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.
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.
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.
“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.
Over the course of many car projects, I often find that female car enthusiasts are loyal to a particular automotive brand. This is particularly true in my hometown of Detroit, where folks often have friends or relatives who work for an automotive manufacturer in some capacity. In fact, it is frequently said that folks in Detroit rarely pay full price for a vehicle as they can somehow someway take advantage of someone’s employee discount. I myself am guilty of this practice, having purchased a few Ford vans through my late brother-in-law’s A Plan and a friend’s Chrysler ‘Friends and Family’ discount. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of Southeastern Michigan women I interviewed over the years are fiercely loyal to cars from one of the Big Three – Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler.
In talking to women in their 80s and 90s about their early automotive experiences, I discovered that those outside the Detroit area without a familial connection to a particular automaker had less compunction about switching automotive allegiance. Many started out with American cars – as that was pretty much all that was available at the time – but switched to Japanese imports for reasons that had to do with reliability, economy, trade-in value, and a size more conducive to female proportions. Once converted to Japanese models they rarely looked back. Although under some pressure from husbands to buy American, these women had decided what automotive qualities were important to them and became loyal to the brand that fulfilled them.
I recently came across an article about a gentleman who has taken brand loyalty to an extreme, having owned 42 Volkswagens over his lifetime. He has passed on his preference to the VW brand to family members. Of course, the fact that he worked as a VW Technician certainly provided access to vehicles, taking them on as project cars and then selling them afterward to fund his next project. I, too, am a Volkswagen fan, although not to the extent of this VW enthusiast. But I have always preferred German cars; their superior handling ability and performance and smaller size makes them exceptionally fun to drive. I also appreciate their aesthetics – the simple lines and clean, well-designed interiors contribute to a pleasurable driving experience. My first car was a 1970 Beetle; I currently drive a 2015 Golf R. In between – other than the Ford vans purchased as ‘dog vehicles’ previously mentioned – I have owned a Scirocco, VW Beetle Convertible, Rabbit, Audi S4 Cabriollet, and Audi A3. Living in Michigan, I have often been disparaged for my unAmerican vehicle choices. But I know what I want, and what I like to drive, and that’s a German car.
While some women, like me, tend to repeatedly purchase cars with similar qualities and monikers, others enjoy experiencing a variety of makes and models over a lifetime. Yet what is important is not what ‘camp’ a woman finds herself in, but that as purchasers of 65% of cars and influencers of over 85% of car purchases, women have the power and ability to make their own automotive decisions (Newman). Unlike the first half-century of automobility, when car choices were limited and often male-influenced, women can now look to cars not only as practical necessities, but also as vehicles that display who they are and what is important to them.
Newman, Jennifer. “It’s True: Women Really Do Shop More for Cars.” cars.com 31 May 2019.
Padeanu, Adrian. “‘Insane’ Person Has Owned 42 Volkswagens in His Lifetime.” motor1.com 04 Sept 2020.
Women show their passion for automobiles in a myriad of ways. Some become gearheads. Others go into racing. Many enter the auto industry as engineers, designers, or line workers. They work at auto dealerships and auto factories. Women collect cars, join automotive organizations, and become automotive historians. They are employed as automotive journalists, editors, reviewers, and photographers. And some demonstrate auto appreciation by simply getting behind the wheel.
As reported in a recent Petrolicious article, Claudia Liebenberg is a South African artist who displays her enthusiasm for cars through painting. Although her first love is motorcycles, she developed an interest in automobiles through her father who spent some time as a race car driver in his youth. As she notes, “he always had some sort of classic car parked at home and always took us out for rides.” Her favorites are classic European sports cars; the detailed grills and sleek curves present an artistic challenge she gladly takes on. Liebenberg’s medium of choice is watercolor, which can be difficult and unforgiving. As Liebenberg remarks, “it’s got a mind of its own. […] You have to try and capture and guide it into the shape you have in mind, to the color gradient you have in mind.”
Liebenberg’s works are minutely detailed; they capture every nut and bolt, each shadow and reflection. Her love for the subject matter is evident in every stroke. Liebenberg shares her creative process on Instagram; folks can follow the evolution of a vehicle step by step. Liebenberg’s Instagram account functions as her own assembly line as she invites people to be part of the process. Her work has garnered notice; she recently embarked on an evolving career painting commissioned pieces for brands such as BMW. Liebenberg’s dedicated passion for machines and her own honed artistic ability has produced exquisite paintings admired by both the creative set and dedicated auto aficionados.
It is a longstanding assumption that women do not have the same appreciation for the automobile as their male counterparts. However, it is not that women are indifferent to cars, but rather, they express their passion in different ways. As the article focused on Claudia Liebenberg argues, art – whether painting, drawing, photography, or sculpture – can provide women with the means to illustrate – literally and figuratively – a love of automobiles.
Anderson, Arabella. “Be Honest: The Water-Color Paintings of Claudia Liebenberg.” Petrolicious.com 26 June 2020.
In much of my research, which explores the relationship between women of cars in a variety of contexts, I am always curious to discover how women developed a passion for automobiles in a culture that discourages women from participation. Many of the women I encountered learned about cars from their fathers; they discovered early on that an effective way to develop a relationship with Dad was to become interested in the things he loved. These young girls stood alongside their dads as they worked on a car project, asking questions and helping in the garage. Some, on the other hand, had car crazy boyfriends who spent their weekends under the hood. These teenage girls gained automotive knowledge as a way to spend time together. Still others married into car culture, and discovered a passion they did not know existed.
However, for those who grew up in a more traditional environment, in which girls were encouraged to behave in a particular gendered way, exposure to car culture was less likely. Yet as I recently discovered, some young girls developed an interest in cars in a most unlikely way. As it turns out, Barbie, the popular, shapely doll oft critiqued for its focus on appearance, clothing, and dating, has, over the years, owned a number of sporty, stylish, and non-traditional cars. Barbie could, in fact, be described as a bona fide car enthusiast.
As an early baby boomer, I missed the Barbie phenomenon by a few years. So until an article about Barbie cars turned up in my automotive feed, I had no idea that Barbie had such a fine collection of automobiles. Although women in mainstream culture are traditionally associated with practical cars – station wagons, minivans, and crossovers –there is not a mom car to be found in Barbie’s garage. Over the years, she has driven an Austin Healey, Porsche, Corvette, Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes Benz, hot rod, dune buggy, and a myriad of other fun cars. Apparently I am not the only one who is impressed; Haggerty, the premier insurer of fine and classic automobiles, ranked and wrote about the Barbie car collection. Given the Barbie doll’s longstanding association with stereotypical femininity, what is surprising is that these cars are not in Ken’s driveway, but were produced especially for Barbie behind the wheel. And being the good big sister, Barbie passed on her love of cars to the younger Skipper, who acquired her own car collection when reaching the doll’s version of driving age.
Cars have always represented freedom to women, which accounts for patriarchy’s longstanding efforts to curtail or constrain women’s automobility. The cars in Barbie’s garage allow her to engage in activities and adventures that have frequently been discouraged in the woman driver. These attractive, sporty cars – in a variety of bright, cheerful, and vibrant colors – not only provide Barbie with transportation to school or work, but offer the possibility of exploration, adventure, new experiences, social networks, and just plain fun. Not having to rely on men for a ride offers Barbie the opportunity to become independent and to travel her own road. Barbie cars, rather than contributing to the stereotypical gendered view of women’s roles, reinforces the importance of cars to women’s agency, identity, and empowerment. As The Drive journalist Stef Schrader asserts, “Barbie’s cars continue to play an important role in expanding the automotive world to kids who might otherwise feel excluded from it, and for that, they deserve your respect.”
Schrader, Stef. “Barbie Has the Best Toy Cars.” TheDrive.com 11 Aug 2020.
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.
During the summer months, my husband and I attend a fair amount of car shows. This year, however, most have been canceled, replaced by social distancing car meetups and unofficial cruises. I am not real keen on cruises as my classics are temperamental and I fear I may stall out or break down at some point if I have to drive a great distance. Consequently, we have replaced events with really old cars to one activity with a not-quite-classic one. When my husband worked on the Mazda account years ago he acquired a 1999 evolution orange Miata. For the past 20 years it has been stored in the garage and taken out occasionally in the summer, accumulating only 14000 miles in the interim. In years past, we have had a lot going on from May through June – baseball, concerts, road trips, plays, and walks with the dogs – so the Miata only came out occasionally. This pandemic summer, all but the dog walking has been canceled. So as a summer project we have decided to visit as many ice cream establishments as possible to determine who has the best frozen delicacies in southeastern Michigan [it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it]. And our vehicle of choice for this important endeavor is the topless Miata.
Having a convertible in Michigan is always a dicey affair. I myself have owned three – a 70s era Fiat, a metallic blue VW during the 1980s, and most recently, an Audi S4 cabriolet. Convertibles always seem like a good idea until you remember it is often too hot to drive them during the day, the tops take a beating in the winter months, and they mess up your hair and makeup on the way to an important event. However, this summer, I have absolutely nowhere to go. So ice cream runs on a hot summer night are nothing short of glorious. We live in a rural area so take our time on the back roads to reach our various destinations. As I am a runner, I always put in a few extra miles on ice cream days to avoid a few extra pounds. Thus far we have had a great summer weather wise and usually go out at least twice a week. It has helped make the concert/theatre/baseball-less summer a lot more palatable.
As I have noted in my research, during the 1950s and 1960s – at the height of its popularity – the convertible was branded to appeal to a sense of youthful rebellion and depicted in contemporary advertisements as an emblem of upward mobility. This devil-may-care freedom was marketed specifically to the male consumer; if women appeared in advertising in was primarily in passive roles. Women were rarely considered potential customers for convertibles; the vehicle was considered too fast, sporty, unsafe, and attention-getting for the female motorist. Yet in conversation with 21 elderly women about their early automotive experiences, I discovered that “while only a few had actually owned them, almost all of the women had – at some point in time – yearned for a flashy ragtop”(Elderly 406). Although most eventually settled for a functional family vehicle, the women couldn’t help but imagine the convertible as the means to a pleasurable, desirable, and exciting escape from the practicality and sameness of their domestic existence. In my research into the chick car phenomenon, I found that women whose children were grown and out of the house often purchased convertibles such as the Miata as a reward for the minivan years. As one of the respondents exclaimed, “I went from a soccer-mom car to an empty-nest car and I love it” (Chick 524).
Although I loved my past convertibles, I let my vanity and practicality get in the way of truly enjoying and experiencing them. This summer, I don’t care. I put on my baseball cap, stick my hands out to feel the breeze, and keep on smiling all the way down the windy road.
Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences.” The Journal of Transport History 40.3 (2019): 516-417.
— “The Evolution of the ‘Chick Car’ Or: What Came First, the Chick or the Car?” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.3 (2012): 516-531.
In my work on women in various car cultures, I have discovered that women often develop an interest in cars through the help of male family members. Working in the garage alongside fathers, uncles, and brothers creates a familiarity with all things automotive that often grows into a serious involvement with cars in later years. Dads in particular instill automotive knowledge in their young daughters as a means of protection – from unscrupulous car dealers and automotive repair shops. They teach them how to make simple repairs to avoid being stranded on the side of the road. Husbands, on the other hand, often instill a love for cars in the hope that their wives will share their interest and participate alongside them in auto-related activities.
However, many women with a car-crazy family member don’t develop an enthusiasm for automobiles until that individual passes. After inheriting a classic classic car from a father or grandfather, women must decide whether to put the vehicle up for sale or to keep and maintain it. Those who choose the later find they must master the peculiarities of driving an antique machine. In the process, they often become full-fledged enthusiasts, joining car clubs, learning restoration processes, and submersing themselves in automotive history. I met some of these women while conducting research on various women and car projects. A recent article in the Sunday Times features stories of numerous women – many similar to those I encountered – who found themselves the unlikely owners of classic MGA Roadsters, Austin Healeys, and Porsches.
The women interviewed in “Women with Drive” speak of how taking the wheel of an old MG Midget or VW convertible provides a connection to a family member who has passed on. They admit to how the mechanics of these aging vehicles originally terrified them; the women wondered how they would ever conquer such complicated and unfamiliar machines. Yet, they found that spending time in the automobile, discovering all of its idiosyncrasies, and emerging victorious after months of intensive driving provided a means to confront their grief and move past a personal loss. It allowed to remain connected in spirit to a dad or favorite grandfather. Remarked the owner of an inherited 1936 Austin Healey, “this car is part of my dad that I still get to hang on to.”
Some of those interviewed for the article spoke of how they discovered a latent love of old cars after a male partner introduced them to the world of classic automobiles. In my own research in women and muscle cars, I note how men often encourage an interest in American muscle – and often acquire and restore a vehicle of their spouse’s choosing – as a way to alleviate guilt [over spending so much time and money on cars!] as well as to strengthen the relationship through a shared interest. While my research took place primarily in Southeastern Michigan, the Sunday Times article includes stories from women all over Europe, demonstrating that a female interest in cars, while often under the radar, is worldwide.
What the Sunday Times article attempts to convey, and which I have endeavored to promote in my scholarship, is that despite the common perception of female motorists, women with an interest in cars exist in all facets of automotive endeavors and activities. While one may find it surprising that women connect to cars in a multitude of ways, it is only because we have been conditioned to believe that an affinity toward automobiles is present in only half the population. Although women’s relationship to cars may differ from that of men, it doesn’t follow that it is less legitimate. I thank the Sunday Times for this article, and for its dedication to cultivating further discussions about women and cars.
Since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, automobiles have gone beyond their original function as transportation. In its earliest years, the automobile was repurposed for use on the farm, the homestead, or family business. Through the process of what Kathleen Franz describes as “tinkering”, cars were often transformed into something other than what the manufacturer intended. Car engines were used to run farm equipment; makeshift pickups were created out of auto bodies and spare parts; bodies were chopped and streamlined for racing; cars were modified as campers for family outings. As the automobile became more available and affordable, it changed not physically and technologically, but the meanings ascribed to it were reshaped as well. The automobile became a place to demonstrate masculinity, authority, power, and skill. It offered the possibility of adventure, danger, exhilaration, and freedom. To the teenager, the car was a means to an expanded social life. The interior of the automobile became a location for conversation, escape, and lovemaking. It provided a space for alone time, with the opportunity to think, dream, wonder, and sing.
To women in particular, the automobile often served as a tool of domestic technology, a necessary instrument for the performance of household tasks. It was the child conveyor, grocery holder, and errand runner. As women took on the role of family chauffeur and provider of household services, the station wagon, minivan, small SUV, and crossover became “mom’s taxi”. To the middle class American woman, Ruth Schwartz Cowan writes, “the automobile had become the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could most often be found” (85). Since its inception, the automobile has been adapted to the needs, desires, and requirements of the individuals who use it.
In the twenty-first century, we now find ourselves in a particular moment that has witnessed a new reimagining of the automobile. As a recent New York Times article notes, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, “the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time” (Hauser and Levitt). The automobile is the means through which its occupants can participate in religious services, enjoy a drive in movie, or view art and photography exhibits, all while maintaining a safe social distance. It also serves as a source of celebration. Birthdays, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries, and graduations are experienced through the windows of sedans, pickup trucks, and convertibles, as well as mom’s minivan or SUV.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in two 70th birthday drive-by celebrations for family and friends. While the children of the birthday recipients had originally planned on sit down gatherings to celebrate the momentous birthdays, the pandemic forced them to improvise. Thus the birthday men and women were seated on front lawns, treated to a traffic jam of friends, family, colleagues, and assorted well-wishers. Automobiles were decorated with signs and balloons; kids blew bubbles out of windows; dogs wagged greetings from the front seat; cakes and cards were left curbside for the celebrated to enjoy. Although the time spent with the guests of honor was limited, it was wonderful to witness the joy and surprise as my husband and I vigorously waved and wished them the best. And although we had to drive a distance for each celebration [we won the came-the-furthest award on both occasions], the look on the faces of my sister and my friends made the trips more than worthwhile.
When the automobile first made its appearance nearly a century ago to fill a need for transportation, I suspect its inventors and manufacturers never contemplated the various and changing uses to which it would serve over the succeeding decades. Although the automobile has been the subject of continual criticism if not disdain since its inception, the current situation in which we find ourselves has reconstructed the car as a vehicle for good. This reimagining not only demonstrates the adaptability of the automobile, but displays the creativity, kindness, and care of the individuals who own and drive them.
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Franz, Kathleen. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Hauser, Christine and Judith Levitt. “Together, Alone: The Car as Shelter in the Pandemic.” nytimes.com 20 May 2020.