Brand Loyalty Detroit Style

Jalopnik recently posted a question to its readers concerning family automotive brand loyalty. As auto journalist Steve DaSilva exclaimed, “Car companies, like any other, try to build brand loyalty – but they often go one step further, trying to build loyalty through a whole family.” Since I am a baby boomer who grew up in Detroit, the families I knew were most often loyal to a particular USA brand. Since so many folks in Michigan are somehow connected to an auto company – they work there, or know someone who does – the brand of choice is dependent on the relative who can get you the best deal. In a past project focused on elderly women’s early automotive experiences, I interviewed female residents of two senior living establishments – one in Louisville Kentucky and the other in a Detroit suburb. While some of the Louisville women had automotive connections through family members or friends which influenced their vehicle choices, the loyalty to American cars among the Michiganders was almost universal. Although not all had friends or family in the auto industry, most had husbands who – as auto ‘experts’ – made the choices as to which cars their spouses could drive. There is an underlying ‘buy American’ sentiment in the greater Detroit area, particularly among the older generation. Thus many of the women waited until they were widowed or financially independent to choose a brand to their liking. What was perhaps not surprising is that a good number of the women I interviewed – when having the opportunity to select their own car – went with a Japanese manufacturer. The women cited the safety features, economy, reliability, resale value, and smaller size as reasons they chose to switch allegiance to an import.

Growing up in a carless household [which is a whole other story], my siblings and I knew and recognized the brands [through games of who-can-name-the-car-brand-the-fastest often conducted out the window on the bus or parking lot] but really weren’t car savvy enough to have a favorite manufacturer. However as an adult, I had many relatives – brothers-in-law and nephews – who were engineers at Ford. So if I wanted to get a car on the A plan, I had to choose an offering from the Ford Motor Company. My brother and sister took advantage of this car buying deal at every opportunity filling their garages with Ford products; I, however, was more selective. As we needed a large vehicle for dog hauling, we took advantage of the Ford discount to obtain vans and SUVs that would suit our purposes. Much to the chagrin of my extended family, however, the cars I chose for myself were always imports.

When I purchased my first car in 1970, domestic car manufacturers offered very few small, economical models. As a college student, I selected the least expensive new car I could find, which was a Volkswagen Beetle [which seemed to be the car of choice at Wayne State University, which at that time was primarily a commuter school.] I remember the remarks of my Detroit neighbors when I made my purchase – they weren’t pretty. The ‘Buy American’ slogan was pretty strong in my next of the woods; purchasing a German car painted me, in their eyes, as a traitor, a less-than American. However, I knew what I wanted, could afford, and happily drove that car for seven years until it was totaled while parked in front of my apartment. Most of the personal cars I have owned since that time have been VWs or Audis. The only way I have redeemed myself somewhat with my family was in my choice of classic cars. Not only were my cars made in America, but were produced by Ford – a 1949 Ford Coupe and 1967 Ford Shelby Mustang, to be exact. The only catch is, they were made so long ago I couldn’t get the family Ford discount. 

Road Trips Part 3

It would be hard to argue that traveling across country on Route 66 – often referred to as the most famous road in the world – is the ultimate American road trip. Proclaimed as the Mother Road by John Steinbeck, it has been immortalized in film  – “The Grapes of Wrath”, on television  – in a long running series of the same name, and in song  – “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” performed by the Nat King Cole Trio. Each year, thousands of car enthusiasts, Americana buffs, honeymooners, baby boomers, cultural scholars, and families make the trip, whether through a few states or as many as possible. A few years ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to do what so many had done before us.  We have been involved in the purebred dog world as breeders and exhibitors for most of our married life. In October 2016, our breed’s national specialty was to be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since we weren’t planning on taking any dogs with us, we decided to take a little extra time and fly to California, rent a car, and make our way back to Tulsa on the well-traveled highway.

Once we arrived in Los Angeles, we decided to put practicality aside and rent a Mustang convertible. Although it was October, we hoped there would be plenty of good weather to enjoy our topless ride. The first evening on the road was glorious. There is nothing like driving through the desert on an 80 degree night with the top down. Our first stop was Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch which was a sheer delight. As the days passed, we hit all of the typical Route 66 stops – the Wigwam Motel, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Georgia Keefe Museum, Cadillac Ranch, and the Oklahoma City Memorial. We made our way [carefully] through a drove of donkeys; sampled the local cuisines; and hit just about every Route 66 museum along the way. We also happened across a great exhibit in New Mexico – Con Carino – which featured art projects inspired by LowRiders. It was a perfect stop for a couple of car enthusiasts. Although the weather was chilly at times, we turned on the heat and kept the top down for most of the trip. We crammed whatever we could into the Mustang’s minuscule truck, dressed in layers when necessary, and had the time of our lives.

My brother just returned from his own Route 66 trip – he rented a large, luxurious, comfortable sedan for the ride. I’m so glad we decided to splurge and get the Mustang. Driving along the most famous road in the world in a convertible – no matter how cold it got – was the best possible way to experience the Mother Road.

Stick Shift Lessons

I learned to drive a stick on a Corvair much like this one

Less than 3% of cars sold today have a manual transmission. Yet there is something particularly gratifying in knowing how to drive one, especially if you are female. It gives one a little feeling of superiority around the none-manually inclined. It also gives us female types legitimacy among the macho automotive bros who routinely dismiss women as unskilled and unknowledgeable about cars. I found this out years ago when, as an advertising creative person given the opportunity to test drive new cars at the GM Proving Grounds, I found myself driving Maseratis, Porsches, and Corvettes with my automatic-transmission-only male coworkers in the passenger seat. 

But to women of my generation, driving a stick wasn’t all that unusual. When I took driver’s ed during the summer of 1964, the cars on the course had only recently been replaced by automatics. If I wanted to drive the family car – a 1960 3-on-the-floor Corvair – I had to learn to drive a manual.

First stick-of-my-own was a 1970 Beetle

Although my mother never learned to drive, I had an older brother willing to teach me. A Detroit Police officer, married with a family of his own, he generously stopped by the house a couple times a week to convey the mysteries of the stick shift to my inquiring mind and uncoordinated body parts. He would drive us to a local high school parking lot, and around and around we would go as I mastered getting my hands and feet to work together. The teenage boys there to shoot hoops would watch and chuckle as I grinded my way through the gears. We eventually moved onto the streets, and when my brother thought I was ready, onto the parking lot. He also accompanied me to my driver’s test. It always helps to have a Detroit cop with you when you are trying to impress the testing officer. I passed, and for the next 50 years drove a series of stick shift cars, primarily of the German persuasion.

One of my favorite sticks was a 1980-something VW Scirocco

Kristin Shaw of The Drive recently asked her readers about their first manual transmission experience. She received over 200 responses, which suggests – for good or for bad – driving a stick leaves a mark on one’s psyche. Many of the commenters learned to drive a stick on the fly, when the primary driver became incapacitated in some way. For some, it was a one-time experience; others took the stick by the hand and never looked back.

The 6-speed Audi SR4 Cabriolet was a blast to drive

Although I now have a Golf R with a dual clutch [that’s all that was available in 2015], my husband has a 2016 with a manual and I have two classic cars with stick shifts. This allows me to keep my shifting skills and muscle memory intact, although I have to remember how many gears each car has and exactly where they are. I have to say, I do have a sense of satisfaction when I get behind the wheel of a car with three pedals. There is nothing like the feel-of-a-car you can only get when driving a stick.

Review of ‘Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America’

As a member of the Society of Automotive Historians, I am sometimes asked to provide a review of a book nominated for the prestigious Cugnot Award for the organization’s bi-monthly SAH Journal. One of the books under consideration in 2021 was Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy Taylor. I was introduced to The Green Book through Cotten Seiler’s seminal text Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America while a graduate student at Eastern Michigan University; the publication came into the public consciousness with the release of the Oscar winning film of the same name. I welcomed the opportunity to read and review the most current examination of this influential and important publication. It proved to be an interesting and enlightening read. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review below.

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America
By Candacy Taylor
Abrams Press, NY (2020)
360 pages, 6 ½: x 9 ½” hardcover, dustcover 
150 color and black-and-white illustrations
Price: $35
ISBN: 9781419738173

The Green Book – a travel guide for black Americans produced from 1936-1967 –  is the subject of two exemplary publications released in 2020. Driving While BlackAfrican American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights was reviewed in the March/April 2021 issue of the SAH Journal and was the recipient of a 2021 Cugnot Award of Distinction. Author Gretchen Sorin focuses her account on the history of African-American car ownership and travel, particularly how the Green Book served as an impetus for black Americans to break the societal constraints of mobility placed on them since the days of slavery. Candacy Taylor, in Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, takes a somewhat different, yet equally impactful, approach. Relying on historical documents, photographs, oral histories, family stories, as well as personal visits to remaining businesses and building sites featured in the travel guide, Taylor provides a chronology of the Green Book within the context of historical events that made its publication valuable if not vital to the black community. 

The Green Book was created to address the need and desire of black Americans to engage in safe travel during the Jim Crow era. The publication’s byline – ‘Carry Your Green Book With You – You May Need It’ – underscores the difficulties African-Americans faced when journeying away from home through unfamiliar areas. Yet as Taylor argues, the Green Book’s influence and impact was twofold. Not only did the annual publication serve as an essential travel guide, but as an effective and indispensable marketing tool for black-owned businesses as well. Through advertising, grassroots promotion, and word of mouth, the Green Book assembled an impressive list of hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, recreation areas, stores, service stations, salons, and vacation spots that offered safe and welcoming accommodations for black travelers. Taylor’s examination of the Green Book is unique in this regard. For while she offers historical and first-hand accounts of the dangers of driving while black in America, she also suggests that the very need for a travel guide provided recognition as well as financial support for the many black-owned business establishments featured in each issue. This shared emphasis weaves throughout each chapter, as Taylor combines historical data and personal accounts of black travel with descriptions and photographs – many taken by the author – of the sites frequented by black individuals and families as they made their way across American roads. Taylor also includes a chapter on how the Green Book served as a source of empowerment for black women, who through advertising in the publication were able to experience a measure of success running businesses that included hotels, beauty shops, tourist homes, and sex clubs. Another chapter is devoted to the Green Book’s role in the Great Migration, and how it provided information not only on safe stops along the way but also on welcoming locations in which to relocate. 

Taylor holds a master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies and is widely recognized as an award-winning author, photographer, and cultural documentarian. Like much of her previous work, Overground Railroad is part of a broader project which includes the book, a traveling exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, as well as a children’s book, board game, and walking tour mobile app. In the book’s afterword, Taylor includes a Green Book Site Tour, the Green Book Cover Guide, as well as recommendations for local and national activism supported by a who’s who list of prominent African-American scholars, journalists, and legal experts. Taylor’s overarching goal in this project is not only to examine the Green Book’s influence on black American travel and black-owned businesses during the era framed by Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, but also to inspire readers to challenge the social and legal inequalities that exist in the present day. 

While The Overground Railroad is well-researched, it is more experiential than academic, often relying on recollections of family members and black business owners, as well as  observations from Taylor’s 40,000 mile road trip in which she visits and documents nearly 3,600 remaining Green Book establishments and former building sites. The book’s less scholarly, more familiar language and tone makes the book accessible to a wider, and perhaps more inclusive, audience. That being said, the Overground Railroad project has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants from prominent educational and cultural institutions and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2020.

Prior to the release of the popular motion picture The Green Book in 2018, most Americans were unfamiliar with the publication from which it took its name or the need for its existence. Overground Railroad is both a timely and necessary follow-up to the Oscar-winning film. Throughout its adeptly researched and photo-rich chapters, Taylor not only documents the injustices and real-life dangers black Americans faced while on the road, but provides the impetus to create change through political activism. As Taylor writes, “I wanted to show [the Green Book] in the context of this country’s ongoing struggle with race and social mobility.” For the problems black Americans face today, Taylor continues, “are arguably just as debilitating and deadly as the problems the Green Book helped black people avoid more than 80 years ago” (22). Overground Railroad is recommended not only as a unique examination of a dark era of American history, but to demonstrate how, as Taylor asserts, “real change can come from simple tools that solve a problem. That is why the Green Book was so powerful” (295). 

The Classic Car & the Woman Driver On Screen

While I am not a big network TV watcher, I enjoy viewing many of the series that find their way to Netflix or Amazon Prime. One of my favorites that has just returned is Modern Love, a series of short films taken from the New York Times essay feature of the same name. I was particularly taken with this season’s first episode – ‘On a Serpentine Road with the Top Down’ – as it addressed the relationship of a woman – played by British actor Minnie Driver – and her automobile, a 1970s Triumph Stag. The Stag was the impractical vehicle purchased by her late husband while they were both in medical school. It was the car in which they took family road trips and was a space in which they had meaningful family time. Although the widowed physician has remarried and has a second daughter, she is hesitant to part with the car that holds so many memories. She spends much time in the car alone, holding conversations with her late husband, as a way to reflect on her past as she travels through her grief. Like most classic vehicles, the Stag is ornery, unpredictable, and subject to frequent breakdowns. Her husband convinces her to sell it so as to make the family more financially stable. However, as they subsequently engage in an honest and open conversation about love, grief, and the inability to completely move on, her husband sells his boat so that he can buy back the Stag and with it, the memories it holds for the woman he loves.

Stephanie [Minnie Driver], her late husband Mark [Tom Burke], and a classic Triumph Stag in ‘On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down.’

As reviewer Lissette Saenz notes, ‘we get attached to things that remind us of the people we loved and lost.’ In a recent Sunday Times article, women spoke of vehicles inherited upon a loved one’s passing. As the owner of a 1936 Austin Healy explained, “The car is a part of my dad that I still get to hang onto” (Vowden). This sentiment is not only expressed in the Modern Love episode, but can be found in a number of what can only be described as female road trip films.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Popular Culture, I examine the relationship of women and cars in these cinematic offerings. Classic vehicles in the female road trip, I note, often serve as a container of memories for a woman who has suffered a deep personal loss. The cars the women drive are most often not their own; rather they are inherited after the death of the person they loved. I cite two films – Bonneville and Grandma – to demonstrate how an old vehicle can allow a grieving woman to reflect on her past while providing her with the opportunity to drive away from it. 

Arvilla [Jessica Lange], Margene [Kathy Bates], Carol [Joan Allen], and a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville in Bonneville.

In Bonneville, released in 2006, Jessica Lange plays the recently widowed Arvilla, who embarks on a road trip with two friends (Kathy Bates and Joan Allen) in her late husband Joe’s 1966 Pontiac Bonneville to deliver his ashes to his daughter in California. Before embarking on the journey, Arvilla spends some time alone in the car, feeling Joe’s presence and confronting her loss. Yet once she leaves her Utah town, Joe’s spirit slowly exits the Bonneville along with the ashes Arvilla disperses along the way. In its place is Arvilla’s growing confidence in her ability to create a new life for herself.

The 2015 film Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as Elle, a widowed lesbian poet-in-residence who spends a day driving her deceased partner’s 1955 Dodge Lancer across Los Angeles in an attempt to cash in on past debts to pay for her granddaughter’s abortion. While the journey is ostensibly about obtaining funds to help her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), it is in truth about grief, loss, uncertainty, and Elle’s ability to move on. It is also concerned with family and the developing relationship between grandmother and granddaughter.

Sage [Julia Garner], Elle [Lily Tomlin], and a 1955 Dodge Lancer in Grandma.

Women have a different relationship to old cars than do men. In the United States, classic car ownership is overwhelmingly male and is most often prompted by nostalgia. Men of a certain age purchase the models they drove or desired when young as a way to remember or reimagine a young and virile past. Whereas aging men often view the classic car through a personal lens – as a reflection of their former selves – women are more likely to view aging automobiles as a connection to others. These sentiments are not only represented on screen, but are evident in real women’s lives. In my research on women and muscle cars, for example, I spoke with many female owners who inherited cars from fathers or husbands who had passed. Women spoke of both the sadness and joy they experienced when taking these old cars out for a ride.

Like the Modern Love episode, Bonneville and Grandma speak to how an automobile can hold one’s grief while simultaneously providing the means to move beyond it. As a metaphor, as in real life, the automobile is uniquely qualified for this undertaking – it is a physical space in which the essence of a previous owner can be experienced, and has the physical machinations to move a body and a life forward. The films mentioned here reflect an acceptance, as reviewer Tisha Lardizabal notes, that ‘moving on doesn’t mean having to be rid of all of the love and memories that were created.’ They also suggest that the relationship between women and cars is richer, more universal, and more complicated than most representations – in the media and popular culture – would have us believe. 

Lardizabal, Tisha. “Review: Amazon Prime’s ‘Modern Love’ Season Two Premiere ‘On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down’.” mxdwn.com 15 Aug 2021.

Lezotte, Chris. “What Would Miss Daisy Drive? The Road Trip Film, the Automobile, and the Woman Behind the Wheel.” The Journal of Popular Culture.

Saenz, Lisette Sanuza. ‘Modern Love’ 2×01 Review: “On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down.” Fangirlish 13 Aug 2021.

Vowden, Charlotte. “Women With Drive: The Ladies Who Love Being Behind the Wheel of a Classic Car.” Driving 28 Oct. 2018.

1949 Was a Very Good Year

Behind the wheel of my ’49 Ford

Jalopnik recently posed a question to its readers: “What car would you buy that was made the year you were born?” The query received nearly 250 responses, with answers that ranged from financially impossible choices such as a 1977 Countach LP400S to comments such as, “oh god, 1981 was a bad, bad year for cars.” As for me, I am one of the few lucky folks who owns a very cool car that happened to be produced the same year I came into the world. I fell in love with the 1949 Ford when I first spotted it a number of years ago at the Henry Ford Motor Muster in Dearborn, Michigan. There was something unflashy yet soothing about the smooth lines and unique “shoebox” profile. After an intensive search, a Seamist Green ’49 in fairly good condition was discovered in Pennsylvania, and after negotiations were made, was shipped to Michigan.

Distinctive ’49 Ford ‘bullet’ grille

While I chose the ’49 for its aesthetics, I soon discovered that in terms of automotive history, it is a significant automobile. Considered revolutionary when introduced, the ‘49 has often been cited as the “car that saved the Ford Motor Company.” After the Second World War, auto manufacturers were stuck in the past – producing remodeled designs of the prewar vehicles. Ford beat competitors Chrysler and General Motors with an all-new car, distinguished by its “smooth sided ‘envelope’ body and the airplane designed ‘spinner’ in the center of the grill” (thehenryford.org). Although the decision to completely revamp the Ford passenger car was risky, it turned out to be a wise and profitable decision. Ford produced more than a million units its first year of production. As noted by automotive historian Robert Tate, “never had any new car been received with such whole-hearted enthusiasm from the buying public.” New York Times auto writer Michael Lamm exclaims, “the ’49 Ford was born of desperation. It was sleek and daring by the standards of the day; it set benchmarks for styling and packaging, and it proved to be a hit with a car-buying public that was hungry for anything new […]” The ’49 established a clean, modern look that set a pattern for the Fords that followed it, and set the Ford Motor Company on a solid financial course for a number of years.

Just a little bit hot rod

The 1949 Ford I purchased was in fairly good condition but needed work. When it was discovered that the original engine had been replaced by the previous owner, the decision was made to have some fun with the mechanics rather than attempt to restore the car to its original condition. We upgraded the electronic system, added tri-power carburetors, ‘Offy’ (Offenhauser) heads, and a Smitty muffler for a noisy, hot rod sound. The car was eventually repainted, and an electronic fan was installed to prevent the engine from overheating (a common problem among 1949 models.) I’ve taken the Ford to local car shows including the Motor Muster, even winning “Best in Class” at the 2019 Memories Classic Car Cruise-In. It can be a challenge to drive, but it is a lot of fun and gets a fair amount of attention.

When folks are puzzled as to why I chose this particular model of car, I simply tell them it’s because we were both born in Detroit in 1949.

The Henry Ford. Digital Collections. “1949 Ford V-8 Coupe.” theHenryFord.org

Lamm, Michael. “The ’49 Car That Saved Ford Motor.” New York Times 10 Sept 1999.

Tate, Robert. “1949 Ford: The Car, The Workers, and The Innovation.” Motor Cities 29 Sept 2014.

Name That Car

2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS 

In a recent Jalopnik article, auto writer Elizabeth Blackstock expresses frustration at her inability to determine the perfect name for her soon-to-be purchased car. She lists a number of possibilities, but ultimately finds them to be lacking in one way or another. Blackstock implores her readers to come to her aid not through suggestions for her own automobile, but to provide stories of how, why, and what their own cars were named as a means of inspiration. She received a great number of responses – funny, irreverent, and personal – which suggests that car naming is a popular activity among devoted car owners.

In my research focused on female muscle car ownership, I discovered that women often name cars as a way to claim ownership and display a personal identity. As Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car authors Marsh and Collett write, ‘naming is a particularly strong way in which to announce our attachment to something which is much more than just an object’ (13). Because the muscle car has a longstanding and engrained association with masculinity and the male driver, car naming becomes an important way for the female motorist to proclaim ‘this car is mine.’ In order to assure that ownership of a 1965 red Mustang convertible was attributed to her rather than her husband, a 47-year-old analyst attached a personalized license plate inscribed with a girly moniker on the back bumper. Car naming also allows women to call upon shared automotive qualities to project identities. A 47-year-old teacher had ‘She Devil’ air brushed prominently on both her 1989 RS and 2001 Berger SS Camaros. As she noted, ‘I get the funniest comments about that. “So is that the car or the woman?”‘ A 29-year-old New Zealand native, whose 2010 Camaro SS RS is adorned with bumble bee imagery and carries the license plate ‘Kiwi Bee,’ has taken identification with the car to a whole new level. As the automotive product manager explained, ‘I’m constantly accessorizing myself to match the car. My computer laptop bag is yellow; I have a yellow purse; my fingernails I paint yellow and put black bowties on them.’ [1]While the owner is proud to own an iconic symbol of American muscle, the name on the license plate assures that others know who she is and where she came from. 

1965 Ford Mustang

Women often name cars as a way to connect to an individual from the past, or to establish themselves firmly in the present. A classic Mustang owner often accompanied her father to his job as a mechanic when she was a girl. As she remarked, ‘I remember going into the garage where he worked, and I just loved the smell.’ After his passing, she decided to honor him and his love for cars by using his childhood nickname for her on the automobile’s personalized license plate. The 51-year-old executive director of a non-profit likes to think of herself as a ‘badass’ when behind the wheel of her 1966 Chevrolet Impala. As she exclaimed, ‘I identify my car as female; she has a name and she is a badass, too.’ Marsh and Collett claim that American drivers often use specialized license plates to draw attention to themselves. As they assert, for some drivers the vanity plate ‘serves the role of a personal testimonial, displaying the owner’s sense of humor or his ability to challenge the wits of other drivers’ (75). A 54-year-old 2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS owner calls upon a vanity plate to express the identity she claims  – BANSSHE – when behind the wheel. When a 50-year-old school bus driver pulls into a car show in her Frost Blue 1968 Plymouth Barracuda with a personalized ‘princess’ vanity plate on the front, attired in an ensemble color coordinated with her car, she is not only announcing herself as the owner of the vehicle, but is suggesting she is as ‘flashy and out there’ as the car she drives.

Marsh and Collett argue that the original muscle car served as a ‘standard form of uniform’ for young men; embellishment provided the opportunity to ‘transform the vehicle into social statement”’ (93). The women in this project call upon naming and marking to identify with a category of automobile historically associated with the man behind the wheel. In doing so they make the car their own, and project a revised and reimagined image of the woman driver.


[1] ‘Bowtie’ is the common term used to refer to the Chevrolet logo.

Blackstock, Elizabeth. ‘What Did You Name Your Car?’ Jalopnik.com 3 April, 2021.

Marsh, Peter and Peter Collett. Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. 2nd ed. Winchester MA: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1989.

Learning to Drive

1960 Corvair, parked in front of my Detroit house.

A recent article in Jalopnik reflected on an embarrassing moment experienced by the author while taking her driver’s test. Her reflection inspired a deluge of equally entertaining ‘learning to drive’ stories in the comment section. Like many who read the article, I took a moment to reflect upon my driver education experiences. Unlike the majority of my peers, I was not eager to get a driver’s license. Because my mother was a widow who never learned to drive, I was allowed to get a driver’s permit at 15 so that I could transport her to shopping, church, and anywhere she needed to go. The stipulation was that I could only drive if an adult was in the car with me. It was a strange condition considering that the adult – my mother – was an individual who had no idea how to start a car, let alone drive it. But those were the rules. And if I wanted to go anywhere, I had to take my non-driving mother along with me. So suffice it to say that my first year of driving was not a pleasurable one. 

During the 1960s, driver’s ed was a course offered at many high schools. Since the high school I attended – located in downtown Detroit – did not have a driver’s ed program, I took the course the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at the local high school. I don’t remember much about it except that we drove Falcons with automatic transmissions. At the time, the ‘family’ car my brother drove – and I was to share – was a 1960 Corvair with a 3-on-the-floor manual transmission. If I wanted to drive it, I had to learn how to drive a stick shift. My very patient married brother –  a Detroit police officer – volunteered to teach me. We spent many evenings after school at the Lutheran High West parking lot in my neighborhood going round and around as I ground the gears figuring out how to engage the clutch. A few school mates happened to see [or should I say hear] me there, and would make grinding sounds whenever they saw me walking down the halls. My married sister had a stick-shift station wagon, and when I went there to babysit, my brother-in-law provided driving lessons in exchange for taking care of the kids. By the time I took my driver’s test, I was pretty adept at shifting gears. Our next car was a 1964, three-on-the-tree Pontiac Tempest, which I adapted to pretty easily. As I grew older, I appreciated that I could drive a stick; it helped me focus on my driving, and it made getting behind the wheel more fun. It has also served as a source of surprise; even or perhaps especially today, few expect a woman to be able to drive a stick. But I enjoyed having a skill most others did not. So much so that nearly all of the cars I have owned in my 55 years of driving have had manual transmissions, including my two classic cars – a ‘49 Ford and 1967 Shelby Mustang.

When I turned 16, the adult-in-the-car restrictions were lifted, and I no longer had to take my mom with me whenever I wanted to go for a ride. It was my first taste of freedom, and the beginning of my understanding of what automobility makes possible. As a woman who came of age in the 1960s, that was no small thing. And it was this ‘driver’s education’, as well as many experiences that followed, that led me to focus my research on women and cars. 

The Woman’s Truck Song

Miranda Lambert in her ’55 Chevy pickup

A recent survey published by money.co.uk about the prevalence of truck references in country music inspired a number of articles on what can only be described as the “truck song.” Although the percentage of songs with truck references over the years has varied, it has always been a popular theme. The truck song reached its height during the 2010s in a genre referred to as “bro country.” As described in a 2013 article in Entertainment Weekly, this country category is “basically a bunch of guys singing about trucks, headlights, rolled-down windows, jeans, alcohol, moonlit makeouts, and sex on the river beds beside old dirt roads” (Jones). The common theme in these songs is the ways in which a man’s truck serves as a site of sexual conquest. Bro Country represents a rather stereotypical and good ol’ boy type of masculinity. In these renditions, women [most often referred to as ‘girls’] do not drive the trucks; rather, they are prizes to be seduced by a bro in a lifted Chevy Silverado or Ford Super Duty F-250 King Ranch. 

What is surprising, therefore, is that two of the top five streaming truck songs on Spotify are by women artists – Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”, and “Automatic” by Miranda Lambert. In 2020, Detroit auto journalist Mark Phelan noted, women were responsible for about half as many truck songs as “the good ol’ boys.” But the messages found in songs composed by women differ from those of male country singers. Like singer-songwriters in a variety of genres, country music artists create songs out of their own experiences. As I argue in my work on the women’s car song, female artists alter the meaning of the automobile to fit their own life events. As I wrote, “car songs based on women’s experience […] contest the exclusive relationship of the automobile to masculinity as well as provide alternative and multiple ways to consider the meanings women ascribe to cars” (163). This would certainly hold true for songs about the pickup truck, a vehicle historically associated with masculinity, particularly of the ‘bro’ variety. Underwood and Lambert, country legends in their own right, provide two examples of the truck song created from women’s experience.

As I note in my work on female pickup owners: 

Of all the vehicles produced for the American driver, perhaps none is more strongly associated with masculinity than the full size pickup truck. […] pickups are often accessorized with ‘decorative’ additions – women’s garters hanging from rearview mirrors, plastic testicles dangling from trailer hitches and mud flaps featuring large breasted women – to mark the vehicle as a male space. Pickup advertising often relies on masculine tropes and gender stereotypes with headlines such as ‘A diamond for her hand, a hemi for his foot’, and ‘Yeah, it’s good to be King’. Marketing has traditionally called upon terms such as hardworking, tough, strong and powerful to describe the truck as well as the man who drives it (136). 

Carrie Underwood “Before He Cheats”

In “Before He Cheats,” the pickup is not only the site of a man’s infidelity, but serves as the physical embodiment of his masculine identity. To seek revenge for unfaithfulness, Underwood desecrates that which will hurt her lover the most – not his person, but the object through which he identifies. The vandalization of the truck is not a simple act of passion or rage; rather, each verse in the refrain describes a specific action intended to destroy a fragment of her lover’s manhood.

When Underwood sings, “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive,” she is returning the hurt she endured through her man’s cheating. So as not to forget the woman he wronged, Underwood “carved my name into his leather seats,” to leave a permanent and unmistakable reminder of the man’s indiscretion. “I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights” has Shakespearean overtones. Shakespearean characters are often made blind – literally have their eyes ripped out – in order to prevent them from inflicting harm or engaging in wrongdoing. Underwood wants to insure her betrayer can no longer look upon nor be tempted by the “bleached-blond tramp” singing some “white-trash version of Shania karaoke.” And finally, Underwood belts, “I slashed a hole in all four tires,” an action taken to strip away the freedom and mobility his souped-up truck provides.

Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic,” on the other hand, is a nostalgic look at the past. As Lambert reflects in a Songfacts interview, the song is “about slowing down, taking a breath and remembering what it’s like to live life a little more simply.” The truck is a stick-shift, 3-on-the-tree, 55 Chevy in which Lambert’s father taught her to drive [and which she still owns.] It is a metaphor for a slowed-down life, in which folks took their time, did things by hand, waited in line, and had patience in relationships and love. Automatic, of course, refers to the easy-driving, effortless transmissions found in over 98% of cars on the road today (Wiesenfelder). It also suggests a life carried on without too much thought, where getting things easy is the norm. “Automatic” reflects on Lambert’s own road to success; she hangs on to the truck so as not to be forgetful of the road her life has taken and how she got there.

As these two examples suggests, unlike the bro country truck song, which centers on sexual prowess, braggadocio, and other characteristics of what could be described as a “redneck” masculinity, women’s experience, automotive and otherwise, is what drives the message of the songs women sing about trucks. Women’s lives, and their relationships with cars and trucks, differ from those of men. Those unique experiences are often reflected in the country woman’s truck song.

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Journal of American Culture 36.3, (2013) 161-176.

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

Morris, Sylvia. “Sight and Blindness in Shakespeare.” Theshakespeareblog.com 17 Aug 2012.

Phelan, Mark. “Surveys Show Who Sings About Pickups Most, and Which Truck is No. 1.” Freep.com 24 Jan 2021.

Shrader, Stef. “Your Ears Are Right: Country Music is Singing Way More About Trucks Now.” thedrive.com 23 Jan 2021.

Smith, Grady. “Every Truck, Beer, and ‘Girl’ Reference of the Current Country Chart.” ew.com 18 Oct 2013.

Songfacts. “’Automatic’ by Miranda Lambert.” Songfacts.com. n.d.

Wiesenfelder, Joe. “Why Manual Transmissions Are Dying…and What’ll End Them for Good.” Cars.com 16 Jul 2020

Road Trips Part 2

Field of Dreams movie set, Davenport IA

In the early auto age, road trip vacations were primarily the privilege of the rich. However, with the advent of the Model T and improved roads, writes historian James Flink, “the automobile outing and the automobile vacation became middle-class American institutions” (167). By mid-century, as cars became more affordable and roads more drivable, the road trip evolved into an experience unto itself. Families packed up station wagons with kids and cargo and headed out to summer cottages and camping sites. While twenty-first century vacationers are often in a hurry to get to a destination, traveling by the quickest means possible in order to be stationary, there remains a romanticism to spending the majority of a vacation on the road. An abundance of frequent flyer miles has made it easy for my husband and I to travel by plane to our vacation destination. But a few years ago, we decided to take an old fashioned road trip to experience an all American pastime. As we had nearly completed our bucket list of visiting all major league baseball parks, we began our journey into the world of minor league baseball, on a vacation we will forever refer to as our “Field of Dreams” tour.

Perfect Game Field, Cedar Rapids IA

The trip started out at a major league game in Chicago between the Tigers and White Sox. But the next morning we entered Iowa, traveling on back roads through corn and soybean fields from one small town to another. Minor league baseball is unlike its big league brother – the uniforms are torn, the entertainment corny, the people friendly, and the players so very, very young. Often the parks are the major gathering place of the community, with many families and groups of friends or coworkers in attendance. We scheduled our trip to visit home games in as many parks as possible, and managed to visit stadiums in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, and Clinton. The names of the teams are often as interesting as the parks themselves – you have to root for squads known as the Quad City River Bandits, Cedar Rapids Kernels, Burlington Bees, or Clinton Lumber Kings. The main destination of the road trip was the Field of Dreams movie set, the ultimate baseball flick. It is a movie I never tire off, particularly during the off season when I am counting the hours until Opening Day. Driving from one park to another we visited a few quirky places  – the National Farm Toy Museum, the University of Iowa campus, and the best ice cream joint in the state of Iowa were a few of the more memorable stops. We were blessed with good weather and an absence of car issues; I will always remember the Field of Dreams tour as one of the best vacations of my life.

Winning the Dr Pepper raffle at Ashford University Field, Clinton IA

As COVID has put a damper on long distance traveling, I look forward to the day when we can get back on the road. While big city and warm weather destinations are certainly great experiences, nothing beats an old fashioned road trip.    

Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1990.