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.” 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.” 2008.

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

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

The Motion Picture & the Woman Driver

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 provide a little background on the role of the automobile in film and conclude with a call to include more women in the cinematic driver’s seat. Over ten years later, I answered my own call by writing a paper on women and film that appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture. Here’s how that notion got started.

Henry Ford built the Model T as an affordable, utilitarian means of transportation. It wasn’t long after the first Ford rolled off the assembly line, however, that the automobile came to acquire meanings other than the basic mode of transport Ford envisioned. The motion picture industry developed almost in tandem to that of the automobile, so it is not surprising that film was instrumental in ascribing alternative meanings to the American car. In the infancy of the moving picture industry, the automobile is most often employed as a means to display the possibilities of the emerging film medium. Filmmakers experimented with both cinematic and automobile technology; they often called upon measures such as trick or stop-action photography to create outrageous scenes of “comic mayhem and dismemberment” (Smith 181). However, as the automobile became more familiar to the majority of Americans, audiences began to prefer films that contained a narrative. As Julian Smith writes in “A Runaway Match,” moviegoers began to respond more readily to “films that involved rather than excluded them” (181). Rather than a tool to demonstrate cinematic prowess, the car became an important element of the cinematic story.

1926 Ford Model T absconded by Clark Gable to drive Claudette Colbert to safety in It Happened One Night

The possibilities of both film and automobility were combined in a number of successful film scenarios. Elopement, rebellion, the chase, and the use of the car to instigate and resolve conflicts were some of the common themes in films that featured the automobile. Smith suggests the car in film was not just a means of transportation, but rather, was used to “transport characters – and the audience  – into new realms” (182). In these early films, the car is often a tool for escape, seduction and heroism. It brings about happiness, success and true love. In many films of the early twentieth century, the car appears as a vehicle of fate, justice and divine will. However, as Smith remarks, filmmakers during this period do not attempt to use the car as a commentary on the social condition. Rather, the automobile is a character in a narrative; it is a vehicle that literally and figuratively moves the story forward. 

As both car and film became more ingrained in American society, the car grew from a tool of storytelling to a symbol of both the culture and the individual behind the wheel. Powerful cars suggest powerful drivers; speed, control and risk-taking behavior are masculine attributes that are often used to tie the car to the man who drives it. As A.L. Reese notes in “Moving Spaces,” the car is often a disturbing presence in film, “in part because of what it can do (break down, explode or kill, for example) but also because of what it connotes” (84). Protagonists use the car as a weapon, calling on its strength and power to manipulate and destroy as an extension of themselves. For example, in the film Christine, the car is not only a vehicle of validation, but of personal vengeance as well. Automobiles in film became symbolic not only through appearance, but for where and how they traveled. The 1950s automobile was, as Eric Mottram writes, “heaped with adornment, worn as a badge of status, and admired as a piece of jewelry” (107). And during the 1970s, the automobile found a new role in the ubiquitous road movie; the car became the “major vehicle for a primary and traditional American hero” (110).

Christine on fire in the film of the same name

What is notable about the examples of the automobile in American film is that the individual behind the wheel is overwhelmingly male. Thus the male driver not only controls the car, but the narrative of the film as well. In film, the car as a symbol of escape, adventure, power, rebellion, self-discovery, control, desire and destruction is irrevocably linked with masculinity. If females are present, it is as passengers; they exist to be impressed, wooed or conquered by the car and the man who drives it. The car in American film not only reaffirms and secures the tie between the automobile and masculinity, but more importantly, suggests that only the male is capable of steering the course of the narrative. Feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in her discussion of the male gaze, asserts that the traditional role of men in cinema has been to move the story forward. When a man gets behind the wheel of a car onscreen, he is literally and figuratively determining the direction of the film, and the narrative within it. 

Ellen Burstyn takes the wheel in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

In The Road Story and the Rebel, Katie Mills discusses the advent of female automobility in the films of the 1970s. In the genre Mills describes as “New Hollywood,” young, ambitious auteurs, such as Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and Bogdanovich, embrace the road story as representative of the rebellious time period. As Mills argues, the filmmakers of this era sought to distinguish themselves as avant-garde, and often did so by creating road films with women as central characters. However, social activism did not spear the desire to create such films; rather, it was increased opportunity and recognition as groundbreaking artists that the filmmakers were after. Mills remarks, “there was a growing curiosity about the sexual revolution and growing pressure to represent women as more than just wives” (134). Yet while the New Hollywood films focus on women as symbols of progressive politics, feminist gender philosophy is rarely invoked. Women’s rebellion is portrayed as sexual liberation, which titillates, rather than challenges, both the male protagonists and audience members. The young, New Hollywood directors call upon culturally approved conventions in the depictions of female characters; women are, with the exception of Bonnie Parker, passive, and motherhood is often a motive for going on the road. While female automobility is the focus of road films such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, it is considered through a male lens. The women in these narratives act, in a sense, as “catalytic converters;” Mills remarks, “they get the men of the narrative into action, but their automobility does not represent social change” (192). It would take another 20 years before a film directly portrays women on the road because they are angry about patriarchy. As Carrie Khouri, screenwriter of the breakthrough film Thelma and Louise, tells us, “‘I just got fed up with the passive role of women. They were never driving the story, because they were never driving the car” (Mills 193). Thelma and Louise not only put women in the driver’s seat, but also brought national attention to female automobility as “the desire for autonomy from patriarchal structure and against male privilege” (Mills 194). The film effectively and purposefully skews the meanings traditionally associated with cars and those who drive them.

The automobile in American film has alternatively embraced a myriad of qualities, which include rebellion, adventure, romance, power, status, destruction and the American spirit. However, until very recently, such attributes have been primarily associated with masculinity and the male driver. The meanings traditionally ascribed to automobiles, in films and in real life, do not take into consideration the alternative relationship of women and cars. In order to disrupt such ingrained notions of masculine automobility, women must not only take their place behind the wheel in motion pictures, but more importantly, control the direction, and therefore the narrative, of the film itself. 

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

Mottram, Eric. “Blood on the Nash Ambassador: Cars in American Films,” in Autopia: Cars and Culture. P. Wollen and J. Kerr eds. London: Reaktion, 2002.

Reese, A.L. “Moving Spaces,” in Autopia: Cars and Culture. P. Wollen and J. Kerr eds. London: Reaktion, 2002.

Smith, Julian. “A Runaway Match: The Automobile in American Film, 1900-1920, The Automobile and American Life, D. L. Lewis & L. Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Car Stereotypes & the Woman Driver

A popular and sometimes irreverent automotive website, Jalopnik not only produces timely car-related articles, but it often gets readers involved by asking for input on various autocentric topics. One of the subjects covered recently was that of car stereotypes. After the author presented a few of his own, the article was followed up by responses from Jalopnik readers. The collected list of stereotypes ranged from the odd and obscure to the well-worn.  Among those offered: Miatas are favored by gays; Subarus are driven by lesbians; pickups are the choice of rednecks; muscle cars are owned by macho men; Corvettes are the pick of old guys; Buicks are the car of choice of anyone over 80. What is interesting about these common and oft cited stereotypes is how intricately they are intertwined with gender. Gender, sometimes combined with sexual orientation or age, is not only the major identifier of the car owner, but is the primary means by which a vehicle is disparaged or valued.

This should not be surprising. Gender in car culture is often called upon to ascribe value and authenticity or to degrade and diminish a particular automobile. Due to the automobile’s longstanding association with masculinity, vehicles strongly associated with the youngish straight [white] male driver are invariably considered more powerful, better engineered, technologically superior, more responsive, and of greater workmanship and quality than those chosen by women or members of the LBGTQ community. Much of this assumption is based on the common perception that women just don’t know much about cars. As historian Judy Wajcman notes, “the absence of technical confidence or competence does indeed become part of feminine gender identity, as well as being a sexual stereotype” (155). The belief that women lack technical expertise often creates a reverse kind of logic in the minds of many male consumers. They believe that since women cannot appreciate the finer technical characteristics of a car, such as power, handling, and performance, the cars women purchase must be deficient. Women’s approval, in the minds of many men, leads to the devaluation of the car. 

This assumption of automotive inferiority carries over to cars popular in the gay community. In Masculinities, RW Connell remarks that the common perception of gay men is that they “lack masculinity”. As Connell writes, “from the point of view of hegemonic masculinity, gayness is easily assimilated to femininity” (78). Because gay men are often considered feminine among the straight-white-male population, the automobiles they drive are marked “girly’” as well. Consequently, vehicles marked as feminine or “gay” are thought of as less, affecting automotive sales and discouraging those buyers who wouldn’t be caught dead driving a “feminine” car.

What is interesting is that the cars subject to disparaging gender stereotypes were not, for the most part, originally produced or marketed to non-straight-white-male customers. As an example, vehicles now labeled “chick cars” are fast, sporty, nimble vehicles originally produced for the male automotive enthusiast. However, once women with car savvy and newly acquired spending power appropriated the Miata, VW New Beetle, and Mini Cooper as their own, many members of the male population became hesitant to drive them. Some men consider the “chick car” an affront to their masculinity and fear what driving such a car will say about them. As auto writer Ted Laturnus suggests, “for a lot of male drivers, the thought of driving a ‘chick car’ is the kiss of death when it comes to signing on the dotted line.”

The same could be said for the Subaru. As noted on its website, “Subaru has a long history of offering vehicles that are both highly capable and intelligently designed.” Originally known for its 4WD station wagon, the introduction of the Outback SUV – the first of its kind in the automotive industry – led to Subaru’s reputation as a manufacturer of safe and practical vehicles with exceptional performance features. While originally marketed as a vehicle for outdoorsy adventurous guys as well as active families, the Subaru is now considered a top choice for those who identify as lesbian. Yet unlike the chick car scenario, in which automakers beefed up the Beetles and Mini Coopers to make them more appealing to men, Subaru actively and aggressively pursued the lesbian market. As Alex Mayyasi reflects, ‘the marketers found that lesbian Subaru owners liked that the cars were good for outdoor trips, and that they were good for hauling stuff without being as large as a truck or SUV. (In a line some women may not like as much, marketers also said Subaru’s dependability was a good fit for lesbians since they didn’t have a man who could fix car problems.)” Yet unlike chick car manufacturers who feared an association with the woman driver would affect automotive sales, Subaru was confident enough in its product to aggressively pursue the lesbian market. Although the Subaru remains a popular choice among teachers and educators, health care professionals, IT professionals, and outdoorsy types of all genders and sexual orientations, its appeal to the non-straight-white-male population has led to its label as the “lesbian” car.

The age group of a certain automotive purchaser also contributes to a negative stereotype. Older drivers are considered overly cautious, accident prone, and focused on amenities that contribute to a vehicle’s safety, comfort, and economy rather than handling, power and performance. Consequently, car models favored by senior citizens are considered less desirable  than those marketed to young white men. Despite its current advertising campaign, Buick’s long association with mature drivers has stubbornly labeled it as the old person’s car.

In much of my research, I focus on women who drive vehicles that challenge gender stereotypes by choosing vehicles – muscle cars, chick cars, and pickup trucks – associated with men. These women often face disparaging remarks and unsubstantiated assumptions regarding their vehicle choices. Although the most prevalent car stereotypes are those associated with femininity, women who choose ‘masculine’ vehicles are not immune.

While car stereotypes are not universally focused on gender, the fact that so many rely on the notion that vehicles associated with individuals who are not young, white, straight, and male are worthy of ridicule is telling. While the intention of the Jalopnik article no doubt was to engage and entertain its readers, it also reminds us that at least in the car world, as Virginia Scharff writes, “what is seen as feminine, or belonging to women, seems trivial at best, dangerous at worst” (167).

Bellwood, Owen. “What Car Comes with the Weirdest Stereotypes?” 16 Nov 2021.

Connell, R.W. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

“The History of Subaru.”

Laturnus, Ted. “So What’s Not to Like About a So-Called Chick Car?” Globe and Mail. 19 Jan. 2006.

Mayyasi, Alex. “How an Ad Campaign Made Lesbians Fall in Love with Subaru.” n.d.

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

Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1996.

New Car Resolutions

Jalopnik recently posted an article requesting its readers to submit Automotive New Year’s Resolutions. As Jalopnik articles often do, this one got me to thinking about my own car-related plans for the coming year. As it turns out, my 2022 car resolutions can be divided into two categories. One is concerned with my car-related scholarship, the other with my actual cars. Both areas, as it turns out, are due for some much needed attention.

I had a pretty good year in terms of publishing and promoting my work on women and cars. My article on women and cars in film is featured in latest issue of the Journal of Popular Culture, and my car advertising exploits made the cover of the most recent Automotive History Review. I also completed and contributed a chapter on the history of all women-racing to a yet-to-be-published history-of-motorsports collection. In terms of presentations, I was a featured speaker for the Motor Cities National Heritage organization, was invited to expound on my AHR article at the Automotive Hall of Fame, and presented an idea for a new project on Barbie cars at the Popular Culture Association Conference that was pretty well received. I also attended a couple of autocross events and interviewed a few women for a prospective project on women who compete in the sport. And I managed to crank out at least two blogs a week on new and recycled topics.

Alas, other aspects of my life caught up with me in the fall; consequently, I have accomplished little real work during the last few months. My goal for the coming year, therefore, is to pick up where I left off, adding some new projects along the way. Items to check off are the completion and submission of the Barbie car paper, the continuation of interviews for the autocross project –  so that an article can be completed by the end of the year – and the commencing of new projects to include a study of women who own jeeps, an examination of women who work as auto journalists, and a Wikipedia entry focused on little known UAW and NOW groundbreaker Dorothy Haener. It is quite an ambitious list, but I am only getting older and would like to move forward as quickly and aggressively as possible while my facilities remain intact.

As for my actual cars, my two classics have been greatly neglected during the pandemic. In 2020 car shows were canceled; consequently there was little incentive to get them out and show them off. In the spring of 2021, my husband underwent serious surgery which put a kibosh on classic car activities. The cars – a 1949 Ford and 1967 Shelby Mustang – have been idle for so long that I am afraid I will have forgotten how to drive them – i.e. how many gears are there and what is the shift pattern? Therefore my resolution for this summer is to get the two beauties out early and often and enjoy them, whether at a car event or just tooling around. 

One other car event that will be taking place will be replacing our current cars with new ones. As we are downsizing and moving next year, we will be consolidating our current vehicles and replacing those that are no longer necessary for our new lifestyles. So if the North American Auto Show eventually, finally takes place, we will be there checking out the latest models.

Happy new car year everyone, and may your 2022 automotive dreams come true.

The Stick Shift & Masculinity

Since the combustion engine made its debut in the early twentieth century, the automobile has been associated with masculinity and the male driver. Throughout its colorful history, the automobile has been embodied with masculine qualities. Early autos were often described as dirty, smelly, and noisy; modern cars are often referred to as tough, fast, and powerful. In addition, within American car culture there is an underlying conviction that successful operation of a gasoline powered is dependent on particular masculine behaviors. Steady nerves, aggression, and rationality were claimed as masculine by the first generations of male drivers; today’s men behind the wheel have added automotive knowledge, technological savvy, and superior driving skill to the mix. 

One of the skills that has traditionally been associated with superior driving ability – and masculinity – is familiarity with a manual transmission. The gendering of transmission use was instituted shortly after the introduction of the automatic transmission in the 1950s. Although women had competently operated manual cars for decades, manufacturers viewed marketing automatics to women as a means to broaden their consumer base. As Jalopnik writer Raphael Orlove notes, ‘what Detroit figured out was that it could sell a lot more automatics if it touted how their ease of use made them more female friendly.’ All of a sudden, stick shifts were deemed too difficult to use for the woman behind the wheel. The notion that the manual transmission was unsuitable and unworkable for women promoted by auto advertisers and the automotive press solidified its position as a symbol of male driving expertise.

As noted in a recent Jalopnik article, the ‘real men use three pedals’ mentality remains alive and well. As the author notes, men often blame their wives for the purchase of an automatic transmission; to admit it is their choice would somehow compromise their masculinity. In my research into women who venture into automotive cultures traditionally dominated by men – i.e. muscle cars, motorsports, and chick cars – the ability to drive a stick was cited by many women as evidence of  exceptional driving skill. In the minds of many female auto aficionados, mastery of a manual transmission puts them on equal footing – no pun intended – with men. 

Despite the engrained association between manual transmissions and masculinity, less than 3% of cars sold today have stick shifts. While it is believed that over half the US driving population – men and women – know how to drive a manual, no one is buying them. Boomers certainly make up a good portion of the know-how-to-drive-a-stick group as they most likely learned to drive in a manual. But to this aging group, ease of driving has become more important than demonstrating machismo by shifting gears. So why does this association persist? Why does the infinitesimal population of manual car buyers dictate the gendered implications of transmission choice? Entrenched gender divisions and expectations – especially in a culture that has relied on them since its inception – are difficult to eradicate or dismiss. I suspect that the aging out of the boomer generation, accompanied by the influence of Millennials with less interest in cars and gender differentiation – will change how we think about cars. And the rise of electric vehicles will hopefully, in time, make such evaluations meaningless.

In the meantime, as long as this obstinate association persists, this female boomer will enjoy surprising the male contingent at car shows when driving up in her three-on-the-tree 49 Ford or four-on-the-floor 67 Shelby Mustang.