In the early auto age, road trip vacations were primarily the privilege of the rich. However, with the advent of the Model T and improved roads, writes historian James Flink, “the automobile outing and the automobile vacation became middle-class American institutions” (167). By mid-century, as cars became more affordable and roads more drivable, the road trip evolved into an experience unto itself. Families packed up station wagons with kids and cargo and headed out to summer cottages and camping sites. While twenty-first century vacationers are often in a hurry to get to a destination, traveling by the quickest means possible in order to be stationary, there remains a romanticism to spending the majority of a vacation on the road. An abundance of frequent flyer miles has made it easy for my husband and I to travel by plane to our vacation destination. But a few years ago, we decided to take an old fashioned road trip to experience an all American pastime. As we had nearly completed our bucket list of visiting all major league baseball parks, we began our journey into the world of minor league baseball, on a vacation we will forever refer to as our “Field of Dreams” tour.
The trip started out at a major league game in Chicago between the Tigers and White Sox. But the next morning we entered Iowa, traveling on back roads through corn and soybean fields from one small town to another. Minor league baseball is unlike its big league brother – the uniforms are torn, the entertainment corny, the people friendly, and the players so very, very young. Often the parks are the major gathering place of the community, with many families and groups of friends or coworkers in attendance. We scheduled our trip to visit home games in as many parks as possible, and managed to visit stadiums in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, and Clinton. The names of the teams are often as interesting as the parks themselves – you have to root for squads known as the Quad City River Bandits, Cedar Rapids Kernels, Burlington Bees, or Clinton Lumber Kings. The main destination of the road trip was the Field of Dreams movie set, the ultimate baseball flick. It is a movie I never tire off, particularly during the off season when I am counting the hours until Opening Day. Driving from one park to another we visited a few quirky places – the National Farm Toy Museum, the University of Iowa campus, and the best ice cream joint in the state of Iowa were a few of the more memorable stops. We were blessed with good weather and an absence of car issues; I will always remember the Field of Dreams tour as one of the best vacations of my life.
As COVID has put a damper on long distance traveling, I look forward to the day when we can get back on the road. While big city and warm weather destinations are certainly great experiences, nothing beats an old fashioned road trip.
Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1990.
One of the activities that has been put on hold during the COVID pandemic is the road trip. While there are plenty of articles that offer advice on how to manage a safe road vacation, many folks – myself included – have opted to keep our cars mostly parked until driving long distances is considered safe. However, that doesn’t keep travel hungry road-trippers from reminiscing about past moving vacations or planning new adventures when restrictions are lifted. A fellow SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] member recently posted a charming recounting of a road trip taken when he was just a toddler. It got me to thinking about my own past road adventures, of which there have been very few. The death of my father while I was a child – and my mother’s lack of a driver’s license – put family vacations on hold for a number of years. However, the trip we took during the summer before my father’s death – in August 1958 – is still very fresh in my mind.
Although our summer vacations had previously consisted of two weeks at a rented cottage in northern Michigan, the decision was made in the summer of 1958 to visit my mother’s brother in Dallas, Texas. As there was a reasonable fear that the aging family vehicle was not reliable enough for such a journey, my older, recently married brother offered us his bright red inside-and-out 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 for the trip. Cars of that era were quite roomy, and the Olds held six of us – 3 adults and 3 children – fairly comfortably. Making the trip were my parents, my mother’s father, my 12-year-old brother, my 8-year-old sister, and 9-year old me. My mother and sister spent the entire trip in the back seat; my brother and I took turns sitting between my Camel-smoking father and cigar-smoking grandfather in front. Since these were the days before air conditioning was standard, the open windows provided some relief from the smoky [and hot] interior. But we were kids, and the conditions didn’t bother us in the least. I was settled in with a stack of library books [which I read on the way down, and reread on the way back] which kept my mind off any discomfort I might have felt driving down south without air in the month of August.
The construction of the Interstate Highway System – approved in 1956 – was just underway; thus our trip to Texas mostly took us on two lane highways and country roads. My father was not one to drive to exhaustion, and since young kids get restless easily, we made stops at various tourist attractions along the way and were at our hotel stop each afternoon by 4PM. As a working-class kid living Detroit, everything on the trip was new to me. I had never eaten in a restaurant [my brother ordered a hamburger at every meal] nor had I ever stayed in a motel. As we travelled further south, the hotels had swimming pools, which, for us city kids, was perhaps the biggest treat of all. We visited Meramec Caverns, a buffalo ranch, and were treated to an Old West rodeo show. My mother collected plates from each rest stop. I tasted my first Dr. Pepper – the unofficial soft drink of the south – and on my uncle’s prompting, exclaimed, “frosty, man, frosty!” after taking a sip. The visit with my uncle and his family was pleasant, but it was the trip itself which is ingrained in my memory.
Unfortunately, that was the last road trip we took as a family as my father passed away the following January. Many decades passed before I was to take another vacation by automobile. But I will always remember my brother’s shiny red car, the new, strange, and exciting views out the window that car made possible, and my father’s sunburned arm, perched on the window’s ledge, adeptly holding a cigarette between his browned and sturdy fingers.
When muscle cars congregate at classic car shows across southeastern Michigan, there are always a large number of Ford Mustangs in attendance. One of the most successful vehicles to ever drive off Ford’s assembly line, the Mustang remains popular after over 50 years. With the introduction of the Mustang in 1964, Ford created what would evolve into a new class of muscle car – the pony car – the only muscle car class that still exists today. However, the Mustang was not originally conceived to fulfill demand for a high performance vehicle. Rather, as a quick, sporty, and fun-to-drive automobile with an affordable price tag, the Mustang was designed to appeal to both the young and young-at-heart. The wide selection of options available provided consumers with the opportunity to create a Mustang to meet automotive needs and personal desires. Lee Iacocca, who spearheaded the development of the Mustang, recognized the potential of the massive college educated baby boomer market. With the introduction of the Mustang, Iacocca sought to change Ford’s “stogy” image among boomers entering the workforce (Clor 10). Unlike the development of the Pontiac GTO, which was geared specifically to young men with a need for speed, the Mustang attempted to reach a much more diverse audience.
However, the Ford Mustang’s lack of power, especially in those production models with smaller V-6 engines, contributed to its growing reputation as the “secretary’s car.” Writes Clor, “the hard core muscle-car performance crowd wasn’t embracing the Mustang as a true muscle car in the same way they recognized the GTOs, the big block Galaxies, Impalas, and a handful of torque-laden Mopars” (30). While he recognized the demand for a more powerful Mustang, Iacocca could only do so much with the existing powertrain. Therefore, he relied on a partnership with Carroll Shelby to create a high-end, low volume “halo” performance car that would not only create “buzz” and give a boost to the Mustang’s street cred, but would also drive sales of the “more practical, affordable, and plentiful regular Mustangs” (Clor 30). It wasn’t until 1967 – inspired by the introduction of pony car competitors such as the Chevy Camaro, Plymouth Barracuda, and Pontiac Firebird – that Ford designers and engineers “went back to the drawing board to give ‘America’s Favorite Fun Car’ more style and power” (Clor 37).
While the original Mustang was available with either a V-6 or V-8, the demand for the more powerful (relatively speaking) V-8 was high, no doubt inspired by the introduction of the GTO and other intermediate sized high performance muscle cars the same year. In the first year of the Mustang’s production, nearly three quarters of buyers demanded the V-8, which led to a surplus of the pedestrian six-cylinder model. Young women were targeted as buyers for the less powerful car; Ford cited the superior fuel economy of the smaller engine to entice the female buyer. An ad with the headline “Six and the Single Girl,” which played off the title of Helen Gurley Brown’s best seller, promoted the “practicality and sporty style of the six-cylinder Mustang” (Clor 22). Other advertisements in a similar vein soon followed. Through the application of gender to engine size, Ford was able to successfully define and market two different cars under one brand. While young women were encouraged to embrace the “secretary’s car,” the GT version, boasting 271 horsepower, became the popular choice of young male performance enthusiasts.
The Mustang was not conceived as a muscle car, but evolved into one as a response to the growing young male market hooked on power and performance. While the majority of classic Mustang owners today are male, the appeal of the Mustang to female drivers remains strong. The classic car hobby is built on nostalgia; those who participate in it often do so as a way to connect to a younger self. As the owner of a 1965 Mustang convertible told me, “this car lets me return to being a teen and crazy and I can relive all those things in my mind while I drive” (Interview). Unlike its automotive predecessors, the Mustang was designed to embody youth and freedom rather than functionality and practicality. Its buyers were attracted to its clean design, sportiness, affordability, and its promise as “fun-to-drive.” And unlike the GTO, Dodge Charger, and other “true” muscle cars, the Mustang – albeit the less powerful “secretary model” – was advertised to women. Thus many classic Mustang owners today remember the original not only in the context of muscle cars, but as an automobile driven and admired by women.
Classic Mustang owners often recall how female friends and family members reacted to the car’s introduction. “The year the Mustang was born,” writes the owner of a ‘65, “a good female friend of the family would point them out and say that is a classy car!” (Interview). Women also remember Mustangs owned by mothers and big sisters. “When I was 13,” exclaims a classic Mustang owner, “my girlfriend’s mom owned a hard top automatic Mustang. I could not reach the pedals because my legs were too short so my girlfriend used her legs and I steered the car.” (Interview). Today’s classic Mustang owners often had teenage boyfriends with the more powerful models. Some had the opportunity to drive them, while others simply longed for one of their own. As one woman remarked about her recent purchase of a classic ‘65, “I wanted something that kind of brought back memories to me about that Mustang back in my younger days” (Interview). Perhaps because driving a Mustang – rather than a GTO or ‘Cuda – was in the realm of possibility to those young women coming of age during the 1960s, purchasing the car 50 years later provides an opportunity for a once young woman’s dreams to come true. Driving her classic 1965 Mustang today, a graying 59-year-old woman remarked, “if we didn’t have to look in the mirror, inside the body feels [like] that young person again” (Interview).
The Mustang is the only pony car with uninterrupted production. After the 1973 oil embargo brought the muscle car era to a close, the pony car returned to its original origins as a fun, stylish, and sporty car with more style than power. During the 1990s, the introduction of electronic fuel injection, turbochargers, and overdrive transmission resulted in more powerful ponies. However, the pony car didn’t return to its former incarnation as a powerful muscle machine until 2005, when Ford introduced a redesigned “retrofuturistic” Mustang on the SN-95 platform that married the iconic style elements of the late 1960s fastback models with modern automotive technology. As the first of what would become a growing stable of “retro” pony cars, the Mustang was resounding success. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the woman driver. While classic Mustangs are owned primarily by women of the boomer generation, the “retro” Mustang has been embraced by new generations of female car enthusiasts. In fact, the Mustang is not only the most popular retro muscle car among female buyers, but nearly a third of new Mustang owners are women (hedgescompany.com). Whether single and seeking a bit of automotive independence, or as married empty nesters looking for a new lease on life, many women have found that getting behind the wheel of a modern day Mustang has the ability to change the way they view themselves and the world around them.
Throughout multiple generations, the Mustang has been a popular choice for the woman driver. As noted by auto site thenewswheel.com, “There’s an old stigma that muscle cars and performance vehicles are basically the automotive equivalent of G.I. Joes—i.e. toys made pretty much exclusively for boys [… ] Fifty years of women owning Mustangs makes this demonstrably untrue (particularly when one considers that the first person to buy a Mustang was a woman), and the fact that women are buying a ton of Mustangs certainly helps dispel that silly misconception.”
Clor, J. (2007). The Mustang dynasty. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC.
One of my current research projects came to me as a request to examine the history and politics of women in motorsports. Because this is a rather broad and unwieldy topic, I decided to focus specifically on women-only racing, from its early introduction as a media stunt to its current incarnation as a proving ground for serious female open wheel racers. I am looking at how and why these women-only events and/or ladies categories were formed; who participates in these activities; what kind of competitions does the women-only category encompass; as well as the reception such races have received from drivers and the racing community. As I knew very little about motorsports in general and women-only racing in particular when embarking on this project, it has been interesting to learn about the various events and how they have attracted a female following.
One of the annual all-female events that came to my attention is the Rebelle Rally, now in its fifth year. It is the longest competitive off-road rally in the United States, and entries are limited to women. Rather than a race for speed, Rebelle Rally is a test of driving precision and navigation skills, “a unique and demanding precision event based the elements of time, distance, headings, and hidden checkpoints using maps, compass, and roadbook” (Segura). It is a combination of geocaching and off-roading that covers more than 1200 miles in the California and Nevada deserts over eight days; cell phones, GPS tracking devices, and outside assistance are prohibited. The goal is to complete the rally with the most points; checkpoints range in difficulty based on location, how large the geofenced area is, and how difficult it is to get close to it (Bassett). The rally has grown each year with many repeat competitors; the 2020 Rebelle Rally included 36 two-women driver-navigator teams as well as a large support staff.
What I found most interesting about the Rebelle Rally is the way in which it is unabashedly women centered. In an interview for Automobile, founder Emily Miller frames the rally as an empowering event for women. As she explains, “Rebelle Rally is important because it gives women a platform to showcase their driving skills. [My hope is that] through doing the Rebelle, women will become more competent, skilled, and have the confidence to use their voice” (Segura). While certainly the objective of any competition is to win, the Rebelle Rally offers more to its female competitors. The event’s Facebook page promotes it as a source of female competence, confidence, and community. Rebelle Rally is extremely challenging; as such, notes the founder, it provides the means for women to acquire a belief in themselves. While all racing events have the potential to hone and develop driving skills and build confidence behind the wheel, there is something about all-female events such as Rebelle Rally especially beneficial to women.
Motorsports is one of the few competitive venues in which men and women are allowed to compete on a level playing field. Yet the participation of women in mixed-racing events remains remarkably low. Certainly the costs and lack of sponsorship deters women from racing at a high level. And although detractors label women-only racing as demeaning, patronizing, and unnecessary, there are qualities that appeal to a large number of female auto enthusiasts. Perhaps it is because of the camaraderie and community that forms when women tackle a challenge together. Perhaps it is because all-female events allow women to develop skills, knowledge, and confidence without the criticism, intimidation, and yes, sexism, of male competitors. Rebelle Rally provides a way for women to succeed – not only on the road, the course, and on the track – but also in many other aspects of their lives. As founder Miller exclaims, “When these women finish this rally they’ll walk away knowing they can go anywhere” (Bassett).
This blog entry was originally written as part of a graduate class assignment, and was incorporated into my book Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars.
Women’s participation in muscle car culture from 1964 to 1973 is, for the most part, undocumented in scholarship as well as popular culture. Scholars such as Margaret Walsh (2006) suggest that young women took part in cruising culture as observers or passengers. Their main objective, Walsh contends, was to be seen, “thereby enhancing their status with their female peers” (p. 9). Author Robert Genat (2009) asserts the average young woman had very little interest in muscle cars; rather, “they just wanted to be there” (p. 44). As Genat writes, “in that era only a few women owned cars and the cars they owned would be considered sporty – such as a LeMans hardtop, Mustang, or Camaro – with convertibles high on the list” (p. 44). Other accounts of the muscle car era rarely mention young women at all.
The absence of narratives from female participants in muscle car culture means that other sources must be relied upon for information. One of the more accessible resources is advertising. As Deborah Clarke (2007) writes, “Given the extent to which ads become engrained in our heads, they seem to have the widest and strongest impact in shaping our awareness of cars and car culture” (p. 7). However, rather than indicate how young women participated in muscle car culture, advertisements are more indicative of what the auto industry, and American culture at large, thought women’s role in muscle car culture should be. As Jennifer Wicke, author of Advertising Fictions, observed, “Advertisements are cultural messages in a bottle” (quoted by Clarke, 2007, p. 8).
In muscle car print ads produced from 1964 to 1973, young women are presented in one of four roles. The most common is that of “prop.” Young women called upon to fulfill this role are often positioned strategically to attract the male buyer as well as to associate the automobile with sex. While automobiles from the 1950s were often considered feminine in form, their curves reminiscent of the female body, the muscle car, as long, lean, powerful, and fast, suggested another form of sexual conquest. Stephen Bayley (1986), in Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, argues that in the mind of the male driver, a fast car demonstrates sexual prowess. As Bayley contends, “Driving cars fast is an act of recklessness which […] recaptures some elements of the thrill of adolescent sex” (p. 32). The young woman in the 1969 Chevy Camaro print ad is perched on the passenger side of the vehicle so as not to be confused with the driver. The ad copy does not refer to her in any way; her presence is merely decorative.
While the possibility of sexual conquest is alluded to when women appear as props, the role of the young woman as “prize”, demonstrated in an ad for the 1969 Dodge Charger, removes any doubt. The attractive blond, placed in front of the automobile, lifts her skirt as both an invitation and a promise. The copy reads, “Do you really think you can get to me with that long, low, tough machine you just rolled up in? “ The answer, of course, is “yes.” Witzel and Bash (1997), students of the California cruising scene, assert that the young men who participated in muscle car culture understood that driving a fast and racy car was the most effective way to attract young women. “Without a doubt,” write Witzel and Bash, “a cool car was a prerequisite to get girls and get laid” (p. 23).
Automotive scholars, such as historian Margaret Walsh (1986), suggest that the most common and preferred role of the young woman in muscle car culture was that of passenger. Understanding that only boys could raise a girl’s status among teenage peers, young women sought out young men in cool cars as a means to do so. Muscle car advertisements, such as that promoting the red Mustang convertible, often show attractive young women in the passenger seat. However, while the woman looks back to make sure she has been “seen,” the intent of such advertising is not to raise the status of the woman, but rather, that of the young man behind the wheel.
In advertising from the muscle car era, women are rarely presented as drivers. While Mustang occasionally featured women in the driver’s seat, it was to promote the non-muscle, non-performance, small V-6 engine models. In period ads for the Dodge Challenger – Chrysler’s entry into the “pony car” market – as well as the Dodge Charger, the position of the young woman on the driver’s side alludes to, but does not confirm, that the vehicle might be attractive to the female driver. The availability of the Dodge muscle car in “high impact” colors – such as Plum Crazy and Panther Pink pictured here – has made Dodge vehicles a very popular choice among today’s female classic muscle car owners. The owner of a classic Panther Pink 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible revealed that when growing up, she had coveted the Challenger owned by her boyfriend’s older sister. Her comments suggest that while young men may have perceived the attractive woman in either the Charger and Challenger ad as one of the spoils of owning such a vehicle, young women, in fact, may have seen in her the possibility of themselves as competent and capable muscle car drivers.
As Deborah Clarke (2007) suggests, advertising has had a significant impact in shaping our perceptions of women’s place in muscle car culture. However, while images of young women as props, prizes, and passengers assume women occupied peripheral roles, the Dodge Charger and Challenger ads suggest that women may have also been considered potential customers, i.e. “prospects.” If, as Clarke contends, advertising has considerable impact in shaping our awareness of cars and culture, then young women of the muscle car era could have very well imagined themselves as owners of Panther Pink or Passion Purple muscle cars. While most women lacked the financial means to purchase such vehicles in their youth, many, as aging baby boomers, have now acquired the means to own and drive the car they desired over 40 years ago.
Bayley, S. (1986). Sex, drink and fast cars. New York: Pantheon Books.
Clarke, D. (2007). Driving women: fiction and automobile culture in twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Genat, R. (2010). Woodward Avenue: cruising the legendary strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech.
Walsh, M. (2006). At home at the wheel? The woman and her automobile in the 1950s. Paper presented at The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture given at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference.
Witzel, M.K. & K. Bash. (1997). Cruisin’: Car culture in America. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company.
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.