In a recent Jalopnik article, auto writer Elizabeth Blackstock expresses frustration at her inability to determine the perfect name for her soon-to-be purchased car. She lists a number of possibilities, but ultimately finds them to be lacking in one way or another. Blackstock implores her readers to come to her aid not through suggestions for her own automobile, but to provide stories of how, why, and what their own cars were named as a means of inspiration. She received a great number of responses – funny, irreverent, and personal – which suggests that car naming is a popular activity among devoted car owners.
In my research focused on female muscle car ownership, I discovered that women often name cars as a way to claim ownership and display a personal identity. As Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car authors Marsh and Collett write, ‘naming is a particularly strong way in which to announce our attachment to something which is much more than just an object’ (13). Because the muscle car has a longstanding and engrained association with masculinity and the male driver, car naming becomes an important way for the female motorist to proclaim ‘this car is mine.’ In order to assure that ownership of a 1965 red Mustang convertible was attributed to her rather than her husband, a 47-year-old analyst attached a personalized license plate inscribed with a girly moniker on the back bumper. Car naming also allows women to call upon shared automotive qualities to project identities. A 47-year-old teacher had ‘She Devil’ air brushed prominently on both her 1989 RS and 2001 Berger SS Camaros. As she noted, ‘I get the funniest comments about that. “So is that the car or the woman?”‘ A 29-year-old New Zealand native, whose 2010 Camaro SS RS is adorned with bumble bee imagery and carries the license plate ‘Kiwi Bee,’ has taken identification with the car to a whole new level. As the automotive product manager explained, ‘I’m constantly accessorizing myself to match the car. My computer laptop bag is yellow; I have a yellow purse; my fingernails I paint yellow and put black bowties on them.’While the owner is proud to own an iconic symbol of American muscle, the name on the license plate assures that others know who she is and where she came from.
Women often name cars as a way to connect to an individual from the past, or to establish themselves firmly in the present. A classic Mustang owner often accompanied her father to his job as a mechanic when she was a girl. As she remarked, ‘I remember going into the garage where he worked, and I just loved the smell.’ After his passing, she decided to honor him and his love for cars by using his childhood nickname for her on the automobile’s personalized license plate. The 51-year-old executive director of a non-profit likes to think of herself as a ‘badass’ when behind the wheel of her 1966 Chevrolet Impala. As she exclaimed, ‘I identify my car as female; she has a name and she is a badass, too.’ Marsh and Collett claim that American drivers often use specialized license plates to draw attention to themselves. As they assert, for some drivers the vanity plate ‘serves the role of a personal testimonial, displaying the owner’s sense of humor or his ability to challenge the wits of other drivers’ (75). A 54-year-old 2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS owner calls upon a vanity plate to express the identity she claims – BANSSHE – when behind the wheel. When a 50-year-old school bus driver pulls into a car show in her Frost Blue 1968 Plymouth Barracuda with a personalized ‘princess’ vanity plate on the front, attired in an ensemble color coordinated with her car, she is not only announcing herself as the owner of the vehicle, but is suggesting she is as ‘flashy and out there’ as the car she drives.
Marsh and Collett argue that the original muscle car served as a ‘standard form of uniform’ for young men; embellishment provided the opportunity to ‘transform the vehicle into social statement”’ (93). The women in this project call upon naming and marking to identify with a category of automobile historically associated with the man behind the wheel. In doing so they make the car their own, and project a revised and reimagined image of the woman driver.
 ‘Bowtie’ is the common term used to refer to the Chevrolet logo.
Blackstock, Elizabeth. ‘What Did You Name Your Car?’ Jalopnik.com 3 April, 2021.
Marsh, Peter and Peter Collett. Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. 2nd ed. Winchester MA: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1989.
A recent article in Jalopnik reflected on an embarrassing moment experienced by the author while taking her driver’s test. Her reflection inspired a deluge of equally entertaining ‘learning to drive’ stories in the comment section. Like many who read the article, I took a moment to reflect upon my driver education experiences. Unlike the majority of my peers, I was not eager to get a driver’s license. Because my mother was a widow who never learned to drive, I was allowed to get a driver’s permit at 15 so that I could transport her to shopping, church, and anywhere she needed to go. The stipulation was that I could only drive if an adult was in the car with me. It was a strange condition considering that the adult – my mother – was an individual who had no idea how to start a car, let alone drive it. But those were the rules. And if I wanted to go anywhere, I had to take my non-driving mother along with me. So suffice it to say that my first year of driving was not a pleasurable one.
During the 1960s, driver’s ed was a course offered at many high schools. Since the high school I attended – located in downtown Detroit – did not have a driver’s ed program, I took the course the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at the local high school. I don’t remember much about it except that we drove Falcons with automatic transmissions. At the time, the ‘family’ car my brother drove – and I was to share – was a 1960 Corvair with a 3-on-the-floor manual transmission. If I wanted to drive it, I had to learn how to drive a stick shift. My very patient married brother – a Detroit police officer – volunteered to teach me. We spent many evenings after school at the Lutheran High West parking lot in my neighborhood going round and around as I ground the gears figuring out how to engage the clutch. A few school mates happened to see [or should I say hear] me there, and would make grinding sounds whenever they saw me walking down the halls. My married sister had a stick-shift station wagon, and when I went there to babysit, my brother-in-law provided driving lessons in exchange for taking care of the kids. By the time I took my driver’s test, I was pretty adept at shifting gears. Our next car was a 1964, three-on-the-tree Pontiac Tempest, which I adapted to pretty easily. As I grew older, I appreciated that I could drive a stick; it helped me focus on my driving, and it made getting behind the wheel more fun. It has also served as a source of surprise; even or perhaps especially today, few expect a woman to be able to drive a stick. But I enjoyed having a skill most others did not. So much so that nearly all of the cars I have owned in my 55 years of driving have had manual transmissions, including my two classic cars – a ‘49 Ford and 1967 Shelby Mustang.
When I turned 16, the adult-in-the-car restrictions were lifted, and I no longer had to take my mom with me whenever I wanted to go for a ride. It was my first taste of freedom, and the beginning of my understanding of what automobility makes possible. As a woman who came of age in the 1960s, that was no small thing. And it was this ‘driver’s education’, as well as many experiences that followed, that led me to focus my research on women and cars.
One of the benefits of living in the metro Detroit area is access to automotive museums and collections. While taking a class in material culture as a PhD student a number of years ago, one of the assignments was to write an object biography. As I was researching muscle cars at the time, I chose the 1965 Pontiac GTO on display at the Henry Ford as the subject of my essay. What follows is the result of my investigation, which I attribute to successful detective work and a lot of luck. [As this was written in 2010, the Henry Ford exhibit is no longer as described here].
On any given day at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a small crowd, most often male, can be found gathered around a 1965 white, two-door Pontiac GTO on display. Part of the museum’s The Automobile in American Life exhibit, which opened in November 1987, the GTO commands attention through its considerable size and sleek design, privileged position on the exhibition floor, and as a representative of a particular era in American car and cultural history. The GTO, over 17 feet in length of gleaming sheet metal, stands slightly apart from the main exhibit, in a section described in Henry Ford literature as The Automobile as American Symbol (Hyde, 1989, p. 108). The hanging sign overhead that reads simply “power” , the console mounted high-performance Hurst shift lever controls and four-speed manual transmission found within the interior, and the polished V-8, 389 cubic inch, tri-power engine visible under the propped-up hood leave little doubt as to what the GTO was, in fact, built to symbolize. Produced during the height of America’s dominance in the automobile industry, the Pontiac GTO was manufactured to reflect the power of a nation, a car company, and by association, that of the man who drove it.
The text that accompanies the GTO display consists of a short paragraph that places the automobile in a cultural context as a “symbol of 1960s youth culture” (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). A 1965 black and white print advertisement – which compares the GTO to a prowling tiger– is situated next to it. The label adhered to the base on which the GTO stands offers little background to the car’s origin. While it provides information as to the automobile’s manufacture – General Motors Corporation, Pontiac Motor Division – the life history of the 1965 GTO, as a product, generational icon, as well as personal transportation for a particular individual, is notably absent (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Yet upon observation of those who stop to stare at the 45-year-old automobile – aging baby boomer men, young male professionals, middle-aged blue-collar workers, and gangly teenage boys – it becomes evident that the GTO contains meanings that extend well beyond its role as a means of transportation.
In creating the exhibit, the Henry Ford was certainly aware of how particular characteristics would resonate with visitors. As Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest, curators are instinctively attracted to objects through “their aesthetic qualities, their cultural resonances,” as well as what is known “about the drama of their individual histories” (p. 145). Therefore, in order to better understand the importance of the 1965 GTO to the Automobile and American Life exhibit and its visitors, it is helpful to construct what Wehner and Sear define as an object biography. Such a process will not only examine the automobile’s history as both product and symbol, but will also attempt to uncover the route of the Henry Ford GTO – Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) 237275P339452 – from the assembly line to the museum floor (Benson Ford, 87.70.1).
The 1964 Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omolgato) is often credited for being the first “muscle car.” It was the brainchild of John DeLorean, who became chief engineer of Pontiac, a division of General Motors, in 1961. Searching for a way to address the flagging sales of the Tempest, Pontiac’s disappointing entry into the mid-size automotive market, DeLorean found inspiration for the GTO on the streets of Detroit. During his daily drive down Woodward Avenue from his Bloomfield Hills home to the General Motors downtown offices, DeLorean couldn’t help but notice the increasing proliferation of teenage boys engaged in illegal street racing. This untapped growing consumer market – male baby boomers of driving age – suggested to DeLorean there was money to be made by appealing to the large number of young men “with money in their pockets looking for excitement” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177). Reexamining the dimensions of the Tempest, DeLorean realized that a 389-cubic-engine V-8 engine had the same external size as the current Tempest option, a 322-cubic-inch V-8. Calling upon the California hot-rod philosophy of the 1950s – light weight plus big engine equals fast car – DeLorean found he was able to deliver sixty-seven more horsepower in the Tempest simply by placing the more powerful engine under the hood. And in removing all the luxury frills from the Tempest – i.e. air conditioning, power windows and FM radio – DeLorean produced a crazy-fast car for a price ($3200) street-racing teenage boys could afford.
However, DeLorean was faced with one minor problem. In 1963, General Motors made a ruling that forbade the use of engines larger than 330 cubic inches in their intermediate sized automobiles. Realizing that it would be impossible to receive permission to install the larger engine before the 1964 product introduction, DeLorean devised – and got away with – a scheme to offer the 389 as part of an option package. An extra $296 not only provided the buyer with a more powerful engine, but also included pseudo hood scoops, chrome air cleaner and valve covers, four-speed manual transmission with floor-mounted Hurst shifter, heavy-duty clutch and suspension, B.F. Goodrich Red Line nylon tires, and chrome GTO nameplates on all four sides (Zavitz, 1989, p. 19). As Mark Foster (2003) writes, “DeLorean and his men found themselves playing with a very hot set of wheels, which was fun to drive” (p. 75). The immediate success of the Pontiac GTO inspired other American automakers to follow suit; the streets of Detroit were soon rumbling with an assortment of muscle cars that included the Dodge Charger, Plymouth Roadrunner, and Chevrolet Chevelle. Auto journalists also got on the muscle car bandwagon, and wrote about them in glowing – albeit masculine – terms. John Campisano (1995), former editor-in-chief of Muscle Cars magazine, remarked, “Muscle cars are about screaming big blocks revving to the redline. They’re about full-throttle power-shifts at the drags. […] They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone” (p. 8). Automobile magazine founder David E. Davis depicted the muscle car driving experience as “losing your virginity, going into combat and tasting your first beer all in about seven seconds” (Mueller, 1997, p. 17). As an important component of urban male teenage culture from the mid 1960s to early 1970s, it can easily be argued that the Detroit muscle car – of which the 1964 GTO was the acknowledged forerunner – was the automotive product most strongly associated with masculinity. As a “dominant icon in car culture America” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177), the GTO offered its young male drivers – literally and figuratively – possibilities of unlimited power.
The information gleaned from an investigation of the 1965 GTO on display at the Henry Ford often parallels that of the product’s own storied history. The object folder provided by the Benson Ford Research Center provides clues to the automobile’s personal 45-year trajectory. The automobile’s VIN – located on the left front door hinge pillar and noted in the museum object report – not only indicates the color, model, and body style of the car, but also reveals that the GTO was manufactured at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Pontiac, Michigan. As the Florida license plate suggests and the original bill of sale confirms, after production, the GTO made its way from Pontiac, Michigan to the Colonial Pontiac dealership in Miami, Florida. Auto dealer B. Green sold the car to Otis Wegley on July 20, 1965 (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). The Guardian Maintenance Coupon Book, included with the car’s purchase, indicates that the GTO’s scheduled maintenance was never performed. Perhaps this was because Wegley only drove the car for seven months and 4220 miles before transferring ownership on February 24, 1966 to Anthony Vassilakakis (Tony Vass) of Hollywood, Florida. As the documents in the museum folder show, the GTO eventually wound up in the hands of Jeffrey D. Burch of Fort Lauderdale, who sold the car to the Henry Ford in 1987. With this transaction, the cycle was complete; the GTO returned to the state of its origin for a long and comfortable retirement.
Items within the object folder hint at the negotiations that took place between Burch and Edison Institute (renamed the Henry Ford) transportation curator Randy Mason on the transfer of the GTO. Burch sent Mason fourteen color photographs of the car, accompanied by handwritten descriptions on the back of each, to confirm its condition and authenticity. In the memo dated March 26, 1987 included with the photographs, Burch suggests that the museum’s offering price for the GTO does not reflect its true value (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Perhaps the argument that the car would be preserved for posterity in a museum convinced Burch to accept a reduced payment. While the object folder provided information on the car’s ownership, there was nothing to indicate when, why, and from whom Burch purchased the GTO. Using the information at hand, a little detective work was performed to uncover more of the car’s personal history.
After compiling a list of questions, an attempt was made to contact Burch by phone and email to fill in the blanks of the 1965 GTO’s biography. However, although current contact information was available on the Internet, both the number and the address provided were no longer valid. However, a chance “Googling” of “Burch GTO” produced an August 26, 1987 article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that, surprisingly and miraculously, answered almost all of the proposed questions. “Classic Auto Drives Into Place in History,” reported by Pat Curry, tells the story of Burch’s acquisition of the GTO as well the circumstances that led to the car’s journey back to Michigan. As Curry discovered, Florida native Burch had a personal history with the GTO. In 1967, recently graduated from Stranahan High School, 18-year-old Burch purchased a red, four-on-the-floor Pontiac GTO through the classifieds. However, in just one year’s time, an excessive number of speeding tickets – inspired by the tiger under the hood, no doubt – forced Burch to sell the car. However, Burch never forgot his teenage experience with the GTO; as Curry remarked, “the memories hung on like the squealing tires on quiet Broward County back roads.”
Almost twenty years later, after settling down and raising a family, Burch got the urge to once more drive the car of his youth. A chance encounter with an exterminator working in the neighborhood led Burch to Tony Vass, who had owned, but rarely driven, the white 1965 GTO. Once Burch saw the automobile, memories of his past experience, and his teenage years, were impossible to ignore. As Curry (1987) wrote, “There he was with the guys, […] hanging out and bragging about his car. He was sitting behind the wheel of his old GTO, a hot red monster of a car just made to go faster than the law allowed.” Burch talked Vass into selling him the car, and spent the next two-and-a-half years restoring it, taking it to car shows, and coming home with first place prizes. It was at one of these shows – the Antique Automobile Club of America regional – that Randy Mason came across the GTO, and convinced Burch to sell it to the Henry Ford. Within Florida, with its warm climate and absence of salt on the roads, Mason hoped he would find just the right car for the new exhibit opening in the completely redesigned Henry Ford. Once the transaction between Burch and Mason was completed, the museum sent a semi-truck to Burch’s home to pick up the car; upon arrival it was installed into The Automobile and American Life exhibit where it has remained ever since.
The comments made by the original owners Vass and Burch, included in the article written over 20 years ago by Pat Curry, provide insight into the attraction of the 1965 Pontiac GTO to today’s visitors to the Henry Ford. Of his experience driving the car, Vass remarked, “It had a certain feel to it. When you shifted, you were in full command.” This sentiment is reflected in the ad that accompanies the Henry Ford display, as it informs the reader the GTO “Snarls when you prod it” (Frumkin, 2002, p. 127). More recent literature describes the GTO, and all muscle cars, in this manner: “They’re about power that pins you to your seat. They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone. They are about a bygone era that changed America (and the automobile industry) forever” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8). What these quotes suggest is that the meanings ascribed to the GTO by its owners, drivers, and admirers haven’t significantly changed since the automobile’s introduction. Yet what was once experiential meaning is now often encased in nostalgia for a “more innocent age […] when men were men, women weren’t, and fewer rules ruled, so much so that next to no one worried about the implications of the unlimited sale of raw horsepower” (Mueller, 2004, p. 18).
Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest that museum objects most attractive to visitors and curators alike are those with strong personal stories and provenance that link the object to a person’s life (p. 145). The commonality of experience and meaning shared by past owners and current admirers of the GTO serves to link them to the automobile and to each other. Mimi Sheller and John Urry (2000) suggest the automobile, as a container of meaning, is deeply entrenched in the ways individuals inhabit the world. As they argue, the car “not only appeals to an apparently ‘instinctual’ aesthetic and kinaesthetic sense, but it transforms the way we sense the world and the capacities of human bodies to interact with that world through the visual, aural, olfactory, interoceptive and proprioceptive senses. We not only feel the car, but we feel through the car and with the car” (p. 228). For a particular group of individuals, the 1965 GTO not only recalls a past driving experience, but also represents how they once envisioned themselves in the world.
The GTO, to those who remember it and those who long after it, contains meanings that extend far beyond its function as a means of transportation. It represents an era in which the USA ruled the auto industry, when America was positioned as a “leader, not a follower” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8), and a time when teenage boys proved their manhood behind the wheel of a fast and powerful automobile.
Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Object folder: Pontiac GTO, 1965. Acc. 87.70.1.
Campisano, J. (1995). American muscle cars. New York: MetroBooks.
Curry, P. (1987). Classic auto drives into place in history. SunSentinel.com, 26 Aug 1987. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-08-26/news/8703090934_1_car-symbol-henry-ford-museum
Foster, M. (2003). A nation on wheels: the automobile culture in America since 1945. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth.
Frumkin, M.J. (2002). Classic muscle car advertising: The art of selling horsepower. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.
Heitmann, J. (2009). The automobile and American life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Hyde, C. (1989). The automobile in American life: An exhibit at Henry Ford museum. Technology and Culture. 30.1,105-111.
Mueller, M. (2004). Motor city muscle. St. Paul: MBI Publishing.
Sheller, M. and J. Urry. (2000). The city and the car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 24.4, 737-757.
Wehner, K. and M. Sear. (2010) Engaging in the material world: Object knowledge and ‘Australian Journeys’. Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. S. Dudley, ed. London: Routledge.
Zavitz, R.P. (1989). Post war scripts: When the GTO got going. Old Cars Weekly. 31 Aug 1989, 19-20.
A recent survey published by money.co.uk about the prevalence of truck references in country music inspired a number of articles on what can only be described as the “truck song.” Although the percentage of songs with truck references over the years has varied, it has always been a popular theme. The truck song reached its height during the 2010s in a genre referred to as “bro country.” As described in a 2013 article in Entertainment Weekly, this country category is “basically a bunch of guys singing about trucks, headlights, rolled-down windows, jeans, alcohol, moonlit makeouts, and sex on the river beds beside old dirt roads” (Jones). The common theme in these songs is the ways in which a man’s truck serves as a site of sexual conquest. Bro Country represents a rather stereotypical and good ol’ boy type of masculinity. In these renditions, women [most often referred to as ‘girls’] do not drive the trucks; rather, they are prizes to be seduced by a bro in a lifted Chevy Silverado or Ford Super Duty F-250 King Ranch.
What is surprising, therefore, is that two of the top five streaming truck songs on Spotify are by women artists – Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”, and “Automatic” by Miranda Lambert. In 2020, Detroit auto journalist Mark Phelan noted, women were responsible for about half as many truck songs as “the good ol’ boys.” But the messages found in songs composed by women differ from those of male country singers. Like singer-songwriters in a variety of genres, country music artists create songs out of their own experiences. As I argue in my work on the women’s car song, female artists alter the meaning of the automobile to fit their own life events. As I wrote, “car songs based on women’s experience […] contest the exclusive relationship of the automobile to masculinity as well as provide alternative and multiple ways to consider the meanings women ascribe to cars” (163). This would certainly hold true for songs about the pickup truck, a vehicle historically associated with masculinity, particularly of the ‘bro’ variety. Underwood and Lambert, country legends in their own right, provide two examples of the truck song created from women’s experience.
As I note in my work on female pickup owners:
Of all the vehicles produced for the American driver, perhaps none is more strongly associated with masculinity than the full size pickup truck. […] pickups are often accessorized with ‘decorative’ additions – women’s garters hanging from rearview mirrors, plastic testicles dangling from trailer hitches and mud flaps featuring large breasted women – to mark the vehicle as a male space. Pickup advertising often relies on masculine tropes and gender stereotypes with headlines such as ‘A diamond for her hand, a hemi for his foot’, and ‘Yeah, it’s good to be King’. Marketing has traditionally called upon terms such as hardworking, tough, strong and powerful to describe the truck as well as the man who drives it (136).
In “Before He Cheats,” the pickup is not only the site of a man’s infidelity, but serves as the physical embodiment of his masculine identity. To seek revenge for unfaithfulness, Underwood desecrates that which will hurt her lover the most – not his person, but the object through which he identifies. The vandalization of the truck is not a simple act of passion or rage; rather, each verse in the refrain describes a specific action intended to destroy a fragment of her lover’s manhood.
When Underwood sings, “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive,” she is returning the hurt she endured through her man’s cheating. So as not to forget the woman he wronged, Underwood “carved my name into his leather seats,” to leave a permanent and unmistakable reminder of the man’s indiscretion. “I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights” has Shakespearean overtones. Shakespearean characters are often made blind – literally have their eyes ripped out – in order to prevent them from inflicting harm or engaging in wrongdoing. Underwood wants to insure her betrayer can no longer look upon nor be tempted by the “bleached-blond tramp” singing some “white-trash version of Shania karaoke.” And finally, Underwood belts, “I slashed a hole in all four tires,” an action taken to strip away the freedom and mobility his souped-up truck provides.
Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic,” on the other hand, is a nostalgic look at the past. As Lambert reflects in a Songfacts interview, the song is “about slowing down, taking a breath and remembering what it’s like to live life a little more simply.” The truck is a stick-shift, 3-on-the-tree, 55 Chevy in which Lambert’s father taught her to drive [and which she still owns.] It is a metaphor for a slowed-down life, in which folks took their time, did things by hand, waited in line, and had patience in relationships and love. Automatic, of course, refers to the easy-driving, effortless transmissions found in over 98% of cars on the road today (Wiesenfelder). It also suggests a life carried on without too much thought, where getting things easy is the norm. “Automatic” reflects on Lambert’s own road to success; she hangs on to the truck so as not to be forgetful of the road her life has taken and how she got there.
As these two examples suggests, unlike the bro country truck song, which centers on sexual prowess, braggadocio, and other characteristics of what could be described as a “redneck” masculinity, women’s experience, automotive and otherwise, is what drives the message of the songs women sing about trucks. Women’s lives, and their relationships with cars and trucks, differ from those of men. Those unique experiences are often reflected in the country woman’s truck song.
Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Journal of American Culture 36.3, (2013) 161-176.
— “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver and Cowgirl Feminism.” European Journal of American Culture 38.2 (2019) 135-153.
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.