The Common Language of Cars

Elana Scherr, Car and Driver columnist.

Car and Driver has a new columnist. A female columnist. In order to make an initial, positive impression on Car and Driver readership, Elana Scherr introduces herself through the common language of cars – “cars owned, cars driven, and cars much desired” (24). 

As a female columnist in a historically male genre – automotive magazines – Scherr’s decision to call upon the common language of cars is a wise one. The most obvious reason is that it identifies her as a “car person”. As a female, this is especially important. Women have traditionally been typecast as having little interest, or knowledge, about cars. Longstanding woman driver stereotypes suggest that women are inept, nervous, and cautious drivers, and when it comes to the automobile, are primarily interested in its functionality and use as a form of domestic technology. Scherr distances herself from this stereotype through referencing her mother – considered an outlier for her refusal to own a mom-approved station wagon or minivan – and by reflecting on her own varied and nontraditional automotive history. 

Calling upon the common language of cars also provides Scherr with a way to connect with fellow car enthusiasts, which includes, of course, Car and Driver readers. Scherr has always had a special fascination with old cars, making her particularly well versed in the finer points of a classic Dodge Challenger or Pontiac Trans Am. Ownership of classic cars provides Scherr with a legitimacy that goes beyond being a car expert. Rather, it identifies her as somewhat of a car historian, further bolstering her standing both the classic car community and the greater car culture at large. While Car and Driver caters primarily to the modern car enthusiast, Scherr’s recognized knowledge of the automotive past allows her to speak authoritatively of the present and future of automobility.

The common language of cars also offers a means to seek identity through automobiles. In my own research on the relationship between women and cars, I found that women often employ the language of cars to draw a connection between themselves and the vehicles they drive. Many of those I interviewed identified themselves by calling on characteristics they shared with their muscle car, chick car, or pickup truck. Referring to themselves in such a manner – as stylish, powerful, tough, or badass, as the case may be – suggests a deeper, more personal relationship to a vehicle than that of the average car owner. It establishes the individual as one with a special passion for the automobile. 

Scherr calls on the common language of cars to display her own passion for the automobile and to uncover that love and enthusiasm in others. As the Car and Driver bio notes, ‘[Scherr] discovered that she not only loved cars and wanted to drive them, but that other people loved cars and wanted to read about them.” Scherr’s goal, as written in her initial Car and Driver column, is to “share the delightful stories of people who build and race and design and create the cars we love” (24). While Scherr may not qualify as a genuine car expert in the eyes of the skeptical, calling upon the common language of cars allows her to connect, embrace, invoke, and engage with all who share an enthusiasm, zeal, and passion for any and all types of automobiles.

Women who write about cars will always be greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. In a culture that ascribes mechanical ability and automotive knowledge as natural male characteristics, women often find it necessary to devise strategies to enter the masculine automotive fraternity. As Scherr has demonstrated, fluency in the common language of cars provides an effective avenue to legitimacy in not only auto journalism, but in all automotive endeavors. I look forward to the many delightful stories Scherr will share in Car and Driver.

Car and Driver. “Elana Scherr, Contributing Editor.” caranddriver.com n.d.

Scherr, Elana. “Lingua Franca: I’m Elana, the New Columnist, and I Want to Talk About Cars.” Car and Driver 65.12 June 2020, 64.

A New Car Show for Kids

Backseat Drivers – a new car show for kids

One of the things I’ve discovered when conducting my research is that a woman’s interest in cars is often the result of an early positive and immersive automotive experience. Young girls who are introduced to cars through an enthusiastic father, brother, or male playmate are more likely to develop a familiarity with and comfort around automobiles than those who do not. Traditionally, young boys are introduced to cars through the acquisition of ‘toys that move’ – planes, trains, trucks, and automobiles – so are exposed to technological playthings at a young age as a matter of course. Cultural prescriptions being what they are, most young girls do not have such an experience. If girls do not have male family members who encourage an interest in cars at a young age, or grow up playing with ‘toys that move’ like their male peers, the chance that they will become automotive enthusiasts is rather unlikely. 

I recently ran across a couple of articles on my automotive feed that discussed a new streaming network program about cars hosted by three children, one of which is female. As one auto journalist noted, ‘the show is directed by real car lovers and the three kids who are hosts are charming and fun and genuinely into cars as well.’ Backseat Drivers covers many aspects of the car hobby, and includes a lot of enjoyable activities that provide a fun introduction to cars. Not only does the show cover a wide range of cars, but the young hosts do fun stuff involving drag races, eating in cars, and a brake test involving piñatas. There are guest appearances by noted auto aficionados, including street racer/drifter Greg Leone and Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky. As the reviewers note, there are episodes involving a Tesla trying to park itself, ‘unashamed adoration of a Grumman LLV mail truck,’ and one segment devoted to microcars. Considering how early a love for cars tends to happen, Backseat Drivers fills an important void not only in programming for children, but automotive programming as well.

Certainly Backseat Drivers was inspired by a concern that young people’s interest in the automobile is waning. But it is encouraging to see that developing car curiosity among young girls is considered part of the solution. While there has been a concentrated effort among educational institutions, automotive manufacturers, and science and engineering organizations to increase STEM participation among girls and young women, Backseat Drivers suggests that it is never too early to foster an interest in cars. With this new fun car show for kids, there is a good chance that girls will get the message.

Oliva, Jacob. “Start ‘Em Young: ‘Backseat Drivers’ Is Like ‘Top Gear’ for Kids.” Motor1.com 16 Apr 2020.

Torchinsky, Jason. “There’s Finally a Car Show for Kids and I’m On It a Bit.” Jalopnik.com 17 Apr 2020 

‘My First Car’ Stories

Chris Lezotte’s 1970 VW Beetle

During the Michigan COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, with auto shows canceled and motor racing put on hold, auto journalists in the state often had little news to write about. When faced with such a predicament, many turned to their own car experiences for inspiration. While looking through a few online magazines on my auto feed recently, I discovered that one of the more popular features during this crazy time is “my first car” stories. Online automotive sites such as Hemmings and Motor Trend have collected first car tales of their respective staffers. The car stories found on these sites are entertaining, introspective, informative, and nostalgic. They tell of junkers purchased with meager paychecks, clunkers handed down by parents and grandparents, and for those without cars, tales of travel on subways, the school bus, and family cars borrowed from mom and dad. The stories know no gender; while the majority of auto writers represented are male, there are a few from female staff members as well. Motor Trend’s Alisa Priddle tells of the 1970 Chevy Impala left to her by her grandfather after his passing. As Priddle noted, “I will always wax nostalgic about the IMP-ah-la [as pronounced by her Finnish grandparents] with its 350-cubic-inch, 250-hp V-8 and three-speed transmission that I almost always drove barefoot on my way to teach swimming at the local beach; great summer job and great memories from my high school days.” Monica Gonderman, also at Motor Trend, still owns the 1999 Chevy S-10 she purchased as a sophomore in high school soon after receiving her driver’s license. Over the years, Gonderman spent many hours incorporating modifications – lowered, air-bagged, a custom flame paint job, full tweed interior and bed – to make the vehicle her own. 

In my various women-car projects, those I interviewed often had similar stories of cars from the past. These vehicles served as important touchstones in their lives; not only were they crucial means of transportation, but also represented self-sufficiency, hard work, autonomy, and freedom to the women who drove them. As for my own auto story, I grew up in Detroit without a car, as my widowed mother never learned to drive. As she was forced to rely on public transportation or the generosity of family and friends to get where she needed to go, I learned early on the importance of the automobile to women’s mobility – both figuratively and literally.

When my older brother came of driving age, the first of a series of “family cars” was purchased, shared by my younger sister and I when we turned 16. I learned to drive on a 1960 4-on-the-floor light green Corvair. I spent many an evening with my other brother –  a Detroit policeman – driving round and around a local high school parking lot learning to shift gears. In order to purchase a car in my own name, I waited until my 21st birthday to take delivery of a brand new 1970 Volkswagen Beetle. The red bug came with two options – a radio and a crank sunroof [best sunroof ever] – and cost a whopping $2293 out the door. That car saw me through my last years of college at Wayne State University in Detroit, my brief 2 year marriage to my college sweetheart, the years that followed in which I was divorced, broke and trying to make my way in the world, and my first real job. With a heater that never worked, and an undercarriage that was rusting away [typical for bugs of the time] I held onto the car for seven years until it was totaled while parked in front of my apartment building. I went on, of course, to own a variety of other vehicles –  some better than others –  but that first car, paid with the money I earned while a college student, with me for some of the highest and lowest points of my young life – will always be the vehicle I remember most.

The prevailing assumption regarding women’s car use suggests the female motorist views the automobile as a practical necessity, a means to get from point A to point B safely, efficiently, and reliably. However, in my various research projects, I have discovered that to a great number of women, a car from the past can contain special meanings that go far beyond its function as transportation. To these women drivers, whether 30 or 80, a first car can serve as a touchstone, a container of memories, and an important reminder of who she once was, and who was to become.

Editors of Motor Trend. “Throwin’ it Back: What Motor Trend Editors Drove in High School.” Motortrend.com 10 Apr 2020.

McCourt, Mark. “My First Car: Hemmings Editorial Staff Share Motoring Memories.” Hemmings.com 9 Apr 2020.

‘Women Auto Know’ Revisited

Women’s Car Advice website A Girls Guide to Cars

A number of years ago I wrote a journal article – Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice – that focused on four popular online car advice sites for women. While, at the time, an online Google search revealed nearly one million car advice websites, only a very few were geared specifically for the woman driver. The women’s car advice websites I came upon did not function as forums or social networks but rather, were constructed as reputable and important resources for automotive knowledge and the acquisition of negotiation strategies and skills. In addition to providing advice and information, a few of the sites endeavored to revolutionize the male dominated automobile market to become more “woman-friendly” through an integrated auto dealership rating system. As I argued in the article, these online locations were significant not only for the hard facts they made accessible to female visitors, but for what women gained – as drivers, consumers, and political actors – by accessing them. 

Although we are now accustomed to finding just about anything on the Internet, at the time the original research was conducted – 2010 and again in 2013 – the idea that women could find online automotive information that addressed their specific needs, concerns, and experiences was rather new. The four online locations cited – AskPatty.com, Women-drivers.com, Road and Travel Magazine, and VroomGirls – could be considered revolutionary for the time. Nearly ten years since I first visited these online locations, these four car advice websites continue to provide useful information and negotiation skills to the woman behind the wheel.

While browsing women-and-car articles online a few days ago I came across a recent addition to the women’s car advice scene. As noted on the site, A Girls Guide to Cars was introduced in 2018 in an effort to provide women with a fun, fresh, and informative automotive source. Described as “Cars on Your Terms, and a Car Site for Women,” A Girls Guide to Cars provides many of the services of the older sites. It also shares a philosophy of not only providing information, tactics, and strategies to make a smart and comfortable automotive decisions, but to empower the auto industry to develop a better relationship with female customers. 

While it builds on the strengths of its online predecessors, A Girls Guide to Cars reflects a younger, more technologically savvy, and perhaps more economically stable population of women drivers. The regularly posted articles – which fall into categories of luxury, style, technology, travel, car buying, and news and opinion – are written by a diverse group of female staff and outside contributors from all over the US and Canada with various interests, occupations, and hobbies. They are authors, bloggers, podcasts, content creators, and journalists, whose common interest is a love and fascination for the automobile. As the contributors note, “we are not car enthusiasts, but regular women who spend time in cars, make car buying decisions, and think about how women are changing the automotive world.” There is a plethora of automotive information available on the site, as well as a good dose of automotive/human interest stories. All content is well-researched, well-written, and enjoyable to read, written from a definite female perspective.

Like the car advice sites that preceded it, A Girls Guide to Cars recognizes that when it comes to cars, women often have different needs, uses, and perspectives than the male driver. If you are a woman who is into cars, desires car buying information, or is just looking for a good automotive read, I suggest you take a look at A Girls Guide to Cars. 

Reiss, Scotty. A Girls Guide to Cars: Empowering Smarter, Happier Car Owners. agirlsguidetocars.net (2018).

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

Have you ever visited an online car advice site? How was that experience? Do you have any that you would recommend? Your comments are welcome.

Truck Guys Aren’t Just Guys

Molly Osberg’s New-to-Her Toyota Tacoma

I recently came across an article on Jezebel – “A Supposedly Feminist Website” – about a recent pickup truck purchase of one of its writers. In “I’m a Truck Guy Now,” blogger Molly Osberg announces, discusses, and rationalizes her recent acquisition of a used Toyota Tacoma. Although Osberg’s excitement in her vehicle choice is palpable, she finds it necessary to continually justify not only the purchase itself, but her feelings about owning a mid-sized truck. It is only after she lays out the “legitimate” reasons for owning a truck that she allows herself to express why, in her words, the Tacoma is “the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever owned.”

Women and pickup trucks was the subject of an article adapted from my dissertation recently published in the European Journal of American Culture. In “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver, and Cowgirl Feminism” I call upon a 2013 Chevy Silverado commercial as a segue into American women’s growing fascination with pickups. In interviews with 25 truck-owning women, I consider how women often assume cowgirl personas as a way to gain legitimacy in a historically masculine culture. However, what also became apparent through these enlightening conversations was how passionately many women feel about driving and owning a pickup truck.

Osberg shares many of the sentiments of those interviewed for “A Woman and Her Truck”. Much like those female truck owners, Osberg expounds upon the vehicle’s practical applications to her own life and that of her partner. Whether calling upon the truck to pull horse trailers and boats, or transport landscape supplies and building materials, women are likely to view truck ownership as a way to present themselves as tough, sturdy, industrious, and hardworking. Osberg also spends a great amount of time considering possible modifications to the truck. Carhartt seat covers, a trailer hitch, a three-inch lift, a truck cap, and vinyl racing stripes are a few of the additions Osberg contemplates as a way to make the truck her own. Osberg has named her pickup “Wylene”. In many of my women-and-car projects, I have found that naming is a common way women personalize and create identities for the vehicles they drive. Osberg also enjoys the element of surprise driving a pickup offers. Due to the truck’s size, substance, and strong association with masculinity, a small woman climbing out of a big truck often turns heads. And as Osberg has discovered, trucks provide the female motorist a sense of respect not often awarded to a driver of a typical “mom” vehicle – i.e. minivan or small SUV. As noted by the 25 truck-owning women, the ability to confidently and expertly handle a vehicle of considerable size and power marks the woman behind the wheel as an exceptional driver.

However, unlike Osberg, the women I interviewed had few qualms expressing enthusiasm, passion, and pure joy over the trucks they drive. They love how they feel when behind the wheel of a large, powerful vehicle. They appreciate the opportunities for recreation and adventure the pickup makes possible. They embrace the respect they receive when maneuvering a cumbersome machine; they feel empowered by the strength and toughness associated with truck ownership; they consider themselves exceptional for handling a vehicle rarely associated with the female motorist.

Perhaps Osberg’s reticence regarding her recent automotive purchase stems from an underlying suspicion that she does not in fact need, or deserve, a pickup truck. Perhaps admitting her affection for a masculine material object on a “supposedly feminist website” causes her to question her feminist “props.” However, as the interviews with 25 unapologetic truck-owning women – not to mention the growing number of female truck consumers – make clear, a good number of women have discovered that pickup ownership enhances their work, play, lives, and self-worth. As they might say to Molly Osberg, perhaps it is time to shed your inhibitions and take a little bit of joy from your new-to-you Toyota Tacoma.

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

Osberg, Molly. “I’m a Truck Guy Now.” Jezebel.com 6 December 2019.

Are you a truck owner? If not, have you ever considered purchasing one? What pickup qualities most interest you? Feel free to comment below.

What Women Want

Advertisement for the 1955 Dodge La Femme

A recent article on Hagerty.com looked back at a notable and somewhat notorious failed attempt of an American automaker to develop an automobile specifically for the woman driver. In 1955, Chrysler introduced La Femme, with the intention of directing a perceived wealth of “lady-dollars” to its rebranded, repainted, and reappointed Dodge Royal Lancer. The thinking – by the group of male engineers, designers, and marketers –  was that women would be innately attracted to an automotive product and package that included a heather rose and pearl paint application, brocatelle upholstery, accompanied by a complement of accessories that included a matching lipstick case, cigarette lighter, compact, change purse, rain cape, rain hat, umbrella, and purse, all coordinating with the Jacquard car interior. Not surprisingly, women’s response to La Femme was lukewarm at best. After a two year production run with only 1500 cars sold, the pink and white behemoth drove off quietly into automotive history.

This was not the first, nor the last, attempt by auto manufacturers to designate a particular vehicle as the “woman’s car.” In the early auto age, when the introduction of the fast and powerful gasoline automobile threatened the future of the electric car, automakers rebranded the electric as perfectly suited for the woman behind the wheel. The qualities that differentiated the electric from its gas-powered successor –  clean, quiet, easy to handle, stylish, and with limited power and range – were promoted as appropriate for the “feminine” characteristics of cleanliness, physical weakness, and domesticity. However, although Clara Ford was gifted an electric vehicle by her auto mogul husband Henry, the majority of driving women desired the power, performance, and range of the gasoline powered automobile. It wasn’t long before women passed over the electric in favor of the ever-expanding lineup of combustion engine cars.

During the 1980s, car manufacturers began to consider women as a potentially important demographic for trucks and vans. Yet rather than addressing women as serious consumers, advertisers once again called upon “feminine” stereotypes to promote vehicles to women. Because the Chevy S-10 Blazer was purchased primarily by men, marketers believed that a “pink truck” campaign would convince potential female customers to consider the off-road vehicle. As Ella Howard writes, “although trucks are often associated with masculinity, readers here saw one bathed in pastels, and were assured that a woman driving a Blazer need not be unfeminine” (137). Women in the market for a vehicle, however, found the use of pastel colors and “other gimmicky features” in these advertising attempts to be offensive and condescending. If women did, in fact, purchase a Chevy Blazer, it was in spite of, rather than due to, the stereotypical visions of gender reflected in the print advertising campaign. 

In my own work on women’s involvement in various car cultures – including chick cars, muscle cars, and pickup trucks – I discovered that what a woman wants in a vehicle is personal. Whether looking for an automobile that is sporty, tough, powerful, or simply fun to drive, female motorists make choices based on their own preferences, needs, and desires. While women – at some point in their lives – may adhere to gender prescriptions in the purchase of a certifiable “mom” vehicle – i.e. wagon, minivan, crossover, or small SUV – when freed from parental responsibilities, or in defiance of them, they are likely to select vehicles that offer independence, autonomy, and empowerment. Rather than being seduced by a pretty paint job or feminine accoutrements, they drive off in a vehicle that says “this is who I am.”

Over the past century, auto makers have been slow to understand that it is difficult, if not impossible, to produce a vehicle specifically for the woman driver. As I have learned in my various explorations into the relationship between women and automobiles, “what women want” is to make their own choices about who they are and what they will drive.

Howard, Ella. “Pink Truck Ads: Second-Wave Feminism and Gendered Marketing.” Journal of Women’s History 22.4 (Winter 2010): 137-161.

Hunting, Benjamin. “How the 1955 Dodge La Femme Missed the Mark on Designing Cars for Women.” Hagerty.com 10 Feb 2020. Accessed 18 Feb 2020.

What are your feelings about a ‘woman’s car’? Is there such a thing? What are the qualities that make a car appealing to the woman driver? Your opinions are welcome!

Review of ‘Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession’

As a scholar, albeit of the independent variety, I am sometimes asked to contribute to research in various ways. A little over a year ago The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth asked if I would write a book review on a car-and-youth related publication for an upcoming issue. As I am always open to a new opportunity, I gladly accepted, particularly since I had already purchased the book and was planning on reading it anyway. The review was recently published in the JHCY Winter 2020 issue. Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession by historian Gary Cross is an interesting and in-depth look at the various American youth car cultures of the 20th century. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review here.

Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession
By Gary S. Cross
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 227 pp. Paper $32.50, cloth $97.50.

Machines of Youth is a colorful chronology of American youth car cultures from the early automotive age to the present day. Relying on an eclectic assemblage of sources – interviews, print media, automotive publications, popular culture, and personal anecdotes – historian Gary Cross has constructed a compelling examination of a rarely researched subject and subculture. Although the book stands on its own as an in-depth exploration of young men’s involvement and fascination with cars over the past century, it also serves as a rarely examined but timely analysis of white working-class youth culture in twentieth-century America. In Machines of Youth, Cross takes us beyond the scope of traditional automotive histories to investigate the teenage cultures that evolved along its margins. To young working-class men, Cross argues, car culture was not only a community in which automotive craftsmanship and knowledge could be developed and shared, but also served as an important source of masculinity, autonomy, individualism, self-expression, and rebellion.

Cross skillfully intertwines automobile history with the teenage cultures it generated. Each chapter introduces cars of a particular generation and the young men who became engaged, if not obsessed, with the growing automotive phenomenon. Some of the stops along the way include the early auto age and young men’s growing preoccupation with the gasoline-powered automobile, the 1930s customizing and “souping up” craze, the 1940s hot rod wars, the 1950s and 60s cruising and parking culture, and the Fast and Furious era of Japanese “rice burners”. Cross also makes an intriguing detour into the familial and community Latino car culture of “low and slow”. At each juncture Cross delves into how a particular culture came to be, considers how and why boys became involved, investigates the influence of club life and the media, considers how the subcultures were regarded by the public, and discusses the efforts made to suppress, disregard, or encourage young men’s automotive activities. Cross concludes the book by considering the state of car culture today, the role of nostalgia in its maintenance, as well as whether there remains enough automotive interest for its continuance into the future.

Although car cultures attracted teens from all walks of life – e.g. baby boomer muscle car enthusiasts and middle-class hippies who tinkered with aging VW Beetles – Cross is particularly interested in the role the automobile played in the lives of white working-class youth. In the chapter devoted to “greasers and their rods,” Cross examines how cars gave these “marginal” high school boys an opportunity to define themselves apart from the mainstream white middle-class population. As the author notes, while middle-class teens on the “college prep” track were likely to drive cars owned or purchased by their parents, working-class youth in the vocational curriculum took pride in working on their own jalopies. Thus, as Cross writes, “the customized car offered a token of dignity to a group that had always been subordinate, but which in the mid-twentieth century was steadily losing ground” (99). Cross’s examination of white working-class youth is particularly timely given the current political climate, which has witnessed a growing sentiment of discontent and disaffection among rural white working-class men.

Machines of Youth is a welcome and important addition to existing automotive scholarship. Although much has been written on the history of the automobile, only a handful of scholars (e.g. Karen Lumsden, Amy Best, Brenda Bright, Sarah Redshaw) have investigated specific car cultures. And while Cross presents an engaging examination of the history of young men’s involvement with cars, the volume’s strength comes from its unique focus on class (in addition to gender and race) as an influential and crucial component of American youth car cultures. What the book lacks, however, is diversity in research location. Although the west coast was certainly an important breeding ground for youth car cultures, there is a little too much emphasis on the California car scene. While other locations are mentioned, the tone of the book suggests the majority of youth automotive activity occurred in the Golden State. Cross also fails to lay out his methodology in the introductory section. Consequently, it is up to the reader to piece the research sources together chapter by chapter.

Machines of Youth is certain to be embraced by aging men of a particular generation who grew up with a passion for cars and see themselves in its pages. For auto historians, Cross’s astute analysis of young men’s engagement with the automobile provides a social context to the ebb and flow of automotive popularity over the past century. However, scholars of youth cultures will find Cross’s work fascinating whether or not they have an interest in cars. The focus on white working-class teens is not only engrossing and enlightening in its own right, but has particular relevance during this disquieting time in our nation’s political history.

Do you have a favorite car book? What makes an automotive book worth reading? Your suggestions are welcome!

Old Car Songs and the New Woman Driver

A topic that often finds its way into car journals, blogs, and online automotive publications is the “car song.” Auto journalists and enthusiasts of a certain age frequently call upon the classic car song as a way to reminisce about the past. As popular music is often referred to as the song track of one’s life, car tunes – whether in reference to music emanating from the car or about the car itself –  bring back particular memories of an automobile and the life experiences surrounding it.

I recently came across such an article by car blogger Jim Van Orden on the popular automotive website hemmings.com. In “Car Tunes of My Youth,” Van Orden intertwines stories of the songs that accompanied family road trips, car advertising tunes on the radio and television, popular car songs of the day, and the memories each of these car tunes evoked. The article is followed by a substantive comment section in which others passionately and often humorously contribute their own car tune memories.

What is notable about the proliferation of online articles devoted to the car song is that they are all written by – and addressed to – drivers of the male persuasion. Although young women during the 50s and 60s may not have owned their own vehicles, they certainly spent a good amount of time in automobiles with car songs and advertisements playing on the radio. So why are women less inclined to call upon the car song as a link to the past? Is it because they were not all that interested in cars? Or was it because, as written from a male perspective, the songs did not reflect women’s unique automotive experiences?

I addressed the second part of this question a few years ago in a journal article focusing on the woman’s car song. In “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n Roll,” I argue that once women became more accepted as singer/songwriters in the music industry, they began writing a very different kind of car song. While the car songs of the 50s and 60s were almost exclusively focused on the automobile as an important contributor to the male teenager’s rite of passage – promoting good times, adventure, liberation from restrictive home environments, and sex – the women’s car song of the 70s and beyond called upon the automobile as a vehicle of freedom, escape, recollection, rebellion, and empowerment. While the singular male focus of the classic car song may be responsible for women’s indifference to it, the rise of the women’s car song suggests not only that the automobile serves as musical inspiration for women as well as men, but that cars have an importance to women’s lives that is different from, but no less legitimate than, that of the male driver.

Which leads back to the first question regarding whether women, in fact, have an interest in cars. As I have discovered in my own research, a good many women – more than is commonly believed – have an interest, if not a passion, for the automobile. The ability to write and sing about it provides an opportunity for women’s car songs – and women’s voices – to be heard.

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

Do you have a favorite car song? What is it and what do you like about it? Feel free to comment below.

Making a Home on Wheels

Nash press photo

Since the automobile’s inception, auto manufacturers and suppliers have offered optional and aftermarket products to convert the automobile into mobile sleeping quarters. To address the needs and desires of a traveling public, Daniel Strohl notes, “carmakers have expressly made their vehicles suitable for camping”(hemmings.com). Such alterations and add-ons include folding front seats that provide a flat sleeping area, accessory tents for hatch back models, sleeper units for passenger vans, and a “magic camper package” for the ubiquitous minivan. These accessories allow folks to expand the automobile’s primary function as a mode of transportation into a more flexible vehicle that meets individual and family travel needs.

By offering these products and accessories, manufacturers have – over the years – reacted to the car-owning public’s desire to use the automobile in ways not originally intended. As noted by Kathleen Franz in Tinkering, “consumers became tinkerers and occasionally inventors as they outfitted their cars for travel […]” (second cover). Taking matters into one’s own hands, however, was not limited to men. During the early years of automobility, female owners and drivers actively reconfigured the automobile for their own use. As Franz writes, “women, who were portrayed by manufacturers and their husbands as passive consumers, remade themselves into competent mechanics and active users” (110.) Women who travelled alone often found it necessary to modify and outfit their cars to meet middle-class standards of domestic comfort and economy; in doing so they also challenged the common perception of women’s technological ability and ingenuity. Franz remarks, “women drivers tinkered with the car and, by extension, with their gender roles’” (42). Although advertising for automotive accessories during this time was directed toward the male consumer, women were, in fact, active participants in the tinkering phenomenon.

In a recent project, I interviewed women in their 80s and 90s about their early automotive experiences. Many of them recalled how when travelling with husbands or young children, they altered the automobile to meet family needs. Before chain hotels were commonplace, decent lodgings in out-of-the ways places were few and far between. One of the women described how she converted the family station wagon into cozy sleeping quarters with the addition of curtains and other amenities for a long distance trip. Others mentioned how – as primarily responsible for the children on family road trips – they devised ways to keep young passengers quiet, safe, and occupied. Whether laying down the car’s back seat to accommodate a baby’s playpen, converting the back seat of a VW Beetle into a bed for an infant, repurposing the back seats of a station wagon into a child’s play area, or using a husband’s leather belt to strap a young traveler onto the front seat “hump,” these women called upon imagination, innovation, and resourcefulness to make family road trips enjoyable for everyone. 

Advertisements, marketing brochures, and news articles produced during the early to mid-twentieth century uniformly suggest that women’s role in auto travel was solely a domestic one. However, as noted in Franz’s work as well as my own, whether traveling on their own or with children in tow, women were also instrumental in reconfiguring and accessorizing the automobile into a comfy home on wheels for all of its passengers.

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

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences” The Journal of Transport History 40.3 (2019): 395-417.

Stohl, David. “Well Before Hashtag Vanlife, Carmakers Encouraged You to Sleep in Their Cars” Hemmings.com 10 Dec 2019.

Do you have memories of family road trips? How was your car reconfigured to accommodate a sleeping family? Feel free to tell your travel stories.

Women’s Car Songs

One of the secret thrills of writing articles for academic journals is getting that work cited in the research of other scholars. A goal in my late-starting-academic career has been to contribute to the literature on women and cars in some way. Having others cite my work validates my research; it makes me feel as though I am doing something meaningful. Because my work focuses on a subject that has not received much attention in scholarship, it is periodically cited in articles on a variety of subjects that somehow or somewhere address the woman-car relationship. I must admit that I often ‘Google’ myself to see if anyone has called upon my work to support their own. 

That being said, I was ‘Googling’ myself the other day when I came upon an article in PopCulture.com that cited an article I wrote a number of years ago on the woman’s car song. In “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll”, I argue that while the car song has traditionally been associated with men and masculinity, women have also called upon the automobile in song to make statements about independence, identity, memory, and empowerment. I cited a number of female singer-songwriters of various musical genres to make my case. Bonnie Riatt, Toni Braxton, Shania Twain, Nanci Griffith, Tracy Chapman, and Joni Mitchell were a few of the artists who featured prominently in the article.

To quote WikipediaPop Matters is “an international magazine of cultural criticism that covers many aspects of popular culture.” In “’Blue’, ‘Tapestry’, and Oil: Or, Oil Capitalism in Two Key Singer-Songwriter Albums”, Joshua Friedburg asserts that while ‘oil capitalism’ has had negative effects on the global environment, it has “simultaneously enabled new forms of social movements to occur, including feminism.” He focuses on two iconic female singer-songwriters – Carole King and Joni Mitchell – who in their respective albums Tapestry and Blue have reclaimed the road as a space for women. While I have not written about Carole King in relationship to automobiles, Mitchell featured prominently in “Born to Take the Highway,” which Friedberg cites. It was encouraging to see – nine years after the fact – that the article has relevance to what is being written about women and cars today.

Yes, seeing my work cited in academic literature and online journalism is a bit of an ego trip. But it also reassures me that the research I continue to do has value. 

Do you have a favorite woman’s car song? What message about women and cars does it convey? Your comments are welcome.