Women’s Classic Connection

Charlotte Vowden riding with her late grandfather in a 1960 MGA Roadster.

In my work on women in various car cultures, I have discovered that women often develop an interest in cars through the help of male family members. Working in the garage alongside fathers, uncles, and brothers creates a familiarity with all things automotive that often grows into a serious involvement with cars in later years. Dads in particular instill automotive knowledge in their young daughters as a means of protection – from unscrupulous car dealers and automotive repair shops. They teach them how to make simple repairs to avoid being stranded on the side of the road. Husbands, on the other hand, often instill a love for cars in the hope that their wives will share their interest and participate alongside them in auto-related activities.

However, many women with a car-crazy family member don’t develop an enthusiasm for automobiles until that individual passes. After inheriting a classic classic car from a father or grandfather, women must decide whether to put the vehicle up for sale or to keep and maintain it. Those who choose the later find they must master the peculiarities of driving an antique machine. In the process, they often become full-fledged enthusiasts, joining car clubs, learning restoration processes, and submersing themselves in automotive history. I met some of these women while conducting research on various women and car projects. A recent article in the Sunday Times features stories of numerous women – many similar to those I encountered – who found themselves the unlikely owners of classic MGA Roadsters, Austin Healeys, and Porsches. 

The women interviewed in “Women with Drive” speak of how taking the wheel of an old MG Midget or VW convertible provides a connection to a family member who has passed on. They admit to how the mechanics of these aging vehicles originally terrified them; the women wondered how they would ever conquer such complicated and unfamiliar machines. Yet, they found that spending time in the automobile, discovering all of its idiosyncrasies, and emerging victorious after months of intensive driving provided a means to confront their grief and move past a personal loss. It allowed to remain connected in spirit to a dad or favorite grandfather. Remarked the owner of an inherited 1936 Austin Healey, “this car is part of my dad that I still get to hang on to.”

Some of those interviewed for the article spoke of how they discovered a latent love of old cars after a male partner introduced them to the world of classic automobiles. In my own research in women and muscle cars, I note how men often encourage an interest in American muscle – and often acquire and restore a vehicle of their spouse’s choosing – as a way to alleviate guilt [over spending so much time and money on cars!] as well as to strengthen the relationship through a shared interest. While my research took place primarily in Southeastern Michigan, the Sunday Times article includes stories from women all over Europe, demonstrating that a female interest in cars, while often under the radar, is worldwide. 

What the Sunday Times article attempts to convey, and which I have endeavored to promote in my scholarship, is that despite the common perception of female motorists, women with an interest in cars exist in all facets of automotive endeavors and activities. While one may find it surprising that women connect to cars in a multitude of ways, it is only because we have been conditioned to believe that an affinity toward automobiles is present in only half the population. Although women’s relationship to cars may differ from that of men, it doesn’t follow that it is less legitimate. I thank the Sunday Times for this article, and for its dedication to cultivating further discussions about women and cars.

Built Sister Tough

Photo by Julia LaPalme for Road & Track

Women are a growing segment of pickup truck owners. This is evident in advertising, as the dominating narrative of trucks and masculinity has witnessed a slow but steady introduction of women behind the wheel. Female auto journalists are now as likely to review a pickup as an SUV or minivan. Manufacturers often emphasize “female friendly features” when promoting the latest F150, Silverado or Ram. In my own work, I noted how women often take on a ‘cowgirl’ persona as a means to become accepted within pickup truck culture. 

As a recent Road and Track article asserts, women have also successfully entered the historically male bastion of custom truck build and design. Two sisters from California, who grew up helping their parents in a family-owned collision and body repair shop, took over the business when their parents retired. With no sons to carry on the business, this mom and dad encouraged their young daughters to become involved in the care and building of cars. With the help, business sense, and hard work of their two truck-savvy daughters, what began as a small shop in the home garage now occupies a 10,000 square foot facility.

The Road and Track article reflects a common theme among women who achieve success in auto-related endeavors. As I noted in a number of past projects regarding women’s participation in automobile cultures traditionally associated with men, women who gain hands-on automotive experience at an early age – from fathers, mothers, brothers, and boyfriends – are as likely to become involved with cars in some capacity as young men with similar backgrounds. Working on automotive projects together with family members can encourage bonding and a sense of shared purpose. Such automotive togetherness can lead to the accumulation of auto knowledge, confidence in one’s skills, and pride in hard work. 

Theresa, the oldest daughter, left the business for a few years to acquire additional skill sets. She worked for a machinist during the day while attaining a graphic design degree at night. She returned home with new skills and new ideas, helping the business to grow and prosper. Theresa’s out-of-the box design skills have redirected the business from repair work to complicated custom builds. Now that her parents are retired, Theresa shares the running of the business with her husband and sister Sara, continuing the family tradition. 

The sisters have gained a reputation as skilled, hard-working, and creative. Their vehicles are presented at SEMA to great acclaim. The gone beyond the shop floor to give back to the automotive community in numerous and valuable ways. They have made a name for themselves, and the family business, in the very masculine world on custom built trucks. In doing so, they have demonstrated that given the proper training, encouragement, and opportunities, women can not only drive pickup trucks, but they can successfully, creatively, and expertly build them. 

The Girl Behind ‘Throttle Gals’

About 10 years ago, while at a local car show, I came across a small display headed by a banner reading “Throttle Gals”. Parked next to it was a ’59 Chevy Impala, not the pristine and restored version that populates most automotive events, but a barn “find” with the patina of an old, well-worn automobile. As it turned out, both the display and the car were the property of one Doni Langdon, a self-described gear head who had taken on the challenge of producing Throttle Gals – a car magazine for women. Unlike the myriad of automotive magazines on the market at the time, which catered to the male enthusiast, the intended audience of Throttle Gals was women who love to drive, work on, race, and take apart hot rods, vintage cars, street machines, and motorcycles. Langdon believed there was an untapped market of female enthusiasts interested in learning about other women who shared a passion for cars, bikes, trucks – anything with an engine. Unapologetic, the magazine was conceived with a definite female point of view. And unlike the ornamental and objectified women that graced traditional automotive publications, Throttle Gals  featured real women – as writers, designers, illustrators, photographers, and the subjects of their own stories. As Langdon noted in an early interview, “These are real women. Everyone you see is with her vehicle — not a model and not someone in her husband’s or her boyfriend’s ride. It’s her pride and joy”.

I ran into Langdon nearly ten years later when we appeared as guests together on Autoline After Hours to discuss my newly released book on women and muscle cars. At the time she was recovering from a house fire, which destroyed much of the material for upcoming issues. However, since that time, Throttle Gals has emerged stronger than ever, with a growing list of sponsors, subscribers, and a thriving presence online, at car shows, and automotive events all over the country. Langdon has, in fact, achieved what many believed impossible – she has successfully created, promoted, and sustained a magazine specifically for the female car and motorcycle enthusiast. 

Langdon’s formula has been simple. She understands that women with an interest in cars and motorcycles are often dismissed or denigrated by the majority of the male car-loving public. Thus she provides content that connects with her female readers – in the form of mechanical advice, car buying tips, automotive news, as well the reporting of automotive events where other female gearheads gather. However, the stories that resonate most with her followers are those focused on women’s accomplishments – great and small – in the automotive/motorcycle worlds. As one who had been “kicked down” in the male automotive fraternity, Langdon created the magazine “to empower other women,” a sentiment which has appeared in the magazine and the website since the Throttle Gals inception. 

From one Motor City gal to another, I applaud Doni for realizing her dream, and look forward to another 10 plus years of Throttle Gals.

Proxmire, Chrystal A. “Ferndale Grad goes ‘Full Throttle’ with Motorcycle Magazine for Women.” theoaklandpress.com 12 Feb 2010.

Throttle Gals Magazine. throttle gals.com

The Common Language of Cars

Elana Scherr, Car and Driver columnist.

Car and Driver has a new columnist. A female columnist. In order to make an initial, positive impression on Car and Driver readership, Elana Scherr introduces herself through the common language of cars – “cars owned, cars driven, and cars much desired” (24). 

As a female columnist in a historically male genre – automotive magazines – Scherr’s decision to call upon the common language of cars is a wise one. The most obvious reason is that it identifies her as a “car person”. As a female, this is especially important. Women have traditionally been typecast as having little interest, or knowledge, about cars. Longstanding woman driver stereotypes suggest that women are inept, nervous, and cautious drivers, and when it comes to the automobile, are primarily interested in its functionality and use as a form of domestic technology. Scherr distances herself from this stereotype through referencing her mother – considered an outlier for her refusal to own a mom-approved station wagon or minivan – and by reflecting on her own varied and nontraditional automotive history. 

Calling upon the common language of cars also provides Scherr with a way to connect with fellow car enthusiasts, which includes, of course, Car and Driver readers. Scherr has always had a special fascination with old cars, making her particularly well versed in the finer points of a classic Dodge Challenger or Pontiac Trans Am. Ownership of classic cars provides Scherr with a legitimacy that goes beyond being a car expert. Rather, it identifies her as somewhat of a car historian, further bolstering her standing both the classic car community and the greater car culture at large. While Car and Driver caters primarily to the modern car enthusiast, Scherr’s recognized knowledge of the automotive past allows her to speak authoritatively of the present and future of automobility.

The common language of cars also offers a means to seek identity through automobiles. In my own research on the relationship between women and cars, I found that women often employ the language of cars to draw a connection between themselves and the vehicles they drive. Many of those I interviewed identified themselves by calling on characteristics they shared with their muscle car, chick car, or pickup truck. Referring to themselves in such a manner – as stylish, powerful, tough, or badass, as the case may be – suggests a deeper, more personal relationship to a vehicle than that of the average car owner. It establishes the individual as one with a special passion for the automobile. 

Scherr calls on the common language of cars to display her own passion for the automobile and to uncover that love and enthusiasm in others. As the Car and Driver bio notes, ‘[Scherr] discovered that she not only loved cars and wanted to drive them, but that other people loved cars and wanted to read about them.” Scherr’s goal, as written in her initial Car and Driver column, is to “share the delightful stories of people who build and race and design and create the cars we love” (24). While Scherr may not qualify as a genuine car expert in the eyes of the skeptical, calling upon the common language of cars allows her to connect, embrace, invoke, and engage with all who share an enthusiasm, zeal, and passion for any and all types of automobiles.

Women who write about cars will always be greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. In a culture that ascribes mechanical ability and automotive knowledge as natural male characteristics, women often find it necessary to devise strategies to enter the masculine automotive fraternity. As Scherr has demonstrated, fluency in the common language of cars provides an effective avenue to legitimacy in not only auto journalism, but in all automotive endeavors. I look forward to the many delightful stories Scherr will share in Car and Driver.

Car and Driver. “Elana Scherr, Contributing Editor.” caranddriver.com n.d.

Scherr, Elana. “Lingua Franca: I’m Elana, the New Columnist, and I Want to Talk About Cars.” Car and Driver 65.12 June 2020, 64.

‘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.

Truck Guys Aren’t Just Guys

Molly Osberg’s New-to-Her Toyota Tacoma

I recently came across an article on Jezebel – “A Supposedly Feminist Website” – about a recent pickup truck purchase of one of its writers. In “I’m a Truck Guy Now,” blogger Molly Osberg announces, discusses, and rationalizes her recent acquisition of a used Toyota Tacoma. Although Osberg’s excitement in her vehicle choice is palpable, she finds it necessary to continually justify not only the purchase itself, but her feelings about owning a mid-sized truck. It is only after she lays out the “legitimate” reasons for owning a truck that she allows herself to express why, in her words, the Tacoma is “the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever owned.”

Women and pickup trucks was the subject of an article adapted from my dissertation recently published in the European Journal of American Culture. In “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver, and Cowgirl Feminism” I call upon a 2013 Chevy Silverado commercial as a segue into American women’s growing fascination with pickups. In interviews with 25 truck-owning women, I consider how women often assume cowgirl personas as a way to gain legitimacy in a historically masculine culture. However, what also became apparent through these enlightening conversations was how passionately many women feel about driving and owning a pickup truck.

Osberg shares many of the sentiments of those interviewed for “A Woman and Her Truck”. Much like those female truck owners, Osberg expounds upon the vehicle’s practical applications to her own life and that of her partner. Whether calling upon the truck to pull horse trailers and boats, or transport landscape supplies and building materials, women are likely to view truck ownership as a way to present themselves as tough, sturdy, industrious, and hardworking. Osberg also spends a great amount of time considering possible modifications to the truck. Carhartt seat covers, a trailer hitch, a three-inch lift, a truck cap, and vinyl racing stripes are a few of the additions Osberg contemplates as a way to make the truck her own. Osberg has named her pickup “Wylene”. In many of my women-and-car projects, I have found that naming is a common way women personalize and create identities for the vehicles they drive. Osberg also enjoys the element of surprise driving a pickup offers. Due to the truck’s size, substance, and strong association with masculinity, a small woman climbing out of a big truck often turns heads. And as Osberg has discovered, trucks provide the female motorist a sense of respect not often awarded to a driver of a typical “mom” vehicle – i.e. minivan or small SUV. As noted by the 25 truck-owning women, the ability to confidently and expertly handle a vehicle of considerable size and power marks the woman behind the wheel as an exceptional driver.

However, unlike Osberg, the women I interviewed had few qualms expressing enthusiasm, passion, and pure joy over the trucks they drive. They love how they feel when behind the wheel of a large, powerful vehicle. They appreciate the opportunities for recreation and adventure the pickup makes possible. They embrace the respect they receive when maneuvering a cumbersome machine; they feel empowered by the strength and toughness associated with truck ownership; they consider themselves exceptional for handling a vehicle rarely associated with the female motorist.

Perhaps Osberg’s reticence regarding her recent automotive purchase stems from an underlying suspicion that she does not in fact need, or deserve, a pickup truck. Perhaps admitting her affection for a masculine material object on a “supposedly feminist website” causes her to question her feminist “props.” However, as the interviews with 25 unapologetic truck-owning women – not to mention the growing number of female truck consumers – make clear, a good number of women have discovered that pickup ownership enhances their work, play, lives, and self-worth. As they might say to Molly Osberg, perhaps it is time to shed your inhibitions and take a little bit of joy from your new-to-you Toyota Tacoma.

Lezotte, Chris. “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver, and Cowgirl Feminism.” European Journal of American Culture 38.2 (2019): 135-153.

Osberg, Molly. “I’m a Truck Guy Now.” Jezebel.com 6 December 2019.

Are you a truck owner? If not, have you ever considered purchasing one? What pickup qualities most interest you? Feel free to comment below.

The Women of Mercedes-Benz

Belinda Clontz’s 1962 Mercedes-Benz 200S Fintail

In my research into the relationship between women and cars, I often come across unique and interesting woman-car stories. I recently read an article in Automobile Magazine about Belinda Clontz – a California female car enthusiast with a particular fascination for Mercedes-Benz. While I expected her passion to be inspired by the luxury car’s prestige, classic style, and noteworthy performance attributes, I was surprised to discover that it was a woman’s contribution to the development and introduction of the automobile that garnered her attention and devotion. As noted by Clontz – the proud owner of a 1962 Mercedes Benz 220S Fintail – it was Bertha Benz, the wife of inventor Karl Benz, who introduced the original Benz Patent-Motorwagen to the world. In 1888, with her two children in the back seat, Bertha embarked on a 65-mile trip and in the process, made history as the first person – of either sex – to drive a car such a long distance. As Clontz remarks, “I admire any woman who is willing to do something that no one else has done. Bertha Benz was ahead of her time and I consider her a significant pioneer in the creation of the automobile.”

In the mid 1970s, feminist historians embarked on a movement to “write women into history.” These groundbreaking individuals challenged earlier traditions of intellectual and cultural history to consider whether historians could learn from other subjects – e.g. female – of study. Scholars began to think about not only about those reputed to have made history but also for those for whom historical events were backdrops to ordinary lives. Women’s history became one of the substantial new fields of study that emerged from this mid-twentieth century development.

It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that historians began to consider women’s influence within the field of automotive history. Scholars such as Virginia Scharff, Margaret Walsh, and Ruth Schwartz Cowan were instrumental in recovering the woman driver from the automotive archives. While Belinda Clontz is not a historian, she recognizes that women’s contributions to automotive history and culture are often overlooked. Her Facebook page is filled with homages to female Mercedes enthusiasts in particular and car lovers in general. She is encouraging to new auto aficionados, particularly young women with a passion for cars. In her posts she often reflects on what Mercedes ownership and being part of the Mercedes car culture has contributed to her identity and life.

While Clontz’s purchase of the classic Mercedes was influenced by the role of Bertha Benz in its introduction and production, female influence was felt in other automotive arenas. In her research into the history of Fintails, Clontz found that Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth won the 1962 Grand Prix of Argentina in a Mercedes-Benz 220SE Fintail  –  the first women to ever do so. As Clontz confessed, this serendipitous discovery made  ownership of the Fintail even more meaningful.

Although the automobile has a longstanding history as a primarily male interest, women today are discovering new and exciting ways to grow an interest in cars and take part in automotive culture. Although Clontz grew up with a fascination with automobiles, she found a special connection to the Mercedes due to its early – and heretofore unrecognized – female influence. As Clontz asserts, “My love for Mercedes-Benz stems from the fact that it was helped to be founded by a woman. Bertha Benz believed so much in her husband’s Motorwagen that she invested her inheritance money in his business. Although she was not allowed to be named as one of the inventors at the time, Bertha also contributed to the design and engineering of the Motorwagen. She took the Motorwagen on its first test drive and helped put Karl Benz on the map as the inventor of the first automobile. Her role in the history of Mercedes-Benz is influential and inspires me every time I get out on the road with my Fintail.”

Segura, Eleonor. “Meet the Gorgeous 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220S Fintail and Owner Belinda Clontz.” Automobilemag.com 14 Feb 2020.

Do you have an interesting car story? Please share it below.