the donor. Often these cards are accompanied by a bit of history regarding the individual who owned the car and how the vehicle arrived at the museum. While the number of cars donated by women is small, the stories they tell reveal women’s relationships, driving histories, and love of automobiles. A 1940 Mercury on display at the AACA museum was donated by the owner’s daughter, who wrote, ‘This car is special to me because it was part of my father’s collection that he loved so much.’ A Berkshire Green and white 1961 Nash was a surprise Christmas present for a woman who had expressed admiration for Metropolitans while at a car show. The restored vehicle sports a front license plate with the words ‘Patti’s Met.’ A bright blue 1950 Nash Statesman Super Airflyte at the Wisconsin museum was purchased by a woman with the goal of learning to drive. Despite the woman’s good intentions, however, that never came to pass; the car sits on the museum floor with just 61 original miles.

While narratives regarding men and their machines are commonplace, the stories that accompany vehicles call attention to the hidden relationships forged between women and their cars. Whether a connection to an absent parent, fulfillment of a lifelong dream, or a project of good intentions, the origin stories suggest there is are histories of women’s automotive interest and love for cars worth investigating.

Symbols

Promotional postcard – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

Much of women’s presence in automotive museums is found in advertising and promotional materials. Luxury brands in particular often relied on female imagery to lend sophistication, glamor, and elegance to their automobiles. Using female imagery to sell automobiles is a long standing practice; as evidenced by museum materials such selling tactics began as soon as women took the wheel. Women in early automotive advertising were also called upon to demonstrate qualities of the automobile believed to be important to the female driver, especially cleanliness, quiet, safety, and ease of operation. The Wisconsin Automotive Museum includes a selection of postcards that conflate female characteristics with the 1913 Kissel. Accompanying photos of winsome women employ headlines such as  ‘They are good to look at’ to entice potential Kissel buyers.

The museums also call upon larger than life photographs of women as backdrops to the automobiles on display. These images are often accompanied by mannequins costumed in the latest fashion. Such imagery not only provides a historical context for the vehicle, but also equates the physical automobile with a certain level of success and class.

Women as symbols – Gilmore Car Museum

Stereotypes

Stereotypes of the woman driver have existed since women first got behind the wheel of the automobile. Not only has women’s driving behavior served as a source of criticism and humor, but women have also been sexualized as a means to sell product. Items in the museums often reflect the stereotypical ways women have been portrayed throughout automotive history. This is most evident in advertising, where women – due to their presumed lack of automotive acumen – are called upon to promote easy-to-operate vehicles, directed toward family rather than performance cars [because women’s place is in the home], and have bodies called upon as promotional tools. Women driver stereotypes, as it turns outs, are also reflected in the naming of particular automotive features. One of the more interesting options on some of the early Fords was the ‘mother-in-law’ seat, a fold-down, single-person rumble seat in the rear. The commonly used term for this feature no doubt reflects some of the ‘back seat driver’ stereotypes of the time. Such automotive features were also a part of museum tours. For example, according to a [male] guide at the Piquette Plant, women were attracted to the 1907 Model R Runabout for its extensive ‘bling’; to the 1911 Brush Runabout for its easy ride and affordability; and the electric car for its high roof [to accommodate women’s hats], and its extensive use of glass [so that women could be ‘seen’]. While the majority of museum references to women were positive, the negative representations demonstrate that stereotypes regarding women and cars have, and continue, to exist.

Mother-in-law seat – Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum

While these categories offer new ways to consider women’s role in automotive history, they are only a few of the many I was able to discern from the ‘almost absent’ museum artifacts. What these and other roles suggest is that women’s contributions to automotive history and car culture are greater and more varied than previously imagined.  

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.

Women’s Representation in Automotive Museums – Part 1

Unidentified women in Buick – ACAA Museum

Over the past year I have visited a dozen automotive museums. This journey was taken on not only due to my fascination with automobiles and car culture, but as part of a project examining the representation of women in institutions devoted to the automobile. As much of my research investigates women’s participation in car cultures associated with masculinity and the male driver, I thought auto museums would be an interesting location in which to observe how women – who compose over 50% of licensed drivers – were integrated into the automotive histories car museums represent. My first impressions were not encouraging. It was difficult to find evidence of women among the many aisles of automobiles owned, donated, driven, and produced by men. My original intention, therefore, was to focus primarily on the absences; to investigate the investigate the practices and processes that led to women’s invisibility in these masculine institutions. However, as I made my way through a dozen automotive museums, I noticed that women were, in fact, present, although not in the ways or in the places one might expect. I discovered evidence of women’s automotive participation hidden in dusty corners, tacked high up on walls, and in the back of smudgy glass cases. I found artefacts of women’s automotive history in unidentified photographs, yellowing news articles, and collected promotional materials. I thus came to the decision that rather than examine and question what was missing, to focus on what was there. I took the advice of historian and museum studies scholar Helen Knibb, who wisely wrote ‘collections, despite biases of gender, class, race, and creed, fragmentation, incompleteness, and regional disparities, can be an important primary source for the study and presentation of women’s history.’ Thus my objective became to uncover references to women’s automobility wherever I could find them, and in doing so construct a pieced-together, museum-inspired history of women and the automobile.

Female mannequin next to Buick – AACA Museum

On first glance, women in auto museums appear only intermittently, primarily as mannequins in a passenger seat without any frame of reference. As historian Jennifer Clark notes, ‘we are not told anything about their journey, nor, for example, anything about the ideas of gender and class associated with driving and riding in vehicles.’ I found this to be true in many of the ‘collection’ museums I visited; female mannequins dressed in period costumes without any explanation or context appeared as an afterthought or ‘cursory’ addition to satisfy some sort of gender imperative. Yet other museums, those who adapted a social history approach or focused on a particular manufacturer or place, were more likely to include women in other ways. As I toured the museums, I discovered common themes in how women were represented. What follows, in this and subsequent blogs, are categories that provide insight into how women have made an impact in automotive history. 

Exceptional women

Racing car driven by Lyn St James – Automotive Hall of Fame

The exceptional woman is one who has made a name for herself in automotive history. This category includes women who are easily recognized outside of the automotive community as well as those, while less familiar, are highly regarded within it. Many of the women are noted for being ‘firsts’ in a culture and climate that is overwhelmingly male. Women who have achieved success and notoriety in motorsport make up the majority of these featured individuals. A few of the museums dedicate a considerable amount of space to these racing legends; exhibits focused on drivers such as Danica Patrick, Lyn St James, Janet Guthrie, and Sara Christian often incorporate photographs, artifacts, racing gear, and memorabilia. Some – including the Henry Ford and Automotive Hall of Fame – actually feature cars driven by the women – facsimiles or the real thing. Museums that focus on a particular geographical location will often refer to a familiar female figure in motorsport who was born or who had a significant win in the area. The Saratoga Automobile Museum, for example, stakes claim to drag racing legend Shirley ‘Cha Cha’ Muldowney, who got her start off the streets of Schenectady.

Bertha Benz exhibit – Automotive Hall of Fame

Early female automotive pioneers are also honored in a number of car museums. Attention is given to Alice Ramsey – the first woman to drive an automobile across the United States – as well as early-twentieth century rally driver Joan Newton Cuneo. However, often such references are hidden away and are only come upon by accident. Bertha Benz, the wife of automotive legend Karl Benz, was famous in her own right and is represented in a number of museums alongside an early Benz automobile. Investing her inheritance in Karl’s business, Bertha motored one of her husband’s automobiles from Mannheim to Pforzheim in 1888, drawing attention not only to the automotive manufacturer but to the tenacity and talent of women behind the wheel.

The exhibits featuring female pioneers in automotive history – whether taking up a significant amount of museum space or tucked away in a glass case – incorporate women as symbols of female success in male dominated fields and as important contributors to women’s automotive history. In doing so, such representations offer inspiration and aspiration to all – particularly female visitors – in attendance. 

Alice Ramsey – Automotive Hall of Fame recipient

Famous women

Well-known women with a connection to automobiles are the subjects of exhibits in a number of automotive museums. Corporate institutions in particular often create displays that feature female film stars, celebrities, public figures, or dignitaries who have owned, driven, or been photographed with one of the manufacturer’s more celebrated models. One of the more popular individuals featured in a number of museums – and with a variety of cars – is Amelia Earhart. An acknowledged auto enthusiast known for her love of power and speed, Earhart is referenced in the Wisconsin Automotive Museum in association with the Kissel Speedster aka Gold Bug, which she drove across country in 1923. The Henry Ford, Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum [YAHM], and Stahl’s Automotive Foundation Museum each draw attention -through photographs, publicity material, and similar automobiles – to Earhart’s christening of the 1933 Hudson Terraplane. The Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum [ACD] calls upon date of Earhart’s ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe as a historical touchstone, allowing museum visitors to place a vehicle within a specific time and place. Other celebrities – including actresses Mary Astor and Anita King – are also celebrated for their love and promotion of fine automobiles. This connection between famous women and cars was perhaps one of the earliest examples of celebrity endorsement. Such publicity not only brought attention to the cars, but also suggested that women were capable of appreciating and handling automobiles for the style, notoriety, and freedom they provided.

Display honoring Amelia Earhart and her ‘Gold Bug’ – Wisconsin Automotive Museum

These categories represent just two of the many groups of women I discovered on my automotive museum journey. As the number of categories – and representative women –  grew, I gained a better understanding of the contributions women have made – large and small – to automotive history.

Clark, Jennifer. ‘Peopling the Public History of Motoring: Men, Machines, and Museums.’ Curator The Museum Journal Vol 56 Number 2, April 2013, 279-287.

Knibb, Helen. ‘Present but Not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections.’ Gender & History Vol 6 No 3, November 1994, 352-369.

Wisconsin: Land of Beer, Cheese, and Cars?

On a road trip to visit family in Milwaukee and Minnesota this summer, a stop was made at the Wisconsin Automobile Museum in Hartford, just northwest of Milwaukee. First opened in 1986, the museum is housed in the former Libby’s cannery, repurposed by the Kissel family to display a large collection of cars and automotive artifacts. Very much a museum of ‘place,’ the Wisconsin Automobile Museum devotes much of its space to auto manufacturers and automotive activities with significant histories in the state. The first floor is devoted primarily to automobiles manufactured in Wisconsin, specifically Nash, AMC, and Kissel. The second floor holds the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame, which commemorates the history of regional racing in Wisconsin. The second floor also include newer models from a variety of manufacturers, as well as a working locomotive taken out on special occasions. All of the cars in the museum were either donated or are on loan. 

Women working at Kissel

As might be expected in a museum with significant Kissel family influence, the Kissel Motor Car Company takes center stage. The company was founded by Louis Kissel and his sons in 1903. During the early auto age, the high-quality, custom built Kissel cars ‘were known to the elites of society from coast to coast’ (Savage). Besides hand-crafted automobiles, Kissel also manufactured trucks, fire trucks, cabs, and hearses until operations ceased in 1931. Of the 27,000 Kissel automobiles produced, fewer than 150 are known to exist today, of which 27 are on exhibit in the museum. While Kissel, like other automotive manufacturers of the time, was a very male dominated enterprise, there are a few cars on display that have interesting if not significant female narratives.

1904 Kissel Kar

 Silent movie actress Anita King was the first woman on record to drive a touring vehicle solo across the country. She did so in a 1904 Kissel Kar, which is now parked on the first floor of the Wisconsin museum. Referred to as ‘The Paramount Girl’ in news outlets of the day, King took 48 days to make the trip, arriving jubilantly into New York’s Times Square on October 19, 1915. Of all the Kissel cars produced, perhaps the most famous model was the two passenger Speedster, nicknamed the ‘Gold Bug.’ This bright yellow automobile was a favorite among celebrities, including Amelia Earhart, who, as noted in a collection of news clippings on display, drove the ‘Yellow Peril’ from California to Boston in 1923. Other Kissel cars with female connections on exhibit include a 1923 car owned by ‘a married woman who paid cash,’ [and kept it until 1961], as well as a 1914 touring car named ‘Annie’ after a previous owner. 

1950 Nash with 61 original miles

Nash also got its start in Wisconsin when the Thomas B. Jeffery Company was purchased by Charles Nash in 1916. One of the featured cars in the Nash collection is a bright blue 1950 model. Its claim to fame is that it was purchased by a woman with intention of learning to drive. Unfortunately, the owner never got behind the wheel; the Nash now sits at the museum with 61 original miles on the odometer.

While the museum makes an effort to feature automobiles driven or owned by women, perhaps the most noteworthy female automotive references can be found in photographs as well as promotional material intertwined with the cars on display. If one stops to look at the video of Kissel history, an old photograph of the company offices reveals two women performing administrative work. Original artwork for the ‘Kissel Kar’ calls upon illustrations of elegantly dressed women to convey style, luxury, and class.

Promotional postcards used photographs of winsome women with accompanying lines such as ‘They are good to look at’ to entice potential 1913 Kissel buyers. Wartime advertisements sponsored by Nash focus on women who have contributed to the war effort as members of the Army Nurse Corps or as brave women waiting for a loved one’s return. Post war advertising features women as Nash consumers, test driving automobiles and speaking with car dealers. Other press includes an article on the real life twins whose images promoted the Hudson ‘Twin-H-Power’ engine. And while the Short Track display does not feature any women drivers, a few future female racers can be found in a 2019 photo of the Young Racers Car Show. 

As might be expected in museums devoted to a historically masculine enterprise as the automobile, women’s participation and influence in automotive history and culture is often hidden. However, as I have discovered in many of my visits, women do have a presence in automotive museums if one makes the effort to look for them.

The Cars of Amelia Earhart

In early September, 2023 Amelia Earhart was once again in the news. However, it had nothing to do with her flying prowess or her unsolved disappearance over the Atlantic in 1937. Rather, it had to do with a certain 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton convertible that was owned by Earhart, lost, rediscovered, and put on display for a week during the annual ‘Cars at the Capital’ exhibition in Washington DC. As it turns out, while Earhart is known for her way around an airplane, she was also an avid enthusiast of exceptional automobiles. 

The unique Palm Beach Tan Cord convertible that made its way to the National Mall is just one of the many automobiles connected to the celebrated pilot. It became famous in a 1936 photograph, parked in front of Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Electra, the airplane she would take on her final flight. The Phaeton was produced by the Cord Automobile division of the Auburn Automobile Company and introduced at the 1935 New York Auto Show to great acclaim. It has been suggested that Earhart was drawn to the Phaeton not only for its style, luxury, streamlined airplane design, and innovative engineering, but also for its impressive performance capabilities. Earhart’s desire for adventure, not to mention her love of power and speed, was reflected in her many transportation choices.

I first learned of the 1937 Cord while visiting the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. While the museum does not have a 1937 Phaeton on display, the famous photo of Earhart and the car is part of a video exhibit assembled to honor the marketing genius and business savvy of company founder Ernest Lobban [E.L] Cord. Although Earhart’s cars are absent, there are other references to the pilot in the ACDM. Information accompanying a 1932 Auburn 12-160A Coupe in the museum places the vehicle into context – ‘this year in history’ – by citing Earhart’s solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As I discovered during my recent visits to automotive museums throughout the Midwest, Earhart’s fame, as well as her fascination with cars, is often summoned to bring attention to a particular automotive manufacturer or model as well as to invoke a significant moment or event in automotive history.

The Wisconsin Automotive Museum in Hartford, Wisconsin, includes newspaper clippings of the famous aviator driving a Kissel Gold Bug Speedster, which Earhart often referred to as the ‘Yellow Peril.’ Legend has it that, finding the idea of a cross country train trip boring, Earhart purchased the car to travel from California to Boston with her mother in tow. The yellow car was no doubt an attention-getter as Earhart made her way across the country collecting tourist stickers and enthusiastic fans along the way. As Earhart remarked, ‘the fact that my roadster was a cheerful canary color may have caused some excitement’ (Forney). The Kissel Kar Company, a manufacturer of cars and trucks from 1906-1931, was founded in Wisconsin; the Kissel family was instrumental in the development and maintenance of the museum. While the original car is located in the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, Colorado, the Wisconsin Museum does have a similar vehicle on display. The Gold Bug was a popular choice among celebrities of the time. As a Wisconsin-based manufacturer, Kissel made use of the connections to famous individuals, including Amelia Earhart, to bring attention to its line of popular sports vehicles. 

Photo: Detroit Public Library Digital Collection

The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Stahls Automotive Collection in New Baltimore, Michigan each exhibit promotional material focused on Earhart’s connection to the Hudson Motor Car Company’s aviation-themed Terraplane brand. The Detroit auto manufacturer called upon Earhart’s celebrity and aviation know-how to introduce its latest offering in 1932. The news articles featured at both museums show Earhart at the Hudson plant christening the first Terraplane off the assembly line with a bottle of champagne. Earhart’s association with the Hudson Terraplane continued for the life of the brand; photos of Earhart with various models appeared in a variety of publicity releases, often accompanied by Terraplane’s tagline: ‘On the sea that’s aquaplaning, in the air that’s aeroplaning, but on the land, in the traffic, on the hills, hot diggity dog, that’s Terraplanning!’ The Ypsilanti museum features a Hudson Terraplane in its exhibit; Stahl’s does not, suggesting that the mention of Earhart in association with an automobile is often reason enough for the aviation pioneer’s inclusion.

Earhart was also called upon to promote the Autoped, a lightweight vehicle marketed as fitting the needs of women while offering them a taste of freedom. Promotional materials included the claim that Earhart often relied upon her Autoped for commuting and working.

The inclusion of Amelia Earhart in museums devoted to the automobile, with or without a vehicle, suggests a number of things. First, it recognizes the importance of celebrity – particularly a high-profile individual with a recognized automotive interest – in automotive advertising and marketing. However, I also believe that, due to the overwhelming male domination of the auto industry since its inception, any connection to women in relation to the automobile is worth considering. The majority of auto museums I have visited appeared to have made a conscious effort to represent women in the exhibits, even when that connection is somewhat tenuous. However, while the incorporation of high-profile women such as Earhart in museums devoted to the automobile is admirable, I believe the inclusion of ordinary women, as important automotive consumers, drivers, and influencers, needs to be considered as well.

Detour to the Saratoga Automobile Museum

A road trip vacation focusing on minor league ballparks in the northeastern United States brought me to an auto museum nested in an out-of-the-way place I might have never visited otherwise. The Saratoga Automobile Museum is located within the beautiful 2,500 acre Saratoga Springs State Park. Often referred to as ‘the Queen of the Spas,’ Saratoga Springs was a frequent destination for those seeking the health benefits of its mineral springs. Fittingly, the museum is housed in a 1935 neoclassical building that began its life as a health spa after which it was converted to a bottling plant before it was reformatted to hold an impressive collection of cars. The museum covers two floors of the building – the first floor is reserved for special exhibitions; the second holds two permanent collections focusing on New York’s role in the automobile industry, motor racing, and car culture.

As I have discovered while working on this project, auto museums centered in ‘place’ [as opposed to manufacturer] are very much reflective of a particular automotive culture. The Saratoga Museum is no exception. The exhibit ‘East of Detroit’ – which takes up half of the museum’s second floor, is a little bit of a snarky look at New York’s role in the early auto industry. Once home to over 100 automobile manufacturers, NY automakers of the time created hand built machines that – in contrast to Ford’s mass produced Model T – were elegant, stylish, and exuded class. The exhibit focuses on the accomplishments of a few notable NY car makers, including Pierce-Arrow of Buffalo, Franklin of Syracuse, and Lozier, manufactured in Plattsburgh.

As the New York automobile industry suffered upon the rise of mass-production, the area does not have a history of women as factory workers or consumers as do locations in southeastern Michigan and the surrounding auto centric states. Thus the only reference to women in the exhibit is in the advertising, where high society women are called upon to lend an aura of class, elegance, and refinement to the automobiles they adorn. There is a certain sense of elitism in the exhibit; i.e. New York got out of auto manufacturing before the dirty business of mass-production took over, becoming instead, a major importer of European-made cars. In fact, the museum has a very ‘European’ bent; most of the non-NY manufactured cars in the building are of non American origin.

The ‘Racing in New York State’ exhibit, which occupies the other half of the second story, expounds on the history of auto racing in New York state, which dates back to 1896. Cars of note in New York’s motorsport past and present are on display accompanied by information about the numerous races, drivers, cars, and innovations with deep ties to the state. In terms of women, New York stakes claim to drag racing legend Shirley ‘Cha Cha’ Muldowney, who got her start on the streets of Schenectady. The history of Watkins Glen, a sleepy town that emerged as an epicenter of road racing in the United States, holds a place of prominence in the exhibit.

The special exhibit on the first floor was devoted to the cars of James Bond films. Women’s relationship to the various automobiles in these locations included the predictable as well as surprising. As might be expected, the majority of featured cars served as vehicles which aided Bond in the rescue of women. In Casino Royale, for example, Bond relies on his 2006 Aston Martin DBS to give chase when Vester Lynd is kidnapped. Also included in the 1997 BMW 750LI display is a reference to the automobile’s onboard assistant which was given a female voice so that ‘Bond might pay more attention.’ Perhaps the most surprising inclusion in the collection of Bond film cars was the 1969 Mercury Cougar XR-7, owned and driven in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Bond’s wife Tracy Draco. In perhaps a nod to 1960s feminism, Draco ‘shows off her driving skills along treacherous, icy mountain roads’ as she helps Bond escape Blofeld’s henchmen. In a film chronology that often relies upon the automobile to reflect Bond’s daring, inventiveness, aggressiveness, and masculinity, in which women serve primarily as an impetus for the car’s use, it was somewhat striking to see the Cougar featured so prominently in the first floor display.

Just as I was leaving the museum, disappointed but not surprised in the lack of female representation, I noticed an automotive art exhibit in one of the corridors. The artist, Lyn Hiner, is an internationally recognized palette knife painter. Her auto themed work ‘attempts to capture the essence of fine cars on canvass’. Upon doing a little research, I discovered that Hiner is not only a painter of automobiles but is a bonafide car enthusiast with a special fascination for Porsches. As Hiner wrote of one of her paintings, ‘I can hear the motor as it crests the road, smell the familiar scent of leather wrapped seats and distinct oil and gas.’ More than an exhibit of intriguing automotive art, the collection of Hiner paintings suggest that women can, in fact, have a relationship with the car that goes beyond stereotypical associations of practicality and reliability. Hiner has a visceral connection to cars which is very much reflected in her work. As it turns out, the acting executive director and director of events and programs at the Saratoga Auto Museum is female and, I suspect, had some influence over the inclusion of Hiner’s work. While it can be difficult to alter the automotive inventory of a museum that depends on [mostly male] donations, Hiner’s engaging automotive art provides a unique opportunity to view women not just as symbols of elegance and class, but as auto enthusiasts in their own right as well.

An Afternoon at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum

The opulent Auburn Cord Duesenberg showroom

The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum is located in Auburn, Indiana, in the building of the automobile manufacturer’s former executive and general offices, engineering and experimental design departments, design studios, and showroom. It retains much of the look of its past occupants; the first floor showroom is spacious and opulent, with high ceilings, chandeliers, art deco columns, and an elegant center stairway, with popular music from the 1920s filling the grand space. The second and third floors include automotive displays intermingled among intact conference rooms and private offices of past automotive leaders and entrepreneurs. The narrow hallways are filled with archival items including old photographs, period advertising, and colored design renderings.

Poster for the annual Auburn Car Festival which celebrated the anniversary of women’s suffrage

The three prominent automotive brands housed in the museum – Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg – were high-priced luxury and racing vehicles produced between 1900 to 1937. Auburn was wholly owned by the Cord Corporation; entrepreneur E.L. Cord acquired Duesenberg in 1926 to add to his stable of stylish and expensive cars. The Depression, and the economic downturn that followed, saw an inevitable sales decline for the Cord empire. The company was sold and dissolved in 1937.

Other vehicles on display in the museum include ‘The Cars of Indiana,’ rare and unusual vehicles no longer in production once manufactured in the Hoosier state, as well as a gallery of racers and record-setters. Exhibits on the second and third floors include advertising campaigns, the work of design studios, blueprint rooms, as well as engines and technological innovations of the day.

One of the many advertisements featuring women on display

As might be expected in a museum seeped in automotive history, regional identity, and the accomplishments of exceptional men, women’s presence within its celebrated walls is subtle at best. However, because of the nature of the Auburn – Cord – Duesenberg product, female representation was, in fact, an important component of the automotive brand. This is evident in the promotional materials that adorn the walls of the building’s second floor. As one of the accompanying placards notes, ‘Auburn ads frequently featured glamourous female models situated in lavish settings.’ The models were called upon to reflect class, elegance, and style, as well as to suggest that owning such a vehicle would infer such qualities on the individual who drove it. As another card conveyed, ‘these ads were notable because they featured a lifestyle and not the product.’ The presence of female models in these advertisements suggest the stylish women were more successful in eluding elegance and class than the cars themselves. Photographs hung throughout the museum – with unnamed women as passengers – also serve to associate the automobile with a certain upscale and desirable lifestyle.

Woman as Goddess on the hood of a Duesenberg

Women also graced automotive exteriors in the form of hood ornaments. These sleek, elongated, goddess representations in steel also lent credence to the Duesenberg or Auburn as luxurious vehicles for the upper class.

Within the lineup of cars on display, women as well as notable events involving women are called upon to place a vehicle within a specific time and place in history. Referring to Amelia Earhart [an automobile aficionado] or women’s suffrage alongside an automobile of that era offers an opportunity to imagine how or why an automobile might be used. Women’s stories – anecdotes of an event or driving experience – are also integrated into the histories of particular automobiles. Women referred to by name as donors were often keepers of cars – maintaining the automobile after the death of a father or spouse before donating it to the museum archives. These women serve as touchstones within the cluster of vehicles, often providing a human element to the business of cars.

High society woman and the new 1935 Cord 810

This was not my first visit to the ACD Museum. I stopped in decades ago while in the area for a dog show [which is a whole other conversation]. More recently, I traveled to Auburn for SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] business. But this encounter provided me with the opportunity to search out women’s presence in what I suspect exists for most as a very masculine space. As I discovered in the ACD as well as most of the automotive museums I’ve spent time in, women are visible if only you look for them.

Women & the Model T

This past weekend my automotive museum project took me to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in downtown Detroit. Constructed in 1904, the Piquette Plant was the second center of automotive production for the Ford Motor Company. From 1904 until the end of 1909, the facility assembled Ford car models B, C, F, K, N, R, S, and T [known as the Ford alphabet cars]. The most famous is the Model T, the car credited with initiating the mass use of automobiles in the United States. The Model T was initially produced [station to station assembly] at the Piquette Plant in 1908; it was subsequently mass produced when the company transferred its operations to the Highland Park Assembly Plant in 1913. After Ford vacated the Piquette building, it had a series of owners before being sold in 2000 to the Model-T Automotive Heritage Complex, Inc, which restored the plant and now operates the historic site as a museum.

Automotive museums, as I’m discovering, most often reflect the interests and inspirations of the founders. While there are many institutions devoted to a particular automotive manufacturer, the focal point of the Paquette one specific model –  the Model T and the alphabet cars that preceded it. There are 60 cars of various provenance on two floors; the building also houses a reconstruction of Henry Ford’s office and provides a good deal of background on the daily operation of the factory back in the day. Many of Ford’s early automotive projects which took place at the Paquette are documented and on display.

As to be expected in a museum housed in a former automotive factory, which operated during a time when the automotive industry was owned and operated almost exclusively by white men, women’s presence as consumers, drivers, or workers is limited. However, if one looks hard enough at the various exhibits women’s influence surfaces in both stereotypical and unexpected ways.

Clara & Henry Ford testing the Kitchen Sink Engine Model

Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, is referenced often in the museum. Perhaps most impressive is her role in the testing of what became known as the Kitchen Sink Engine Model. As Ford lore would have it, on Christmas Eve, 1893, the apparatus was placed over the sink in the Ford family kitchen while Henry worked the ignition and Clara fed gasoline into the intake valve. As noted by auto aficionado Bill McGuire, ‘when the simple, hand-built engine sputtered to life over the sink, Ford’s earliest dream was realized and his remarkable automotive career began.’ Clara is also mentioned in connection to the museum’s non Ford electric vehicle. This story, that Henry purchased the electric vehicle from an automotive competitor for his wife, is one that can be found in nearly every Ford exhibit in any museum. Of course, the question of whether Mrs. Ford actually desired the vehicle, or rather it was purchased to keep her close to home, is never answered.

Another interesting exhibit in which women are prominent is that dedicated to automotive inventor Edward ‘Spider’ Huff. Huff helped to perfect the enclosed flywheel magneto – recognized as a major advantage of the Model T over other automobiles of the time. The magnetos were assembled by a team of women in the Winding and Insulating Department, located near Huff’s office and away from the working men. This group of workers were the first women to be employed by Ford. This hidden bit of information also provides a little insight into Ford as a segregated work environment.

Other references to women include photos of women behind the wheel of Model Ts as well as operating bicycles. Tucked into a corner on the second floor is a photo of women drivers with a caption that notes that, although women were routinely ignored by the auto industry, Ford recognized them as an important market for reliable, inexpensive cars.

One of the more interesting options of some of the early Fords was the ‘mother-in-law’ seat, a fold down, single person rumble seat in the rear. The commonly used term for this feature no doubt reflects some of the ‘back seat driver’ stereotypes of the time.

Model K Roadster with a mother-in-law seat

We arrived at the museum in time to join the last tour of the day. The tour was a bit rushed, as the facility was being set up for a wedding later that evening. While the tour guide was quite knowledgeable, he was also a bit sexist, embellishing or perhaps even fabricating stories about women’s preferences for particular automobiles. According to this gentleman, women were attracted to the 1907 Model R Runabout for its extensive ‘bling’; to the 1911 Brush Runabout for its easy ride and affordability; and the electric car for its high roof [to accommodate women’s hats], its extensive use of glass [so that women could be ‘seen’], and the seats arranged in living room fashion to ease conversation. None of this was documented in the museum; I suspect it was the guide’s attempt at being ‘funny’ to a captive audience.

The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant is an interesting and historically significant building that provides a unique chapter in the history of the Ford Motor Company. It is certainly worth a visit if you find yourself in downtown Detroit.