In the early auto age, road trip vacations were primarily the privilege of the rich. However, with the advent of the Model T and improved roads, writes historian James Flink, “the automobile outing and the automobile vacation became middle-class American institutions” (167). By mid-century, as cars became more affordable and roads more drivable, the road trip evolved into an experience unto itself. Families packed up station wagons with kids and cargo and headed out to summer cottages and camping sites. While twenty-first century vacationers are often in a hurry to get to a destination, traveling by the quickest means possible in order to be stationary, there remains a romanticism to spending the majority of a vacation on the road. An abundance of frequent flyer miles has made it easy for my husband and I to travel by plane to our vacation destination. But a few years ago, we decided to take an old fashioned road trip to experience an all American pastime. As we had nearly completed our bucket list of visiting all major league baseball parks, we began our journey into the world of minor league baseball, on a vacation we will forever refer to as our “Field of Dreams” tour.
The trip started out at a major league game in Chicago between the Tigers and White Sox. But the next morning we entered Iowa, traveling on back roads through corn and soybean fields from one small town to another. Minor league baseball is unlike its big league brother – the uniforms are torn, the entertainment corny, the people friendly, and the players so very, very young. Often the parks are the major gathering place of the community, with many families and groups of friends or coworkers in attendance. We scheduled our trip to visit home games in as many parks as possible, and managed to visit stadiums in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, and Clinton. The names of the teams are often as interesting as the parks themselves – you have to root for squads known as the Quad City River Bandits, Cedar Rapids Kernels, Burlington Bees, or Clinton Lumber Kings. The main destination of the road trip was the Field of Dreams movie set, the ultimate baseball flick. It is a movie I never tire off, particularly during the off season when I am counting the hours until Opening Day. Driving from one park to another we visited a few quirky places – the National Farm Toy Museum, the University of Iowa campus, and the best ice cream joint in the state of Iowa were a few of the more memorable stops. We were blessed with good weather and an absence of car issues; I will always remember the Field of Dreams tour as one of the best vacations of my life.
As COVID has put a damper on long distance traveling, I look forward to the day when we can get back on the road. While big city and warm weather destinations are certainly great experiences, nothing beats an old fashioned road trip.
Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1990.
One of the activities that has been put on hold during the COVID pandemic is the road trip. While there are plenty of articles that offer advice on how to manage a safe road vacation, many folks – myself included – have opted to keep our cars mostly parked until driving long distances is considered safe. However, that doesn’t keep travel hungry road-trippers from reminiscing about past moving vacations or planning new adventures when restrictions are lifted. A fellow SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] member recently posted a charming recounting of a road trip taken when he was just a toddler. It got me to thinking about my own past road adventures, of which there have been very few. The death of my father while I was a child – and my mother’s lack of a driver’s license – put family vacations on hold for a number of years. However, the trip we took during the summer before my father’s death – in August 1958 – is still very fresh in my mind.
Although our summer vacations had previously consisted of two weeks at a rented cottage in northern Michigan, the decision was made in the summer of 1958 to visit my mother’s brother in Dallas, Texas. As there was a reasonable fear that the aging family vehicle was not reliable enough for such a journey, my older, recently married brother offered us his bright red inside-and-out 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 for the trip. Cars of that era were quite roomy, and the Olds held six of us – 3 adults and 3 children – fairly comfortably. Making the trip were my parents, my mother’s father, my 12-year-old brother, my 8-year-old sister, and 9-year old me. My mother and sister spent the entire trip in the back seat; my brother and I took turns sitting between my Camel-smoking father and cigar-smoking grandfather in front. Since these were the days before air conditioning was standard, the open windows provided some relief from the smoky [and hot] interior. But we were kids, and the conditions didn’t bother us in the least. I was settled in with a stack of library books [which I read on the way down, and reread on the way back] which kept my mind off any discomfort I might have felt driving down south without air in the month of August.
The construction of the Interstate Highway System – approved in 1956 – was just underway; thus our trip to Texas mostly took us on two lane highways and country roads. My father was not one to drive to exhaustion, and since young kids get restless easily, we made stops at various tourist attractions along the way and were at our hotel stop each afternoon by 4PM. As a working-class kid living Detroit, everything on the trip was new to me. I had never eaten in a restaurant [my brother ordered a hamburger at every meal] nor had I ever stayed in a motel. As we travelled further south, the hotels had swimming pools, which, for us city kids, was perhaps the biggest treat of all. We visited Meramec Caverns, a buffalo ranch, and were treated to an Old West rodeo show. My mother collected plates from each rest stop. I tasted my first Dr. Pepper – the unofficial soft drink of the south – and on my uncle’s prompting, exclaimed, “frosty, man, frosty!” after taking a sip. The visit with my uncle and his family was pleasant, but it was the trip itself which is ingrained in my memory.
Unfortunately, that was the last road trip we took as a family as my father passed away the following January. Many decades passed before I was to take another vacation by automobile. But I will always remember my brother’s shiny red car, the new, strange, and exciting views out the window that car made possible, and my father’s sunburned arm, perched on the window’s ledge, adeptly holding a cigarette between his browned and sturdy fingers.
When muscle cars congregate at classic car shows across southeastern Michigan, there are always a large number of Ford Mustangs in attendance. One of the most successful vehicles to ever drive off Ford’s assembly line, the Mustang remains popular after over 50 years. With the introduction of the Mustang in 1964, Ford created what would evolve into a new class of muscle car – the pony car – the only muscle car class that still exists today. However, the Mustang was not originally conceived to fulfill demand for a high performance vehicle. Rather, as a quick, sporty, and fun-to-drive automobile with an affordable price tag, the Mustang was designed to appeal to both the young and young-at-heart. The wide selection of options available provided consumers with the opportunity to create a Mustang to meet automotive needs and personal desires. Lee Iacocca, who spearheaded the development of the Mustang, recognized the potential of the massive college educated baby boomer market. With the introduction of the Mustang, Iacocca sought to change Ford’s “stogy” image among boomers entering the workforce (Clor 10). Unlike the development of the Pontiac GTO, which was geared specifically to young men with a need for speed, the Mustang attempted to reach a much more diverse audience.
However, the Ford Mustang’s lack of power, especially in those production models with smaller V-6 engines, contributed to its growing reputation as the “secretary’s car.” Writes Clor, “the hard core muscle-car performance crowd wasn’t embracing the Mustang as a true muscle car in the same way they recognized the GTOs, the big block Galaxies, Impalas, and a handful of torque-laden Mopars” (30). While he recognized the demand for a more powerful Mustang, Iacocca could only do so much with the existing powertrain. Therefore, he relied on a partnership with Carroll Shelby to create a high-end, low volume “halo” performance car that would not only create “buzz” and give a boost to the Mustang’s street cred, but would also drive sales of the “more practical, affordable, and plentiful regular Mustangs” (Clor 30). It wasn’t until 1967 – inspired by the introduction of pony car competitors such as the Chevy Camaro, Plymouth Barracuda, and Pontiac Firebird – that Ford designers and engineers “went back to the drawing board to give ‘America’s Favorite Fun Car’ more style and power” (Clor 37).
While the original Mustang was available with either a V-6 or V-8, the demand for the more powerful (relatively speaking) V-8 was high, no doubt inspired by the introduction of the GTO and other intermediate sized high performance muscle cars the same year. In the first year of the Mustang’s production, nearly three quarters of buyers demanded the V-8, which led to a surplus of the pedestrian six-cylinder model. Young women were targeted as buyers for the less powerful car; Ford cited the superior fuel economy of the smaller engine to entice the female buyer. An ad with the headline “Six and the Single Girl,” which played off the title of Helen Gurley Brown’s best seller, promoted the “practicality and sporty style of the six-cylinder Mustang” (Clor 22). Other advertisements in a similar vein soon followed. Through the application of gender to engine size, Ford was able to successfully define and market two different cars under one brand. While young women were encouraged to embrace the “secretary’s car,” the GT version, boasting 271 horsepower, became the popular choice of young male performance enthusiasts.
The Mustang was not conceived as a muscle car, but evolved into one as a response to the growing young male market hooked on power and performance. While the majority of classic Mustang owners today are male, the appeal of the Mustang to female drivers remains strong. The classic car hobby is built on nostalgia; those who participate in it often do so as a way to connect to a younger self. As the owner of a 1965 Mustang convertible told me, “this car lets me return to being a teen and crazy and I can relive all those things in my mind while I drive” (Interview). Unlike its automotive predecessors, the Mustang was designed to embody youth and freedom rather than functionality and practicality. Its buyers were attracted to its clean design, sportiness, affordability, and its promise as “fun-to-drive.” And unlike the GTO, Dodge Charger, and other “true” muscle cars, the Mustang – albeit the less powerful “secretary model” – was advertised to women. Thus many classic Mustang owners today remember the original not only in the context of muscle cars, but as an automobile driven and admired by women.
Classic Mustang owners often recall how female friends and family members reacted to the car’s introduction. “The year the Mustang was born,” writes the owner of a ‘65, “a good female friend of the family would point them out and say that is a classy car!” (Interview). Women also remember Mustangs owned by mothers and big sisters. “When I was 13,” exclaims a classic Mustang owner, “my girlfriend’s mom owned a hard top automatic Mustang. I could not reach the pedals because my legs were too short so my girlfriend used her legs and I steered the car.” (Interview). Today’s classic Mustang owners often had teenage boyfriends with the more powerful models. Some had the opportunity to drive them, while others simply longed for one of their own. As one woman remarked about her recent purchase of a classic ‘65, “I wanted something that kind of brought back memories to me about that Mustang back in my younger days” (Interview). Perhaps because driving a Mustang – rather than a GTO or ‘Cuda – was in the realm of possibility to those young women coming of age during the 1960s, purchasing the car 50 years later provides an opportunity for a once young woman’s dreams to come true. Driving her classic 1965 Mustang today, a graying 59-year-old woman remarked, “if we didn’t have to look in the mirror, inside the body feels [like] that young person again” (Interview).
The Mustang is the only pony car with uninterrupted production. After the 1973 oil embargo brought the muscle car era to a close, the pony car returned to its original origins as a fun, stylish, and sporty car with more style than power. During the 1990s, the introduction of electronic fuel injection, turbochargers, and overdrive transmission resulted in more powerful ponies. However, the pony car didn’t return to its former incarnation as a powerful muscle machine until 2005, when Ford introduced a redesigned “retrofuturistic” Mustang on the SN-95 platform that married the iconic style elements of the late 1960s fastback models with modern automotive technology. As the first of what would become a growing stable of “retro” pony cars, the Mustang was resounding success. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the woman driver. While classic Mustangs are owned primarily by women of the boomer generation, the “retro” Mustang has been embraced by new generations of female car enthusiasts. In fact, the Mustang is not only the most popular retro muscle car among female buyers, but nearly a third of new Mustang owners are women (hedgescompany.com). Whether single and seeking a bit of automotive independence, or as married empty nesters looking for a new lease on life, many women have found that getting behind the wheel of a modern day Mustang has the ability to change the way they view themselves and the world around them.
Throughout multiple generations, the Mustang has been a popular choice for the woman driver. As noted by auto site thenewswheel.com, “There’s an old stigma that muscle cars and performance vehicles are basically the automotive equivalent of G.I. Joes—i.e. toys made pretty much exclusively for boys [… ] Fifty years of women owning Mustangs makes this demonstrably untrue (particularly when one considers that the first person to buy a Mustang was a woman), and the fact that women are buying a ton of Mustangs certainly helps dispel that silly misconception.”
Clor, J. (2007). The Mustang dynasty. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC.
One of my current research projects came to me as a request to examine the history and politics of women in motorsports. Because this is a rather broad and unwieldy topic, I decided to focus specifically on women-only racing, from its early introduction as a media stunt to its current incarnation as a proving ground for serious female open wheel racers. I am looking at how and why these women-only events and/or ladies categories were formed; who participates in these activities; what kind of competitions does the women-only category encompass; as well as the reception such races have received from drivers and the racing community. As I knew very little about motorsports in general and women-only racing in particular when embarking on this project, it has been interesting to learn about the various events and how they have attracted a female following.
One of the annual all-female events that came to my attention is the Rebelle Rally, now in its fifth year. It is the longest competitive off-road rally in the United States, and entries are limited to women. Rather than a race for speed, Rebelle Rally is a test of driving precision and navigation skills, “a unique and demanding precision event based the elements of time, distance, headings, and hidden checkpoints using maps, compass, and roadbook” (Segura). It is a combination of geocaching and off-roading that covers more than 1200 miles in the California and Nevada deserts over eight days; cell phones, GPS tracking devices, and outside assistance are prohibited. The goal is to complete the rally with the most points; checkpoints range in difficulty based on location, how large the geofenced area is, and how difficult it is to get close to it (Bassett). The rally has grown each year with many repeat competitors; the 2020 Rebelle Rally included 36 two-women driver-navigator teams as well as a large support staff.
What I found most interesting about the Rebelle Rally is the way in which it is unabashedly women centered. In an interview for Automobile, founder Emily Miller frames the rally as an empowering event for women. As she explains, “Rebelle Rally is important because it gives women a platform to showcase their driving skills. [My hope is that] through doing the Rebelle, women will become more competent, skilled, and have the confidence to use their voice” (Segura). While certainly the objective of any competition is to win, the Rebelle Rally offers more to its female competitors. The event’s Facebook page promotes it as a source of female competence, confidence, and community. Rebelle Rally is extremely challenging; as such, notes the founder, it provides the means for women to acquire a belief in themselves. While all racing events have the potential to hone and develop driving skills and build confidence behind the wheel, there is something about all-female events such as Rebelle Rally especially beneficial to women.
Motorsports is one of the few competitive venues in which men and women are allowed to compete on a level playing field. Yet the participation of women in mixed-racing events remains remarkably low. Certainly the costs and lack of sponsorship deters women from racing at a high level. And although detractors label women-only racing as demeaning, patronizing, and unnecessary, there are qualities that appeal to a large number of female auto enthusiasts. Perhaps it is because of the camaraderie and community that forms when women tackle a challenge together. Perhaps it is because all-female events allow women to develop skills, knowledge, and confidence without the criticism, intimidation, and yes, sexism, of male competitors. Rebelle Rally provides a way for women to succeed – not only on the road, the course, and on the track – but also in many other aspects of their lives. As founder Miller exclaims, “When these women finish this rally they’ll walk away knowing they can go anywhere” (Bassett).
This is an editorial written while a graduate student for a journalism class in 2009, a low point in the American auto industry. It has been somewhat updated with subsequent research, but most of the original points remain and have continued relevance today.
American auto manufacturers have never quite figured out the female car buyer. Certainly domestic car companies recognize women’s value as consumers. After all, women purchase over half the automobiles sold in the USA each year. Yet while Ford, GM and Chrysler rely on women to buy cars, they have never developed an appreciation for women as drivers. Year after year, American auto companies attempt to appeal to women’s practicality, frugality and rationality by offering them vehicles that are safe, efficient, functional and just plain boring. The female driver, in the minds of the US car manufacturer, only desires a car that will aid in the performance of her domestic role as caretaker and consumer. The notion that a woman might desire a vehicle that is small, nimble, sporty and reliable, as well as fun to drive, is rarely a consideration. Thus the woman who desires more from a car than functionality, who enjoys the driving experience as much as the car that provides it, must often turn to imports to meet her automotive needs. While it may be an overstatement to suggest that the bleak state of the US auto industry is due to its historical dismissal of women’s driving interests, there remains enough evidence to suggest that the failure of domestic auto manufacturers to build a car that appeals to women is a contributor to the industry downslide.
The relationship between US automakers and women has been problematic from the start. There can be little argument that the American automotive industry is a very masculine culture. In the minds of many auto execs, therefore, attention to women’s automobile preferences not only leads to the devaluation of a particular car, but also of the industry that produces it. In order to keep women as customers without alienating male drivers, US auto companies have traditionally called upon a strategy that affirms women’s culturally approved gender role without disrupting the masculinity associated with the automobile. Cars deemed appropriate for women are reconfigured as a form of domestic technology, tools that enable women to fulfill the prescribed role of wife, mother, consumer and caretaker. This approach provides automakers with the opportunity to market functional and practical vehicles – the wagon, hatchback and ubiquitous minivan – as “women’s” cars, while positioning big trucks, sports cars and performance automobiles as suitable for men. And perhaps more important, it allows the community of conservative male auto executives to take an active part in reinforcing traditional gender roles in which all women are moms, and where men have all the fun.
It didn’t take long for women to stop buying into the monolithic US auto industry philosophy. In the post World War II years, home alone in the suburbs, women drove the big cars men purchased for them, often bolstered by cushions in order to reach the accelerator. When women entered the workforce en force during the 1960s, however, they began to look for cars that would not only accommodate their smaller stature, but reflect their newly liberated status as well. Dissatisfied with domestic automobile choices – big and expensive, or cheap and spartan – female drivers began to notice that the economical, well-appointed and well-designed Asian and European cars “fit” them better. As they switched to imports, women found the vehicles to be more reliable, durable, and have greater resale value than the domestic cars they left behind. They were also a lot more fun to drive.
When interviewing elderly women about their early automotive experiences a few years ago, I found the switch to Japanese automobiles to be a common theme. While women drove domestic cars in their early driving years, many transferred their allegiance to imports once they no longer felt pressure to buy American. Economy, reliability, comfort for their smaller-than-masculine bodies, and resale values were some of the reasons cited for downsizing to Japanese models.
US car companies were certainly capable of producing similar automobiles. Ford-Europe and GM-Europe had been building small, stylish, fuel-efficient vehicles for the European and Asian markets for years. Yet US automakers refrained from producing such cars for domestic use. Rather, they continued to build the big, powerful and gas guzzling automobiles, convincing themselves that they could make more money building big cars than small ones. As the self-proclaimed “big boys” of the car world, US automakers remained convinced of their invulnerability to foreign competitors. And as they repeated the mantra “bigger is better,” domestic carmakers failed to consider that the diminutive half of the US population not only might prefer a smaller car, but now had the resources to purchase one as well.
Arrogance, and the fear of becoming “feminized” prevented automakers from considering the needs of the increasingly diverse car-buying public. Cloistered with individuals very much like themselves, Detroit auto men became incapable of viewing the car industry through eyes other than their own. While American automakers continued to build one standardized product in the largest possible volume, import manufacturers considered the divergent needs, driving styles and economic means of its potential buyers, and produced cars accordingly. European and Asian car manufacturers worked hard to appeal to a wide variety of drivers, which of course, included women. US auto manufacturers, on the other hand, told consumers what to buy based on their own monolithic vision. Detroit automakers continued to profess they knew what women wanted without bothering to ask them.
In the past fifty years, the American car buying public has slowly but emphatically switched its allegiance to imports. New studies reveal that members of Generation Y, those between 24-39 years of age, prefer Japanese and European brands to their American counterparts. Young women fresh out of school often start with an inexpensive import, get a minivan during their child-rearing years, then switch to a small, sporty and “fun to drive” vehicle when the kids leave home. While the US automakers may have these women for a few years, they invariably lose them coming and going. In fact, in a recent article published by CBS news, 9 of the 10 top automotive brands for women are imports.
Could women have saved the US auto industry? On their own, certainly not. Robust sales of full size pickups – overwhelmingly purchased by men – have historically kept US auto manufacturers afloat. But female drivers represent an enormous segment of the automobile market uniformly patronized if not ignored by domestic car manufacturers for a very long time. The monolithic vision of the US auto industry, coupled with a cultural outlook based on arrogance and sexism, allowed foreign competition to lure female drivers away when US automakers simply weren’t looking.
Over the course of many car projects, I often find that female car enthusiasts are loyal to a particular automotive brand. This is particularly true in my hometown of Detroit, where folks often have friends or relatives who work for an automotive manufacturer in some capacity. In fact, it is frequently said that folks in Detroit rarely pay full price for a vehicle as they can somehow someway take advantage of someone’s employee discount. I myself am guilty of this practice, having purchased a few Ford vans through my late brother-in-law’s A Plan and a friend’s Chrysler ‘Friends and Family’ discount. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of Southeastern Michigan women I interviewed over the years are fiercely loyal to cars from one of the Big Three – Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler.
In talking to women in their 80s and 90s about their early automotive experiences, I discovered that those outside the Detroit area without a familial connection to a particular automaker had less compunction about switching automotive allegiance. Many started out with American cars – as that was pretty much all that was available at the time – but switched to Japanese imports for reasons that had to do with reliability, economy, trade-in value, and a size more conducive to female proportions. Once converted to Japanese models they rarely looked back. Although under some pressure from husbands to buy American, these women had decided what automotive qualities were important to them and became loyal to the brand that fulfilled them.
I recently came across an article about a gentleman who has taken brand loyalty to an extreme, having owned 42 Volkswagens over his lifetime. He has passed on his preference to the VW brand to family members. Of course, the fact that he worked as a VW Technician certainly provided access to vehicles, taking them on as project cars and then selling them afterward to fund his next project. I, too, am a Volkswagen fan, although not to the extent of this VW enthusiast. But I have always preferred German cars; their superior handling ability and performance and smaller size makes them exceptionally fun to drive. I also appreciate their aesthetics – the simple lines and clean, well-designed interiors contribute to a pleasurable driving experience. My first car was a 1970 Beetle; I currently drive a 2015 Golf R. In between – other than the Ford vans purchased as ‘dog vehicles’ previously mentioned – I have owned a Scirocco, VW Beetle Convertible, Rabbit, Audi S4 Cabriollet, and Audi A3. Living in Michigan, I have often been disparaged for my unAmerican vehicle choices. But I know what I want, and what I like to drive, and that’s a German car.
While some women, like me, tend to repeatedly purchase cars with similar qualities and monikers, others enjoy experiencing a variety of makes and models over a lifetime. Yet what is important is not what ‘camp’ a woman finds herself in, but that as purchasers of 65% of cars and influencers of over 85% of car purchases, women have the power and ability to make their own automotive decisions (Newman). Unlike the first half-century of automobility, when car choices were limited and often male-influenced, women can now look to cars not only as practical necessities, but also as vehicles that display who they are and what is important to them.
Newman, Jennifer. “It’s True: Women Really Do Shop More for Cars.” cars.com 31 May 2019.
Padeanu, Adrian. “‘Insane’ Person Has Owned 42 Volkswagens in His Lifetime.” motor1.com 04 Sept 2020.
Women show their passion for automobiles in a myriad of ways. Some become gearheads. Others go into racing. Many enter the auto industry as engineers, designers, or line workers. They work at auto dealerships and auto factories. Women collect cars, join automotive organizations, and become automotive historians. They are employed as automotive journalists, editors, reviewers, and photographers. And some demonstrate auto appreciation by simply getting behind the wheel.
As reported in a recent Petrolicious article, Claudia Liebenberg is a South African artist who displays her enthusiasm for cars through painting. Although her first love is motorcycles, she developed an interest in automobiles through her father who spent some time as a race car driver in his youth. As she notes, “he always had some sort of classic car parked at home and always took us out for rides.” Her favorites are classic European sports cars; the detailed grills and sleek curves present an artistic challenge she gladly takes on. Liebenberg’s medium of choice is watercolor, which can be difficult and unforgiving. As Liebenberg remarks, “it’s got a mind of its own. […] You have to try and capture and guide it into the shape you have in mind, to the color gradient you have in mind.”
Liebenberg’s works are minutely detailed; they capture every nut and bolt, each shadow and reflection. Her love for the subject matter is evident in every stroke. Liebenberg shares her creative process on Instagram; folks can follow the evolution of a vehicle step by step. Liebenberg’s Instagram account functions as her own assembly line as she invites people to be part of the process. Her work has garnered notice; she recently embarked on an evolving career painting commissioned pieces for brands such as BMW. Liebenberg’s dedicated passion for machines and her own honed artistic ability has produced exquisite paintings admired by both the creative set and dedicated auto aficionados.
It is a longstanding assumption that women do not have the same appreciation for the automobile as their male counterparts. However, it is not that women are indifferent to cars, but rather, they express their passion in different ways. As the article focused on Claudia Liebenberg argues, art – whether painting, drawing, photography, or sculpture – can provide women with the means to illustrate – literally and figuratively – a love of automobiles.
Anderson, Arabella. “Be Honest: The Water-Color Paintings of Claudia Liebenberg.” Petrolicious.com 26 June 2020.
In much of my research, which explores the relationship between women of cars in a variety of contexts, I am always curious to discover how women developed a passion for automobiles in a culture that discourages women from participation. Many of the women I encountered learned about cars from their fathers; they discovered early on that an effective way to develop a relationship with Dad was to become interested in the things he loved. These young girls stood alongside their dads as they worked on a car project, asking questions and helping in the garage. Some, on the other hand, had car crazy boyfriends who spent their weekends under the hood. These teenage girls gained automotive knowledge as a way to spend time together. Still others married into car culture, and discovered a passion they did not know existed.
However, for those who grew up in a more traditional environment, in which girls were encouraged to behave in a particular gendered way, exposure to car culture was less likely. Yet as I recently discovered, some young girls developed an interest in cars in a most unlikely way. As it turns out, Barbie, the popular, shapely doll oft critiqued for its focus on appearance, clothing, and dating, has, over the years, owned a number of sporty, stylish, and non-traditional cars. Barbie could, in fact, be described as a bona fide car enthusiast.
As an early baby boomer, I missed the Barbie phenomenon by a few years. So until an article about Barbie cars turned up in my automotive feed, I had no idea that Barbie had such a fine collection of automobiles. Although women in mainstream culture are traditionally associated with practical cars – station wagons, minivans, and crossovers –there is not a mom car to be found in Barbie’s garage. Over the years, she has driven an Austin Healey, Porsche, Corvette, Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes Benz, hot rod, dune buggy, and a myriad of other fun cars. Apparently I am not the only one who is impressed; Haggerty, the premier insurer of fine and classic automobiles, ranked and wrote about the Barbie car collection. Given the Barbie doll’s longstanding association with stereotypical femininity, what is surprising is that these cars are not in Ken’s driveway, but were produced especially for Barbie behind the wheel. And being the good big sister, Barbie passed on her love of cars to the younger Skipper, who acquired her own car collection when reaching the doll’s version of driving age.
Cars have always represented freedom to women, which accounts for patriarchy’s longstanding efforts to curtail or constrain women’s automobility. The cars in Barbie’s garage allow her to engage in activities and adventures that have frequently been discouraged in the woman driver. These attractive, sporty cars – in a variety of bright, cheerful, and vibrant colors – not only provide Barbie with transportation to school or work, but offer the possibility of exploration, adventure, new experiences, social networks, and just plain fun. Not having to rely on men for a ride offers Barbie the opportunity to become independent and to travel her own road. Barbie cars, rather than contributing to the stereotypical gendered view of women’s roles, reinforces the importance of cars to women’s agency, identity, and empowerment. As The Drive journalist Stef Schrader asserts, “Barbie’s cars continue to play an important role in expanding the automotive world to kids who might otherwise feel excluded from it, and for that, they deserve your respect.”
Schrader, Stef. “Barbie Has the Best Toy Cars.” TheDrive.com 11 Aug 2020.
During the summer months, my husband and I attend a fair amount of car shows. This year, however, most have been canceled, replaced by social distancing car meetups and unofficial cruises. I am not real keen on cruises as my classics are temperamental and I fear I may stall out or break down at some point if I have to drive a great distance. Consequently, we have replaced events with really old cars to one activity with a not-quite-classic one. When my husband worked on the Mazda account years ago he acquired a 1999 evolution orange Miata. For the past 20 years it has been stored in the garage and taken out occasionally in the summer, accumulating only 14000 miles in the interim. In years past, we have had a lot going on from May through June – baseball, concerts, road trips, plays, and walks with the dogs – so the Miata only came out occasionally. This pandemic summer, all but the dog walking has been canceled. So as a summer project we have decided to visit as many ice cream establishments as possible to determine who has the best frozen delicacies in southeastern Michigan [it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it]. And our vehicle of choice for this important endeavor is the topless Miata.
Having a convertible in Michigan is always a dicey affair. I myself have owned three – a 70s era Fiat, a metallic blue VW during the 1980s, and most recently, an Audi S4 cabriolet. Convertibles always seem like a good idea until you remember it is often too hot to drive them during the day, the tops take a beating in the winter months, and they mess up your hair and makeup on the way to an important event. However, this summer, I have absolutely nowhere to go. So ice cream runs on a hot summer night are nothing short of glorious. We live in a rural area so take our time on the back roads to reach our various destinations. As I am a runner, I always put in a few extra miles on ice cream days to avoid a few extra pounds. Thus far we have had a great summer weather wise and usually go out at least twice a week. It has helped make the concert/theatre/baseball-less summer a lot more palatable.
As I have noted in my research, during the 1950s and 1960s – at the height of its popularity – the convertible was branded to appeal to a sense of youthful rebellion and depicted in contemporary advertisements as an emblem of upward mobility. This devil-may-care freedom was marketed specifically to the male consumer; if women appeared in advertising in was primarily in passive roles. Women were rarely considered potential customers for convertibles; the vehicle was considered too fast, sporty, unsafe, and attention-getting for the female motorist. Yet in conversation with 21 elderly women about their early automotive experiences, I discovered that “while only a few had actually owned them, almost all of the women had – at some point in time – yearned for a flashy ragtop”(Elderly 406). Although most eventually settled for a functional family vehicle, the women couldn’t help but imagine the convertible as the means to a pleasurable, desirable, and exciting escape from the practicality and sameness of their domestic existence. In my research into the chick car phenomenon, I found that women whose children were grown and out of the house often purchased convertibles such as the Miata as a reward for the minivan years. As one of the respondents exclaimed, “I went from a soccer-mom car to an empty-nest car and I love it” (Chick 524).
Although I loved my past convertibles, I let my vanity and practicality get in the way of truly enjoying and experiencing them. This summer, I don’t care. I put on my baseball cap, stick my hands out to feel the breeze, and keep on smiling all the way down the windy road.
Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences.” The Journal of Transport History 40.3 (2019): 516-417.
— “The Evolution of the ‘Chick Car’ Or: What Came First, the Chick or the Car?” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.3 (2012): 516-531.
In my work on women in various car cultures, I have discovered that women often develop an interest in cars through the help of male family members. Working in the garage alongside fathers, uncles, and brothers creates a familiarity with all things automotive that often grows into a serious involvement with cars in later years. Dads in particular instill automotive knowledge in their young daughters as a means of protection – from unscrupulous car dealers and automotive repair shops. They teach them how to make simple repairs to avoid being stranded on the side of the road. Husbands, on the other hand, often instill a love for cars in the hope that their wives will share their interest and participate alongside them in auto-related activities.
However, many women with a car-crazy family member don’t develop an enthusiasm for automobiles until that individual passes. After inheriting a classic classic car from a father or grandfather, women must decide whether to put the vehicle up for sale or to keep and maintain it. Those who choose the later find they must master the peculiarities of driving an antique machine. In the process, they often become full-fledged enthusiasts, joining car clubs, learning restoration processes, and submersing themselves in automotive history. I met some of these women while conducting research on various women and car projects. A recent article in the Sunday Times features stories of numerous women – many similar to those I encountered – who found themselves the unlikely owners of classic MGA Roadsters, Austin Healeys, and Porsches.
The women interviewed in “Women with Drive” speak of how taking the wheel of an old MG Midget or VW convertible provides a connection to a family member who has passed on. They admit to how the mechanics of these aging vehicles originally terrified them; the women wondered how they would ever conquer such complicated and unfamiliar machines. Yet, they found that spending time in the automobile, discovering all of its idiosyncrasies, and emerging victorious after months of intensive driving provided a means to confront their grief and move past a personal loss. It allowed to remain connected in spirit to a dad or favorite grandfather. Remarked the owner of an inherited 1936 Austin Healey, “this car is part of my dad that I still get to hang on to.”
Some of those interviewed for the article spoke of how they discovered a latent love of old cars after a male partner introduced them to the world of classic automobiles. In my own research in women and muscle cars, I note how men often encourage an interest in American muscle – and often acquire and restore a vehicle of their spouse’s choosing – as a way to alleviate guilt [over spending so much time and money on cars!] as well as to strengthen the relationship through a shared interest. While my research took place primarily in Southeastern Michigan, the Sunday Times article includes stories from women all over Europe, demonstrating that a female interest in cars, while often under the radar, is worldwide.
What the Sunday Times article attempts to convey, and which I have endeavored to promote in my scholarship, is that despite the common perception of female motorists, women with an interest in cars exist in all facets of automotive endeavors and activities. While one may find it surprising that women connect to cars in a multitude of ways, it is only because we have been conditioned to believe that an affinity toward automobiles is present in only half the population. Although women’s relationship to cars may differ from that of men, it doesn’t follow that it is less legitimate. I thank the Sunday Times for this article, and for its dedication to cultivating further discussions about women and cars.