Car Stereotypes & the Woman Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The History of Subaru.” grandsubaru.com

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

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

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

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

Evening at the Automotive Hall of Fame

Automotive Hall of Fame – Dearborn Michigan

On Tuesday, December 1, 2021 I was honored to present “McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising” to an avid group of auto historians and enthusiasts at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan. Organized by the Leland Chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians, and led by President Brian Baker, it was an amazing opportunity to share my experiences working as a woman in automotive advertising nearly 40 years ago.

There was a great crowd on hand who were gracious, enthusiastic, and attentive despite my bumbling presentation style, as well as a few surprise guests in the audience. Brian hosted a question and answer session after the presentation and I enjoyed interacting with the audience and giving a few shout outs to folks – I mean you Top Hat John – who have helped my woman-and-car journey along the way. It was great fun to share stories and memories with knowledgeable Detroit area folks.

Detroit auto photographer Jim Secreto with the author

It was an evening I will not soon forget, and I thank Automotive Hall of Fame President Sarah Cook for the opportunity and Brian for encouraging me to share my story. And I can’t forget the absent-but-present-in-spirit National SAH President Bob Barr, who was the individual responsible for convincing me to write the article.

Women in Post War Car Culture

While in graduate school during the 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I consider how the construction of women as consumers in post World War II automobile culture served to limit women’s possibilities rather than expand them.

“American Car Culture” was created through the serendipitous confluence of a number of historical and social events in the years following World War II. Prosperity, promise and peace contributed to a fascination and a desire for cars that went beyond practicality and usefulness. As the documentary Tails, Fins and Drive-Ins suggests, twenty years of hardship and conflict created a “national obsession with obtaining the elusive American Dream,” a dream often realized through car ownership. Americans sought a reward for years of self-sacrifice; the automobile not only symbolized an “unlimited supply of economic luster,” but represented a promising and prosperous future as well. Television also contributed to the development of car culture. Its invention coincided with the growing desire to own a car, and television promoted such desire through programming and advertising. The development of a national freeway system, to accommodate the growing number of automobiles, not only changed the landscape of the United States, but also created a demand for family destinations such as motels, drive-in movie theatres and in-car dining. As Mark Foster writes in A Nation on Wheels, the automobile “not only influenced where Americans lived, worked, commuted and ran daily errands, [but] the automobile helped shape many of their leisure activities” (65).

Perhaps more important, as Joseph Interrante in “The Road to Autopia” attests, is the role of the automobile as “simultaneously a cause and consequence of the rise in consumerism” (90). The automobile emerged, both literally and figuratively, as the vehicle of the American consumer society. As Interrante writes, “made possible by the automobility of the car, metropolitan consumerism made the automobile a transportation necessity” (91). A burgeoning economy, and the suburbs that grew alongside the expanding highways, created a desire for products and the ways and means to purchase them. And the role of consumer, considered vital to a healthy economy, was most often awarded to the woman who remained at home.

While few dispute the automobile’s influence in the growth of the American consumer culture, little mention is made of another important “event” that helped set consumerism into motion. And that is the return of women to the domestic sphere after World War II. During the Second World War, women entered the workforce to take over the jobs left by husbands, fathers and brothers enlisted in the armed services. Once victory was attained, women were “encouraged” to leave paid employment in order to create welcoming homes for soldiers returning from war. Just as working in industry was deemed “patriotic” during wartime, setting up housekeeping and establishing families was considered a duty to country. Women’s isolation in the newly developing suburbs made owning a car a necessity, especially in the newly prescribed role as consumer.

Interrante asserts, “[the automobile] especially liberated women from the home” (99). In The Automobile Age, James Flink concurs, as he writes, “automobility freed […] women from the narrow confines of the home and changed them from producers of food and clothing into consumers of nation-brand canned goods, prepared foods, and ready-made clothes” (163). However, the automobile did not lessen the number of women’s domestic responsibilities; rather, it converted them into consumer duties. The freedom referred to by Interrante and Flint is misleading. After World War II, women were expected to leave the “masculine” work force to reassume the proper, culturally approved gender role of wife and mother. Ascribing women with the role of “consumer,” while bolstering the economy, also served to reinforce the common belief that woman’s place is in the home, unless, of course, she is in the car purchasing products for that home. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan writes, ‘by mid-century, the automobile had become, to the American housewife of the middle classes […] the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could be most often found” (Flink 164).  So while the car culture that emerged after the Second World War opened up exciting new possibilities, experiences and meanings for men, it effectively closed them for women. The automobile as a symbol of rebellion, power, status, and sex appeal became part of masculine car culture. Representations of women in popular car culture, Foster tells us, are primarily “appendages or passive observers to be impressed by powerful machinery” (85). While women may have originally been “enamored,” in the words of Flink, with the possibilities of automobility, such dreams were rarely brought to fruition. In the golden age of American car culture, the automobile symbolized woman’s identity as consumer, and reinforced the culturally prescribed gender role as wife and mother.

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

Foster, Mark. Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in American Since 1945. Belmont CA: Thomson, Wadsworth, 2003.

Interrante, Joseph. “The Road to Autopia: The Automobile and the Spatial Transformation of American Culture.” The Automobile and American Culture. David Lewis & Laurence Goldstein, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Tail Fins and Drive-Ins. 1996. Allumination Filmwork.

Volti, Rudi. Cars and Culture.: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Foreign Cars & the Woman Driver

While working on my master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in the early 2000s, I devised an independent study focused on my growing interest in the relationship between women and cars. What follows is one of the response papers in which I consider the appeal of non-made-in-America vehicles to female motorists. While this paper focuses on a particular period of American auto history, what is interesting is that, since this paper was written, American automakers have ceased production on small cars and sedans, conceding their manufacture to Asian and European car companies.

As I conducted research on the “chick car” last year, I discovered that the automobiles most often included in this category are foreign models. The Mini Cooper, VW Beetle, Mazda Miata and Toyota RAV4 appeal to women because they are affordable, cozy, well-designed and most important, fun to drive. Therefore, as I read Flink’s recounting of the foreign car invasion in The Automobile Age, I couldn’t help but wonder if the success of the foreign car in this country is based in part on its appeal to a segment of the car-buying public traditionally ignored by the US automotive industry. I wonder, in fact, if women’s embrace of the small, quick, comfortable and affordable foreign car is somewhat responsible for its increasing popularity, as well as for the decline of domestic vehicle sales. While it is certainly an overstatement to imply the bleak state of the US auto industry is due to its inherent patriarchy and dismissal of women’s interests, there remains enough evidence to suggest that the failure to build a car that appeals to women, in the form of a smaller, quicker, more economical and more technologically advanced vehicle, is a contributor to the industry downslide. 

Automobile history tells us that US car manufacturers have traditionally designed separate models for European and Asian markets. As James Flink writes, “like most other European auto manufacturers, and in marked contrast to their American operations, Ford-Europe and GM-Europe both concentrated in the postwar decade in producing small, fuel-efficient cars” (295). The significant difference in cars built for foreign rather than domestic consumption suggests automakers responded to such variations as geography, fuel cost, road conditions and government restrictions rather than on cultural or social requirements and desires. Simply put, US automakers built small cars for foreign markets because the roads are narrow, not because the citizens want or need a smaller, more efficient automobile. 

Domestic automakers built big cars for the big, wide open US highways, without taking into consideration that driving conditions do not necessarily dictate what all drivers want. Industry leaders failed to notice that many of the qualities that appeal to foreign car buyers are also attractive to female drivers. US carmakers have historically refrained from developing small cars because, as Flint remarks, “large cars are far more profitable to build than small ones” (284). Such a sentiment ignores the fact that the majority of US automobiles produced before 1990 were simply too large and cumbersome for the average woman to drive comfortably. I know that when I learned to drive, I had to place a pillow behind my back in order to engage the clutch pedal. My sister, who is even shorter than I, sat on a cushion in order to see over the car’s hood. During the 1950s, Christy Borth of the Automobile Manufacturers Association is quoted saying, “it is foolish to use two tons of automobile to transport a 105 lb blond” (Flink 283). While the Japanese may have considered the smaller stature of its citizenry when designing automobiles, American car makers systematically ignored the more diminutive half of its population as it continued to blissfully crank out big, bulky automobiles. 

What Flink doesn’t mention, but which bears consideration, are the meanings associated with a “big” car. Not only is “big” associated with masculinity (today’s Ford F150 Trucks are a prime example), but also reflects America’s position of itself, the assumed “big boy” of the world. No doubt US car manufacturers think of themselves as big and male (and the Japanese, on the other hand, as small and feminine, and therefore of less value). Because the US car industry appears to have stock in the axiom “bigger is better,” American automobile manufacturers, as Flink writes, “remained convinced well into the 1960s of their invulnerability to foreign competitors in the world as well as the US market” (294). 

In A Nation on Wheels, Mark Foster suggests that such arrogance prevented automakers from considering other options in automobile production. Isolated from both criticism and the real world, auto executives convinced themselves that American car manufacturers “knew all there was to know about making and marketing cars” (143). Cloistered and isolated with individuals very much like themselves, corporate automakers “were seldom exposed to those who might disagree with them, particularly within the corporation” (143). Detroit auto men seemed incapable of viewing the car industry through eyes other than their own. As Flink tells us, while American automakers continued to build one standardized product in the largest possible volume, “Europeans fashioned domestically produced products for very different national market conditions” (299). The Europeans considered the divergent needs, driving styles and economic means of its potential buyers. US auto manufacturers, on the other hand, told consumers what to buy based on their own monolithic vision. European and Asian car manufacturers attempted to appeal to a wide variety of drivers, which of course, included women. Detroit automakers continued to profess they knew what the American public wanted without bothering to ask them.

Foreign cars are often less expensive than equivalent American-made products. Such lower priced automobiles, Flink reminds us, are often “a combination of lower wages, higher labor productivity and a unique system of material controls and plant maintenance” (335). As women have lower incomes than men, the lower purchase price and maintenance costs make foreign automobiles more attractive. And as many women remain responsible for maintaining the household budget, the value of an import often prompts its purchase. Most important, however, is that European and Asian manufacturers have traditionally addressed the needs of its customer base and have offered them options.

In Trouble in the Motor City, Joe Kerr writes, “over-confident from decades of total domination of American markets, the car-makers were still building their unwieldy and antiquated products when the oil crisis hit in 1973” (135). If we consider the masculinity embedded in American car culture, represented not only by the big, unwieldy vehicles but also those who produce them, the reluctance to build a smaller and more efficient car becomes understandable. The Japanese automobile, built by and for those smaller in stature, may be considered feminine and therefore undesirable. While such characteristics may explain why the foreign car has special appeal to women, it also suggests why the US automotive industry has been so reluctant to embrace the smaller automobile. As Bayla Singer, in Automobiles and Femininity writes, “in order to classify the qualities of the automobile driver as fundamentally masculine, thus perhaps allowing even the frailest male office worker to assert his masculinity, female use of the automobile must be classified as marginal or trivial” (39). Thus the disparagement of the foreign car, which includes the category of “chick car,” stems not only from its compact size, but also from the stature of the person who drives it.

Flink, James J. The Automotive Age. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1988.

Foster, Mark. Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in American Since 1945. Belmont, CA: Thomson, Wadsworth, 2003

Kerr, Joe. “Trouble in the Motor City.” Autopia: Cars and Culture. Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr, eds. Reaktion Books, 2002. 125-138.

Singer, Bayla. “Automobiles and Femininity.”Research in Philosophy and Technology. Vol. 13, Technology and Feminism. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1993. 31-42.

Cover Story in the Automotive History Review

Automotive History Review cover – Spring 2021

Writing about my experiences in a Detroit automotive advertising agency nearly 30 years ago was both a reflective and enjoyable experience. However, as my memory fades increasingly each year, I wasn’t sure I could remember enough about my time at McCann Erickson to produce a readable and interesting article. Fortunately, I was able to connect with a couple of my former co-workers who helped fill in some of the auto – and memory – blanks. As the article notes, the time spent at McCann was both fun and frustrating. I was able to produce some good work, but was also subject to the sexual harassment commonplace in the pre Anita Hill era. That being said, what should be remembered is that the article is not meant to convey a universal experience; rather, it is a reflection of one woman’s recollection of a particular time and place in automotive advertising history.

I was thrilled when asked to contribute to the Automotive History Review – the premier publication of the Society of Automotive Historians [SAH], and honored to be featured on the cover. AHR editor John Heitmann wrote this about my short piece:

Chris Lezotte lived automotive history while working in automotive advertising in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s. She tells us her story but much more. Her fascinating piece adds considerable background to those of us who view advertising as part of the historical record. To be sure there are several key studies that help us interpret what advertising is, and whether it is a bell weather of social preferences or the shaper of consumer wants, but what Chris does is give us a down-to-earth primer of great value.

I hope those who come upon this article – available through the SAH website – will enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Mustangs and the Woman Driver

1966 Mustang print advertisement

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).

1966 Mustang print advertisement

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).

1984 Mustang print advertisement

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.

2016 Mustang named Women’s World Car of the Year

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.

Advertising, Women, and the Muscle Car

This blog entry was originally written as part of a graduate class assignment, and was incorporated into my book Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars.

Women’s participation in muscle car culture from 1964 to 1973 is, for the most part, undocumented in scholarship as well as popular culture. Scholars such as Margaret Walsh (2006) suggest that young women took part in cruising culture as observers or passengers. Their main objective, Walsh contends, was to be seen, “thereby enhancing their status with their female peers” (p. 9). Author Robert Genat (2009) asserts the average young woman had very little interest in muscle cars; rather, “they just wanted to be there” (p. 44). As Genat writes, “in that era only a few women owned cars and the cars they owned would be considered sporty – such as a LeMans hardtop, Mustang, or Camaro – with convertibles high on the list” (p. 44). Other accounts of the muscle car era rarely mention young women at all.

The absence of narratives from female participants in muscle car culture means that other sources must be relied upon for information. One of the more accessible resources is advertising. As Deborah Clarke (2007) writes, “Given the extent to which ads become engrained in our heads, they seem to have the widest and strongest impact in shaping our awareness of cars and car culture” (p. 7). However, rather than indicate how young women participated in muscle car culture, advertisements are more indicative of what the auto industry, and American culture at large, thought women’s role in muscle car culture should be. As Jennifer Wicke, author of Advertising Fictions, observed, “Advertisements are cultural messages in a bottle” (quoted by Clarke, 2007, p. 8).

Prop

In muscle car print ads produced from 1964 to 1973, young women are presented in one of four roles. The most common is that of “prop.” Young women called upon to fulfill this role are often positioned strategically to attract the male buyer as well as to associate the automobile with sex. While automobiles from the 1950s were often considered feminine in form, their curves reminiscent of the female body, the muscle car, as long, lean, powerful, and fast, suggested another form of sexual conquest. Stephen Bayley (1986), in Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, argues that in the mind of the male driver, a fast car demonstrates sexual prowess. As Bayley contends, “Driving cars fast is an act of recklessness which […] recaptures some elements of the thrill of adolescent sex” (p. 32). The young woman in the 1969 Chevy Camaro print ad is perched on the passenger side of the vehicle so as not to be confused with the driver. The ad copy does not refer to her in any way; her presence is merely decorative.

Prize

While the possibility of sexual conquest is alluded to when women appear as props, the role of the young woman as “prize”, demonstrated in an ad for the 1969 Dodge Charger, removes any doubt. The attractive blond, placed in front of the automobile, lifts her skirt as both an invitation and a promise. The copy reads, “Do you really think you can get to me with that long, low, tough machine you just rolled up in? “ The answer, of course, is “yes.” Witzel and Bash (1997), students of the California cruising scene, assert that the young men who participated in muscle car culture understood that driving a fast and racy car was the most effective way to attract young women. “Without a doubt,” write Witzel and Bash, “a cool car was a prerequisite to get girls and get laid” (p. 23).

Passenger

Automotive scholars, such as historian Margaret Walsh (1986), suggest that the most common and preferred role of the young woman in muscle car culture was that of passenger. Understanding that only boys could raise a girl’s status among teenage peers, young women sought out young men in cool cars as a means to do so. Muscle car advertisements, such as that promoting the red Mustang convertible, often show attractive young women in the passenger seat. However, while the woman looks back to make sure she has been “seen,” the intent of such advertising is not to raise the status of the woman, but rather, that of the young man behind the wheel.

Prospect

In advertising from the muscle car era, women are rarely presented as drivers. While Mustang occasionally featured women in the driver’s seat, it was to promote the non-muscle, non-performance, small V-6 engine models. In period ads for the Dodge Challenger – Chrysler’s entry into the “pony car” market – as well as the Dodge Charger, the position of the young woman on the driver’s side alludes to, but does not confirm, that the vehicle might be attractive to the female driver. The availability of the Dodge muscle car in “high impact” colors – such as Plum Crazy and Panther Pink pictured here – has made Dodge vehicles a very popular choice among today’s female classic muscle car owners. The owner of a classic Panther Pink 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible revealed that when growing up, she had coveted the Challenger owned by her boyfriend’s older sister. Her comments suggest that while young men may have perceived the attractive woman in either the Charger and Challenger ad as one of the spoils of owning such a vehicle, young women, in fact, may have seen in her the possibility of themselves as competent and capable muscle car drivers.

As Deborah Clarke (2007) suggests, advertising has had a significant impact in shaping our perceptions of women’s place in muscle car culture. However, while images of young women as props, prizes, and passengers assume women occupied peripheral roles, the Dodge Charger and Challenger ads suggest that women may have also been considered potential customers, i.e. “prospects.”  If, as Clarke contends, advertising has considerable impact in shaping our awareness of cars and culture, then young women of the muscle car era could have very well imagined themselves as owners of Panther Pink or Passion Purple muscle cars. While most women lacked the financial means to purchase such vehicles in their youth, many, as aging baby boomers, have now acquired the means to own and drive the car they desired over 40 years ago.

Prospect

Bayley, S. (1986). Sex, drink and fast cars. New York: Pantheon Books.

Clarke, D. (2007). Driving women: fiction and automobile culture in twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Genat, R. (2010). Woodward Avenue: cruising the legendary strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech.

Walsh, M. (2006). At home at the wheel? The woman and her automobile in the 1950s. Paper presented at The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture given at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference.

Witzel, M.K. & K. Bash. (1997). Cruisin’: Car culture in America. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company.

Car Advertising and the Woman Driver

1983 Buick Regal Ad.

In an article posted a couple of years ago, Jalopnik blogger Elizabeth Blackstock discussed the lack of automotive advertising directed toward women. Although, as she noted, women compose over half of licensed drivers, 62 percent of all new cars sold in the US are purchased by women, and 85 percent of car buying decisions are made by women, advertising most often portrays the universal driver as male. When women are featured in car commercials, it is most often in the most stereotypical of roles. As Blackstock writes, “In the off chance that women are driving—sheʼs with her female friends staring at Ryan Reynolds, sheʼs picking the kids up from soccer practice, sheʼs by herself, or sheʼs marketing (dear God) car insurance. Youʼll be bombarded with those before you get one ad telling you to defy labels and pick the vehicle that truly suits you.”

The root of automakers’ failure to advertise to women is, plainly stated, masculinity. Car manufacturers are uneasy when automobiles become associated with femininity and the female car buyer. As I argue in my article about the chick car, women’s attraction to a particular automobile causes members of the male population to question the car’s technology. As the article states, “The assumption that women lack technical expertise creates a reverse kind of logic in the minds of many male consumers. They believe that since women cannot appreciate the finer technical characteristics of a car, such as power, handling, and performance, the cars women purchase must be technologically deficient. Women’s approval, in the minds of many men, leads to the devaluation of the car” (525). Consequently, the majority of cars that are, in fact, marketed to women are those of little interest to men.

This practice of selective car marketing is not a recent phenomenon. Over 35 years ago I worked in the creative department at a Detroit automotive advertising agency. My [female] partner and I were assigned the Buick Regal, which had been designated as the “woman’s car.” This classification was not due to its popularity among female consumers nor to any “female friendly” automotive features. Rather, it was because sales figures for the outdated Regal were dropping. Reconfiguring the Regal as the Buick offering especially appropriate for the woman driver was a dubious strategy to reinvigorate the brand. Traditionally, automakers have attempted to market unpopular cars to women when “authentic” automobile aficionados –  male drivers – would no longer buy them. 

Since the Regal held no apparent benefit for the woman driver, we decided to invent one. My partner and I put a clever spin on a tired female stereotype which suggests that attractiveness and brain power are mutually exclusive. Both the print ad and the television commercial feature a blonde, professional-looking woman posed next to a 1983 Regal. The print headline – “Good Looking Outside, Good Thinking Inside” – relies upon an often used and effective advertising strategy which calls upon a common positive attribute to link the product and the person who uses it. In this case, the line could be talking about the automobile or the woman standing beside it. The ad copy goes on to expand the misconception often applied to women – “that someone, or something, that’s got a lot in the good looks department, may be lacking in the good thinking department” – to include the smart and stylish Buick Regal. It mentions the beauty of the vehicle’s exterior, while also remarking on the vehicle’s powerful engine and intellectually designed interior, intimating that the woman who drives it is attractive, powerful, and intelligent as well. 

While I don’t recall the exact words of the television commercial, a similar message was delivered by the same woman featured in the print ad. The technique called upon was what is known in the ad community as a “talking head” – the actor delivers the entire commercial speaking directly to the camera. The 30-second commercial ends on a somewhat prophetic note, as the spokeswoman turns toward the imagined audience and remarks,  “Whoever’s in charge at Buick; she must really be something”. Who knew?

Although this campaign for the Buick Regal was created primarily to address an automotive sales issue, it did, at least, noted an automotive blogger, construct the female consumer as “classy, smart, and hard-working” (Kubin-Nicholson). The same could not be said for automotive advertising today. Women are stuck in minivans while the auto industry, ever fearful of offending the male customer, just keeps marketing cool cars to the guys.

As Blackstock notes, advertisements have an effect on the people who see them. As she writes, “If we’re bombarded with car commercials catered specifically to men […] we aren’t going to see women as interested in cars, so women won’t be as interested in cars, and, maybe more importantly, women aren’t even going to feel capable of understanding what makes a good car.” It’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself. Blackstock asks, “when do the girls get to take the wheel?” I enthusiastically echo her sentiments.

Blackstock, Elizabeth. “If Half the U.S. Drivers are Women, Why Aren’t Auto Manufacturers Doing a Better Job of Marketing to Them?” jalopnik.com  8Aug 2018.

Kubin-Nicholson (blog) “The Evolution of Car Ads.” Kubin.com 13 Apr 2013.

Lezotte, Chris. “The Evolution of the Chick Car: Or Which Came First the Chick or the Car?” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.3 (2012): 516-531.

Lezotte, Chris. “McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising.” Manuscript in Press, Automotive History Review.

What Women Want

Advertisement for the 1955 Dodge La Femme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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