Women Auto Race

Motorsports is an overwhelmingly male dominated activity. While verifiable statistics on participation of men vs women do not exist, it is estimated that less than 4% of motorsports participants – at all levels and throughout all types of motorsports events – are female. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Historically and culturally, young girls have been discouraged from developing an interest in motorsports or cars. Those who do so are often branded as odd, deviant, or unfeminine. Women who pursue racing as either an avocation or vocation often find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Not only are they subject to discrimination and sexual harassment on and off the track, but as a group are generalized as being too timid, unskilled, inexperienced, and utterly unqualified to share the track with men. Although motorsports – as a competition where men and women are able to race against each other – is often heralded as the ‘great equalizer,’ this notion presumes men and women come up through the racing ranks with the same opportunities, support, and driving experiences. In the current professional climate, the road to racing success begins at an early age most often through karting. The gender ratio entering racing in junior categories is hugely skewed in one direction; estimates list the ratio as 98-to-2 in favor of men. Unless they come from a family of racing enthusiasts, young girls are much less likely than boys to take an interest in driving at the age of eight or so, when future motorsport champions start competing in carts. Without early motorsport opportunities, women who enter the racing arena do so severely behind in experience, training, and support compared to male peers.

However, in my recent research into the history of all-women racing in motorsports, I spoke with a number of women without extensive automotive or racing histories who discovered an entryway into motorsports that is safe, relatively inexpensive, accessible, challenging, and a whole lot of fun. Autocross – a timed competition in which drivers navigate a unique course defined by cones or pylons – has become increasingly popular with women of varying racing levels who want to experience the thrill of driving competitively without a significant financial investment. Unlike wheel to wheel racing, in which drivers compete directly with one another, autocross is a timed event in which the goal is to drive around the track and get the lowest time possible without hitting any cones or going off the track. The only requirements are a driver’s license, approved helmet, car [just about any type is acceptable], and the desire to test oneself in a race type setting.

The women I conversed with came to autocross from many directions and for a variety of reasons. Some had boyfriends who participated in the sport so decided autocross might be a good way to spend time together. Others heard about autocross from friends and were encouraged to give it a try. A few of the women were looking for a new pastime that was challenging, exciting, and out of the ordinary – autocross filled the bill. Although the road to autocross differed among female racers, the reasons for engaging and sticking with autocross were shared by many of them.

One of the draws of autocross is that other than an approved helmet, there is no additional equipment necessary. Consequently, it is less expensive than other types of racing. This is important if it is an activity you are testing – if you find it isn’t for you, the only expense you have incurred is the entry fee. Starting out, women often use their daily drivers; once hooked, they may modify their cars or upgrade to something faster and more nimble. There are a number of car categories in which to compete, so drivers are competing against individuals in similar vehicles. Women cited autocross as safer than other motorsports – since you are on the track alone, damage to the car [or yourself] is unlikely.

The challenge of autocross – engaging in an activity that is both familiar [driving] and unfamiliar [racing on a marked course] –  was considered a benefit by many of the women who participate. Autocross provides the opportunity to drive fast while learning the skills of controlling a car at speed – it is educational and exhilarating at the same time. Women found that the skills they acquired through autocross – mental, physical, and automotive – carried over into other aspects of their driving and non-driving lives. The female racers also mentioned the ‘adrenaline high’ experienced while behind the wheel, and also noted how mastering the car and the course gave them renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. Many felt empowered participating in an activity so strongly identified with masculinity and the male driver, and noted how their participation awarded them a fair amount of respect as drivers and individuals knowledgeable about cars. While some sexism exists within the autocross community, it is most often verbal rather than experiential – since women are alone on the course, they cannot be threatened or bullied by a male driver. Many autocross events have separate ladies classes, which provide a safe space for women to gain skills and confidence without the fear of male intimidation.

SCCA [Sports Car Club of America] Indiana Regional Ladies Autocross

Autocross was also cited as a form of therapy – as an all-consuming activity requiring singular focus, it keeps one’s mind off of other issues. Participating in autocross burns off steam, diverts one’s attention, and builds confidence. Although racers participate individually, they are expected to help at the track in various capacities throughout the day – whether working on someone’s car, taking entries, or setting up the track. Thus the social aspect of autocross was important to many of the female participants, as it provided the opportunity to create new friendships and engage in community and support.

While autocross addresses the racing bug in a great number of women, others view it as a stepping stone to more advanced, complicated, and competitive activities. Many women go on to participate in rally cross, road racing, time trials, and SCCA Pro Racing. Yet as I discovered, no matter what the level of involvement or experience level, autocross has the ability to provide women with an important and empowering entryway into the male dominated world of motorsports. 

For more information on autocross and other women’s racing programs, check out SCCA Women on Track.

1949 Was a Very Good Year

Behind the wheel of my ’49 Ford

Jalopnik recently posed a question to its readers: “What car would you buy that was made the year you were born?” The query received nearly 250 responses, with answers that ranged from financially impossible choices such as a 1977 Countach LP400S to comments such as, “oh god, 1981 was a bad, bad year for cars.” As for me, I am one of the few lucky folks who owns a very cool car that happened to be produced the same year I came into the world. I fell in love with the 1949 Ford when I first spotted it a number of years ago at the Henry Ford Motor Muster in Dearborn, Michigan. There was something unflashy yet soothing about the smooth lines and unique “shoebox” profile. After an intensive search, a Seamist Green ’49 in fairly good condition was discovered in Pennsylvania, and after negotiations were made, was shipped to Michigan.

Distinctive ’49 Ford ‘bullet’ grille

While I chose the ’49 for its aesthetics, I soon discovered that in terms of automotive history, it is a significant automobile. Considered revolutionary when introduced, the ‘49 has often been cited as the “car that saved the Ford Motor Company.” After the Second World War, auto manufacturers were stuck in the past – producing remodeled designs of the prewar vehicles. Ford beat competitors Chrysler and General Motors with an all-new car, distinguished by its “smooth sided ‘envelope’ body and the airplane designed ‘spinner’ in the center of the grill” (thehenryford.org). Although the decision to completely revamp the Ford passenger car was risky, it turned out to be a wise and profitable decision. Ford produced more than a million units its first year of production. As noted by automotive historian Robert Tate, “never had any new car been received with such whole-hearted enthusiasm from the buying public.” New York Times auto writer Michael Lamm exclaims, “the ’49 Ford was born of desperation. It was sleek and daring by the standards of the day; it set benchmarks for styling and packaging, and it proved to be a hit with a car-buying public that was hungry for anything new […]” The ’49 established a clean, modern look that set a pattern for the Fords that followed it, and set the Ford Motor Company on a solid financial course for a number of years.

Just a little bit hot rod

The 1949 Ford I purchased was in fairly good condition but needed work. When it was discovered that the original engine had been replaced by the previous owner, the decision was made to have some fun with the mechanics rather than attempt to restore the car to its original condition. We upgraded the electronic system, added tri-power carburetors, ‘Offy’ (Offenhauser) heads, and a Smitty muffler for a noisy, hot rod sound. The car was eventually repainted, and an electronic fan was installed to prevent the engine from overheating (a common problem among 1949 models.) I’ve taken the Ford to local car shows including the Motor Muster, even winning “Best in Class” at the 2019 Memories Classic Car Cruise-In. It can be a challenge to drive, but it is a lot of fun and gets a fair amount of attention.

When folks are puzzled as to why I chose this particular model of car, I simply tell them it’s because we were both born in Detroit in 1949.

The Henry Ford. Digital Collections. “1949 Ford V-8 Coupe.” theHenryFord.org

Lamm, Michael. “The ’49 Car That Saved Ford Motor.” New York Times 10 Sept 1999.

Tate, Robert. “1949 Ford: The Car, The Workers, and The Innovation.” Motor Cities 29 Sept 2014.

2021 [Virtual] PCA Conference

Pink Power Presentation

As the 2020 Popular Culture Association [PCA] was canceled due to COVID, the decision was made to go virtual in 2021. Despite my lack of confidence in all things technological, I decided to put aside my fears and submit a presentation to this year’s event. Since the PCA is one of the few conferences with sessions dedicated to vehicle culture, I always try to prepare something to present. Having a date in place provides me with the impetus to develop and map out a project for the conference; in turn, the input from conference attendees serves as encouragement to proceed with publication as the eventual goal.

This year there were three sessions with a wide variety of topics and perspectives. The first session, focused on Vehicle History and Business, featured presentations on vehicle dwellers, an analysis of conflicting representations of the automobile in its earliest years, and a look at how the Korean automobile and gaming industry influence the global market. Vehicle Culture Across Industries – the second session – included an excursion to non-fictional motor racing through Grafton graphic publications, an examination of driving lyrics in the songs of Taylor Swift, and an argument dispelling the origin myth of the 1950s automobile fin design. Finally, the third session – Social Perspectives of Vehicle Culture, offered an investigation of the 1967 Impala as female in the Winchesters series, a lawyer’s perspective on the case for banning human-driven vehicles, and my own presentation, which looked at the influence of Barbie cars on the auto awareness of young girls.

While there were a few technical glitches in my presentation – it’s what happens when you ask a 72-year-old woman to serve as session chair – the talk went pretty well. I received a number of positive comments, helpful suggestions, as well as questions that provided me the opportunity to reconsider some of my arguments and revise some of my thinking. Although the presentation was stressful – in both preparation and execution – I always welcome the opportunity to present my work to a group of interested, informed, and curious auto enthusiasts and scholars. Next year – Seattle!

Women & Classic Car Culture

A flock of Thunderbirds

What follows is a condensed version of one of my first ethnographical projects concerning the relationship between women and cars. I focused on the Ford Thunderbird as it provided the opportunity to compare women’s involvement with older vehicles with that of more contemporary cars. Many of the lessons learned conducting this research were helpful in future women and car investigations.

A number of years ago, in an effort to remedy the lack of scholarship devoted to women and car culture, I began my own inquiry into woman’s relationship with the automobile. I began by investigating how contemporary women have appropriated a particular segment of the automotive market, a type of automobile referred to somewhat pejoratively in the media as the ‘chick car.’ In ‘The Evolution of the Chick Car,’ I examine how certain groups of women have rejected the prescriptive and gendered ‘mom’ car in favor of an automobile that is quick, sporty, stylish and fun to drive. In order to find ‘chicks’ to interview about the experience, I posted requests for participation on Internet car groups. The enthusiastic response from chick car owners led to my master’s degree project, which was to uncover women’s participation in car culture through membership in online car forums, bulletin boards, and mailing lists. Through participant-observation, as well as the administration and collection of 100 individual surveys, I not only constructed a fascinating portrait of the contemporary female car enthusiast, but also discovered the myriad of ways in which women use the Internet to participate in car culture. Car culture, traditionally identified with masculinity and male experience, has historically discouraged and silenced women’s participation. Yet as I discovered, cyberspace often provides female car enthusiasts with a non-threatening environment in which to talk and learn about cars. 

‘Chick car’ ownership represents only one example of women’s engagement with the automobile. Each summer in southeastern Michigan, thousands of classic car owners take part in car shows and cruises all over the state. Women are not only observers of these automotive events, but many also actively participate as car owners and through membership in classic car clubs. Thus classic car culture represents an additional location in which to investigate women’s relationship to the automobile.

Classic Ford Thunderbird

However, the experience of driving and owning a classic car differs considerably from that of a contemporary vehicle. The classic car is not purchased because it is practical, efficient or ‘fun to drive.’ Rather, classic car ownership is often based on nostalgia for a bygone era, or as link to a person or experience from the past. Therefore, as I began my inquiry, I became interested in how the meanings women ascribe to the classic car compare to those attributed to contemporary automobiles. I also wondered whether female classic car owners would use the Internet with the same intensity and enthusiasm as ‘chick’ car owners, or if practical and social conditions would discourage them from embracing cyberspace. I contemplated, therefore, whether women’s acceptance or reluctance to use Internet technology is dependent on the age of the user or the degree of familiarity with the medium, or if it is, in fact, influenced by the cultural and gendered prescriptions of the era in which the car was produced. Therefore, in order to examine women’s participation in classic car culture, I found it necessary to conduct research both online and offline. My offline research not only provided information regarding women’s participation in classic car culture, but also informed both women’s rejection of and participation in online classic car groups. 

The three websites utilized by members of the Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club provide tremendous insight into woman’s relationship with the automobile as well as woman’s role in classic car culture. While the WWTC’s home site is not interactive, its structure and content strongly suggest that the primary function of the club is social. The website serves as a central information center for the listing of WWTC events. The newsletters attached to the site are filled with reports of such events accompanied by photographs of members enjoying automobile-related activities, as well as personal car stories from the readership. Offline observation of club gatherings confirmed the importance of friendship and community to WWTC members. Tbird owners participate in car shows and cruises and most often, they attend these events together. At car shows, there is often a group of Thunderbirds parked alongside one another with the owners seated behind them. In these settings, the club members often arrange themselves by gender rather than relationship. At cruises, members often tour together, and congregate at a specified location afterward. The club is composed of over 120 families, primarily husbands and wives whose social lives revolve around a shared interest in the classic Thunderbird. While a few of the female club members own and drive their own cars, the majority participate in cruises and tours as passengers. Women may appreciate the history and style of the classic automobile, but for the most part, they leave the driving and maintenance to their husbands.

During the post World War II era, women were relegated to the domestic sphere and dissuaded from driving. While arguments suggested women were too ‘fragile’ to take on mechanical matters, the most likely reason for such discouragement concerned issues of power and gender. As Berger reflects, ‘mastery of the automobile would mean that women’s dependence on men would be lessened’ (260). Jokes concerning the ‘woman driver’ became popular during this period as a way to denigrate women’s driving ability. While it is unlikely that male WWTC members feel their wives are incompetent drivers, their insistence on taking the wheel suggests that issues of power and gender remain. 

Women who grew up with an interest in cars are more likely to drive them and have an understanding and appreciation of the automobile that goes beyond the sheet metal. It could be assumed, therefore, that such female car enthusiasts would eagerly and easily utilize technical forums on websites such as the Vintage Thunderbird Club International. Participation on VTCI is predicated on automotive knowledge and technical experience. There is little patience for individuals who ask questions that do not display a basic level of understanding of Thunderbird maintenance and restoration. Women, in particular, must earn the respect of forum moderators and other contributors before they are taken seriously. However, once Thunderbird expertise is acknowledged, women post more regularly and authoritatively, not only asking questions, but answering those of others as well.

2004 ‘Retro’ Bird

While female contributors must display automotive knowledge before gaining acceptance on VTCI, many of them call upon gender displays in order to become accepted on the male dominated forums. Female VTCI contributors make liberal use of the emoticon, exclamation point, ‘xoxo,’ and offer repeated ‘thank yous’ when conversing with male posters. Such conversational and textual motifs not only convey gender, specifically femininity, but their use indicates deference and respect to the dominant male ‘expert’ presence. As Shayla Stern suggests in her discussion of instant messaging in Instant Identity, ‘despite its potential to empower girls and counteract dominant social forces that have been in place through history, IM communication does not take place within a cultural vacuum that disregards traditional gender roles and behaviors’ (113). Stern’s words are relevant not only to the IM communication of adolescent girls, but to all locations in which women must confront cultural prescriptions of masculinity and gender roles. Online car groups and forums certainly qualify as such spaces.

There are a number of women in the Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club with past experience in driving, repairing and restoring automobiles. However, those I interviewed with ‘classic’ Tbirds do not utilize websites such as VTCI as a source of technical information. Rather, these capable women have acquiesced the responsibility for restoration and repair to their husbands. As WWTC member Teri B. told me, ‘I thankfully do not need the internet for information. My husband is the mechanic.’ Terri M., the VTCI Publications Director, confirmed this observation. She asserts, ‘Most women do not restore or work on their Birds and most do not own classic/vintage by themselves but with a male partner that does all of the work!’

Thunderbird Cruise

While many of the female WWTC members hold positions of responsibility in the work place, when engaged in club activities, they often revert to the gendered roles of the 1950s and early 1960s, the era in which the ‘classic’ Thunderbirds were produced. During the ‘golden age’ of American car culture, women’s role, both in the car and in the home, was of a supportive passenger. Female WWTC members often take on this gendered, caretaker position. They prepare the food for the club picnic. They organize WWTC activities. They are very active in the club, but primarily in supporting roles. While Marie B. shares club membership responsibilities with her husband, as she told me, ‘[he] has lots of great ideas to increase membership, and I get to do the work.”’

My initial impression was that female WWTC members did not take advantage of Internet car forums because, as women in their 50s and 60s, they might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with computer technology. While this may certainly be a contributing factor, I discovered that many of the women with solid computer skills remained dependent on male club members rather than online experts to address classic car issues. It is also possible that many of them find the masculine online technical forum hostile, and therefore call upon individuals they know and trust for classic car information. However, women who participated in car culture during the 1950s and 60s as drivers and mechanics were in many ways exceptional, as they no doubt had to withstand a good deal of harassment and discrimination in order to become successful in what were considered masculine endeavors. It is surprising, therefore, that many now grant men the power to determine not only if they will be driving, but also, where they will be going.

This is not to say that classic Thunderbirds hold little meaning for the women who own and drive them. For many WWTC members, the Thunderbird is a container for memories of past experiences. Others view the Tbird as an important piece of Detroit automotive history. Some value the automobile as an icon of classic car design. As Marie B. exclaims, ‘classic cars are like works of art!’ Yet few see the automobile as a symbol of their own independence. Rather, for many WWTC women, the Thunderbird is the means to an expansive and crucial social life; it is an object that, literally and figuratively, holds marriages together. Ironically, I only encountered one instance of ‘driving as empowerment,’ expressed by Mary F., who has taken over the wheel of the Thunderbird after her husband’s death. As she told me, ‘I’m proud of my car and proud of me, a 68-year-old woman.’

Thunderbird History Display

While the women of WWTC who own ‘classic’ Tbirds refrain from logging on to the VTCI, retro bird drivers are active on the Thunderbird Nest. WWTC member Joanne C. logs on almost daily, and she is joined online by hundreds of other female retro bird owners. The majority of women who participate on the Nest do not work on their cars, but they are proactive in making sure the cars are running properly. The Nest serves as an important source of technical information for retro bird owners; it keeps them up to date on current problems and provides resources for repair and service. While the website serves as a technical resource, its primary function is social, indicated by the large number of non-automotive forums. The variety of topics and their usage suggests that in many ways, the Thunderbird Nest mimics the function of an offline club, as it provides technical help, announces events of interest to its members, and has an active and important social function. Like the WWTC, the Nest brings together those who share an interest in a particular model of car.

However, unlike the majority of women who belong to the WWTC, the women who participate on the Thunderbird Nest are in the driver’s seat. They take part in car culture through touring, cruising and showing. Many get online simply to share love of the car with fellow retro bird owners. I did not sense any elitism on the part of those with more technical and mechanical knowledge, nor were those whose questions revealed a relative lack of expertise made to feel embarrassed or naïve. Unlike the VTCI forum, there is little condensation to less experienced owners, and all participants are treated with respect. Those who do post acrimoniously are quickly admonished, albeit in a polite and humorous way. I also noticed that there are a few women on the Thunderbird Nest who have a great amount of Tbird knowledge and experience, and they are held in high esteem. And while there is good-natured joking between men and women, there is little evidence of overt sexism or unequal treatment in the forums.

In many respects, the Nest is representative of many online car groups in which women are active participants. The women who own retro birds are not unlike the chick car owners of my previous research. They participate online to gather automotive knowledge and technical information, to learn about regional and national retro bird clubs and events, and perhaps most important, to form and maintain friendships based on a shared interest and affection for a particular automobile. The Thunderbird Nest is not a hostile nor gendered space for female car enthusiasts. Rather, it empowers women to take control of the wheel, which suggests they have taken control of their own lives as well. As Gajjala tells us, ‘What cyberfeminists share is the belief that women should take control of and appropriate the use of Internet technologies in an attempt to empower themselves’ (81).

The remarkable difference in online participation between female classic Thunderbird owners and owners of retro birds cannot be explained by age or technological capability alone. My original expectation when embarking on this project was that women had reclaimed the classic Tbird, a symbol of 1950s and 60s masculinity, as their own. While many of the women now own the Thunderbird they longed for as teenagers, they are still unable or unwilling to drive it themselves. Rather, they succumb to the gendered expectations of an earlier era as a means to an active social life and stronger marriage, and hand over the wheel to their husbands. The results from this brief ethnographic study suggest that women’s participation in classic car culture is influenced not only by the car they own, but the era in which the car was produced as well. 

Women’s relationship with the automobile has not been a subject of significant feminist or historical research. Therefore, in order to construct or imagine women’s car culture role in previous eras, secondary sources such as advertisements, car manuals and personal narratives are of extreme importance. Classic car clubs provide an additional opportunity to investigate women’s participation during specific periods in US automotive history. Most classic car owners, male and female alike, were influenced by the automobile during childhood and adolescence. Thus, classic car events and online forums provide a unique yet temporal glance at car culture during a specific period in American cultural history, as they offer insight not only into car culture, but the gender roles and cultural prescriptions that accompanied it. 

Berger, Michael.  “Women Drivers! The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior” in Women’s Studies International Forum. 1986: 9(3), 257 – 263. 

Gajjala, Radhika. Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004.

Stern, Shayla Thiel. Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

Thunderbird Nest.

Vintage Thunderbird Club International

Water Wonderland Thunderbird Club.

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.

Women & Cars in a COVID Year

Over the past 10 years, beginning soon after I entered graduate school, I have spent most summers in the field talking to women about their cars. Whether it was classic Thunderbirds, sporty chick cars, rumbling muscle cars, or utilitarian pickup trucks, summer – with its preponderance of car shows and automotive events – provided a multitude of research opportunities. However, the COVID summer of 2020 put a sudden stop to such activities. And while car shows are slowly picking up in 2021, there are family issues which will cause me to stay close to home this summer. These turns of events will keep me from embarking on my anticipated project – women and Jeeps – for another year. 

The lack of ethnographic opportunities, however, led me to consider other types of women-and-car research projects. A few years ago I had presented a paper on women and cars in film at the Popular Culture Association [PCA] conference. As I had already conducted some of the initial research, the pandemic stay-at-home orders provided an open stretch of time for me to pursue the project. Prior to COVID, I had been asked to contribute a chapter on women and motorsports for an upcoming book. I had attended a Motorsports Conference in Watkins Glen in November 2019 and conducted a little research at the IMRRC [International Motor Racing Research Center] while there; this visit gave me both the material and the impetus to tackle the chapter. And after helping an individual with some advertising questions posted to the Society of Automotive Historians, I was approached by the Automotive History Review – the official journal of the SAH – to write an article about my experiences working at a Detroit automotive advertising agency during the 1980s. Suddenly, after wondering how I was going to spend months of lockdown, I had plenty of research projects to keep me motivated and busy. 

Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, and a classic 1955 Dodge Lancer in Grandma

In ‘What Would Miss Daisy Drive? The Road Trip Film, the Automobile, and the Woman Behind the Wheel’, I look at 10 post Thelma and Louise films to examine the relationship between a female protagonist and her automobile. As I noted in the PCA presentation: 

Since women first expressed interest in automobility, auto manufacturers and marketers have directed the female motorist toward the practical ‘family’ vehicle. While men are encouraged to purchase automobiles that reflect power, performance, and toughness, women are expected to drive a safe, reliable, and functional automobile that reinforces the gender appropriate role of wife and mother. Throughout the nearly 100 years since the first automobile rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, advertisers and automakers have consistently and determinedly placed the woman driver behind the wheel of a station wagon, minivan, small SUV, or crossover.

Although modern day advertising continues to reflect this longstanding trend, there is one location that occasionally disrupts this pervasive representation. In the female road trip film, the protagonist is likely to drive a vehicle rarely associated with the woman driver. While traditionally presented as a passenger, sidekick, or not at all in the classic male road narrative, when women take the wheel on the silver screen, the cars they drive take on important supporting roles. Whether a classic car, utilitarian vehicle, convertible, luxury sedan or clunker, these cinematic vehicles are significant not only for the meanings they convey, but also for their ability to challenge common woman driver stereotypes. 

The films selected were Grandma, Anywhere But Here, Tammy, Boys on the Side, Tumbleweeds, Cloudburst, Camilla, Bonneville, Manny and Lo, and Leaving Normal. In each of these motion pictures, the type of car – classic, luxury, convertible, utilitarian, clunker, and family – was not just a prop, but rather, was integral to the story and the woman who drove it. As I note in the abstract, “Focusing on the car rather than the journey, the paper reassesses the role and significance of the automobile in film; examines how the woman’s car in film has the ability to disrupt both the dominant road trip and cultural narratives; and broadens the notion of women’s car use to include considerations of identity, agency, reinvention, friendship, family, and empowerment.’ The paper was submitted, returned for revision and resubmission, and accepted for publication in The Journal of Popular Culture.

Powder Puff competitor Dorothy Cokely in #41

In ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: The Evolution of Women-Only Racing’ I embarked on new territory. The only guideline for this project was to write on the history and politics of women in motorsport, a rather broad topic. I chose to focus specifically on the history of women’s only racing in an attempt to address the long standing question of whether women are best served by separate or equal opportunities. When I started the project, I was not familiar with motorsports in general, and other than a few famous names – Janet Guthrie, Lyn St James, and Danica Patrick – had little knowledge of the women who participated in it. However, by the time I completed the project, I had a better understanding of the obstacles and challenges women experience when competing in an historically associated with masculinity and the male driver. As I write in the abstract:

Throughout its storied history, motorsports has been unwelcoming to women. Consequently, it has been necessary for female racers to develop unique strategies to enter what has long existed as an exclusive masculine enclave. While entry can be facilitated through a familial relationship with a male driver, women without such connections often get their start through participation in women-only racing events. Although these races – e.g. Powder Puff, Formula Woman, and W Series – have provided women with the opportunity to enter the track, they have not been without controversy. Detractors argue that women will not be considered legitimate racers unless they compete on the same track as men. Proponents view women-only racing not only as a way to attract more women into the sport, but also as an important source of skill development, support, and community building.

This paper investigates the evolution of women-only racing, from its early introduction as a media stunt, to its current incarnation as a proving ground for serious female open wheel racers. Informed by historical documents, news articles, and personal accounts, it considers how women-only racing complicates, facilitates, and liberates women’s entry, participation, and recognition in the masculine world of motorsports.

The completed chapter was submitted, returned for revisions, then sent off to the publisher. Lives in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing will be published in 2022.

The author [right] is pictured with her creative partner [center] and the actor [left]

The last project was perhaps the most fun, as everyone loves writing about themselves. ‘McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising’ is a recollection of the three years I spent working in the car advertising business 35 years ago. As I write in the introduction: 

Prior to my (very) late entry into academia, I spent nearly two decades in advertising, as an art director, copywriter, creative group supervisor, and eventually a Vice President. A few of those years were spent at McCann-Erickson, one of the many automotive agencies centered in metropolitan Detroit during this time. My career spanned the 1970s and 1980s, a very different era in the advertising world. It was the pre-digital age –  computers were not yet commonplace; the Internet was not yet public; photographers still used film; and MTV was in its infancy. This recollection should not be taken as representative of a universal experience; rather, it provides a glimpse into Detroit automotive agency culture during a particular moment in US automotive history.

The article was submitted, returned for revision, and accepted. It will be published in the upcoming issue of the Automotive History Review.

The COVID pandemic resulted in serious disruption in the way we all live. I was fortunate to have been able to put that time to productive use. To have three articles written, revised, and accepted for publication in one year is something of which I am very proud. As I enter my second COVID year, I have begun a new non-ethnographical and fun project. ‘Pink Power: The Barbie Car and Female Automobility’, will be presented at the June 2021 virtual PCA conference.

Name That Car

2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS 

In a recent Jalopnik article, auto writer Elizabeth Blackstock expresses frustration at her inability to determine the perfect name for her soon-to-be purchased car. She lists a number of possibilities, but ultimately finds them to be lacking in one way or another. Blackstock implores her readers to come to her aid not through suggestions for her own automobile, but to provide stories of how, why, and what their own cars were named as a means of inspiration. She received a great number of responses – funny, irreverent, and personal – which suggests that car naming is a popular activity among devoted car owners.

In my research focused on female muscle car ownership, I discovered that women often name cars as a way to claim ownership and display a personal identity. As Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car authors Marsh and Collett write, ‘naming is a particularly strong way in which to announce our attachment to something which is much more than just an object’ (13). Because the muscle car has a longstanding and engrained association with masculinity and the male driver, car naming becomes an important way for the female motorist to proclaim ‘this car is mine.’ In order to assure that ownership of a 1965 red Mustang convertible was attributed to her rather than her husband, a 47-year-old analyst attached a personalized license plate inscribed with a girly moniker on the back bumper. Car naming also allows women to call upon shared automotive qualities to project identities. A 47-year-old teacher had ‘She Devil’ air brushed prominently on both her 1989 RS and 2001 Berger SS Camaros. As she noted, ‘I get the funniest comments about that. “So is that the car or the woman?”‘ A 29-year-old New Zealand native, whose 2010 Camaro SS RS is adorned with bumble bee imagery and carries the license plate ‘Kiwi Bee,’ has taken identification with the car to a whole new level. As the automotive product manager explained, ‘I’m constantly accessorizing myself to match the car. My computer laptop bag is yellow; I have a yellow purse; my fingernails I paint yellow and put black bowties on them.’ [1]While the owner is proud to own an iconic symbol of American muscle, the name on the license plate assures that others know who she is and where she came from. 

1965 Ford Mustang

Women often name cars as a way to connect to an individual from the past, or to establish themselves firmly in the present. A classic Mustang owner often accompanied her father to his job as a mechanic when she was a girl. As she remarked, ‘I remember going into the garage where he worked, and I just loved the smell.’ After his passing, she decided to honor him and his love for cars by using his childhood nickname for her on the automobile’s personalized license plate. The 51-year-old executive director of a non-profit likes to think of herself as a ‘badass’ when behind the wheel of her 1966 Chevrolet Impala. As she exclaimed, ‘I identify my car as female; she has a name and she is a badass, too.’ Marsh and Collett claim that American drivers often use specialized license plates to draw attention to themselves. As they assert, for some drivers the vanity plate ‘serves the role of a personal testimonial, displaying the owner’s sense of humor or his ability to challenge the wits of other drivers’ (75). A 54-year-old 2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS owner calls upon a vanity plate to express the identity she claims  – BANSSHE – when behind the wheel. When a 50-year-old school bus driver pulls into a car show in her Frost Blue 1968 Plymouth Barracuda with a personalized ‘princess’ vanity plate on the front, attired in an ensemble color coordinated with her car, she is not only announcing herself as the owner of the vehicle, but is suggesting she is as ‘flashy and out there’ as the car she drives.

Marsh and Collett argue that the original muscle car served as a ‘standard form of uniform’ for young men; embellishment provided the opportunity to ‘transform the vehicle into social statement”’ (93). The women in this project call upon naming and marking to identify with a category of automobile historically associated with the man behind the wheel. In doing so they make the car their own, and project a revised and reimagined image of the woman driver.

[1] ‘Bowtie’ is the common term used to refer to the Chevrolet logo.

Blackstock, Elizabeth. ‘What Did You Name Your Car?’ Jalopnik.com 3 April, 2021.

Marsh, Peter and Peter Collett. Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. 2nd ed. Winchester MA: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1989.

A Short History of Powder Puff

I was recently asked to submit a chapter on women and motorsports to include in an upcoming collection of essays on motorsports history. As the subject is quite broad, I chose to focus on women-only racing. What follows is an excerpt from ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: the Evolution of Women’s Only Racing’ from Life in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing [manuscript in press].

Powder Puff competitor

Over the past 70 years, ‘powder puff’ has served as an umbrella term to describe women-only competitions in sports – football the most notable example – traditionally associated with male athletes. In motorsports, the phrase most often refers to contests performed in a variety of venues and vehicles in which women compete separately from men. The use of powder puff to describe ladies-only auto races appears to have its origins in the late 1940s and early 1950s.[1]  Small town newspapers, reporting results from the local racetrack, would call upon the term to qualify and single out women’s participation.[2] The special ladies races were created to address a number of concerns. Women who accompanied boyfriends or husbands to the track often had little to do once arriving but watch and wait. In the masculine world of motorsports, women served primarily as uniform washers, picnic lunch makers, and cheerleaders to their male companions. Or they might be assigned to [unpaid] duties as ticket takers, award presenters, or disc jockeys who changed music between races. Given that race officials often treated women as ‘less important than the cars in attendance,’ it is not surprising that female interest in the race experience soon began to wane (Cabatingan, 2013). 

Race promotors – fearful women’s lack of enthusiasm would keep boyfriends and husbands from bringing cars to the track – saw an opportunity to keep the women occupied and in the process, increase the gate. Girlfriends and wives were encouraged to ‘borrow’ cars from male companions and race against each other as a special attraction.[3] On most tracks, the races were often more spectacle than serious competition. Auto writer Standbridge (1988, p. 77) recalls, ‘the women also had to participate in a “Gong Show” type agenda. […] they might have to run so many laps, stop to eat a piece of watermelon, run up into the stands and kiss the man of their choice, then resume the race. Or stop after so many laps to wrestle with a greased pig.’ [4] Powder Puff, notes Cabatingan (2013), ‘were the type of events in which women were treated as less significant and where the men would kindly lend their race cars to women for just a few laps around the track. Clearly, women competitors were not taken very seriously.’ 

Powder Puff events also served to appease male egos under a pretense of gender equality. While many women desired to test their skills by competing against male drivers, procedures in place often made it impossible to do so. Of women’s SCCA races, contest board representative Ignazio Lozana Jr (qtd in Hull, 1958, p. 104) explained, ‘very few of our women drivers have a car to drive during the men’s races, since they are usually being driven by a man in those events. Should we discontinue the ladies’ races, it would mean we would have at the most two or three women drivers in our program, whereas in the ladies’ races we have had as many as 25 starters.’ While the explanation suggests ladies races were implemented to increase female participation, retaining men’s interest and involvement in racing was no doubt a greater concern. 

Powder Puff participants often had very little driving experience, but were encouraged to get behind the wheel to show support for a male companion’s motorsports hobby. [5] While some men were reluctant to hand over the keys to unschooled wives or girlfriends, most viewed women’s participation as a way to gain approval – if not rationalization – for their own racing addiction. To the majority of 1950s women, taking part in a racing event was a somewhat intimidating prospect. Thus some participated hesitantly, more interested in displaying support than winning trophies. At the Reading Fairgrounds, driver Nancy Delp was loaned a car from a male participant for the Powder Puff competition. As she reminisced, ‘I had to use a sofa cushion so I could see out the window and once the race began, it was easy to realize that racing looks easier from the grandstand. It was fun, but once and done’ (qtd. in Kline, n.d.).

While the majority of Powder Puff competitors were introduced to racing by husbands and boyfriends, a few came to the track with a fervent desire to become competitive and legitimate race drivers. Notes stock car aficionado Ladabouche (n.d.), ‘I can clearly recall the intense interest and pride with which the Catamount Stadium powder puff competitors armed themselves when they would enter one of that track’s somewhat regular female races.’ However, because most tracks prohibited women from racing against men, Powder Puff competitions became the primary way to develop confidence behind the wheel, gain track experience, hone racing skills and strategies, and ‘show the guys that they could do it, too’ (McCarthy, 2007, p. 210). 

Ileen Goodman – first female racing driver to be sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
Lawrence photo

Women’s passion for racing came from a variety of sources. Some were exposed to cars through male family members.[6] Women connected to men in the sport had a distinct advantage over those who did not, particularly when it came to acceptance within the motorsports community. Explains Kreitzer (2017, p. 210), ‘female racers relied heavily on male relatives who were already accepted as racing insiders to help jump start their racing careers.’ Others, while growing up with a love of cars, did not consider racing until the opportunity presented itself. Vicki Wood – after watching an all-woman’s race at the Motor City Speedway – was convinced she could drive better; she subsequently entered a race on her husband’s dare. Auto journalist Denise McCluggage, writes Roberts (2015), ‘persuaded her editors that she could better report on auto racing from behind the wheel than in the press box.’ Yet due to track restrictions, McCluggage began her racing career in Powder Puff derbies, which, as she remarked, ‘seemed to me rather like mud wrestling, staged as a spectacle for men to chuckle over rather than serious competition. But it was a chance to drive, so I put up with the hair-pull aspects’ (qtd in McCarthy, 2007, p. 147). In the minds of many female racers, ladies races provided the opportunity to ‘earn the respect of the men so they could eventually drive in any race’ (McCarthy, 2007, p. 210). 

Powder Puff women had to navigate significant obstacles. Although racing during this period was an amateur sport, it could be expensive. The price of entry fees, sponsorships, equipment, maintenance, and upkeep could add up quickly. Women rarely had cars or equipment of their own, so had to beg or borrow cars, helmets, and any necessary racing gear from husbands, brothers, or complete strangers. Auto maintenance was an issue, as husbands or significant others wouldn’t always be available or willing to help with car repairs or upkeep. Although Powder Puff events varied from state to state, and track to track, they were all regulated by men, who, as Forsyth (2016, p. 174) asserts, kept a tight hold on races and ‘steadfastly refused to let the women have more time or more races.’

Vicki Wood – who went on to set a woman’s record for fastest lap as the first women to drive at race speed at Daytona International Speedway – got her start in Powder Puff.
New York Times photo

Yet despite the barriers women encountered, racing often had a positive and powerful effect on their lives. Interviews conducted by Hull (1958) with fellow SCCA members suggest that women raced not only to support male companions, but also to expand social networks, gain confidence, and escape from everyday lives. Powder Puff provided women with the opportunity to develop advanced driving skills, make important contacts, gain a little notoriety, and prove themselves as serious racers. Many female racers of this era who went on to achieve a number of ‘firsts’ in women’s motorsports – Louise Smith, Vicki Wood, Denise McCluggage, Josie von Newmann, and Sara Christian – began racing careers in Powder Puff. 

Other than premier events such as the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR championship, American postwar racing was primarily an amateur pastime. Races were run for trophies; cash prizes were banned, as were donations from sponsors, car makers, owners, or local businesses. It was up to each driver to finance his or her racing habit. While the conditions under which men and women raced were not the same – women received less track time and had fewer and shorter races than male counterparts – all racers were held to the same restrictions in terms of sponsorships and financial remuneration. 

As the decade concluded, top drivers from the sports car circuit were being lured by the considerable cash prizes of Formula 1 and international competition. US racing organizations fought back by creating racing events with comparable financial awards. Smaller venues – losing top drivers and paying crowds – sought sponsors in order to stay in business. While the move toward the commercialization of motorsports affected all amateur racers regardless of gender, it was ultimately responsible for the decline of all-female racing. Powder Puff events – and the women who participated in them – were not regarded as legitimate and as such, were unable to attract commercial support. Without amateur ladies races, women lost an important platform from which to gain experience and exposure.[7]

[1] In 1882, Ellene Alice Bailey was granted a patent for the powder puff, a soft, cosmetic pad used to apply powder to the skin from which the women’s race drew its name.

[2] In his collection of stock racing memorabilia from the 1950s, Easton (2014, p. 27) includes a ticket admission stub from the Big Flats Airport Speedway in which ‘Ladies Powder-Puff Race’ is listed as a special event alongside the ‘rollover of a stock automobile off a ramp!’

[3] Women’s race result documents from pre-1960 auto racing in Kansas from collector Bob Lawrence (n.d.) make note of vehicles shared by husbands and wives. As an example, ‘Harriett M. (Knauf) Lewis of Dighton, Kansas placed in fifth place in a Powder Puff Derby at McCarty Speedway in Dodge City on June 2, 1956 driving car #97 normally driven by her husband, Lyle E. Lewis.’ Powder Puff racing could also lead to romance, as indicated in this notice: ‘Betty Ann (Gibson) Trahern of Sublette, Kansas drove in a Powder Puff Derby run at McCarty Speedway in Dodge City, Kansas on June 2, 1956. She also finished fourth of eight cars that competed in a 10-lap Powder Puff Derby at the Grant County Fairgrounds at Ulysses, Kansas on August 8, 1958. In both of these races, she was driving a #80 jalopy normally driven Stanley Trahern whom she married between those two race dates.’

[4] The Gong Show was an amateur talent contest which aired for 13 years on American television. Three celebrities auditioned a series of acts – many of them outrageous – and unceremoniously dismissed the ‘losers’ by striking a large gong.

[5] SCCA racer Mull (1958, p. 11) writes, ‘there is no use denying the fact that most women who go in for racing do so because their husbands or someone they are fond of is interested in the sport and, rather than have another woman snap up their men or be a sports-car widow, they go along.’ 

[6] As an example, Ileen Merle Dessie (Forrest) Goodman, grew up in a family – 3 brothers and an uncle – of prominent auto racers. She started competing in Powder Puff races in 1949 at Cejay Stadium in Wichita, Kansas, becoming the woman’s champion that year. (Lawrence, n.d.).

[7] While Powder Puff events are still held today, the majority are fundraisers for charities such as Races Toward a Cure [breast cancer] and the American Cancer Society.


Cabatingan, M. (2013, April 23). Race to equality: history of women in racing. Sports Car Digest. Accessed September 9, 2020 .

Easton, F. (2014) Stock car racing in the ‘50s: pictures and memories from Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania. Kiernen, J. (ed.) Ford Easton.

Forsyth, D. (2016) Denver’s Lakeside Amusement Park: from the white city beautiful to a century of fun. Boulder: University Press of Chicago.

Hull, E. (1958) Women in Sports Car Competition. New York: Sports Car Press.

Kline, B. (n.d.) Mountain folklore: Remembering the Powder Puff races at Reading Fairgrounds. Reading Eagle Accessed June 4, 2020.

Kreitzer, A. (2017) Masculinity, whiteness, and technological play in dirt track automobile racing, 1924-1960, Dissertation, University of Delaware. 

Ladabouche, B. (n.d.) Powder Puff races were a sign of past times in local car racing. Bill’s Back in Time. Accessed June 4, 2020.

Lawrence, B. (n.d.) Women drivers in Kansas auto racing prior to 1960. Bob Lawrence’s Vintage Auto Racing Web RingAccessed July 5, 2020.

McCarthy, T. (2007) Fast women: the legendary ladies of racing. New York: Hyperion.

Standridge, J. (1988) ‘Childbirth is easier than losing a ride’, Open Wheel, 8(10), p. 77.

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.

Learning to Drive

1960 Corvair, parked in front of my Detroit house.

A recent article in Jalopnik reflected on an embarrassing moment experienced by the author while taking her driver’s test. Her reflection inspired a deluge of equally entertaining ‘learning to drive’ stories in the comment section. Like many who read the article, I took a moment to reflect upon my driver education experiences. Unlike the majority of my peers, I was not eager to get a driver’s license. Because my mother was a widow who never learned to drive, I was allowed to get a driver’s permit at 15 so that I could transport her to shopping, church, and anywhere she needed to go. The stipulation was that I could only drive if an adult was in the car with me. It was a strange condition considering that the adult – my mother – was an individual who had no idea how to start a car, let alone drive it. But those were the rules. And if I wanted to go anywhere, I had to take my non-driving mother along with me. So suffice it to say that my first year of driving was not a pleasurable one. 

During the 1960s, driver’s ed was a course offered at many high schools. Since the high school I attended – located in downtown Detroit – did not have a driver’s ed program, I took the course the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at the local high school. I don’t remember much about it except that we drove Falcons with automatic transmissions. At the time, the ‘family’ car my brother drove – and I was to share – was a 1960 Corvair with a 3-on-the-floor manual transmission. If I wanted to drive it, I had to learn how to drive a stick shift. My very patient married brother –  a Detroit police officer – volunteered to teach me. We spent many evenings after school at the Lutheran High West parking lot in my neighborhood going round and around as I ground the gears figuring out how to engage the clutch. A few school mates happened to see [or should I say hear] me there, and would make grinding sounds whenever they saw me walking down the halls. My married sister had a stick-shift station wagon, and when I went there to babysit, my brother-in-law provided driving lessons in exchange for taking care of the kids. By the time I took my driver’s test, I was pretty adept at shifting gears. Our next car was a 1964, three-on-the-tree Pontiac Tempest, which I adapted to pretty easily. As I grew older, I appreciated that I could drive a stick; it helped me focus on my driving, and it made getting behind the wheel more fun. It has also served as a source of surprise; even or perhaps especially today, few expect a woman to be able to drive a stick. But I enjoyed having a skill most others did not. So much so that nearly all of the cars I have owned in my 55 years of driving have had manual transmissions, including my two classic cars – a ‘49 Ford and 1967 Shelby Mustang.

When I turned 16, the adult-in-the-car restrictions were lifted, and I no longer had to take my mom with me whenever I wanted to go for a ride. It was my first taste of freedom, and the beginning of my understanding of what automobility makes possible. As a woman who came of age in the 1960s, that was no small thing. And it was this ‘driver’s education’, as well as many experiences that followed, that led me to focus my research on women and cars.