Boys and their Toys

A recent Jalopnik article asked its readers to elaborate on how they ‘got into cars.’ While the responses included references to racing, car magazines, and movies, the majority fell into two categories. The first route to a life as an auto enthusiast was through a relationship with a male relative or mentor, most often one’s dad. The second was a childhood preoccupation with ‘toys that move,’ whether those vehicles were the popular Hot Wheels, Matchbox cars, model cars, slot cars, Tonka trucks, or racing sets. Although women compose over half of US licensed drivers, cars are very much perceived as a male interest. This was evident in the comments accompanying the Jalopnik article which were, as far as I could tell, posted overwhelmingly by men. This suggests that while women are engaged with the automobile as drivers, they are less likely than their male counterparts to take on the mantle of ‘auto aficionado.’ If the Jalopnik article does, in fact, reflect the most common routes to automotive interest, it would appear that such influences are absent in women’s early lives.

In my own research into women’s relationship with the car – particularly as participants in automotive cultures traditionally associated with the male driver [i.e. muscle cars, pickup trucks, and motorsports] – the encouragement of a male family member or mentor was instrumental in instigating and maintaining a girl’s or young woman’s automotive interest. Many of the women interviewed in these various projects noted the importance of fathers, boyfriends, and husbands in acquiring a love for all things automotive. It is significant to note that the majority who responded in this manner were without male siblings, which suggests that dad would not have had as much concern in encouraging his daughters if he had sons [one has to wonder if the Force sisters would have made such an impact on the drag racing world if John Force had a son or two.] A much smaller percentage of the women noted how they developed in interest in cars by ‘borrowing’ the matchbox cars of brothers or male playmates. Young girls are rarely gifted toy cars; toys that move have always been promoted as proper toys for boys. While the notion that ‘girls just aren’t interested in cars’ has become somewhat of a rationale for women’s general lack of participation in automotive culture and industry, the gendered division of playthings -particularly toy cars and trucks – has deprived girls from the likelhood of developing a passion for the automobile.

Toys often serve as introductions to and reinforcements of cultural and gender expectations. As among the earliest and most influential technologies with which children come into contact, toys ‘transmit to children […] particular views of gender relations, examples of appropriate behavior, and character models’ (Varney 2002, 153). The gendered demarcation of toys was well established by the early twentieth century. The transition from horse drawn carriages to gasoline-powered automobiles was reflected in the playthings available to young boys – horse and buggy toys were replaced by miniature cars. Young girls also experienced a gendered progression – the Victorian sewing doll was superseded by the baby doll. While baby dolls reinforced the expectation that women would live quiet and unassuming lives as mothers, ‘toy vehicles captured the variety of men’s life of automobility, as drivers of status cars, as deliverers of useful goods, as roadmakers, and race car drivers. These were male machines that opened up a dynamic modern world to their drivers’ (Cross 2009, 56). Much like the vehicles they imitated, toy cars were irrefutably associated with technological aptitude, risk taking behavior, and maleness. As Ruth Oldenziel (2001) suggests, ‘toys were intended not only to amuse and entertain but also as socializing mechanisms, as educational devices and as scaled-down versions of the realities of the larger adult-dominated social world’ (42).

The lack of automotive exposure in childhood can have significant repercussions in adulthood. As I noted in an examination of women’s car advice websites (Lezotte 2014), without a grasp of automotive knowledge women are likely to experience significantly more discrimination in purchasing and servicing automobiles than their male counterparts. And without early exposure to cars, women are less likely to consider careers in auto-related industries or professions. Links between machinery and masculinity, originating in the assignment of mechanical toys to boys, has kept particular skills and professions within male domination. ‘In a society which thinks highly of technology and which there is an elaborate relationship between power and technology,’ notes Wendy Varney (2002), ‘this exclusion from that domain can effectively lock one out of a vast area of influence’ (168). Not only does this lack of auto interest and education limit women’s occupational opportunities, but can lead to a scenario in which decisions in vehicle engineering, design, production, and use are left primarily to the men in charge. As Wheel writer Emily Fritz (2018) asserts, ‘As we neglect to involve girls in car culture from a young age, we are also neglecting to involve them in the opportunity to learn and gain skills such as the ability to use tools, the ability to formulate basic civil engineering, and the ability to come in contact with the ways in which moving parts work—all of which are found in many car-based boy’s toys.’

The Jalopnik article – and the overwhelmingly male responses – is not only indicative of what is certainly a mostly male readership, but also demonstrates the importance of toys that move in the development of automotive interest in young boys. Since the majority of young girls grow up to be drivers, it is puzzling [but not surprising] that they are dissuaded from engaging with cars at the age in which they are most impressionable. But then again, most boys grow up to be fathers, yet are discouraged, if not ostracized, when demonstrating any interest in dolls. Such is the gendered power of toys.

Note: some of this material is taken from an article-in-progress on the Barbie car.

Cross, Gary S. 2009. Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood.

DaSilva, Steve. 2022. ‘These Are the Stories of How You Got Into Cars.’ Jalopnik 10 Oct.

Fritz, Emily. 2018. “The Harm of Gender Roles in Car Culture: An Argument for Getting Girls Involved.” Wheel.

Lezotte, Chris. 2014. ‘Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice.’ Feminist Media Studies.

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

Varney, Wendy. 2002. ‘Of Men and Machines: Images of Masculinities in Boys’ Toys.’ Feminist Studies 28(1): 153-174.

Visit to the Gilmore Car Museum

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

‘Quiet, Clean, and Easy to Operate’

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

1886 Benz

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

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

Lena Plymale’s 1971 Dodge Challenger Convertible

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

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

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

For the future [male] Cadillac owner

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

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

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

TV Cars & Masculinity

While in graduate school during the 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, in an appeal to male viewers, TV producers relied on the automobile to add masculinity to television programming during the 1960s and 70s.

Since its inception, television has been blamed for a wide variety of society’s ills. The lowering of our nation’s mores, and the rise in illiteracy, indolence, violence and promiscuity have all, at some point, been attributed to television programming. However, during the industry’s infancy, television posed an even greater threat to its growing audience. As Katie Mills argues in “TV Gets Hip on Route 66,” it was the influence of television as a feminizing medium that had both sociologists and programmers up in arms.

George Maharis, Martin Milner, and a 1960 Corvette in Route 66

During this period, intellectuals, such as those of the ‘Beat’ generation, expressed anxiety about the inevitable cultural impoverishment of TV audiences. The notion of a “wasteland,” taken from the poem of the same name by TS Elliot, was often invoked to describe women’s and children’s TV programming. What television required, it was suggested, was a dose of masculinity. This infusion of manhood was necessary not only to increase the television viewer base, but perhaps more important, to avoid the feminization of the American audience as well. To attain this goal, a television program was created which featured two handsome young men accompanied by the ultimate symbol of masculine power: the American sportscar. Thus in 1960, Route 66 was born, in which Buz and Tod travel the US highways in a Chevrolet Corvette, rescuing the TV audience from femininity.

Mills writes, “In this ‘cool’ cultural climate of television, the series Route 66 began airing in 1960 as a weekly road story about two non-conforming travelers” (69). The program aired during the prime Friday night time slot, when “exurbanite” fathers were most likely to be home watching television with their families. This road genre series offered CBS a way to dispel the notion of television as a feminine media. In addition, the narrative of the program, which found the male heroes in a different town along Route 66 each week, often provided stories that addressed liberal moral stands, which was quite progressive given the social climate of the postwar era. The Corvette provided mobility, both literally and figuratively, for the two young men, enabling them to travel to new locations and social situations each week. Storylines of the disenfranchised, such as victims of domestic violence or racial bigotry, were made possible by automobility. The automobile provided masculinity to the genre, yet also provided the opportunity for narratives that were not exclusively about men.

However, despite the initial success of Route 66, it appears that television executives did not believe the show was masculine enough. The CBS president insisted that Route 66 be revamped to include “more broads, bosoms and fun” (76). While Route 66 had tried its best to avoid gender politics, the networks were anxious to attract a larger male audience. Thus, as Mills tells us, television honchos relied on “such male-oriented gimmicks as fast cars, macho conflict and big busted actresses” (77). Such associations have pervaded the use of the automobile in television throughout much of its history. While TV shows that preceded Route 66, such as Danny ThomasOzzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best, used cars to reflect and codify suburban lifestyles and mores, the advent of the muscle car during the late 1960s and its appearance in television dramas reaffirmed the automobile as a symbol of masculinity.

David Soul [Hutch], Paul Michael Glaser [Starsky], and a 1976 Ford Gran Torino

The automobile in Route 66 was never considered a character in the drama. Rather, its significance rested in its use as a metaphor for mobility and masculinity. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, the role of the TV car often equaled, if not exceeded, that of its human counterparts. Unlike programs such as Route 66, in which the car contributed masculinity in an understated, almost subliminal manner, automobiles were inserted into 1970s shows to attract a male audience interested primarily in the car. Writing about the Batmobile, in Hollywood TV and Movie Cars, William Krause asserts, “ the enormous popularity of the car primed the pump for countless television cars to become as famous as their human costars” (103). Cartoon-type dramas, such as BatmanThe Green Hornet and the Monkees, featured outrageous automobiles constructed from stock muscle cars. In programs that followed, such as Starsky and HutchThe Dukes of Hazzard, and Magnum PI, “hot” cars often served to divert the male audience from weakness in storyline and character development. Krause writes of the “General,” a 1969 Dodge Charger with a 440-ci V8 Magnum engine and an A-727 automatic transmission featured in Hazzard, “the car was really the only redeeming portion of the show” (120). Whereas the original intent of Route 66 was to attract the male viewer through “masculine” content and subject matter, shows such as Hazzard dismissed such lofty ambitions, and simply concentrated on “fast cars, macho conflicts and big-busted actresses.” 

Jerry Van Dyke and his “Mother,” a 1928 Porter Stanhope touring car

One of the few attempts to disrupt the conflation of masculinity and automobiles on television was in the 1965 ill-fated comedy My Mother the Car. The series, which only lasted one season, revolved around the antics of the protagonist’s mother, reincarnated as a car. However, she does not come back as a cool Corvette or fast Trans Am, but rather, as an antique and antiquated 1928 Porter. Described in the series theme song as “my very own guiding star,” the Porter’s main activity is keeping her grown son, played by Jerry Van Dyke, out of trouble. Speaking only to her son through the car radio, the Porter is the cast character with the most smarts and common sense. However, as Deborah Clarke writes in Driving Women, “despite the fascination with technology – or maybe because of it – the American public wanted no part of a show that insisted that a woman and a car could be one and the same” (74). As a car’s primary function in television is to infuse it with masculinity, My Mother the Car suggests that the automobile as a mother has very little appeal. 

As the car in television suggests, the automobile is not only an American symbol of masculinity, but is often called upon to make TV programming more masculine as well. In American society, that which is feminine has less value. Faced with the possibility of a feminized, and therefore, undesirable medium, TV producers and programmers have traditionally called upon technology, in the form of an automobile, to add masculinity, and therefore intrinsic value, to what is viewed on the television screen.

Clarke, Deborah. Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Krause, William. Hollywood TV and Movie Cars. Minneapolis: Motorbooks, 2001.

Marling, Karal Ann. “America’s Love Affair with the Automobile in the Television Age” in Design Quarterly 149 (1989): 5-22.

Mills, Katie. The Road Story and the Rebel: Moving Through Film, Fiction, and Television. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.

A Modern Dream Cruise

One of the annual traditions in the metropolitan Motor City is the Woodward Dream Cruise. Held annually on the third Saturday of August, the cruise is a day-long celebration of car culture. Instituted in 1995 as an effort to raise money for a children’s soccer field in Ferndale, Michigan, the event now attracts more than 1.5  million visitors. Featuring more than 40,000 muscle cars and street machines, the Woodward Dream Cruise is now considered the world’s largest one-day vintage car event.

Cruisin’ Woodward in the 1970s

Woodward Avenue was chosen not only for its central location – it is the unofficial divider of metropolitan Detroit’s east and west sides – but more importantly for its significant muscle car history. It is rumored that John DeLorean found inspiration for the Pontiac GTO – considered by aficionados as the original muscle car – while driving home from General Motors in downtown Detroit to his home in Bloomfield Hills. In the glory days of muscle car culture, young men in their Chevelles, Camaros, Challengers, and Barracudas could be spotted on summer evenings drag racing from light to light down the long suburban expanse of Woodward Avenue. The original Dream Cruise was true to this vision; the two right lanes were devoted to classic muscle cars and hot rods, while auto enthusiasts and curious spectators lined up curbside to take in the style and sounds of the magnificent machines of the past.

2022 Mustang Alley

However in recent years, the cruise and the cars that drive in it have changed. While there are still a few true muscle cars in attendance they have been taken over by modern muscle. This was nowhere more evident than at the traditional “Mustang Alley” display held each year in Ferndale. Once populated by classic Mustangs, 9 Mile Road is now the place to park the new generation of pony cars. What has also changed are the folks who own them. As a product of the 60s and 70s, classic muscle cars are overwhelmingly driven by members of the baby boomer generation. Now in their 70s, the grey haired men are less inclined to take an unreliable 50 year old car into the stop and go traffic of Woodward on Dream Cruise day. The newer cars reflect a changing population of muscle car aficionados. The younger generation, while acknowledging the Mustang’s significant history, prefer the speed, safety, economy, reliability and superior power of modern muscle. And once discouraged, if not outright banished, from participating in muscle car culture, women now take pleasure and pride in the power and excitement the new cars have to offer. Women are now credited with purchasing over one third of Mustangs, suggesting not only that the female motorist has become more car savvy, but also that the masculinity associated with Detroit muscle is ever-so-slowly shifting.

Past Mustang Alley participant – featured in Power Under Her Foot

A recent Detroit Free Press article made note of the changing automotive population, referring to the 2022 Woodward Dream Cruise as ‘a celebration of tradition and new.’ As an aging boomer who has done extensive research on the muscle car, I miss seeing the panther pink and grabber blue muscle cars of the past driving down the Woodward Avenue of my youth. But as one who writes about women and cars, I am delighted to see women challenging gender stereotypes and embracing performance and power through the purchase and display of fast and noisy modern muscle. 

Note: One month after this blog was posted, Phoebe Wall Howard, an auto writer for the Detroit Free Press, spoke to a number of Mustang-owning-women – which she refers to as ‘Mustang Mamas’ – in an article to promote the Detroit Auto Show.

Cars, Style, & Femininity

While in graduate school during the 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 – in the years following World War II – automotive style was reconfigured from a feminine trait to one that suggested masculinity and male power.

Ford’s Model T was so utilitarian, it remained virtually unchanged in style for nearly 20 years.

As the originator of the utilitarian, mass-produced automobile, Henry Ford had little respect for style. Ford believed the ultimate value of the motorcar rested in its reputation as a safe, efficient, and reliable mode of transportation. The car’s outward appearance, in Ford’s estimation, was of little consequence. History suggests that Ford was a rather narrow-minded man, and as such, adhered to racial, ethnic, and gendered stereotypes. His opposition to automotive style, therefore, was based not only on the belief that the car was defined primarily by functionality, but also because beauty and design were considered feminine characteristics, and should have no association with masculine automotive technology. In Ford’s “manly, efficiency-obsessed world of work,” concern for beauty was not only unwelcome, but was an indication of gender deviance (Gartman). Ford’s long-standing estrangement with his only child, Edsel, was often attributed to the elder’s intolerance of his son’s artistic leanings and suspected unmanliness. Like the “tough guys” who followed him, Ford believed “beauty belonged in the parlor and questioned the masculinity of any man who tried to put it on a car” (Gartman).

1939 Lincoln Continental designed by Henry’s ‘unmanly’ son Edsel.

The emphasis on car design rather than function was the brainchild of one of Henry Ford’s staunchest competitors. Rather than work on improving automotive technology, which was a rather costly proposition, General Motor’s Alfred Sloan concentrated on “aesthetic innovation ” (Gartman). By changing the cosmetic appearance of the car, Sloan could offer the public a wider variety of styles and models without considerable financial investment. While this proposition made sound business sense, the association of auto design with femininity presented a considerable obstacle. Auto historians offer a number of factors that contributed to the eventual acceptance of the stylish and beautiful automobile. However, there was no greater influence than that of the flamboyant and charismatic automotive designer Harvey Earl.

Earl called upon both his larger-than-life personality and his personal design philosophy to change the way consumers felt about automobile design. While Earl has been described as a “dandy” in both dress and mannerisms, he overcompensated for such characteristics by cultivating a rather crude and super-masculine demeanor. Earl personally embodied both the stylish and the masculine through his large, impeccably attired frame, off-color language, and overbearing personality. In many ways, Earl was the ultimate personification of the automobiles he designed.

Harvey Earl and the 1951 Le Sabre

Social changes also contributed to the acceptance of automobile styling and its feminine associations. As former GM designer Leonard Pilato attests, “it is hard to separate auto design from human and social factors.” Auto historian Gartman suggests the gendered division between beauty and utility was breaking down during this time, as “men subjected to the savage utility and efficiency of mass production were looking to the home and its non utilitarian consumer goods for compensation.” Earl’s automotive designs, inspired by images of fantasy and flight, provided drivers with modes of entertainment and escape. While style may have been considered feminine, the forms on which Earl based his designs, which conjured up images of jet planes, speed and futuristic spacecraft, were examples of masculine technology and ideals.  The emphasis on style rather than function also created new cultural meanings for automobiles. Rather than modes of transportation, cars became symbols of status, success, and power. The image, rather than the technology, of the car provided its owner with a new identity. As Gartman writes, the increased size of cars offered consumers “psychic compensation […] to convince them that their lives were indeed better.” 

Auto historians often maintain that auto design became embraced once it became distanced from femininity. However, I would argue that beautiful cars became desirable because they were, in fact, regarded as female. The cars of the post World War II era were extremely feminine in appearance. The smooth curves and softened angles are reminiscent of women’s bodies. The pastel tones of 1950s automobiles are mirrored in the clothing of 1950s women. Many of the cars of this period are exceptionally “pretty” by today’s standards. The pink 1956 Thunderbird and lime green 1954 Corvette on display at the Henry Ford are extremely feminine cars that men often coveted. While men are known to drive particular cars to lure the opposite sex, they also seek to acquire mastery over the cars they drive. In a patriarchy, men seek to maintain power and control over women. If an automobile is considered female, power over the car may equate power over women. This equation had special significance to many men in the years following World War II.

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

After returning from the Second World War, men often discovered that the women they left behind were infused with independence and self-sufficiency, garnered through well-paying war time work. Uncomfortable with women’s developing autonomy, men took back the work in the public sphere and sent the women home. Husbands and fathers sought to regain the dominance of the prewar years as breadwinners and heads of households. They sought to purchase cars that symbolized this reassumed status. The cars many drove were masculine in size yet feminine in appearance. They were often given feminine names and referred to as “she.” The stylish car becomes the beautiful woman men conquer by owning and driving. As Gartman writes, “in the ultra-macho subculture of auto designers, sex was surely an important appeal.” Sex and the automobile have become intertwined not only because the automobile is a site of sexual encounter, but also because the car is often perceived as a spirited woman that male drivers seek to tame.

Men with style, especially white men, have always been sexually suspect. Equating stylish cars with beautiful women allows men to appreciate automotive design while keeping masculinity intact. Harvey Earl was instrumental in making style an integral part of the auto manufacturing process, and was influential in the acceptance of the importance of auto design. It is unfortunate that the equation of stylish cars as beautiful women to be controlled and conquered remains a mode of such acceptance for so many drivers.

Gartman, David. “A History of Scholarship on American Automobile Design.” Automobile in American Life and Society. University of Michigan Dearborn.

Gartman, David. “Tough Guys and Pretty Boys: The Cultural Antagonisms of Engineering and Aesthetics in Automotive History.” Automobile in American Life and Society University of Michigan Dearborn.

Pilato, Leonard. Lecture at the Henry Ford.

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. 

‘Woman’s Place’ in American Car Culture

While in graduate school during the 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 feminist historians initially responded to the question “What is Woman’s Place in American Car Culture?”, incorporating some of the more recent literature in women’s automotive scholarship.

In 1980, Charles L. Sanford introduced a question that few in the auto industry, academia or popular culture had ever bothered to ask. And that is, “what is woman’s place in American car culture?” Sanford’s inquiry attempted to initiate an investigation into women’s limited and often invisible role in American car culture and automotive social history. Sanford made visible a notable lack in scholarship devoted to the relationship between women and cars. In the two decades that followed, feminist historians and literary scholars initiated an effort to address Sanford’s question.

Virginia Scharff, in her seminal work Taking the Wheel, and Margaret Walsh, through her work with The Henry Ford and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, as well as a number of articles focusing on distinct periods in women’s automotive experience, provide historical analyses of the automobile industry and women’s determined struggle to construct a place within it. Deborah Clarke addresses Sanford’s question through an examination of women’s literature in which the automobile assumes an important role. Clarke suggests that women have always considered themselves participants in car culture, but validation and recognition of such a place often eludes them. While Scharff, Walsh and Clarke respond to Sanford’s inquiry through the lens of varying disciplines, each uses the category of gender, and the social construction of masculinity and femininity in relation to the automobile, as the basis of analysis. Each strongly argues that the masculinity built into and associated with automobility has not only influenced auto industry decisions and policy, but has also established impenetrable barriers to woman’s relationship with the car, and woman’s place in car culture.

The automobile was imbued with masculinity from its conception. As the Industrial Revolution assured that man and machine would become irrevocably linked, the automotive industry, the product of that industry and the driver of the product were henceforth labeled masculine. This stalwart and stubborn association of automobile technology with masculinity often postponed or prevented those innovations perceived as feminine. Necessary improvements in comfort, style, luxury, economy and safety were often considered a concession to female tastes and received low priority in automobile production. Scharff provides a number of instances in which notions about gender not only blinded automakers to potential markets for their products, but set industry progress and production back unnecessarily as well. Scharff writes, “what some observers of the 1920s saw as […] a drive toward the decorative in automotive design, others interpreted as the emasculation of both industry men and the cars they made” (Wheel 113). The industry rarely asked women what they desired in a car, as acknowledgement of such responses might infer auto industry feminization. While industry leaders recognized the potential of the female customer, they grappled with how to appeal to the feminine market while keeping the masculinity of the automobile, and those who produced them, intact.

The auto industry responded by calling upon “innate” biological differences to suggest that men and women would “naturally” have different needs and expectations for the automobile. Automakers promoted women’s use of the automobile for its practical applications; thus the car, in women’s possession, became a domestic technology for the performance of prescribed gendered tasks. Unlike male drivers, women were not encouraged to identify with the car; the car was to occupy the same place in women’s lives as the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine. Scharff tells us, “as the automobile industry revolutionized the nation’s geographical, economic and cultural landscape […] it also played no small part in reinscribing assumptions about masculinity and femininity” (Wheel 112). The association of the automobile with masculinity served not only to reinforce the dominance of men’s privileged position in the car, the auto industry and society as a whole, but also affirmed woman’s proper place in public, on the road and in the home. As Scharff asserts, “auto industry decision makers, virtually all male, wanted to believe in the continued dominance and desirability of men’s privileged position in society and in economic matters” (Wheel 116). Thus woman’s “place” in car culture became where those in power wanted her to be: behind the wheel, but only in the fulfillment of her culturally prescribed domestic role.

In Driving Women, Deborah Clarke elaborates on the conflation of the car with the man who drives it. She writes, “more than any other machine, [the car] became anthropomorphized in American culture, generally functioning as both extension of the self and treasured companion” (47). As the car is associated with masculinity, car culture is a male culture. Women’s place in is most often defined in relationship to men and men’s cars. In such contexts, women are often accessories or sexual objects to be controlled or conquered. Women are utilized to enhance or confirm masculinity; their “place” is clearly subservient to that of the car and the man who drives it. As Clarke tells us, “popular myth associates cars with masculinity, and automobile advertising continues to link the car to the female body, promising men control over speed and women” (1). Yet what Sanford suggests and which Clarke confirms is that many women have a relationship with cars that is often comparable in kind and intensity to that expressed by men. Women ascribe meanings to cars; they call on the car’s ability to erase boundaries of home and the domestic sphere, and to provide a sense of independence, freedom and mobility. As Clarke writes, “the car allows women a position from which to construct individual identity, exercise individual agency, and chart a course as acknowledged individuals in American culture” (4). Yet while each of the contributors acknowledges the continuous presence of women in car culture, none offers a suggestion to make women’s presence better known. While Scharff, Walsh and Clarke are unanimous in ascribing importance to women’s participation, “given that cars often determine our place in American society,” not one of them offers a remedy for women’s continued invisibility in the auto industry and in American car culture (Clarke 8). 

In “A Woman’s Place in American Car Culture,” Charles Sanford writes, “what is needed is both an intimate feminine viewpoint from several perspectives about women’s experience with cars”(140). Scharff, Walsh and Clarke have provided such insight, but it is not enough. While Clarke calls upon the car as a “vehicle” to examine women’s place, such an analysis does nothing to improve women’s standing in the automotive industry or in car culture. In order to change the mentality of the American car industry, the importance of women to American car culture must become common knowledge. Society has historically underestimated the importance of cars to women. Automakers continue to shape and construct woman’s place in car culture in its own image, persisting in the narrow, like-minded, inbred thinking that has plagued the industry for generations. Women have a place in car culture independent of that prescribed for them. It is up to them to let automakers, and the world, know exactly what it is.

Since this essay was written in 2008, new scholars have approached this topic from various points of view. In Eat My Dust, Georgine Clarsen provides a counterpart to Scharff as she shifts the focus from automakers to female motorists and their efforts to become recognized as competent drivers within early twentieth-century America. Social historian Kathleen Franz dispels the notion of the woman driver as mechanically inept by drawing on accounts of early female motorists involved in the practice of “tinkering” in her book of the same name. Katherine Parkin investigates the gendered ways Americans have purchased, driven, and repaired automobiles since the early twentieth century in Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. And in my own work, I have investigated women’s participation in various car cultures – chick cars, muscle cars, motorsports, and pickup trucks – as well as examined representations of the woman driver in locations such as popular music and film. These additional twenty-first-century projects have brought more attention to the woman driver; certainly the ascension of Mary Barra to the helm of General Motors has challenged the common assumption that women have little interest or knowledge of cars. But until women are universally recognized as being men’s equal automotive culture, there remains work to be done.

Clarke, Deborah. Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Clarsen, Georgine. Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.

Franz, Kathleen. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Parkin, Katherine. Woman at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Sanford, Charles. “‘Woman’s Place’ in American Car Culture.” The Automobile and American Culture. D.L. Lewis & L. Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 137-152.

Scharff, Virginia. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Walsh, Margaret. “At Home at the Wheel? The Woman and her Automobile in the 1950s.” The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture: Proceedings of the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference, 2006. The British Library (2007): 1-21. 

—        “Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War.” Charm (2009): 295-310.

—        “Gender and the Automobile in the History of the United States.” Automobile in American Life and Society. University of Michigan-Dearborn. 2004-2010.

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.

Romancing the Automobile

While working on my master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in 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 consider how men and women often have different perspectives regarding tourism, travel, and romantic encounters in automobiles.

Early auto camping

There can be little argument that social and historical accounts of American car culture are often romanticized, both figuratively and literally. Such sentiments are certainly evident in discussions of the automobile’s role in leisure and recreation, which include the topics of travel, tourism, courtship, and sex. Contemporary cultural commentators often examine the car as a location for both families and lovers in a quixotic and lighthearted manner. Warren Belasco, for example, suggests the “erotic excitement” of “auto camping” not only served as an “aphrodisiac,” but also as “a new companionate family ideal” that brought families together (107). James Flink praises the “family automobile vacation” as a middle-class American institution. As it spawned popular motel chains and iconic drive-in restaurants along America’s roadways, the automobile, Flink argues, became an essential contributor to the travel industry and the American economy.  Lewis remarks that, even more than a mode of transportation, cars evolved into “a destination as well, for they provided a setting for sexual relations […]” (123). The car as a symbol of sexual prowess, as well as a location for sexual practice, is often celebrated by car culture pundits. As Julian Pettifer and Nigel Turner attest, “for the young male in the US, the car is an absolute essential for successful courtship” (194). And in his 1973 film American Graffiti, George Lucas examines the role of the automobile as both a social and sexual space with nostalgia and humor. However, such romanticized notions of the car in American culture do not tell the whole story. While they provide a familiar narrative, they do so in a way that is decidedly and overwhelmingly male.

Auto camping in the 1940s

Most commentaries present the American car culture experience as uniform and universal. However, women’s place in car culture differs remarkably from that of men. During the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of men perceived auto camping as unconventional, adventurous and exciting. There can be little doubt that many of them also considered it a welcome and necessary respite from everyday responsibilities. While a woman may have enjoyed such occasions of enforced family “togetherness,” her domestic responsibilities, whether in the home or in the car, remained the same. As travel writer Zephine Humphrey penned in 1936, “the burden of home life was discarded, but the essence of it we had with us in the four walls of the car” (Sanger 728). While on the road, women were still responsible for household domestic tasks, albeit in a much more primitive setting. Belasco writes, “roadside camping was too difficult for many, especially for women, whose participation was essential in a family-oriented activity” (113). Women’s performance of domestic tasks on the road, as it was in the home, was assumed and expected. The implication, therefore, is that women’s “difficulty” is based on a lack of creature comforts rather than added domestic responsibilities. In fact, Flink attributes the “spectacular” growth of the camping equipment industry to the need of such “comfort-conscious” women for “large tents, folding cots with springs, air mattresses, portable gas stoves and lamps, and elaborate yet compact kits of kitchen utensils” (183). While auto camping may have been perceived, as Belasco writes, as a “chance to leave the crowd,” women were unable to leave their domestic responsibilities behind. Thus their experience of auto camping differed considerably from that of men.

Making out at the drive-in

In “Girls and the Getaway,” Carol Sanger writes, “the car has reinforced women’s subordinated status in ways that make the subordination seem ordinary, even logical through two predictable, but subtle, mechanisms: by increasing women’s domestic obligations and by sexualizing the relation between women and cars” (707). While motels and gas prices have contributed to a decline in auto camping and the domestic responsibilities that accompany it, women are still expected to use cars for the performance of gendered tasks. The woman’s automobile is considered a form of domestic technology; man’s car, on the other hand, is often a symbol of power, control and sexual prowess. As Pettifer and Turner state, “a man is very affectionate towards his car, he gets into his car he switches on the power; he then has almost a passionate relationship and a passionate satisfaction out of controlling the power to the car” (188). Not only do men call on cars as a source of identity, but use them as a means to assert control over women. Thus while Lewis and Lucas may fondly reminisce about the joy of having sex in cars, “because they found it exciting, sometimes dangerously so, and a change from familiar surroundings” (124), for many women, “riding in cars with boys” has a very different meaning.

Lewis is correct when he suggests that the car offered young men and women the opportunity for consensual sex. And certainly there have been many women who have engaged in such practices openly and willingly. As Sanger writes, “this intimate realm of vehicular privacy is sometimes good. Couples may want to share unscrutinized moments; the car has been reported as the most common site for marriage proposals” (731). However, getting into a car or offering a ride to a man often implies consent when none is present. And because cars provide a “male-controlled” privacy, they are common sites for sexual assaults. Lucas addresses this in a humorous, yet all too familiar way in American Graffiti. As Steve Belanger is about to leave for college, he asks his girlfriend Laurie to “give me something to remember you by.” Laurie responds by kicking him out of the car. However, it is Laurie’s car; if the incident took place in Steve’s “male-controlled” space, most likely there would have been a very different (and considerably less funny) outcome.

The ‘give me something to remember you by’ scene in American Graffiti

While often informative, educational and entertaining, most accounts of American car culture are constructed from a male perspective. When women are present, they are most often presented in a secondary, if not subservient role. While the work of contemporary cultural commentaries are valuable, women’s contribution to car culture in such contexts is often distorted to fit male paradigms. What such accounts suggest, and encourage, however, is that more work is needed in order to accurately and objectively uncover women’s place in American car culture.

Belasco, Warren. “Commercialized Nostalgia: The Origins of the Roadside Strip” in The Automobile and American Culture, David L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

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

Lewis, David. “Sex and the Automobile” in The Automobile and American Culture, David L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Pettifer, Julian and Nigel Turner. Automania: Man and the Motor Car. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984.

Sanger, Carol. “Girls and the Getaway: Cars, Culture, and the Predicament of Gendered Space.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 144.2 (1997): 705-756.

Car Dealerships, Ferraris, and the Woman Driver

To the majority of folks, Jay Leno is a former stand-up comic who had a very nice 20-plus year run as host of The Tonight Show. However in automotive circles, Leno is recognized for a very different television offering. Since 2015, Leno has used his celebrity status to encourage interest in automotive history through “Jay Leno’s Garage,” the Emmy winning series in which Leno offers car reviews, automotive tips, and shares his automotive passion and expertise through his extensive and expensive collection of automobiles. Viewers to his show are treated to test drives of vehicles of every persuasion, from the common to the obscure, powerful to mundane, excessive to pedestrian. However, as noted in a recent article in The Drive, there is one automotive model that is notably absent from Leno’s car collection. Leno refuses to own a Ferrari not because of any particular automotive feature, but because of the arrogance and rudeness of Ferrari dealers. As Leno explains, “This is not an indictment of the car; it’s just that you’re spending a tremendous amount of money. You should be made to feel like a customer’”(qtd. in Tsui).

In his interview with The Drive, Leno appears incredulous that someone of his celebrity and status is treated in such a disrespectful manner by dealership personnel. As a white and [extremely] privileged male, Leno has most likely never had to deal with offensive and patronizing automotive dealers and service representatives. Although Leno is now recognized as someone extremely knowledgeable about cars, I suspect that due to his race and gender, he has been treated as a car savvy individual for most of his driving life. Therefore I find it interesting, and somewhat amusing, that Leno finds poor treatment at car dealership unconventional and surprising, particularly since rude and insolent behavior at car dealerships has been – and continues to be – an all too common experience among women drivers.

In 2014 – in an examination of women’s online car advice sites – I discussed women’s common experience at automotive dealerships, drawing particular attention to how it contrasted to that of men. As I wrote:

To the majority of car-owning women, visiting an automotive dealership or service establishment is an unpleasant, unnerving, and frustrating experience. When seeking to purchase or service an automobile, women are often subject to sexist, dismissive, and patronizing behavior from automotive personnel. Women must often tolerate unwanted invitations or inappropriate comments regarding their appearance or sexuality, are withheld crucial information due to an assumed lack of basic car buying knowledge, and are ignored or dismissed when accompanied by a male companion. Although women influence nearly 85 percent of new car sales (Muley), the experience of women at automotive dealerships differs significantly from that of male drivers. Not only are women subject to inferior treatment, but they also often wind up paying considerably more for a vehicle than a male customer (Ayres). It would seem that such insolent behavior—as detrimental to future car sales—would be discouraged in those who sell and service cars. However, its continued existence suggests it is part of a broader strategy to maintain masculine control of the auto showroom as well as to limit and contest women’s financial and automotive competence.

This inferior treatment, as I noted, is based on a number of underlying factors. The first is the longstanding association between automobiles and masculinity. The second is an outdated but ingrained automotive sales technique which has its origins in horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation.

Antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity have traditionally linked technological expertise with the male gender. During the early years of automobility, this association was effectively applied to cars. While early automotive accounts reveal a growing female curiosity in the gasoline-powered automobile, fears over what women might do with a powerful machine created anxiety among male keepers of the status quo. Consequently, attempts were made to stifle women’s interest in automobiles, often through the association of driving ability with physical strength and mechanical expertise, qualities considered lacking in the woman driver. As historian Julie Wosk remarks, “men had long been portrayed as strong and technically able, women as frail and technically incompetent, or at least unsuited to engaging in complex technical operations” (9).

In the years following World War I, industrialization threatened traditional sources of male identity. The physical strength and mechanical ability necessary for the operation and maintenance of automobiles provided a means by which men could reassert themselves as masculine. Linking automobile use to technical expertise established men as more authentic drivers and initiated the longstanding association of the automobile with masculinity. As Clay McShane notes, “when men claimed mechanical ability as a gender trait, implicitly they excluded women from automobility” (156).

The association between masculinity and automotive technology was exacerbated in the years following World War II. Male teens often engaged in hot rod or muscle car culture as a means to further their automotive education and construct themselves as masculine. Aligning masculinity with cars, mechanical proficiency, and risky driving placed young women on the margins of teenage car culture, as either passengers or “avid spectators” (Genat 47). The exclusion of women from these sites of automotive education and practice assured that automotive knowledge would remain in men’s hands. It could be argued that the computerization of the automobile in the twenty-first century has leveled the playing field, as mechanical ability is no longer a prerequisite for servicing automobiles. Yet despite the fact that auto repair personnel are more likely to be diagnosticians than mechanics, the association of technological expertise and masculinity stubbornly remains. Women often feel compelled to bring men along with them to the dealership when purchasing or servicing an automobile, not because a man is inherently more car savvy, but because his maleness is considered unquestioned evidence of automotive knowledge.

Horse-trading and its tradition of male contestation were incorporated into the bicycle and automotive trades that followed. As women were seldom actors in the horse-trading arena, they were unfamiliar with commonplace bartering methods and uncomfortable in the hyper-masculine environment in which such tactics were practiced. While women, in the twentieth century, were increasingly cast in the role of consumer, their experience as buyers was limited to that of one-price retailing. Consequently, most women were totally unequipped to participate in a car buying process that relied on aggressive bartering. Women’s discomfort was intensified by the misogynist atmosphere of the showroom, in which the negotiation process was often framed in the violent language of physical and sexual conquest. Salesmen often called upon such rhetoric to take advantage of the female car buyer, believing that keeping women drivers less informed and more easily intimidated was an effective means to guarantee higher profit margins. While the women’s movement of the 1970s, and the subsequent growth of women in the workforce, may have increased the auto industry’s awareness of women as a distinct and profitable market segment, as Gelber notes, “the message often failed to percolate down to the showroom floor” (158). Although in the twenty-first century, women make up nearly half of automobile consumers (Bird), a lack of automotive knowledge and uneasiness with negotiating techniques ensures they will be treated in much the same manner as their horse-buying counterparts of a hundred years past.

Women have become increasingly car savvy since this article was written, due in part to vigorous automotive research as well as participation on online automotive sites and forums. The rise of women in the auto industry, including an increase in the number of female auto dealers, has also somewhat weakened the association of cars and masculinity, resulting in a more comfortable and less confrontational car buying experience. But there is little doubt that bad behavior against female automotive consumers remains. Therefore, while Leno may be admired for his stance against Ferrari dealerships, he should understand that he is by no means alone. For women have been treated with disrespect not only by fancy luxury car dealers, but by salespeople of all makes and models of cars since the first Model T drove off the car lot over 100 years ago.

Note: portions of this blog are excerpted from “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice”.

Ayres, Ian. “Fair Driving: Gender and Race Discrimination in Retail Car Negotiations.” Harvard Law Review 104, 4 (1991): 817–872.

Bird, Colin. “Women Buying More Cars, Favor Imports.” Cars.com 31 Mar 2011.

Gelber, Steven M. Horse Trading in the Age of Cars: Men in the Marketplace. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Genat, Robert. Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech., 2010.

Lezotte, Chris. “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice.” Feminist Media Studies (2014 ): 1-17.

McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Muley, Miriam. “Growing the 85% Niche: Women and Women of Color.” AskPatty.com. 2008.

Tsui, Chris. “Jay Leno Won’t Buy a Ferrari Because He Hates the Dealerships.” TheDrive.com 4 Feb 2022.

Wosk, Julie. Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003..