I am not one for fancy vacations; I haven’t been out of the country [with the exception of our nearby neighbor Canada] in decades and warm weather escapes are not my thing. When I escape from everyday life for a week or two I am not seeking pricey hotels or gourmet meals; I would rather spend that time going somewhere exciting or new or fun. In my mind, the best type of vacation is the road trip; more specifically, a baseball road trip. One of my favorite pastimes is to visit ballparks in all parts of the country. Since my husband and I have been to every current [and many past] major league ballparks, we had a wonderful time this past summer heading east and stopping at seven minor league parks and the mecca of baseball fans, the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
The first stop of our trip was UPMC Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, home of the Erie SeaHawks. As it happened to be ‘Christmas in July’ night, we received nifty snow hats before the game was rained out. The next day found us at Sahlen Field, home of the Buffalo Bisons. After a day off in Buffalo to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House – and Niagara Falls – we made our way to Innovative Field, home of the Rochester Red Wings.
Road trips are not only about the destinations, but also the interesting and often fascination regional attractions along the way. In Rochester we stopped at the Eastman Photography Museum and Susan B. Anthony House. In Binghamton we took a tour of the Phelps Museum and rode on one of the many public carousels in the surrounding area. [Binghamton, as it turns out, is the country’s carousel capital. Who knew?] We went a little out of our way to Saratoga Springs to visit its impressive car museum; the Schuyler Museum and USS Slater destroyer [as well as Gannon’s Ice Cream Shoppe] were part of our Syracuse stop. While these attractions would hardly make anyone’s Top Ten list, they offer fascinating insights into an area, its history, and its people. And they are the kind of places places – a little quirky, so fun and so interesting – you can only come across on a road trip. The trip was made in our new 2023 VW GTI which was an enjoyable way to travel down small town roads as well as speedier highways. When the mood struck us we opened the sunroof and took in the summer sunlight bouncing off our heads. It was a great trip – good baseball, interesting attractions, and a great way for my husband I to spend some time together on the road to – and from – Cooperstown.
With a couple of aging cars and an upcoming change of lifestyle, it was time to replace our modes of transport. I loved my 2015 Golf R, but as a car with little tech [not even Apple Play!] I had driven for 8 years and 45,000 miles, I was ready for something new. I had originally planned on updating it with the 2023 model but the wait time was more than I was willing to endure. Plus, as I tend to own my cars for a long time, I didn’t think it would be safe as an eventual 80-year-old to get behind the wheel of a vehicle that went 0-60 in less than 4 seconds. However, since I love German cars, particularly VWs, I opted for a 2023 VW GTI. And as we were moving to downtown Ann Arbor, with short blocks that can be rather hilly, I quashed my desire for a 6-speed manual and opted for the pretty quick [0-60 in 5.1] 7-speed DSG. With front-wheel rather than all-wheel drive, it is a different driving experience but still a very enjoyable ride. And the tech! After a few months I am still learning all of what my car can do. But most of the things I loved about my Golf R remain – the responsive steering, the compact, perfect-for-me size, the simple yet pleasing design inside and out, the surprisingly spacious cargo area, and most importantly, the elements that make it so very ‘fun to drive.’ We took it on a baseball road trip this past summer and it was comfortable but not cushy, had plenty of space for our gear, and got better gas mileage [on regular rather than premium fuel!] than the R. And since my husband and I will be sharing the car [he traded in his Audi and 2016 R] it was important that we both enjoy it. And we do.
Our other trade in was more utilitarian. For the past 30 years we have owned what we affectionally called a ‘dog’ vehicle. As breeders and exhibitors of bullmastiffs, we always drove a standard van that could carry at least five very large dogs. We opted for a RAM City Wagon a few years back, but traded up for the more spacious RAM Promaster which was perhaps the best canine transportation we had owned in our 30 years of breeding and showing dogs. However, after retiring from the dog world four years ago, we were down to two dogs so desired something smaller and more easy to maneuver in the city. We originally considered a large SUV, but the high entry point and the difficulty fitting two large crates in the back made us rethink our choice. After considering all of the options, we opted for – dare I say – a minivan. We chose a KIA which, as it turns out, has easy entry and plenty of space for two large dogs. It is also way more comfortable and has way more tech than the ProMaster. And most importantly, the ‘girls’ love it.
We have since [very recently] moved from 18 rural acres to a condo in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. With much of what we do now within walking distance, our dependence on cars has been dramatically reduced. With a carport rather than [multiple] garages, the two new vehicles are fitting well into our new and very different lifestyle.
While in graduate school during the early 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I examine how gender influences the meanings ascribed to the automobile in popular fiction.
If the automobile existed merely as a mode of transportation, it would be found primarily in showrooms, on freeways and in public parking lots and personal garages. If it were regarded as simply an object of technology, the car would be praised for its utility and practicality, and cursed when it didn’t perform to expectations. If the automobile was only valued for its usefulness, it would be regarded in the same manner as other technological necessities of the home and workplace, such as the washing machine, dishwasher and office copier.
However, the automobile has taken accumulated a variety of alternative meanings since the Model T first rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line. As David Laird suggests, automobiles promise “power, mobility, freedom, even a ‘poetic’ space that beckons from beyond the too familiar course of things” (244). Rather than simply a means to get from here to there, the car serves as a symbol of status, daring and sexual prowess. It is considered a home away from home or a room of one’s own. In the US, the automobile is not only found in the driveway, but in films, art, music, popular culture and literature as well. In such locations, the car is not just a prop or background; rather, it often serves as a reflection of a particular society and is imbued with cultural and personal meaning. In literature, the automobile is often a metaphor for our hopes and dreams, for how we live and what we want to be. While there are certainly a number of attributes that influence the car’s role in literature, one of the most significant is gender.
There can be little argument that the car is considered a masculine technology. And in literature, whether in a real or symbolic capacity, the automobile is most often a male space, located within a masculine environment. Loren Estleman portrays such a gendered location in Motown, a crime novel loosely based on events that occurred in Detroit during the summer of 1966. The auto industry, faced with mandatory automobile safety upgrades during the era of the “muscle car,” provides the backdrop for three parallel storylines and a lot of dirty business. The major players in Estleman’s novel are male, and the “muscle cars” they drive are fueled by testosterone. Motown’s women are stereotypical at best; they not only reveal Estleman’s notion of women’s place, but also represent the pre-feminist ideology of the auto industry. As a crime novel of the noir genre, Motown is concerned about what cars, and the car industry do, rather than the meanings ascribed to automobiles. Estelman’s storyline reflects, in the words of David Laird, “a society enormously dependent upon the automobile both as a means of transportation and as a source of economic activity” (244). Motown is built on plot rather than ideology; the cars in Estleman’s novel move the narrative literally rather than figuratively.
In other literary genres, however, the automobile is often a metaphor for male experience and masculine character. Unlike fictions such as Motown, the focus of narrative is not the car or car industry. Rather, the presence of the automobile in the novel fulfills a symbolic purpose. Marie Farr, in “Freedom and Control,” asserts that in such contexts, male writers “accept the popular myth that identifies the automobile with male sexuality, power and control: in their works, driving often becomes a rite of initiation or a test of masculinity.” In these fictions, men are the drivers, and as such, carry the narrative forward. The dreams that the car represents – success, adventure, conquest and youth – are the property of men. If women are present in such narratives, they are only going along for the ride.
The first appearance of the automobile in women’s literature occurred in the “road trip” genre. Women’s travel stories offered women writers the opportunity to explore the possibilities of female automobility. As Deborah Clarke remarks in “Domesticating the Car,” “women wrote increasingly about journeys, about mobility, and about the power inherent in this increased freedom” (101). Unlike male writers and drivers, women do not take the independence automobiles offer for granted. Access to the car does not equal independence, as it has often been instrumental in restricting women’s movements while keeping them close to home. For decades, cars have been sold to women as a form of domestic technology. Farr suggests that to the 1950s American housewife, the automobile had become “the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could most often be found.”
The second wave of feminism inspired many female writers to call upon the automobile to reflect women’s growing agency and autonomy. Like their male literary contemporaries, women writers employ the car as metaphor to equate driving with living. The automobile in women’s literature often provides women temporary freedom from the constraints on how they are allowed to live. Thus while male writers use the automobile and the act of driving as symbols of power and control, female authors appropriate and reconfigure male images so that power as control transforms itself into “the power of being one’s own person” (Farr).
The car as “home away from home” or a “room of one’s own” has special meaning to women. Often unable to leave their children behind, automobiles in women’s fiction often serve as a moving family. In women’s fiction, cars may also function as a personal space away from domestic and familial responsibilities. While both male and female writers ascribe meaning to the automobile in fiction, the reality of women’s lives suggests that the metaphor has alternative meanings, determined by the gender of the writer and the driver.
Since its invention, the automobile has been firmly linked with masculinity. Women’s access to the automobile, and the meanings associated with it, has been qualified at best. Women’s fiction provides admission to a culture that has been historically closed to female readers and drivers. It infringes on the masculine car culture and reclaims and reconfigures the automobile into women’s own image. As Deborah Clarke writes, “American fiction reflects and shapes the dynamics between women and cars” (195). The automobile in contemporary American women’s fiction provides evidence that women are, in fact, viable and significant participants in American car culture.
Estleman, Loren. Motown. New York: Bantam, 1991.
Farr, Marie T. “Freedom and Control: Automobiles in American Women’s Fiction of the 70s and 80s.” The Journal of Popular Culture 29 (1995) 157-69.
Laird, David. “Versions of Eden: The Automobile and the American Novel.” The Automobile and American Culture. D.L. Lewis & L. Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 639-651.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rightswas 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’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.
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.
 ‘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.