Inside the American Car

In a recent Jalopnik article, auto journalist Elizabeth Blackstock poses a question to her reading audience. When she asks, ‘what’s your favorite car book?’, Blackstock is looking for reading material that has changed an individual’s perspective of a car, or altered his or her perception of the auto industry. Blackstock’s question led me back to my days in graduate school when I selected Car: A Drama of the American Workplace to review as an assignment. Mary Walton’s book – a first-hand account of the 1996 Ford Tauras development and launch – was both educational and illuminative. Written in 1997, Car offers an inside look into an industry that was, at the time, struggling for survival. For those who have an interest in the inner workings of the auto industry in a particular moment in time, I offer my slightly updated review of Mary Walton’s Car for your edification and enjoyment.

Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, written by Mary Walton, follows the lifecycle of an American automobile, the 1996 Ford Taurus, from conception to production to purchase. Walton, a veteran journalist, was provided with unprecedented access into the inner sanctum of the Ford Motor Company for this assignment. For three years, Walton became a part of the Taurus team, as designers and engineers, planners and analysts, and manufacturing and product managers worked diligently and ceaselessly to develop “The Car That Would Save Ford.” In her reporting and analysis, Walton is both critical and kind. Over the course of the Taurus launch, she develops respect and affinity for the individuals she encounters, yet rarely allows those relationships to get in the way of objectivity. For those unfamiliar with the auto industry, Walton offers remarkable insight into the problems and obstacles that plague American car companies. At a point in history when American automobile manufacturers were in danger of going out of business, Walton’s insightful examination not only uncovers weaknesses and vulnerabilities within Ford, but also identifies possible contributors to the impending industry collapse.

The Ford Motor Company has a long and determined history. Its founder, Henry Ford, was an individual who found change difficult, so much so that he built the same car, the Model T, for nearly 20 years. This ideological resistance to change, Walton discovers, is endemic within the current Ford corporate culture. Invention and innovation, in both product and policy, are most often met with apprehension and obstinacy. As Walton astutely observes, the failure to think “outside the box,” to take chances, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an automobile company such as Ford to stake a claim as an industry leader. The redesign and reinvention of the 1996 Taurus presented the possibility of such a position. However, the goal of the Taurus team was never to create a great new car, but rather, to “beat Camry.” It was not to build a better vehicle for its own sake, but to build one equal to or better than a vehicle, the Toyota Camry, that already existed. As Car suggests, developing new products in this manner situates Ford as a competitor rather than a leader. Building a car as a response rather than an introduction guarantees that Ford is always playing catch-up, with the consequence that the company is continually years behind its closest competitor in product design and development.

Walton also paints a revealing portrait of Ford management, a bureaucratic structure of almost unfathomable proportions. It is a complicated, multi-level system that not only stifles creative thinking, but also creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among the rank and file. There are so many approval layers that decisions made by lower echelons may reach the top only to be arbitrarily dismissed by those in power. Superiors often have little knowledge of the factors that went into such decisions, yet possess the ability to change or kill a concept at will. Walton also observes a culture in which white-collar workers are held hostage by an entrenched corporate promotion system based on job level categories. Ambitious Ford employees will do just about anything to rise through the ranks of this elaborate system, and fear staying at any level for too long a period. There is a tremendous amount of competition for promotions, and “rocking the boat” most often decreases an individual’s chance of advancement. Thus individuals are uneasy speaking up to or disagreeing with those in authority. As Walton writes, “the higher you went up the executive ladder, the less people spoke out.” Dick Landgraff, the head engineer on the Taurus project, was often “frustrated by how hard it was to find out what colleagues really thought” (87).

1996 Ford Taurus

Walton describes a white-collar atmosphere in which every aspect of a project is discussed ad infinitum. She remarks, “one of the problems at Ford, one of the many problems at Ford, was that people were afraid to be specific, to make commitments, because they might get nailed if things went awry” (46). Ford engineers and designers often spent more time in meetings than actually working on projects. Walton relates the story of management consultant hired by Ford, who attended seven meetings totaling twelve hours in length. She remarks, “He counted 155 people and one decision. This means 155 people spent 11 hours ‘sharing information’”(146). The time spent in meetings not only causes individuals to lose focus on the project at hand, but it also exponentially increases the time from concept to completion. While the Japanese are able to get an automobile to market in just over two years, it takes Ford almost five to complete the same process. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the preferences of the American car buying public five years in advance. Automobiles developed in such an extended time frame are often out of date before they reach the public. As Landgraff remarked to Walton, “if the Taurus were going to save Western democracy, the war would have been over by the time we got it on the street” (118).

However, perhaps the most lasting and illuminating impression Walton provides in Car is of a company that has lost its way. The endless meetings, strict hierarchy, inability to make decisions and fear of innovation reveal a corporation unclear of its identity and direction heading into the twenty-first century. The redesign of the 1996 Taurus was undertaken with the goal of meeting or exceeding the success of the original version, which had been the best-selling car in America in 1992. Yet as Walton discloses, “the amazing truth was that Ford never quite understood precisely how or why it had scored with the original Taurus” (52). To achieve success with the redesigned Taurus, Ford believed it was imperative to attract the import buyer rather than expand its own customer base. Yet Ford misunderstood its target, defining the new Taurus customer as the former “varsity football player and his cheerleader wife,” a family configuration more reflective of the 1950s than the upcoming millennium. As a consequence, the new Taurus appealed to no one, not the import buyer nor the traditional Ford customer. As Walton notes after the Taurus introduction, “the press was saying, after a fashion, that the car was too good” (343). Body engineers such as Steve Kozak detected the implication that “Ford had done something almost un-American by elevating ‘America’s car’ beyond the reach of the guys with blue collars” (343). Rather than develop a car to please the American car buyer, Ford’s goal was to out-Japanese the Japanese. The result was a car that cost more than the Camry, making it inaccessible to the average Ford customer, yet with limited appeal to import buyers. Walton adds, “during the four-year journey from Dearborn to dealers, the market had shifted,” a trend noted by the manufacturers of the Camry.  In 1996, the year of the new Taurus, a redesigned Camry debuted with “conservative styling, fewer niceties, and lower prices than the previous model.” Unlike the Ford Motor Company, Walton tells us, “ever-vigilant Toyota had responded to the latest market shift” (347). In 1996, the Camry became the number one car in its class; the Taurus finished a distant third.

When Mary Walton was granted permission to document the development of the 1996 Taurus, she couldn’t believe her good fortune. Yet as she remarks, “sadly, after reading the completed manuscript, Ford management came to regret having allowed a journalist such a candid look at its operations” (xi). The reaction to Car questions how Ford allowed Walton to infiltrate its headquarters in the first place. Perhaps gender played a role, as the presence of a female journalist was perceived as non-threatening to an overwhelmingly male, technologically driven constituency. Normally isolated and introverted, it is possible many of the engineers actually welcomed Walton’s intrusion and used the opportunity to open up to her. Walton’s lack of automotive expertise may have also worked to her advantage. Ford employees may have spoken freely because they assumed Walton would have difficulty understanding what they were talking about. Ford executives, individuals with considerable egos, may have felt themselves to be above reproach; thus their actions and motives would not be questioned nor referred to in a negative manner. It is also possible that Ford offered Walton unprecedented access because it believed that the Taurus was destined to become a remarkable success. Therefore, the book would paint a glowing picture of Ford and its ideology, personnel and structure. 

Finally, perhaps Walton was welcomed for the simple reason that Ford believed if readers could understand what really went on behind its famed glass walls, the image of the corporation would rise considerably in the public imagination. While ultimately such a goal was not achieved, Mary Walton provides an intriguing and enlightened look at the inner workings of an American car company. And while it was written over 25 years ago, Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, provides important and relevant insight into the problems and obstacles that faced Ford, as well as General Motors and Chrysler, at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Georgine Clarsen

Growing up in Detroit, I often thought of interest in automotive history as a particularly American, if not Southeastern Michigan, phenomenon. As a young adult, working in an automotive advertising agency, surrounded by a plethora of male auto aficionados, I assumed this enthusiasm for all things automotive was most often framed by gender and geography. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when beginning my research on women and cars, I discovered that two of the more prominent and prolific historians of the female motorist were neither male nor American. Margaret Walsh, a historian at the University of Nottingham in the UK, who I have written about in an earlier blog, and Georgine Clarsen, a scholar of history at the University of Wollongong in Australia, have individually and independently made considerable contributions to the women’s automotive history archives. While Walsh’s work focuses primarily on the history of the woman driver in the United States, Clarsen’s major work – Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists – explores women’s active roles in shaping automobile culture in her native Australia, Britain, British colonial Africa, as well as the USA. Her most recent research – as noted in The Conversation – specifically examines early around-Australia automobile journeys and the role of automobility in shaping ideas of colonial settler landscapes and identities. While much of her scholarship is centered on the automobile, Clarsen has also written extensively on women’s mobilities in other modes of transportation, such as bicycles and buses. 

As both a historian and a feminist, Clarsen is interested not only on the specifics of women’s early automobility, but also how automotive narratives were often called upon to frame sexual difference, bodily experience, and identity. Considering the countless histories generated since the automobile’s inception, Clarsen writes, “Histories of automobiles […] are more than they seem. Like all histories, they exceed their avowed subject matter to tell a great more besides. Beyond their manifest concerns, they provide a dense array of metaphors, images and progressions through which other stories have been told” (Dainty 153). Clarsen’s extensive scholarship is valuable not only as a source of knowledge regarding the early woman driver, but also calls upon women’s relationship to the automobile to frame debates about class, gender, sexuality, race, and nation in a variety of locations.

In my own work, I found Clarsen’s writing invaluable in discussions regarding the woman driver stereotype and how women – throughout automotive history – have been routinely dismissed as unknowledgeable about cars, uninterested in automobile technology, and inept as drivers. While I am not a historian, automobile/mobility scholars such as Clarsen have both informed my work and served as inspiration into my research devoted to the subject of women and cars.

Clarsen, Georgine. “The ‘Dainty Female Toe’ and the ‘Brawny Male Arm’: Conceptions of Bodies and Power in Automobile Technology.” Australian Feminist Studies 15.32 (2000): 153-163.

Katherine Parkin

I first met Katherine Parkin at the 2018 Popular Culture Association National Conference. We were both presenting in one of the Vehicle Culture sessions, and although familiar with each other’s work, we had never connected professionally or personally. Parkin’s Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars had just been published, and I was about to release my first book –  Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars. I was honored that Parkin had cited some of my journal articles in her book, and Parkin, in turn, was happy to meet the person whose work she cited. As there are so few of us who write about women and cars in an academic construct, it was both a surprise and pleasure to meet an individual who has contributed so much to the field. Since that meeting we have supported each other in other ways  – Parkin has forwarded peer review and article requests to me, of which I am greatly appreciative, and I have cited Parkin’s work in subsequent scholarship. 

While I came to academia late in life, Parkin has made it her life’s calling. A professor of history and the Jules Plangere Jr Endowed Chair in American Social History at Monmouth University in New Jersey, Parkin is an historian of considerable accomplishment. Although much of her work focuses on women’s automobility, she is also the author of numerous books and articles on a wide variety of topics, including food, advertising, women in American politics, and family history. As an historian, Parkin’s approach to women and cars differs from my own. Calling upon primary sources such as advertisements, women’s publications, popular music lyrics, and historical records, she combines disparate parts and pieces from a variety of resources to construct an interesting and insightful amalgam of women’s involvement with the automobile. In 2018, Women at the Wheel was awarded the Emily Toth Award for the best book in feminist popular culture; just recently, the Henry Ford Learning and Engagement Center named it one of the most informative and influential contributions to women’s automotive history, serving as a post war bookend to Virginia Scharff’s groundbreaking Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age.

In her most recent women-and-car themed works, Parkin provides an alternative history of Alice Ramsey, and examines the efforts of early manufacturers of luxury vehicles to attract the female buyer. I look forward to her next project, and am thankful we had the opportunity to meet a few years ago.

Below is a list of Parkin’s scholarship devoted to the relationship between women and cars.

“’Bring Them Back Alive!’: Fear and the Macabre in US Automobile Tire Advertising,” Advertising & Society Quarterly 18 (1) April 2017: (published by Johns Hopkins University Press, available through Project Muse).

“Driving Home Class Status: Women and Car Advertising in the United States,” Advertising & Society Quarterly, June 2019. 

Alice Ramsey: Driving in New Directions,” New Jersey Studies, July 2018.

“The Key to the Universe: Springsteen, Masculinity, and the Car,” in Bruce Springsteen and the American Soul: Essays on the Songs and Influence of a Cultural Icon, edited by David Izzo. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.

Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.   

Margaret Walsh

From “Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War.”

Margaret Walsh was one of the first scholars I encountered as I began my academic journey into the subject of women and cars. When I began my investigation close to home, I discovered a Walsh article – “Gender and the Automobile in the United States” – on a major web-based project sponsored by the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the Henry Ford. Not only did this project provide a comprehensive look at the history of women’s automobility, but included an extensive bibliography for individuals – like myself – interested in pursuing this subject matter further. As Walsh was a historian at the University of Nottingham at the time of this project, I was surprised to discover that the foremost authority on the history of women and automobility in America was, in fact, British. As it turns out, Walsh received both her master’s and doctorate in the United States. So although she didn’t grow up immersed in American car culture, Walsh’s years in the US no doubt impressed upon her the historical and cultural significance of the automobile to American women’s lives.

The work for the University of Michigan-Dearborn project was Walsh’s first foray into US women’s automotive history. As she noted in an 2009 interview, the project was an academic ‘by chance’ opportunity. While Walsh’s academic background included extensive research into transportation history – particularly the intercity bus industry – she had not yet expanded her research to the automobile. This project provided her with the opportunity to engage in scholarship on a subject that was – at the time – virtually non-existent. Walsh gained a reputation as an expert in the field not only because of her work, but because she was one of the very who considered gender and the automobile to be a subject worthy of investigation.

After the success of this web-based project, Walsh went on to publish a number of articles devoted to the history of women and automobiles in the US. While she never published a book on the subject, Walsh’s journal articles – which address women’s automobile use in the post war era – are on the reading lists of every scholar with an interest in the relationship between women and cars. A dedicated and determined researcher, Walsh relied on both primary and secondary sources – printed material, advertisements, federal government documents, qualitative data, policy documents and reports – to construct fascinating histories of the woman driver during a particular era of American life.

While I am not a historian, but rather take a cultural studies approach to the women and car relationship, my work is often centered in the work of automotive historians who accumulated the materials and the knowledge to create a discipline. I am forever grateful to scholars such as Maggie Walsh who through their work, offer guidance on the journey into the rarely researched subject of women and cars.  

The Girl Behind ‘Throttle Gals’

About 10 years ago, while at a local car show, I came across a small display headed by a banner reading “Throttle Gals”. Parked next to it was a ’59 Chevy Impala, not the pristine and restored version that populates most automotive events, but a barn “find” with the patina of an old, well-worn automobile. As it turned out, both the display and the car were the property of one Doni Langdon, a self-described gear head who had taken on the challenge of producing Throttle Gals – a car magazine for women. Unlike the myriad of automotive magazines on the market at the time, which catered to the male enthusiast, the intended audience of Throttle Gals was women who love to drive, work on, race, and take apart hot rods, vintage cars, street machines, and motorcycles. Langdon believed there was an untapped market of female enthusiasts interested in learning about other women who shared a passion for cars, bikes, trucks – anything with an engine. Unapologetic, the magazine was conceived with a definite female point of view. And unlike the ornamental and objectified women that graced traditional automotive publications, Throttle Gals  featured real women – as writers, designers, illustrators, photographers, and the subjects of their own stories. As Langdon noted in an early interview, “These are real women. Everyone you see is with her vehicle — not a model and not someone in her husband’s or her boyfriend’s ride. It’s her pride and joy”.

I ran into Langdon nearly ten years later when we appeared as guests together on Autoline After Hours to discuss my newly released book on women and muscle cars. At the time she was recovering from a house fire, which destroyed much of the material for upcoming issues. However, since that time, Throttle Gals has emerged stronger than ever, with a growing list of sponsors, subscribers, and a thriving presence online, at car shows, and automotive events all over the country. Langdon has, in fact, achieved what many believed impossible – she has successfully created, promoted, and sustained a magazine specifically for the female car and motorcycle enthusiast. 

Langdon’s formula has been simple. She understands that women with an interest in cars and motorcycles are often dismissed or denigrated by the majority of the male car-loving public. Thus she provides content that connects with her female readers – in the form of mechanical advice, car buying tips, automotive news, as well the reporting of automotive events where other female gearheads gather. However, the stories that resonate most with her followers are those focused on women’s accomplishments – great and small – in the automotive/motorcycle worlds. As one who had been “kicked down” in the male automotive fraternity, Langdon created the magazine “to empower other women,” a sentiment which has appeared in the magazine and the website since the Throttle Gals inception. 

From one Motor City gal to another, I applaud Doni for realizing her dream, and look forward to another 10 plus years of Throttle Gals.

Proxmire, Chrystal A. “Ferndale Grad goes ‘Full Throttle’ with Motorcycle Magazine for Women.” theoaklandpress.com 12 Feb 2010.

Throttle Gals Magazine. throttle gals.com

The Common Language of Cars

Elana Scherr, Car and Driver columnist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Scharff

When Virginia Scharff submitted her dissertation in 1987, it was hard to imagine it would evolve into a book that would forever change the course of women’s automotive history scholarship. At the time it was written there was very little research devoted to the history of cars or car culture. That which existed was – not surprisingly – written about, by, and for men. However, as a young and developing historian, Scharff joined the wave of feminist scholars who began “writing women into history” during the late 1970s. Like those before her, she desired to examine an aspect of women’s lives which had heretofore been invisible. Because scholarship on women’s automobility was nonexistent, Scharff had some difficulty finding resources on which to base her research. Although she struggled to find data, Scharff’s determination and diligence paid off. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, published in 1991, was groundbreaking not only for its subject matter, but because it challenged and dispelled the “common knowledge” about women’s relationship to the automobile.

In the early motor age, automobiles were handcrafted, costly, and electric with limited range and power. Consequently, they were not taken seriously as modes of transportation but rather, served as expensive playthings for the rich. However, after the development of the gasoline-powered engine, and Henry Ford’s implementation of the assembly line, automobiles became faster, cheaper, less refined, and available and accessible to “every man.” The growing popularity of the gasoline-powered automobile in the early twentieth century resulted in a significant loss of market share for the manufacturers of electric cars. Seeking to maintain or increase its consumer base, the electric was repositioned from a symbol of wealth and status to a vehicle particularly suited for the woman driver. The gasoline automobile, on the other hand, as noisy, dirty, rough, and difficult to operate – as well as fast and powerful –  was positioned as the ultimate man’s car. 

Until Scharff entered the scene, students and scholars of automotive history uniformly accepted the notion that, because the electric had the feminine qualities women desired in a car, it was, in fact, women’s transportation choice. The report that Henry Ford purchased an electric for his wife Clara seemed to confirm this widely held view. However, as Scharff discovered in her research, the electric was promoted as the woman’s car not because women innately desired it, but because of the potential repercussions of women’s enthusiasm for the gasoline-powered automobile. Yet despite the efforts of automakers to market the electric as the “woman’s car,” female drivers of the growing middle class set their sights on the power and performance the masculine gas-powered automobile could provide. Seeking horizons beyond the confinement of domesticity, women envisioned automobility as the means to reach them. In the minds of many women, attainment of such lofty goals was not to be realized through the limited power of the meek electric, but rather, from behind the wheel of the noisy, dirty, and aggressive gasoline-powered automobile. 

When the electric eventually disappeared from the roadways, and it became clear that the female motorist had set her sights on the gas-powered car, auto industry decision makers were faced with a conundrum. While automakers recognized the lucrative possibilities of a female consumer base, they also feared an appeal to the woman driver would damage the longstanding association between cars and masculinity. The solution was to call upon the “vast, immutable, reassuring differences between men and women” as the means to divide automotive use by gender (115). The large, powerful vehicle was marketed to the male head of the household. And by promoting the smaller, less powerful, more practical vehicle as form of domestic technology, a tool that enabled women to fulfill their prescribed roles as wives, mothers, consumers, and caretakers, automakers believed they could appeal to the female consumer without alienating men.

Scharff’s notion that women’s car choices threatened the status quo – so much so that automakers had to develop marketing strategies to contain the woman driver – was both a revelation and confirmation to future scholars of women’s automobility. It changed the way historians and cultural studies scholars approached women’s relationship to the automobile. It altered how cars are marketed to women. And most importantly, it motivated scholars to continually question and challenge “common knowledge” about women and cars.

Although Scharff has since moved on from women’s automobility to other topics in women’s social history, her influence on those who study gender and automobiles today is both significant and ongoing. Those of us who write about women and cars are forever grateful for her determined and tireless efforts – while a young PhD student – to recover a missing – and revelatory – part of automotive history.

Do you have a favorite automotive author? Are you interested in automotive history, automotive advice, or just a good story about cars? Your comments are welcome.