‘Women Auto Know’ Revisited

Women’s Car Advice website A Girls Guide to Cars

A number of years ago I wrote a journal article – Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice – that focused on four popular online car advice sites for women. While, at the time, an online Google search revealed nearly one million car advice websites, only a very few were geared specifically for the woman driver. The women’s car advice websites I came upon did not function as forums or social networks but rather, were constructed as reputable and important resources for automotive knowledge and the acquisition of negotiation strategies and skills. In addition to providing advice and information, a few of the sites endeavored to revolutionize the male dominated automobile market to become more “woman-friendly” through an integrated auto dealership rating system. As I argued in the article, these online locations were significant not only for the hard facts they made accessible to female visitors, but for what women gained – as drivers, consumers, and political actors – by accessing them. 

Although we are now accustomed to finding just about anything on the Internet, at the time the original research was conducted – 2010 and again in 2013 – the idea that women could find online automotive information that addressed their specific needs, concerns, and experiences was rather new. The four online locations cited – AskPatty.com, Women-drivers.com, Road and Travel Magazine, and VroomGirls – could be considered revolutionary for the time. Nearly ten years since I first visited these online locations, these four car advice websites continue to provide useful information and negotiation skills to the woman behind the wheel.

While browsing women-and-car articles online a few days ago I came across a recent addition to the women’s car advice scene. As noted on the site, A Girls Guide to Cars was introduced in 2018 in an effort to provide women with a fun, fresh, and informative automotive source. Described as “Cars on Your Terms, and a Car Site for Women,” A Girls Guide to Cars provides many of the services of the older sites. It also shares a philosophy of not only providing information, tactics, and strategies to make a smart and comfortable automotive decisions, but to empower the auto industry to develop a better relationship with female customers. 

While it builds on the strengths of its online predecessors, A Girls Guide to Cars reflects a younger, more technologically savvy, and perhaps more economically stable population of women drivers. The regularly posted articles – which fall into categories of luxury, style, technology, travel, car buying, and news and opinion – are written by a diverse group of female staff and outside contributors from all over the US and Canada with various interests, occupations, and hobbies. They are authors, bloggers, podcasts, content creators, and journalists, whose common interest is a love and fascination for the automobile. As the contributors note, “we are not car enthusiasts, but regular women who spend time in cars, make car buying decisions, and think about how women are changing the automotive world.” There is a plethora of automotive information available on the site, as well as a good dose of automotive/human interest stories. All content is well-researched, well-written, and enjoyable to read, written from a definite female perspective.

Like the car advice sites that preceded it, A Girls Guide to Cars recognizes that when it comes to cars, women often have different needs, uses, and perspectives than the male driver. If you are a woman who is into cars, desires car buying information, or is just looking for a good automotive read, I suggest you take a look at A Girls Guide to Cars. 

Reiss, Scotty. A Girls Guide to Cars: Empowering Smarter, Happier Car Owners. agirlsguidetocars.net (2018).

Lezotte, Chris. “Women Auto Know: Automotive Knowledge, Auto Activism, and Women’s Online Car Advice.” Feminist Media Studies (2014): 1-17.

Have you ever visited an online car advice site? How was that experience? Do you have any that you would recommend? Your comments are welcome.

Truck Guys Aren’t Just Guys

Molly Osberg’s New-to-Her Toyota Tacoma

I recently came across an article on Jezebel – “A Supposedly Feminist Website” – about a recent pickup truck purchase of one of its writers. In “I’m a Truck Guy Now,” blogger Molly Osberg announces, discusses, and rationalizes her recent acquisition of a used Toyota Tacoma. Although Osberg’s excitement in her vehicle choice is palpable, she finds it necessary to continually justify not only the purchase itself, but her feelings about owning a mid-sized truck. It is only after she lays out the “legitimate” reasons for owning a truck that she allows herself to express why, in her words, the Tacoma is “the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever owned.”

Women and pickup trucks was the subject of an article adapted from my dissertation recently published in the European Journal of American Culture. In “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver, and Cowgirl Feminism” I call upon a 2013 Chevy Silverado commercial as a segue into American women’s growing fascination with pickups. In interviews with 25 truck-owning women, I consider how women often assume cowgirl personas as a way to gain legitimacy in a historically masculine culture. However, what also became apparent through these enlightening conversations was how passionately many women feel about driving and owning a pickup truck.

Osberg shares many of the sentiments of those interviewed for “A Woman and Her Truck”. Much like those female truck owners, Osberg expounds upon the vehicle’s practical applications to her own life and that of her partner. Whether calling upon the truck to pull horse trailers and boats, or transport landscape supplies and building materials, women are likely to view truck ownership as a way to present themselves as tough, sturdy, industrious, and hardworking. Osberg also spends a great amount of time considering possible modifications to the truck. Carhartt seat covers, a trailer hitch, a three-inch lift, a truck cap, and vinyl racing stripes are a few of the additions Osberg contemplates as a way to make the truck her own. Osberg has named her pickup “Wylene”. In many of my women-and-car projects, I have found that naming is a common way women personalize and create identities for the vehicles they drive. Osberg also enjoys the element of surprise driving a pickup offers. Due to the truck’s size, substance, and strong association with masculinity, a small woman climbing out of a big truck often turns heads. And as Osberg has discovered, trucks provide the female motorist a sense of respect not often awarded to a driver of a typical “mom” vehicle – i.e. minivan or small SUV. As noted by the 25 truck-owning women, the ability to confidently and expertly handle a vehicle of considerable size and power marks the woman behind the wheel as an exceptional driver.

However, unlike Osberg, the women I interviewed had few qualms expressing enthusiasm, passion, and pure joy over the trucks they drive. They love how they feel when behind the wheel of a large, powerful vehicle. They appreciate the opportunities for recreation and adventure the pickup makes possible. They embrace the respect they receive when maneuvering a cumbersome machine; they feel empowered by the strength and toughness associated with truck ownership; they consider themselves exceptional for handling a vehicle rarely associated with the female motorist.

Perhaps Osberg’s reticence regarding her recent automotive purchase stems from an underlying suspicion that she does not in fact need, or deserve, a pickup truck. Perhaps admitting her affection for a masculine material object on a “supposedly feminist website” causes her to question her feminist “props.” However, as the interviews with 25 unapologetic truck-owning women – not to mention the growing number of female truck consumers – make clear, a good number of women have discovered that pickup ownership enhances their work, play, lives, and self-worth. As they might say to Molly Osberg, perhaps it is time to shed your inhibitions and take a little bit of joy from your new-to-you Toyota Tacoma.

Lezotte, Chris. “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver, and Cowgirl Feminism.” European Journal of American Culture 38.2 (2019): 135-153.

Osberg, Molly. “I’m a Truck Guy Now.” Jezebel.com 6 December 2019.

Are you a truck owner? If not, have you ever considered purchasing one? What pickup qualities most interest you? Feel free to comment below.

Designing Women

Harvey Earle and the General Motors ‘Damsels in Design’

In the past month, two articles of particular interest appeared on my automotive feed. Both were focused on a subject matter rarely covered in the automotive press – the female automotive designer. The first in Autoblog – while featuring multiple photos of Jay Leno – announced the 2020 Automotive Hall of Fame inductees. Included in this year’s class is Helene Rother Ackernecht, believed to be the first woman to work in automotive design. The second article – which appeared in Automobile magazine – noted the unexpected discovery of what is considered the first car designed by a woman, on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Perhaps not coincidently, these stories follow the 2018 publication of Constance Smith’s Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry. Although women have been active in the auto industry – albeit in small numbers – for over 75 years, the stories of women who influenced car design have just begun to surface.

Shortly after the release of Smith’s book, I attended a small panel in downtown Detroit that featured Smith, Liz Wetzel – Director of Design at GM Global Design, and Mary Ellen Green, a designer for General Motors during the early 1950s. It was a fascinating, enlightening, and sobering discussion. While Greer spent most of the time describing her duties and projects while working for the notorious Harvey Earle, she also subtlety referred to the daily harassment she faced while working as a female in a male dominated profession. Like most of the women in automotive design, Green was relegated to interior design, sculpting, color and trim, or graphic design.

Helene Rother – featured in Smith’s book as well as the Autoblog article – worked at GM during the same period as Green. A former fashion designer, she fled wartime Europe to take advantage of the “shockingly radical” GM female design team (6). She left General Motors after a few years to work with the famed Italian designer Battista Pinin Farina on groundbreaking post-war vehicles for Nash.

As Wetzel notes in the introduction to Smith’s book, “designing an automobile is extremely challenging and exciting – it is perhaps the most complex consumer product.” She adds, “not many women know about automotive design as a career.” (7). Perhaps it is because, as Wetzel remarks, women like Green left the industry as suddenly as they entered it, for reasons alluded to but not mentioned. There appears to have been a considerable gap before the automotive industry once again welcomed the female designer.

During the early 1980s, Marilena Corvasce was hired by Ghia, the European design studio purchased by Ford in 1970. She was assigned with the task of developing a concept car in the style of the Ford Probe. While Corvasce designed the automobile from start to finish, her name was left out of all the press releases. It was only after the car was selected for display at the Peterson Automotive Museum that she was recognized as the 1982 Ghia Brezza chief designer.

Since Corvasce, only a few women have made their marks as automotive designers. Mimi Vandermolen is responsible for the Ford Probe, Diane Allen for the Nissan 350Z, the first BMW Z4 is credited to Juliane Blasi, and Michelle Christensen was the designer of the second-generation Acura NSX. As Wetzel explains, although the careers of these designers suggest that women have made considerable advances, the number of women in the design studio is still relatively low compared to men.

Perhaps the induction of Rother into the Automotive Hall of Fame spurred this sudden journalistic interest in female automotive designers. Or perhaps it was the publication of Smith’s impressive book that brought newfound attention to women in the automotive industry. Whatever the reason, scholars, journalists, and students of automotive history have embarked upon the important yet painstaking task of recovering the work, lives, and histories of female designers. As Wetzel hopes, perhaps this recognition will not only bring attention to those who have heretofore been lost in the automotive archives, but will inspire young women to consider a future in automotive. As Wetzel writes, “if you are a creative woman who loves solving problems and want to be on the journey to create the greatest advances in mobility of our time, I encourage you to consider a career in the auto industry” (7).

Gustafson, Sven. “Pioneering Designer Helene Rother Ackernect joins Jay Leno among Automotive Hall of Fame Inductees.” Autoblog.com 6 Feb 2020.

Rehbock, Billy. “The 1982 Ghia Brezza is the First Car Designed by a Woman.” Automobilemag.com 27 Feb 2020.

Smith, Constance. Damsels of Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry 1939-1959. Atglen PA: Schiffer, 2018. 

Have you ever considered working in the auto industry? What qualities do you think are important for success in a male-dominated industry? Any and all comments are welcome.

The Women of Mercedes-Benz

Belinda Clontz’s 1962 Mercedes-Benz 200S Fintail

In my research into the relationship between women and cars, I often come across unique and interesting woman-car stories. I recently read an article in Automobile Magazine about Belinda Clontz – a California female car enthusiast with a particular fascination for Mercedes-Benz. While I expected her passion to be inspired by the luxury car’s prestige, classic style, and noteworthy performance attributes, I was surprised to discover that it was a woman’s contribution to the development and introduction of the automobile that garnered her attention and devotion. As noted by Clontz – the proud owner of a 1962 Mercedes Benz 220S Fintail – it was Bertha Benz, the wife of inventor Karl Benz, who introduced the original Benz Patent-Motorwagen to the world. In 1888, with her two children in the back seat, Bertha embarked on a 65-mile trip and in the process, made history as the first person – of either sex – to drive a car such a long distance. As Clontz remarks, “I admire any woman who is willing to do something that no one else has done. Bertha Benz was ahead of her time and I consider her a significant pioneer in the creation of the automobile.”

In the mid 1970s, feminist historians embarked on a movement to “write women into history.” These groundbreaking individuals challenged earlier traditions of intellectual and cultural history to consider whether historians could learn from other subjects – e.g. female – of study. Scholars began to think about not only about those reputed to have made history but also for those for whom historical events were backdrops to ordinary lives. Women’s history became one of the substantial new fields of study that emerged from this mid-twentieth century development.

It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that historians began to consider women’s influence within the field of automotive history. Scholars such as Virginia Scharff, Margaret Walsh, and Ruth Schwartz Cowan were instrumental in recovering the woman driver from the automotive archives. While Belinda Clontz is not a historian, she recognizes that women’s contributions to automotive history and culture are often overlooked. Her Facebook page is filled with homages to female Mercedes enthusiasts in particular and car lovers in general. She is encouraging to new auto aficionados, particularly young women with a passion for cars. In her posts she often reflects on what Mercedes ownership and being part of the Mercedes car culture has contributed to her identity and life.

While Clontz’s purchase of the classic Mercedes was influenced by the role of Bertha Benz in its introduction and production, female influence was felt in other automotive arenas. In her research into the history of Fintails, Clontz found that Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth won the 1962 Grand Prix of Argentina in a Mercedes-Benz 220SE Fintail  –  the first women to ever do so. As Clontz confessed, this serendipitous discovery made  ownership of the Fintail even more meaningful.

Although the automobile has a longstanding history as a primarily male interest, women today are discovering new and exciting ways to grow an interest in cars and take part in automotive culture. Although Clontz grew up with a fascination with automobiles, she found a special connection to the Mercedes due to its early – and heretofore unrecognized – female influence. As Clontz asserts, “My love for Mercedes-Benz stems from the fact that it was helped to be founded by a woman. Bertha Benz believed so much in her husband’s Motorwagen that she invested her inheritance money in his business. Although she was not allowed to be named as one of the inventors at the time, Bertha also contributed to the design and engineering of the Motorwagen. She took the Motorwagen on its first test drive and helped put Karl Benz on the map as the inventor of the first automobile. Her role in the history of Mercedes-Benz is influential and inspires me every time I get out on the road with my Fintail.”

Segura, Eleonor. “Meet the Gorgeous 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220S Fintail and Owner Belinda Clontz.” Automobilemag.com 14 Feb 2020.

Do you have an interesting car story? Please share it below.

What Women Want

Advertisement for the 1955 Dodge La Femme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Scharff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of ‘Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession’

As a scholar, albeit of the independent variety, I am sometimes asked to contribute to research in various ways. A little over a year ago The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth asked if I would write a book review on a car-and-youth related publication for an upcoming issue. As I am always open to a new opportunity, I gladly accepted, particularly since I had already purchased the book and was planning on reading it anyway. The review was recently published in the JHCY Winter 2020 issue. Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession by historian Gary Cross is an interesting and in-depth look at the various American youth car cultures of the 20th century. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review here.

Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession
By Gary S. Cross
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 227 pp. Paper $32.50, cloth $97.50.

Machines of Youth is a colorful chronology of American youth car cultures from the early automotive age to the present day. Relying on an eclectic assemblage of sources – interviews, print media, automotive publications, popular culture, and personal anecdotes – historian Gary Cross has constructed a compelling examination of a rarely researched subject and subculture. Although the book stands on its own as an in-depth exploration of young men’s involvement and fascination with cars over the past century, it also serves as a rarely examined but timely analysis of white working-class youth culture in twentieth-century America. In Machines of Youth, Cross takes us beyond the scope of traditional automotive histories to investigate the teenage cultures that evolved along its margins. To young working-class men, Cross argues, car culture was not only a community in which automotive craftsmanship and knowledge could be developed and shared, but also served as an important source of masculinity, autonomy, individualism, self-expression, and rebellion.

Cross skillfully intertwines automobile history with the teenage cultures it generated. Each chapter introduces cars of a particular generation and the young men who became engaged, if not obsessed, with the growing automotive phenomenon. Some of the stops along the way include the early auto age and young men’s growing preoccupation with the gasoline-powered automobile, the 1930s customizing and “souping up” craze, the 1940s hot rod wars, the 1950s and 60s cruising and parking culture, and the Fast and Furious era of Japanese “rice burners”. Cross also makes an intriguing detour into the familial and community Latino car culture of “low and slow”. At each juncture Cross delves into how a particular culture came to be, considers how and why boys became involved, investigates the influence of club life and the media, considers how the subcultures were regarded by the public, and discusses the efforts made to suppress, disregard, or encourage young men’s automotive activities. Cross concludes the book by considering the state of car culture today, the role of nostalgia in its maintenance, as well as whether there remains enough automotive interest for its continuance into the future.

Although car cultures attracted teens from all walks of life – e.g. baby boomer muscle car enthusiasts and middle-class hippies who tinkered with aging VW Beetles – Cross is particularly interested in the role the automobile played in the lives of white working-class youth. In the chapter devoted to “greasers and their rods,” Cross examines how cars gave these “marginal” high school boys an opportunity to define themselves apart from the mainstream white middle-class population. As the author notes, while middle-class teens on the “college prep” track were likely to drive cars owned or purchased by their parents, working-class youth in the vocational curriculum took pride in working on their own jalopies. Thus, as Cross writes, “the customized car offered a token of dignity to a group that had always been subordinate, but which in the mid-twentieth century was steadily losing ground” (99). Cross’s examination of white working-class youth is particularly timely given the current political climate, which has witnessed a growing sentiment of discontent and disaffection among rural white working-class men.

Machines of Youth is a welcome and important addition to existing automotive scholarship. Although much has been written on the history of the automobile, only a handful of scholars (e.g. Karen Lumsden, Amy Best, Brenda Bright, Sarah Redshaw) have investigated specific car cultures. And while Cross presents an engaging examination of the history of young men’s involvement with cars, the volume’s strength comes from its unique focus on class (in addition to gender and race) as an influential and crucial component of American youth car cultures. What the book lacks, however, is diversity in research location. Although the west coast was certainly an important breeding ground for youth car cultures, there is a little too much emphasis on the California car scene. While other locations are mentioned, the tone of the book suggests the majority of youth automotive activity occurred in the Golden State. Cross also fails to lay out his methodology in the introductory section. Consequently, it is up to the reader to piece the research sources together chapter by chapter.

Machines of Youth is certain to be embraced by aging men of a particular generation who grew up with a passion for cars and see themselves in its pages. For auto historians, Cross’s astute analysis of young men’s engagement with the automobile provides a social context to the ebb and flow of automotive popularity over the past century. However, scholars of youth cultures will find Cross’s work fascinating whether or not they have an interest in cars. The focus on white working-class teens is not only engrossing and enlightening in its own right, but has particular relevance during this disquieting time in our nation’s political history.

Do you have a favorite car book? What makes an automotive book worth reading? Your suggestions are welcome!

Old Car Songs and the New Woman Driver

A topic that often finds its way into car journals, blogs, and online automotive publications is the “car song.” Auto journalists and enthusiasts of a certain age frequently call upon the classic car song as a way to reminisce about the past. As popular music is often referred to as the song track of one’s life, car tunes – whether in reference to music emanating from the car or about the car itself –  bring back particular memories of an automobile and the life experiences surrounding it.

I recently came across such an article by car blogger Jim Van Orden on the popular automotive website hemmings.com. In “Car Tunes of My Youth,” Van Orden intertwines stories of the songs that accompanied family road trips, car advertising tunes on the radio and television, popular car songs of the day, and the memories each of these car tunes evoked. The article is followed by a substantive comment section in which others passionately and often humorously contribute their own car tune memories.

What is notable about the proliferation of online articles devoted to the car song is that they are all written by – and addressed to – drivers of the male persuasion. Although young women during the 50s and 60s may not have owned their own vehicles, they certainly spent a good amount of time in automobiles with car songs and advertisements playing on the radio. So why are women less inclined to call upon the car song as a link to the past? Is it because they were not all that interested in cars? Or was it because, as written from a male perspective, the songs did not reflect women’s unique automotive experiences?

I addressed the second part of this question a few years ago in a journal article focusing on the woman’s car song. In “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n Roll,” I argue that once women became more accepted as singer/songwriters in the music industry, they began writing a very different kind of car song. While the car songs of the 50s and 60s were almost exclusively focused on the automobile as an important contributor to the male teenager’s rite of passage – promoting good times, adventure, liberation from restrictive home environments, and sex – the women’s car song of the 70s and beyond called upon the automobile as a vehicle of freedom, escape, recollection, rebellion, and empowerment. While the singular male focus of the classic car song may be responsible for women’s indifference to it, the rise of the women’s car song suggests not only that the automobile serves as musical inspiration for women as well as men, but that cars have an importance to women’s lives that is different from, but no less legitimate than, that of the male driver.

Which leads back to the first question regarding whether women, in fact, have an interest in cars. As I have discovered in my own research, a good many women – more than is commonly believed – have an interest, if not a passion, for the automobile. The ability to write and sing about it provides an opportunity for women’s car songs – and women’s voices – to be heard.

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Journal of American Culture 36.3 (2013): 161-176.

Do you have a favorite car song? What is it and what do you like about it? Feel free to comment below.

Making a Home on Wheels

Nash press photo

Since the automobile’s inception, auto manufacturers and suppliers have offered optional and aftermarket products to convert the automobile into mobile sleeping quarters. To address the needs and desires of a traveling public, Daniel Strohl notes, “carmakers have expressly made their vehicles suitable for camping”(hemmings.com). Such alterations and add-ons include folding front seats that provide a flat sleeping area, accessory tents for hatch back models, sleeper units for passenger vans, and a “magic camper package” for the ubiquitous minivan. These accessories allow folks to expand the automobile’s primary function as a mode of transportation into a more flexible vehicle that meets individual and family travel needs.

By offering these products and accessories, manufacturers have – over the years – reacted to the car-owning public’s desire to use the automobile in ways not originally intended. As noted by Kathleen Franz in Tinkering, “consumers became tinkerers and occasionally inventors as they outfitted their cars for travel […]” (second cover). Taking matters into one’s own hands, however, was not limited to men. During the early years of automobility, female owners and drivers actively reconfigured the automobile for their own use. As Franz writes, “women, who were portrayed by manufacturers and their husbands as passive consumers, remade themselves into competent mechanics and active users” (110.) Women who travelled alone often found it necessary to modify and outfit their cars to meet middle-class standards of domestic comfort and economy; in doing so they also challenged the common perception of women’s technological ability and ingenuity. Franz remarks, “women drivers tinkered with the car and, by extension, with their gender roles’” (42). Although advertising for automotive accessories during this time was directed toward the male consumer, women were, in fact, active participants in the tinkering phenomenon.

In a recent project, I interviewed women in their 80s and 90s about their early automotive experiences. Many of them recalled how when travelling with husbands or young children, they altered the automobile to meet family needs. Before chain hotels were commonplace, decent lodgings in out-of-the ways places were few and far between. One of the women described how she converted the family station wagon into cozy sleeping quarters with the addition of curtains and other amenities for a long distance trip. Others mentioned how – as primarily responsible for the children on family road trips – they devised ways to keep young passengers quiet, safe, and occupied. Whether laying down the car’s back seat to accommodate a baby’s playpen, converting the back seat of a VW Beetle into a bed for an infant, repurposing the back seats of a station wagon into a child’s play area, or using a husband’s leather belt to strap a young traveler onto the front seat “hump,” these women called upon imagination, innovation, and resourcefulness to make family road trips enjoyable for everyone. 

Advertisements, marketing brochures, and news articles produced during the early to mid-twentieth century uniformly suggest that women’s role in auto travel was solely a domestic one. However, as noted in Franz’s work as well as my own, whether traveling on their own or with children in tow, women were also instrumental in reconfiguring and accessorizing the automobile into a comfy home on wheels for all of its passengers.

Franz, Kathleen. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences” The Journal of Transport History 40.3 (2019): 395-417.

Stohl, David. “Well Before Hashtag Vanlife, Carmakers Encouraged You to Sleep in Their Cars” Hemmings.com 10 Dec 2019.

Do you have memories of family road trips? How was your car reconfigured to accommodate a sleeping family? Feel free to tell your travel stories.

Holiday Party @ the Automotive Hall of Fame

The Annual Holiday Gathering of the SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] Leland Chapter was held this year at the Automotive Hall of Fame on the Henry Ford campus in Dearborn, Michigan. Author, motorsports expert, and former Autoweek editor George Levy was on hand to give his impressions of the recent Ford vs Ferrari motion picture release, doing his best to separate fact from fiction. It was a fun afternoon spent with fellow car enthusiasts and the pictured hall of famers in the museum. In the holiday spirit there was a small gift exchange; I received an antique Oakland Motor Car hubcap. As I discovered, the Oakland Motor Car Company was a division of General Motors from 1909 until 1931 when it was replaced by Pontiac. It was very cool to receive a little piece of automotive history in such appropriate surroundings.