Women Auto Race

Motorsports is an overwhelmingly male dominated activity. While verifiable statistics on participation of men vs women do not exist, it is estimated that less than 4% of motorsports participants – at all levels and throughout all types of motorsports events – are female. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Historically and culturally, young girls have been discouraged from developing an interest in motorsports or cars. Those who do so are often branded as odd, deviant, or unfeminine. Women who pursue racing as either an avocation or vocation often find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Not only are they subject to discrimination and sexual harassment on and off the track, but as a group are generalized as being too timid, unskilled, inexperienced, and utterly unqualified to share the track with men. Although motorsports – as a competition where men and women are able to race against each other – is often heralded as the ‘great equalizer,’ this notion presumes men and women come up through the racing ranks with the same opportunities, support, and driving experiences. In the current professional climate, the road to racing success begins at an early age most often through karting. The gender ratio entering racing in junior categories is hugely skewed in one direction; estimates list the ratio as 98-to-2 in favor of men. Unless they come from a family of racing enthusiasts, young girls are much less likely than boys to take an interest in driving at the age of eight or so, when future motorsport champions start competing in carts. Without early motorsport opportunities, women who enter the racing arena do so severely behind in experience, training, and support compared to male peers.

However, in my recent research into the history of all-women racing in motorsports, I spoke with a number of women without extensive automotive or racing histories who discovered an entryway into motorsports that is safe, relatively inexpensive, accessible, challenging, and a whole lot of fun. Autocross – a timed competition in which drivers navigate a unique course defined by cones or pylons – has become increasingly popular with women of varying racing levels who want to experience the thrill of driving competitively without a significant financial investment. Unlike wheel to wheel racing, in which drivers compete directly with one another, autocross is a timed event in which the goal is to drive around the track and get the lowest time possible without hitting any cones or going off the track. The only requirements are a driver’s license, approved helmet, car [just about any type is acceptable], and the desire to test oneself in a race type setting.

The women I conversed with came to autocross from many directions and for a variety of reasons. Some had boyfriends who participated in the sport so decided autocross might be a good way to spend time together. Others heard about autocross from friends and were encouraged to give it a try. A few of the women were looking for a new pastime that was challenging, exciting, and out of the ordinary – autocross filled the bill. Although the road to autocross differed among female racers, the reasons for engaging and sticking with autocross were shared by many of them.

One of the draws of autocross is that other than an approved helmet, there is no additional equipment necessary. Consequently, it is less expensive than other types of racing. This is important if it is an activity you are testing – if you find it isn’t for you, the only expense you have incurred is the entry fee. Starting out, women often use their daily drivers; once hooked, they may modify their cars or upgrade to something faster and more nimble. There are a number of car categories in which to compete, so drivers are competing against individuals in similar vehicles. Women cited autocross as safer than other motorsports – since you are on the track alone, damage to the car [or yourself] is unlikely.

The challenge of autocross – engaging in an activity that is both familiar [driving] and unfamiliar [racing on a marked course] –  was considered a benefit by many of the women who participate. Autocross provides the opportunity to drive fast while learning the skills of controlling a car at speed – it is educational and exhilarating at the same time. Women found that the skills they acquired through autocross – mental, physical, and automotive – carried over into other aspects of their driving and non-driving lives. The female racers also mentioned the ‘adrenaline high’ experienced while behind the wheel, and also noted how mastering the car and the course gave them renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. Many felt empowered participating in an activity so strongly identified with masculinity and the male driver, and noted how their participation awarded them a fair amount of respect as drivers and individuals knowledgeable about cars. While some sexism exists within the autocross community, it is most often verbal rather than experiential – since women are alone on the course, they cannot be threatened or bullied by a male driver. Many autocross events have separate ladies classes, which provide a safe space for women to gain skills and confidence without the fear of male intimidation.

SCCA [Sports Car Club of America] Indiana Regional Ladies Autocross

Autocross was also cited as a form of therapy – as an all-consuming activity requiring singular focus, it keeps one’s mind off of other issues. Participating in autocross burns off steam, diverts one’s attention, and builds confidence. Although racers participate individually, they are expected to help at the track in various capacities throughout the day – whether working on someone’s car, taking entries, or setting up the track. Thus the social aspect of autocross was important to many of the female participants, as it provided the opportunity to create new friendships and engage in community and support.

While autocross addresses the racing bug in a great number of women, others view it as a stepping stone to more advanced, complicated, and competitive activities. Many women go on to participate in rally cross, road racing, time trials, and SCCA Pro Racing. Yet as I discovered, no matter what the level of involvement or experience level, autocross has the ability to provide women with an important and empowering entryway into the male dominated world of motorsports. 

For more information on autocross and other women’s racing programs, check out SCCA Women on Track.

1949 Was a Very Good Year

Behind the wheel of my ’49 Ford

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

Distinctive ’49 Ford ‘bullet’ grille

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

Just a little bit hot rod

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

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

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

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

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

2021 [Virtual] PCA Conference

Pink Power Presentation

As the 2020 Popular Culture Association [PCA] was canceled due to COVID, the decision was made to go virtual in 2021. Despite my lack of confidence in all things technological, I decided to put aside my fears and submit a presentation to this year’s event. Since the PCA is one of the few conferences with sessions dedicated to vehicle culture, I always try to prepare something to present. Having a date in place provides me with the impetus to develop and map out a project for the conference; in turn, the input from conference attendees serves as encouragement to proceed with publication as the eventual goal.

This year there were three sessions with a wide variety of topics and perspectives. The first session, focused on Vehicle History and Business, featured presentations on vehicle dwellers, an analysis of conflicting representations of the automobile in its earliest years, and a look at how the Korean automobile and gaming industry influence the global market. Vehicle Culture Across Industries – the second session – included an excursion to non-fictional motor racing through Grafton graphic publications, an examination of driving lyrics in the songs of Taylor Swift, and an argument dispelling the origin myth of the 1950s automobile fin design. Finally, the third session – Social Perspectives of Vehicle Culture, offered an investigation of the 1967 Impala as female in the Winchesters series, a lawyer’s perspective on the case for banning human-driven vehicles, and my own presentation, which looked at the influence of Barbie cars on the auto awareness of young girls.

While there were a few technical glitches in my presentation – it’s what happens when you ask a 72-year-old woman to serve as session chair – the talk went pretty well. I received a number of positive comments, helpful suggestions, as well as questions that provided me the opportunity to reconsider some of my arguments and revise some of my thinking. Although the presentation was stressful – in both preparation and execution – I always welcome the opportunity to present my work to a group of interested, informed, and curious auto enthusiasts and scholars. Next year – Seattle!

Women & Classic Car Culture

A flock of Thunderbirds

What follows is a condensed version of one of my first ethnographical projects concerning the relationship between women and cars. I focused on the Ford Thunderbird as it provided the opportunity to compare women’s involvement with older vehicles with that of more contemporary cars. Many of the lessons learned conducting this research were helpful in future women and car investigations.

A number of years ago, in an effort to remedy the lack of scholarship devoted to women and car culture, I began my own inquiry into woman’s relationship with the automobile. I began by investigating how contemporary women have appropriated a particular segment of the automotive market, a type of automobile referred to somewhat pejoratively in the media as the ‘chick car.’ In ‘The Evolution of the Chick Car,’ I examine how certain groups of women have rejected the prescriptive and gendered ‘mom’ car in favor of an automobile that is quick, sporty, stylish and fun to drive. In order to find ‘chicks’ to interview about the experience, I posted requests for participation on Internet car groups. The enthusiastic response from chick car owners led to my master’s degree project, which was to uncover women’s participation in car culture through membership in online car forums, bulletin boards, and mailing lists. Through participant-observation, as well as the administration and collection of 100 individual surveys, I not only constructed a fascinating portrait of the contemporary female car enthusiast, but also discovered the myriad of ways in which women use the Internet to participate in car culture. Car culture, traditionally identified with masculinity and male experience, has historically discouraged and silenced women’s participation. Yet as I discovered, cyberspace often provides female car enthusiasts with a non-threatening environment in which to talk and learn about cars. 

‘Chick car’ ownership represents only one example of women’s engagement with the automobile. Each summer in southeastern Michigan, thousands of classic car owners take part in car shows and cruises all over the state. Women are not only observers of these automotive events, but many also actively participate as car owners and through membership in classic car clubs. Thus classic car culture represents an additional location in which to investigate women’s relationship to the automobile.

Classic Ford Thunderbird

However, the experience of driving and owning a classic car differs considerably from that of a contemporary vehicle. The classic car is not purchased because it is practical, efficient or ‘fun to drive.’ Rather, classic car ownership is often based on nostalgia for a bygone era, or as link to a person or experience from the past. Therefore, as I began my inquiry, I became interested in how the meanings women ascribe to the classic car compare to those attributed to contemporary automobiles. I also wondered whether female classic car owners would use the Internet with the same intensity and enthusiasm as ‘chick’ car owners, or if practical and social conditions would discourage them from embracing cyberspace. I contemplated, therefore, whether women’s acceptance or reluctance to use Internet technology is dependent on the age of the user or the degree of familiarity with the medium, or if it is, in fact, influenced by the cultural and gendered prescriptions of the era in which the car was produced. Therefore, in order to examine women’s participation in classic car culture, I found it necessary to conduct research both online and offline. My offline research not only provided information regarding women’s participation in classic car culture, but also informed both women’s rejection of and participation in online classic car groups. 

The three websites utilized by members of the Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club provide tremendous insight into woman’s relationship with the automobile as well as woman’s role in classic car culture. While the WWTC’s home site is not interactive, its structure and content strongly suggest that the primary function of the club is social. The website serves as a central information center for the listing of WWTC events. The newsletters attached to the site are filled with reports of such events accompanied by photographs of members enjoying automobile-related activities, as well as personal car stories from the readership. Offline observation of club gatherings confirmed the importance of friendship and community to WWTC members. Tbird owners participate in car shows and cruises and most often, they attend these events together. At car shows, there is often a group of Thunderbirds parked alongside one another with the owners seated behind them. In these settings, the club members often arrange themselves by gender rather than relationship. At cruises, members often tour together, and congregate at a specified location afterward. The club is composed of over 120 families, primarily husbands and wives whose social lives revolve around a shared interest in the classic Thunderbird. While a few of the female club members own and drive their own cars, the majority participate in cruises and tours as passengers. Women may appreciate the history and style of the classic automobile, but for the most part, they leave the driving and maintenance to their husbands.

During the post World War II era, women were relegated to the domestic sphere and dissuaded from driving. While arguments suggested women were too ‘fragile’ to take on mechanical matters, the most likely reason for such discouragement concerned issues of power and gender. As Berger reflects, ‘mastery of the automobile would mean that women’s dependence on men would be lessened’ (260). Jokes concerning the ‘woman driver’ became popular during this period as a way to denigrate women’s driving ability. While it is unlikely that male WWTC members feel their wives are incompetent drivers, their insistence on taking the wheel suggests that issues of power and gender remain. 

Women who grew up with an interest in cars are more likely to drive them and have an understanding and appreciation of the automobile that goes beyond the sheet metal. It could be assumed, therefore, that such female car enthusiasts would eagerly and easily utilize technical forums on websites such as the Vintage Thunderbird Club International. Participation on VTCI is predicated on automotive knowledge and technical experience. There is little patience for individuals who ask questions that do not display a basic level of understanding of Thunderbird maintenance and restoration. Women, in particular, must earn the respect of forum moderators and other contributors before they are taken seriously. However, once Thunderbird expertise is acknowledged, women post more regularly and authoritatively, not only asking questions, but answering those of others as well.

2004 ‘Retro’ Bird

While female contributors must display automotive knowledge before gaining acceptance on VTCI, many of them call upon gender displays in order to become accepted on the male dominated forums. Female VTCI contributors make liberal use of the emoticon, exclamation point, ‘xoxo,’ and offer repeated ‘thank yous’ when conversing with male posters. Such conversational and textual motifs not only convey gender, specifically femininity, but their use indicates deference and respect to the dominant male ‘expert’ presence. As Shayla Stern suggests in her discussion of instant messaging in Instant Identity, ‘despite its potential to empower girls and counteract dominant social forces that have been in place through history, IM communication does not take place within a cultural vacuum that disregards traditional gender roles and behaviors’ (113). Stern’s words are relevant not only to the IM communication of adolescent girls, but to all locations in which women must confront cultural prescriptions of masculinity and gender roles. Online car groups and forums certainly qualify as such spaces.

There are a number of women in the Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club with past experience in driving, repairing and restoring automobiles. However, those I interviewed with ‘classic’ Tbirds do not utilize websites such as VTCI as a source of technical information. Rather, these capable women have acquiesced the responsibility for restoration and repair to their husbands. As WWTC member Teri B. told me, ‘I thankfully do not need the internet for information. My husband is the mechanic.’ Terri M., the VTCI Publications Director, confirmed this observation. She asserts, ‘Most women do not restore or work on their Birds and most do not own classic/vintage by themselves but with a male partner that does all of the work!’

Thunderbird Cruise

While many of the female WWTC members hold positions of responsibility in the work place, when engaged in club activities, they often revert to the gendered roles of the 1950s and early 1960s, the era in which the ‘classic’ Thunderbirds were produced. During the ‘golden age’ of American car culture, women’s role, both in the car and in the home, was of a supportive passenger. Female WWTC members often take on this gendered, caretaker position. They prepare the food for the club picnic. They organize WWTC activities. They are very active in the club, but primarily in supporting roles. While Marie B. shares club membership responsibilities with her husband, as she told me, ‘[he] has lots of great ideas to increase membership, and I get to do the work.”’

My initial impression was that female WWTC members did not take advantage of Internet car forums because, as women in their 50s and 60s, they might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with computer technology. While this may certainly be a contributing factor, I discovered that many of the women with solid computer skills remained dependent on male club members rather than online experts to address classic car issues. It is also possible that many of them find the masculine online technical forum hostile, and therefore call upon individuals they know and trust for classic car information. However, women who participated in car culture during the 1950s and 60s as drivers and mechanics were in many ways exceptional, as they no doubt had to withstand a good deal of harassment and discrimination in order to become successful in what were considered masculine endeavors. It is surprising, therefore, that many now grant men the power to determine not only if they will be driving, but also, where they will be going.

This is not to say that classic Thunderbirds hold little meaning for the women who own and drive them. For many WWTC members, the Thunderbird is a container for memories of past experiences. Others view the Tbird as an important piece of Detroit automotive history. Some value the automobile as an icon of classic car design. As Marie B. exclaims, ‘classic cars are like works of art!’ Yet few see the automobile as a symbol of their own independence. Rather, for many WWTC women, the Thunderbird is the means to an expansive and crucial social life; it is an object that, literally and figuratively, holds marriages together. Ironically, I only encountered one instance of ‘driving as empowerment,’ expressed by Mary F., who has taken over the wheel of the Thunderbird after her husband’s death. As she told me, ‘I’m proud of my car and proud of me, a 68-year-old woman.’

Thunderbird History Display

While the women of WWTC who own ‘classic’ Tbirds refrain from logging on to the VTCI, retro bird drivers are active on the Thunderbird Nest. WWTC member Joanne C. logs on almost daily, and she is joined online by hundreds of other female retro bird owners. The majority of women who participate on the Nest do not work on their cars, but they are proactive in making sure the cars are running properly. The Nest serves as an important source of technical information for retro bird owners; it keeps them up to date on current problems and provides resources for repair and service. While the website serves as a technical resource, its primary function is social, indicated by the large number of non-automotive forums. The variety of topics and their usage suggests that in many ways, the Thunderbird Nest mimics the function of an offline club, as it provides technical help, announces events of interest to its members, and has an active and important social function. Like the WWTC, the Nest brings together those who share an interest in a particular model of car.

However, unlike the majority of women who belong to the WWTC, the women who participate on the Thunderbird Nest are in the driver’s seat. They take part in car culture through touring, cruising and showing. Many get online simply to share love of the car with fellow retro bird owners. I did not sense any elitism on the part of those with more technical and mechanical knowledge, nor were those whose questions revealed a relative lack of expertise made to feel embarrassed or naïve. Unlike the VTCI forum, there is little condensation to less experienced owners, and all participants are treated with respect. Those who do post acrimoniously are quickly admonished, albeit in a polite and humorous way. I also noticed that there are a few women on the Thunderbird Nest who have a great amount of Tbird knowledge and experience, and they are held in high esteem. And while there is good-natured joking between men and women, there is little evidence of overt sexism or unequal treatment in the forums.

In many respects, the Nest is representative of many online car groups in which women are active participants. The women who own retro birds are not unlike the chick car owners of my previous research. They participate online to gather automotive knowledge and technical information, to learn about regional and national retro bird clubs and events, and perhaps most important, to form and maintain friendships based on a shared interest and affection for a particular automobile. The Thunderbird Nest is not a hostile nor gendered space for female car enthusiasts. Rather, it empowers women to take control of the wheel, which suggests they have taken control of their own lives as well. As Gajjala tells us, ‘What cyberfeminists share is the belief that women should take control of and appropriate the use of Internet technologies in an attempt to empower themselves’ (81).

The remarkable difference in online participation between female classic Thunderbird owners and owners of retro birds cannot be explained by age or technological capability alone. My original expectation when embarking on this project was that women had reclaimed the classic Tbird, a symbol of 1950s and 60s masculinity, as their own. While many of the women now own the Thunderbird they longed for as teenagers, they are still unable or unwilling to drive it themselves. Rather, they succumb to the gendered expectations of an earlier era as a means to an active social life and stronger marriage, and hand over the wheel to their husbands. The results from this brief ethnographic study suggest that women’s participation in classic car culture is influenced not only by the car they own, but the era in which the car was produced as well. 

Women’s relationship with the automobile has not been a subject of significant feminist or historical research. Therefore, in order to construct or imagine women’s car culture role in previous eras, secondary sources such as advertisements, car manuals and personal narratives are of extreme importance. Classic car clubs provide an additional opportunity to investigate women’s participation during specific periods in US automotive history. Most classic car owners, male and female alike, were influenced by the automobile during childhood and adolescence. Thus, classic car events and online forums provide a unique yet temporal glance at car culture during a specific period in American cultural history, as they offer insight not only into car culture, but the gender roles and cultural prescriptions that accompanied it. 

Berger, Michael.  “Women Drivers! The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior” in Women’s Studies International Forum. 1986: 9(3), 257 – 263. 

Gajjala, Radhika. Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004.

Stern, Shayla Thiel. Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

Thunderbird Nest.

Vintage Thunderbird Club International

Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club.

Name That Car

2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS 

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

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

1965 Ford Mustang

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

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


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

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

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

Learning to Drive

1960 Corvair, parked in front of my Detroit house.

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

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

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

Muscle at the Henry Ford

One of the benefits of living in the metro Detroit area is access to automotive museums and collections. While taking a class in material culture as a PhD student a number of years ago, one of the assignments was to write an object biography. As I was researching muscle cars at the time, I chose the 1965 Pontiac GTO on display at the Henry Ford as the subject of my essay. What follows is the result of my investigation, which I attribute to successful detective work and a lot of luck. [As this was written in 2010, the Henry Ford exhibit is no longer as described here].

GTO on display at the Henry Ford.

On any given day at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a small crowd, most often male, can be found gathered around a 1965 white, two-door Pontiac GTO on display. Part of the museum’s The Automobile in American Life exhibit, which opened in November 1987, the GTO commands attention through its considerable size and sleek design, privileged position on the exhibition floor, and as a representative of a particular era in American car and cultural history. The GTO, over 17 feet in length of gleaming sheet metal, stands slightly apart from the main exhibit, in a section described in Henry Ford literature as The Automobile as American Symbol (Hyde, 1989, p. 108). The hanging sign overhead that reads simply “power” , the console mounted high-performance Hurst shift lever controls and four-speed manual transmission found within the interior, and the polished V-8, 389 cubic inch, tri-power engine visible under the propped-up hood leave little doubt as to what the GTO was, in fact, built to symbolize. Produced during the height of America’s dominance in the automobile industry, the Pontiac GTO was manufactured to reflect the power of a nation, a car company, and by association, that of the man who drove it. 

The text that accompanies the GTO display consists of a short paragraph that places the automobile in a cultural context as a “symbol of 1960s youth culture” (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). A 1965 black and white print advertisement – which compares the GTO to a prowling tiger– is situated next to it. The label adhered to the base on which the GTO stands offers little background to the car’s origin. While it provides information as to the automobile’s manufacture – General Motors Corporation, Pontiac Motor Division – the life history of the 1965 GTO, as a product, generational icon, as well as personal transportation for a particular individual, is notably absent (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Yet upon observation of those who stop to stare at the 45-year-old automobile – aging baby boomer men, young male professionals, middle-aged blue-collar workers, and gangly teenage boys – it becomes evident that the GTO contains meanings that extend well beyond its role as a means of transportation. 

“Power” display.

In creating the exhibit, the Henry Ford was certainly aware of how particular characteristics would resonate with visitors. As Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest, curators are instinctively attracted to objects through “their aesthetic qualities, their cultural resonances,” as well as what is known “about the drama of their individual histories” (p. 145). Therefore, in order to better understand the importance of the 1965 GTO to the Automobile and American Life exhibit and its visitors, it is helpful to construct what Wehner and Sear define as an object biography. Such a process will not only examine the automobile’s history as both product and symbol, but will also attempt to uncover the route of the Henry Ford GTO – Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) 237275P339452 – from the assembly line to the museum floor (Benson Ford, 87.70.1).

The 1964 Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omolgato) is often credited for being the first “muscle car.” It was the brainchild of John DeLorean, who became chief engineer of Pontiac, a division of General Motors, in 1961. Searching for a way to address the flagging sales of the Tempest, Pontiac’s disappointing entry into the mid-size automotive market, DeLorean found inspiration for the GTO on the streets of Detroit. During his daily drive down Woodward Avenue from his Bloomfield Hills home to the General Motors downtown offices, DeLorean couldn’t help but notice the increasing proliferation of teenage boys engaged in illegal street racing. This untapped growing consumer market – male baby boomers of driving age – suggested to DeLorean there was money to be made by appealing to the large number of young men “with money in their pockets looking for excitement” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177). Reexamining the dimensions of the Tempest, DeLorean realized that a 389-cubic-engine V-8 engine had the same external size as the current Tempest option, a 322-cubic-inch V-8. Calling upon the California hot-rod philosophy of the 1950s – light weight plus big engine equals fast car – DeLorean found he was able to deliver sixty-seven more horsepower in the Tempest simply by placing the more powerful engine under the hood. And in removing all the luxury frills from the Tempest – i.e. air conditioning, power windows and FM radio – DeLorean produced a crazy-fast car for a price ($3200) street-racing teenage boys could afford. 

V-8, 389 cubic inch engine.

However, DeLorean was faced with one minor problem. In 1963, General Motors made a ruling that forbade the use of engines larger than 330 cubic inches in their intermediate sized automobiles. Realizing that it would be impossible to receive permission to install the larger engine before the 1964 product introduction, DeLorean devised – and got away with – a scheme to offer the 389 as part of an option package. An extra $296 not only provided the buyer with a more powerful engine, but also included pseudo hood scoops, chrome air cleaner and valve covers, four-speed manual transmission with floor-mounted Hurst shifter, heavy-duty clutch and suspension, B.F. Goodrich Red Line nylon tires, and chrome GTO nameplates on all four sides (Zavitz, 1989, p. 19). As Mark Foster (2003) writes, “DeLorean and his men found themselves playing with a very hot set of wheels, which was fun to drive” (p. 75). The immediate success of the Pontiac GTO inspired other American automakers to follow suit; the streets of Detroit were soon rumbling with an assortment of muscle cars that included the Dodge Charger, Plymouth Roadrunner, and Chevrolet Chevelle. Auto journalists also got on the muscle car bandwagon, and wrote about them in glowing – albeit masculine – terms. John Campisano (1995), former editor-in-chief of Muscle Cars magazine, remarked, “Muscle cars are about screaming big blocks revving to the redline. They’re about full-throttle power-shifts at the drags. […] They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone” (p. 8). Automobile magazine founder David E. Davis depicted the muscle car driving experience as “losing your virginity, going into combat and tasting your first beer all in about seven seconds” (Mueller, 1997, p. 17). As an important component of urban male teenage culture from the mid 1960s to early 1970s, it can easily be argued that the Detroit muscle car – of which the 1964 GTO was the acknowledged forerunner – was the automotive product most strongly associated with masculinity. As a “dominant icon in car culture America” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177), the GTO offered its young male drivers – literally and figuratively – possibilities of unlimited power.

GTO nameplate.

The information gleaned from an investigation of the 1965 GTO on display at the Henry Ford often parallels that of the product’s own storied history. The object folder provided by the Benson Ford Research Center provides clues to the automobile’s personal 45-year trajectory. The automobile’s VIN – located on the left front door hinge pillar and noted in the museum object report – not only indicates the color, model, and body style of the car, but also reveals that the GTO was manufactured at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Pontiac, Michigan. As the Florida license plate suggests and the original bill of sale confirms, after production, the GTO made its way from Pontiac, Michigan to the Colonial Pontiac dealership in Miami, Florida. Auto dealer B. Green sold the car to Otis Wegley on July 20, 1965 (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). The Guardian Maintenance Coupon Book, included with the car’s purchase, indicates that the GTO’s scheduled maintenance was never performed. Perhaps this was because Wegley only drove the car for seven months and 4220 miles before transferring ownership on February 24, 1966 to Anthony Vassilakakis (Tony Vass) of Hollywood, Florida. As the documents in the museum folder show, the GTO eventually wound up in the hands of Jeffrey D. Burch of Fort Lauderdale, who sold the car to the Henry Ford in 1987. With this transaction, the cycle was complete; the GTO returned to the state of its origin for a long and comfortable retirement.

Items within the object folder hint at the negotiations that took place between Burch and Edison Institute (renamed the Henry Ford) transportation curator Randy Mason on the transfer of the GTO. Burch sent Mason fourteen color photographs of the car, accompanied by handwritten descriptions on the back of each, to confirm its condition and authenticity. In the memo dated March 26, 1987 included with the photographs, Burch suggests that the museum’s offering price for the GTO does not reflect its true value (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Perhaps the argument that the car would be preserved for posterity in a museum convinced Burch to accept a reduced payment. While the object folder provided information on the car’s ownership, there was nothing to indicate when, why, and from whom Burch purchased the GTO. Using the information at hand, a little detective work was performed to uncover more of the car’s personal history.

Display description.

After compiling a list of questions, an attempt was made to contact Burch by phone and email to fill in the blanks of the 1965 GTO’s biography. However, although current contact information was available on the Internet, both the number and the address provided were no longer valid. However, a chance “Googling” of “Burch GTO” produced an August 26, 1987 article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that, surprisingly and miraculously, answered almost all of the proposed questions. “Classic Auto Drives Into Place in History,” reported by Pat Curry, tells the story of Burch’s acquisition of the GTO as well the circumstances that led to the car’s journey back to Michigan. As Curry discovered, Florida native Burch had a personal history with the GTO. In 1967, recently graduated from Stranahan High School, 18-year-old Burch purchased a red, four-on-the-floor Pontiac GTO through the classifieds. However, in just one year’s time, an excessive number of speeding tickets – inspired by the tiger under the hood, no doubt – forced Burch to sell the car. However, Burch never forgot his teenage experience with the GTO; as Curry remarked, “the memories hung on like the squealing tires on quiet Broward County back roads.” 

Benson Ford documentation.

Almost twenty years later, after settling down and raising a family, Burch got the urge to once more drive the car of his youth. A chance encounter with an exterminator working in the neighborhood led Burch to Tony Vass, who had owned, but rarely driven, the white 1965 GTO. Once Burch saw the automobile, memories of his past experience, and his teenage years, were impossible to ignore. As Curry (1987) wrote, “There he was with the guys, […] hanging out and bragging about his car. He was sitting behind the wheel of his old GTO, a hot red monster of a car just made to go faster than the law allowed.” Burch talked Vass into selling him the car, and spent the next two-and-a-half years restoring it, taking it to car shows, and coming home with first place prizes. It was at one of these shows – the Antique Automobile Club of America regional – that Randy Mason came across the GTO, and convinced Burch to sell it to the Henry Ford. Within Florida, with its warm climate and absence of salt on the roads, Mason hoped he would find just the right car for the new exhibit opening in the completely redesigned Henry Ford. Once the transaction between Burch and Mason was completed, the museum sent a semi-truck to Burch’s home to pick up the car; upon arrival it was installed into The Automobile and American Life exhibit where it has remained ever since.

The comments made by the original owners Vass and Burch, included in the article written over 20 years ago by Pat Curry, provide insight into the attraction of the 1965 Pontiac GTO to today’s visitors to the Henry Ford. Of his experience driving the car, Vass remarked, “It had a certain feel to it. When you shifted, you were in full command.” This sentiment is reflected in the ad that accompanies the Henry Ford display, as it informs the reader the GTO “Snarls when you prod it” (Frumkin, 2002, p. 127). More recent literature describes the GTO, and all muscle cars, in this manner: “They’re about power that pins you to your seat. They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone. They are about a bygone era that changed America (and the automobile industry) forever” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8). What these quotes suggest is that the meanings ascribed to the GTO by its owners, drivers, and admirers haven’t significantly changed since the automobile’s introduction. Yet what was once experiential meaning is now often encased in nostalgia for a “more innocent age […] when men were men, women weren’t, and fewer rules ruled, so much so that next to no one worried about the implications of the unlimited sale of raw horsepower” (Mueller, 2004, p. 18).

How I tracked it down.

Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest that museum objects most attractive to visitors and curators alike are those with strong personal stories and provenance that link the object to a person’s life (p. 145). The commonality of experience and meaning shared by past owners and current admirers of the GTO serves to link them to the automobile and to each other. Mimi Sheller and John Urry (2000) suggest the automobile, as a container of meaning, is deeply entrenched in the ways individuals inhabit the world. As they argue, the car “not only appeals to an apparently ‘instinctual’ aesthetic and kinaesthetic sense, but it transforms the way we sense the world and the capacities of human bodies to interact with that world through the visual, aural, olfactory, interoceptive and proprioceptive senses. We not only feel the car, but we feel through the car and with the car” (p. 228). For a particular group of individuals, the 1965 GTO not only recalls a past driving experience, but also represents how they once envisioned themselves in the world.

 The GTO, to those who remember it and those who long after it, contains meanings that extend far beyond its function as a means of transportation. It represents an era in which the USA ruled the auto industry, when America was positioned as a “leader, not a follower” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8), and a time when teenage boys proved their manhood behind the wheel of a fast and powerful automobile. 

References

Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Object folder: Pontiac GTO, 1965. Acc. 87.70.1.

Campisano, J. (1995). American muscle cars. New York: MetroBooks.

Curry, P. (1987). Classic auto drives into place in history. SunSentinel.com, 26 Aug 1987. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-08-26/news/8703090934_1_car-symbol-henry-ford-museum

Foster, M. (2003). A nation on wheels: the automobile culture in America since 1945. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth.

Frumkin, M.J. (2002). Classic muscle car advertising: The art of selling horsepower. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.

Heitmann, J. (2009). The automobile and American life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Hyde, C. (1989). The automobile in American life: An exhibit at Henry Ford museum. Technology and Culture. 30.1,105-111.

Mueller, M. (2004). Motor city muscle. St. Paul: MBI Publishing.

Sheller, M. and J. Urry. (2000). The city and the car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 24.4, 737-757.

Wehner, K. and M. Sear. (2010) Engaging in the material world: Object knowledge and ‘Australian Journeys’. Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. S. Dudley, ed. London: Routledge.

Zavitz, R.P. (1989). Post war scripts: When the GTO got going. Old Cars Weekly. 31 Aug 1989, 19-20.

The Woman’s Truck Song

Miranda Lambert in her ’55 Chevy pickup

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

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

As I note in my work on female pickup owners: 

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

Carrie Underwood “Before He Cheats”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road Trips Part 2

Field of Dreams movie set, Davenport IA

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

Perfect Game Field, Cedar Rapids IA

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

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

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

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

Road Trips Part 1

A 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 – similar to my brother’s flashy automobile.

One of the activities that has been put on hold during the COVID pandemic is the road trip. While there are plenty of articles that offer advice on how to manage a safe road vacation, many folks – myself included – have opted to keep our cars mostly parked until driving long distances is considered safe. However, that doesn’t keep travel hungry road-trippers from reminiscing about past moving vacations or planning new adventures when restrictions are lifted. A fellow SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] member recently posted a charming recounting of a road trip taken when he was just a toddler. It got me to thinking about my own past road adventures, of which there have been very few. The death of my father while I was a child – and my  mother’s lack of a driver’s license – put family vacations on hold for a number of years. However, the trip we took during the summer before my father’s death – in August 1958 – is still very fresh in my mind.

My brother, me, and my sister at our first motel stop, complete with scruffy dog.

Although our summer vacations had previously consisted of two weeks at a rented cottage in northern Michigan, the decision was made in the summer of 1958 to visit my mother’s brother in Dallas, Texas. As there was a reasonable fear that the aging family vehicle was not reliable enough for such a journey, my older, recently married brother offered us his bright red inside-and-out 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 for the trip. Cars of that era were quite roomy, and the Olds held six of us – 3 adults and 3 children – fairly comfortably. Making the trip were my parents, my mother’s father, my 12-year-old brother, my 8-year-old sister, and 9-year old me. My mother and sister spent the entire trip in the back seat; my brother and I took turns sitting between my Camel-smoking father and cigar-smoking grandfather in front. Since these were the days before air conditioning was standard, the open windows provided some relief from the smoky [and hot] interior. But we were kids, and the conditions didn’t bother us in the least. I was settled in with a stack of library books [which I read on the way down, and reread on the way back] which kept my mind off any discomfort I might have felt driving down south without air in the month of August.

My brother Tom, mother, me, sister Margie, grandfather, Uncle Eddie, cousin Ralph, and Aunt Evanell in Dallas, Texas.

The construction of the Interstate Highway System – approved in 1956 – was just underway; thus our trip to Texas mostly took us on two lane highways and country roads. My father was not one to drive to exhaustion, and since young kids get restless easily, we made stops at various tourist attractions along the way and were at our hotel stop each afternoon by 4PM. As a working-class kid living Detroit, everything on the trip was new to me. I had never eaten in a restaurant [my brother ordered a hamburger at every meal] nor had I ever stayed in a motel. As we travelled further south, the hotels had swimming pools, which, for us city kids, was perhaps the biggest treat of all. We visited Meramec Caverns, a buffalo ranch, and were treated to an Old West rodeo show. My mother collected plates from each rest stop. I tasted my first Dr. Pepper – the unofficial soft drink of the south – and on my uncle’s prompting, exclaimed, “frosty, man, frosty!” after taking a sip. The visit with my uncle and his family was pleasant, but it was the trip itself which is ingrained in my memory.

Unfortunately, that was the last road trip we took as a family as my father passed away the following January. Many decades passed before I was to take another vacation by automobile. But I will always remember my brother’s shiny red car, the new, strange, and exciting views out the window that car made possible, and my father’s sunburned arm, perched on the window’s ledge, adeptly holding a cigarette between his browned and sturdy fingers.