Cars & Football

The Super Bowl, as argued by scholars and pundits alike, has long been considered an idealized representation of American masculinity. Since the first Super Bowl contest of 1969, football fans across the US have gathered around TV sets to join in a celebration of men engaged what has been described as “professional warfare” on the playing field. As noted by gender scholar Jan Huebenthal in 2013, as the ultimate football contest, the Super Bowl “celebrates physical violence committed by hypermasculine players against their opponents” (6). Not only is masculinity on stage in the game itself, argues Huebenthal, but is reinforced in the commercials that fill in the gaps in Super Bowl coverage.

1969 Goodyear ad

From its very beginning, the gas-powered automobile was constructed as masculine. As Michael Berger writes, “everything about the car seemed masculine, from the coordination and strength required to operate it, to the dirt and grease connected with its maintenance” (257). This association has been reflected in the types of cars historically marketed to male drivers, as well as the “natural” driving behaviors attributed to the man behind the wheel. Vehicles with descriptors such as powerful, rugged, durable, and tough were considered appropriate choices for men. And, as Clay McShane argues, in order to establish automobility as a male activity, men quickly claimed the emotional traits necessary for driving – “steady nerves, aggression, and rationality” – as masculine (156). The construction of the automobile as a symbol of masculinity has, not surprisingly, been reflected in car advertising over the past few decades.

The early Super Bowl telecasts featured commercials from automobile advertisers who, as Smithsonian journalist Jackie Mansky notes, were “playing for the men in the room.” The 1970 contest featured a spot for the Pontiac GTO – long considered the ultimate muscle car. In 1975, a teenager’s souped up Plymouth Barracuda – the first pony car – was called upon to appeal to the young male market. Fandom scholar Danielle Sarver Coombs argues that as the Super Bowl reflected the culture of the time, so did its ads. “For a hyper masculine sport like football,” Coombs explains, “hyper masculine-focused advertising followed in turn.” And as she pointed out, football commercials “continue to cater to the male market despite a documented shift in the demographic tuning in” (qtd. in Mansky).

Kia EV9: “Perfect 10”

The car commercials that aired at the 2024 Super Bowl – although still directed primarily to the male audience – were decidedly less “macho” and testosterone-driven than many from the past. Auto commercials from the early years were often offensive to women; as Mansky recalls, a 1969 commercial for Goodyear Tire featured a woman in distress with the tagline, “when there’s no man around, Goodyear should be.” However, the car ads that aired during Super Bowl LVIII, although not directly directed toward female viewers, displayed a more twenty-first century sensibility. The commercials presented men both sensitively and humorously; they addressed automobiles through a nostalgic and cultural rather than gendered lens.

Toyota Tacoma: “Dareful Handle”

The Kia commercial featured a dad who drives his ice-skating daughter through perilous weather conditions to perform for her grandpa in a backyard pond; Volkswagen connected moments in cultural history – including a nod to the rulings extending gay marriage rights – to combine, as Ted Nudd of Ad Age notes, a “sweeping legacy statement with a product tease in an uplifting way.” Even ads that that relied on longstanding male troupes poked fun at male driving behavior. The commercial featuring the Toyota Tacoma pickup calls upon humor to demonstrate the vehicle’s role as an off-road adventure machine, focusing on the passenger side grab bar – referred to as the “shut the front door” or “whoa whoa whoa” handle. As Hagerty’s Peek and Petroelje write, “as the camera jumps from one frightened passenger to the next, we’re shown an orange Tacoma kickin’ up dust while doing donuts and other herky-jerky maneuvers at high speed.” The spot created for the Kawasaki Ridge ties the farcical mullet hairstyle – “business in the front, party in the back,” to the powerful front engine and rear towing ability of the of the sport side-by-side. This change in advertising attitude could certainly be attributed to the increase in female watchers; while driven somewhat by the “Taylor Swift effect,” girls and women accounted for 47.5% of the Super Bowl audience (Crupi). But it also suggests that automakers recognized that women would be watching, and geared their commercials to be funny or heart-warming and appealing to all rather than just the male audience.

Kawasaki Ridge: “Mullets”

As someone who has a passing interest in football but considerable enthusiasm for cars and commercials, I found this year’s Super Bowl automotive advertising offerings to be imaginative, entertaining, and surprisingly accessible to an expanded audience. Thank you Taylor Swift, and to the automotive advertisers who recognized that women like cars, too.

Berger, Michael. “Women Drivers!: The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior.” Women’s Studies International Forum 9.3 (1986): 257-263.

Crupi, Anthony. “Taylor Swift Effect Kicks in for Super Bowl as Female Demos Soar.” Sportico.com 16 Feb 2024.

Huebenthal, Jan. “Quick! Do Something Manly!”: The Super Bowl as an American Spectacle of Hegemonic Masculinity, Violence, and Nationalism.” W & M Scholar Works, 2013.

Mansky, Jackie. “What the Earliest Super Bowl Commercials Tell Us About the Super Bowl.” Smithsonianmag.com 31 Jan 2019.

McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Peek, Jake & Nathan Petroelge. “2024 Super Bowl Car Ads: Touchdowns, Field Goals, and Penalties.” Hagerty.com 12 Feb 2024.

Rudd, Tim. “Super Bowl 2024 Ad Review – The Best and the Worst.” AdAge.com 11 Feb 2024.

Trade-In Time

With a couple of aging cars and an upcoming change of lifestyle, it was time to replace our modes of transport. I loved my 2015 Golf R, but as a car with little tech [not even Apple Play!] I had driven for 8 years and 45,000 miles, I was ready for something new. I had originally planned on updating it with the 2023 model but the wait time was more than I was willing to endure. Plus, as I tend to own my cars for a long time, I didn’t think it would be safe as an eventual 80-year-old to get behind the wheel of a vehicle that went 0-60 in less than 4 seconds. However, since I love German cars, particularly VWs, I opted for a 2023 VW GTI. And as we were moving to downtown Ann Arbor, with short blocks that can be rather hilly, I quashed my desire for a 6-speed manual and opted for the pretty quick [0-60 in 5.1] 7-speed DSG. With front-wheel rather than all-wheel drive, it is a different driving experience but still a very enjoyable ride. And the tech! After a few months I am still learning all of what my car can do. But most of the things I loved about my Golf R remain – the responsive steering, the compact, perfect-for-me size, the simple yet pleasing design inside and out, the surprisingly spacious cargo area, and most importantly, the elements that make it so very ‘fun to drive.’ We took it on a baseball road trip this past summer and it was comfortable but not cushy, had plenty of space for our gear, and got better gas mileage [on regular rather than premium fuel!] than the R. And since my husband and I will be sharing the car [he traded in his Audi and 2016 R] it was important that we both enjoy it. And we do.

Brand spankin’ new VW GTI

Our other trade in was more utilitarian. For the past 30 years we have owned what we affectionally called a ‘dog’ vehicle. As breeders and exhibitors of bullmastiffs, we always drove a standard van that could carry at least five very large dogs. We opted for a RAM City Wagon a few years back, but traded up for the more spacious RAM Promaster which was perhaps the best canine transportation we had owned in our 30 years of breeding and showing dogs. However, after retiring from the dog world four years ago, we were down to two dogs so desired something smaller and more easy to maneuver in the city. We originally considered a large SUV, but the high entry point and the difficulty fitting two large crates in the back made us rethink our choice. After considering all of the options, we opted for – dare I say – a minivan. We chose a KIA which, as it turns out, has easy entry and plenty of space for two large dogs. It is also way more comfortable and has way more tech than the ProMaster. And most importantly, the ‘girls’ love it.

The ‘girls’ enjoying the KIA

We have since [very recently] moved from 18 rural acres to a condo in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. With much of what we do now within walking distance, our dependence on cars has been dramatically reduced. With a carport rather than [multiple] garages, the two new vehicles are fitting well into our new and very different lifestyle.

New cars in their new home

Wisconsin: Land of Beer, Cheese, and Cars?

On a road trip to visit family in Milwaukee and Minnesota this summer, a stop was made at the Wisconsin Automobile Museum in Hartford, just northwest of Milwaukee. First opened in 1986, the museum is housed in the former Libby’s cannery, repurposed by the Kissel family to display a large collection of cars and automotive artifacts. Very much a museum of ‘place,’ the Wisconsin Automobile Museum devotes much of its space to auto manufacturers and automotive activities with significant histories in the state. The first floor is devoted primarily to automobiles manufactured in Wisconsin, specifically Nash, AMC, and Kissel. The second floor holds the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame, which commemorates the history of regional racing in Wisconsin. The second floor also include newer models from a variety of manufacturers, as well as a working locomotive taken out on special occasions. All of the cars in the museum were either donated or are on loan. 

Women working at Kissel

As might be expected in a museum with significant Kissel family influence, the Kissel Motor Car Company takes center stage. The company was founded by Louis Kissel and his sons in 1903. During the early auto age, the high-quality, custom built Kissel cars ‘were known to the elites of society from coast to coast’ (Savage). Besides hand-crafted automobiles, Kissel also manufactured trucks, fire trucks, cabs, and hearses until operations ceased in 1931. Of the 27,000 Kissel automobiles produced, fewer than 150 are known to exist today, of which 27 are on exhibit in the museum. While Kissel, like other automotive manufacturers of the time, was a very male dominated enterprise, there are a few cars on display that have interesting if not significant female narratives.

1904 Kissel Kar

 Silent movie actress Anita King was the first woman on record to drive a touring vehicle solo across the country. She did so in a 1904 Kissel Kar, which is now parked on the first floor of the Wisconsin museum. Referred to as ‘The Paramount Girl’ in news outlets of the day, King took 48 days to make the trip, arriving jubilantly into New York’s Times Square on October 19, 1915. Of all the Kissel cars produced, perhaps the most famous model was the two passenger Speedster, nicknamed the ‘Gold Bug.’ This bright yellow automobile was a favorite among celebrities, including Amelia Earhart, who, as noted in a collection of news clippings on display, drove the ‘Yellow Peril’ from California to Boston in 1923. Other Kissel cars with female connections on exhibit include a 1923 car owned by ‘a married woman who paid cash,’ [and kept it until 1961], as well as a 1914 touring car named ‘Annie’ after a previous owner. 

1950 Nash with 61 original miles

Nash also got its start in Wisconsin when the Thomas B. Jeffery Company was purchased by Charles Nash in 1916. One of the featured cars in the Nash collection is a bright blue 1950 model. Its claim to fame is that it was purchased by a woman with intention of learning to drive. Unfortunately, the owner never got behind the wheel; the Nash now sits at the museum with 61 original miles on the odometer.

While the museum makes an effort to feature automobiles driven or owned by women, perhaps the most noteworthy female automotive references can be found in photographs as well as promotional material intertwined with the cars on display. If one stops to look at the video of Kissel history, an old photograph of the company offices reveals two women performing administrative work. Original artwork for the ‘Kissel Kar’ calls upon illustrations of elegantly dressed women to convey style, luxury, and class.

Promotional postcards used photographs of winsome women with accompanying lines such as ‘They are good to look at’ to entice potential 1913 Kissel buyers. Wartime advertisements sponsored by Nash focus on women who have contributed to the war effort as members of the Army Nurse Corps or as brave women waiting for a loved one’s return. Post war advertising features women as Nash consumers, test driving automobiles and speaking with car dealers. Other press includes an article on the real life twins whose images promoted the Hudson ‘Twin-H-Power’ engine. And while the Short Track display does not feature any women drivers, a few future female racers can be found in a 2019 photo of the Young Racers Car Show. 

As might be expected in museums devoted to a historically masculine enterprise as the automobile, women’s participation and influence in automotive history and culture is often hidden. However, as I have discovered in many of my visits, women do have a presence in automotive museums if one makes the effort to look for them.

The Cars of Amelia Earhart

In early September, 2023 Amelia Earhart was once again in the news. However, it had nothing to do with her flying prowess or her unsolved disappearance over the Atlantic in 1937. Rather, it had to do with a certain 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton convertible that was owned by Earhart, lost, rediscovered, and put on display for a week during the annual ‘Cars at the Capital’ exhibition in Washington DC. As it turns out, while Earhart is known for her way around an airplane, she was also an avid enthusiast of exceptional automobiles. 

The unique Palm Beach Tan Cord convertible that made its way to the National Mall is just one of the many automobiles connected to the celebrated pilot. It became famous in a 1936 photograph, parked in front of Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Electra, the airplane she would take on her final flight. The Phaeton was produced by the Cord Automobile division of the Auburn Automobile Company and introduced at the 1935 New York Auto Show to great acclaim. It has been suggested that Earhart was drawn to the Phaeton not only for its style, luxury, streamlined airplane design, and innovative engineering, but also for its impressive performance capabilities. Earhart’s desire for adventure, not to mention her love of power and speed, was reflected in her many transportation choices.

I first learned of the 1937 Cord while visiting the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. While the museum does not have a 1937 Phaeton on display, the famous photo of Earhart and the car is part of a video exhibit assembled to honor the marketing genius and business savvy of company founder Ernest Lobban [E.L] Cord. Although Earhart’s cars are absent, there are other references to the pilot in the ACDM. Information accompanying a 1932 Auburn 12-160A Coupe in the museum places the vehicle into context – ‘this year in history’ – by citing Earhart’s solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As I discovered during my recent visits to automotive museums throughout the Midwest, Earhart’s fame, as well as her fascination with cars, is often summoned to bring attention to a particular automotive manufacturer or model as well as to invoke a significant moment or event in automotive history.

The Wisconsin Automotive Museum in Hartford, Wisconsin, includes newspaper clippings of the famous aviator driving a Kissel Gold Bug Speedster, which Earhart often referred to as the ‘Yellow Peril.’ Legend has it that, finding the idea of a cross country train trip boring, Earhart purchased the car to travel from California to Boston with her mother in tow. The yellow car was no doubt an attention-getter as Earhart made her way across the country collecting tourist stickers and enthusiastic fans along the way. As Earhart remarked, ‘the fact that my roadster was a cheerful canary color may have caused some excitement’ (Forney). The Kissel Kar Company, a manufacturer of cars and trucks from 1906-1931, was founded in Wisconsin; the Kissel family was instrumental in the development and maintenance of the museum. While the original car is located in the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, Colorado, the Wisconsin Museum does have a similar vehicle on display. The Gold Bug was a popular choice among celebrities of the time. As a Wisconsin-based manufacturer, Kissel made use of the connections to famous individuals, including Amelia Earhart, to bring attention to its line of popular sports vehicles. 

Photo: Detroit Public Library Digital Collection

The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Stahls Automotive Collection in New Baltimore, Michigan each exhibit promotional material focused on Earhart’s connection to the Hudson Motor Car Company’s aviation-themed Terraplane brand. The Detroit auto manufacturer called upon Earhart’s celebrity and aviation know-how to introduce its latest offering in 1932. The news articles featured at both museums show Earhart at the Hudson plant christening the first Terraplane off the assembly line with a bottle of champagne. Earhart’s association with the Hudson Terraplane continued for the life of the brand; photos of Earhart with various models appeared in a variety of publicity releases, often accompanied by Terraplane’s tagline: ‘On the sea that’s aquaplaning, in the air that’s aeroplaning, but on the land, in the traffic, on the hills, hot diggity dog, that’s Terraplanning!’ The Ypsilanti museum features a Hudson Terraplane in its exhibit; Stahl’s does not, suggesting that the mention of Earhart in association with an automobile is often reason enough for the aviation pioneer’s inclusion.

Earhart was also called upon to promote the Autoped, a lightweight vehicle marketed as fitting the needs of women while offering them a taste of freedom. Promotional materials included the claim that Earhart often relied upon her Autoped for commuting and working.

The inclusion of Amelia Earhart in museums devoted to the automobile, with or without a vehicle, suggests a number of things. First, it recognizes the importance of celebrity – particularly a high-profile individual with a recognized automotive interest – in automotive advertising and marketing. However, I also believe that, due to the overwhelming male domination of the auto industry since its inception, any connection to women in relation to the automobile is worth considering. The majority of auto museums I have visited appeared to have made a conscious effort to represent women in the exhibits, even when that connection is somewhat tenuous. However, while the incorporation of high-profile women such as Earhart in museums devoted to the automobile is admirable, I believe the inclusion of ordinary women, as important automotive consumers, drivers, and influencers, needs to be considered as well.

The Cars that Power ‘Barbie’

Barbie & Ken in Barbie’s pink powered C1 Corvette

Shortly after the release of the blockbuster motion picture Barbie, automotive writer Andy Kalmowitz of Jalopnik posted an article about the cars that appeared in the film. While the article argues how Barbie serves as a ‘masterfully disguised General Motors commercial,’ Kalmowitz also examines how the individual vehicles move the story forward. This article was interesting to me for two reasons. The first is that I explored the relationship between women and their automobiles in film in a paper published in The Journal of Popular Culture a number of years ago. In this article I examine ten female road trip films. Focusing on cars rather than the journey, my goal in this project was to reassess the role and significance of the automobile in film, examine how the woman’s car in film has the ability to disrupt both the dominant road trip and cultural narratives, and to broaden the notion of women’s car use to include considerations of identity, agency, reinvention, friendship, family, and empowerment.

More recently, just days after the Jalopnik article appeared, an essay I authored – ‘Pink Power: The Barbie Car and Female Automobility’ – was published online in The Journal of American Culture. The main position put forth in ‘Pink Power’ is the importance of the Barbie car to a young girl’s automotive education and future driving experience. As in most of my writing about the relationship between women and cars, I argue that because the female experience with cars is often unlike that of men, women look at automobiles differently. This difference is often reflected in the roles car play in women’s lives and the myriad of meanings the automobile holds for them. 

The Blazer SS EV flanked by two Chevy Suburbans

Therefore as I viewed Barbie in town last night, I paid special attention to the cars. While I noted the role each vehicle played in the narrative, what also caught my attention was how each vehicle represented a specific type of power. These representations were demonstrated not only through the expressions of speed, aggressiveness, and danger, but also by the automobile’s stance, size, color, and signification.

The pink Corvette – the vehicle that literally and figuratively moves the narrative along – is a both a demonstration and source of Barbie’s power. The convertible not only takes her where she wants to go, but is a personal and intimate space in which Barbie is in command and Ken rides in the back seat. In his analysis of the Corvette in American culture, automotive scholar Jerry Passon argues that sport cars in general, and the Corvette in particular, serve as potent symbols of male power and masculine sexuality. He observes that in a variety of creative works—film, literature, popular music –women often call upon the sports car to seize power from the hands of men and take control of their lives. In these fictional locations, Passon writes, “the emotional value of possessing the stylish, powerful machine” makes a woman “feel more ‘in charge’ and able to accomplish her own goals and act on her desires” (153). While the Corvette appears as an ideal car in an ideal world, its pinkness and femininity mask the real power it holds for Barbie and her friends.

The second car to make an appearance in the film is a big, blacked out Suburban. As argued by color psychologists, black is often considered a power color. It implies self-control, discipline, independence, and a strong will; black gives the impression of authority and power. In Barbie, the Suburban serves as the ultimate authority; it is, in fact, the Mattel company car. It is the foil to the pink Corvette; intimidating, unfriendly, and foreboding, it is called upon to transport Barbie away from the source of her power.

Another car with a major cinematic role is the bright blue Blazer SS EV driven by Barbie’s friend Gloria. The small SUV, of which the Blazer is an example, is often considered the ultimate ‘mom’ car. Purposefully and determinedly identified with women by automakers, marketers, and the media, the ‘lifestyle enabler’ vehicle – which also includes the ubiquitous minivan – reinforces the notion that women bear primary responsibility for housework and childcare. However, with Gloria behind the wheel with daughter Sasha in tow, the Blazer takes on new meaning. As a getaway car, the Blazer demonstrates and celebrates Gloria’s driving finesse and considerable ‘mom’ power as she aggressively and skillfully drives her passengers to safety.

Ken and his Hummer EV – Jalopnik photo

In a film focused on girl power, the most obvious and perhaps egregious representative of male power and toxic masculinity is the lightening adorned black and silver Hummer EV acquired by Ken when out of Barbie Land. Deposited in Los Angeles after relegated to the pink Corvette’s backseat, Ken is quickly exposed to patriarchy and immediately decides he wants to be a part of it. The Hummer, which Jalopnik writer Steve DaSilva describes as ‘oversized, uselessly heavy, and compensating so hard’, represents the masculine power Ken has been missing in his life in Barbie Land. While Ken is briefly successful in acquiring the brutish power the Hummer offers, the vehicle is reclaimed upon Barbie and Gloria’s triumphant return, soon transformed into a massive, monstrous, pink-powered machine.

The automobile holds many meanings in film; what has not been explored significantly is the car’s role in women-themed motion pictures. While the vehicles featured in Barbie contain varied and important meanings to the individual who drives them, what ties them together is how each represents a particular manifestation of automotive, and personal, power.

An Afternoon at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum

The opulent Auburn Cord Duesenberg showroom

The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum is located in Auburn, Indiana, in the building of the automobile manufacturer’s former executive and general offices, engineering and experimental design departments, design studios, and showroom. It retains much of the look of its past occupants; the first floor showroom is spacious and opulent, with high ceilings, chandeliers, art deco columns, and an elegant center stairway, with popular music from the 1920s filling the grand space. The second and third floors include automotive displays intermingled among intact conference rooms and private offices of past automotive leaders and entrepreneurs. The narrow hallways are filled with archival items including old photographs, period advertising, and colored design renderings.

Poster for the annual Auburn Car Festival which celebrated the anniversary of women’s suffrage

The three prominent automotive brands housed in the museum – Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg – were high-priced luxury and racing vehicles produced between 1900 to 1937. Auburn was wholly owned by the Cord Corporation; entrepreneur E.L. Cord acquired Duesenberg in 1926 to add to his stable of stylish and expensive cars. The Depression, and the economic downturn that followed, saw an inevitable sales decline for the Cord empire. The company was sold and dissolved in 1937.

Other vehicles on display in the museum include ‘The Cars of Indiana,’ rare and unusual vehicles no longer in production once manufactured in the Hoosier state, as well as a gallery of racers and record-setters. Exhibits on the second and third floors include advertising campaigns, the work of design studios, blueprint rooms, as well as engines and technological innovations of the day.

One of the many advertisements featuring women on display

As might be expected in a museum seeped in automotive history, regional identity, and the accomplishments of exceptional men, women’s presence within its celebrated walls is subtle at best. However, because of the nature of the Auburn – Cord – Duesenberg product, female representation was, in fact, an important component of the automotive brand. This is evident in the promotional materials that adorn the walls of the building’s second floor. As one of the accompanying placards notes, ‘Auburn ads frequently featured glamourous female models situated in lavish settings.’ The models were called upon to reflect class, elegance, and style, as well as to suggest that owning such a vehicle would infer such qualities on the individual who drove it. As another card conveyed, ‘these ads were notable because they featured a lifestyle and not the product.’ The presence of female models in these advertisements suggest the stylish women were more successful in eluding elegance and class than the cars themselves. Photographs hung throughout the museum – with unnamed women as passengers – also serve to associate the automobile with a certain upscale and desirable lifestyle.

Woman as Goddess on the hood of a Duesenberg

Women also graced automotive exteriors in the form of hood ornaments. These sleek, elongated, goddess representations in steel also lent credence to the Duesenberg or Auburn as luxurious vehicles for the upper class.

Within the lineup of cars on display, women as well as notable events involving women are called upon to place a vehicle within a specific time and place in history. Referring to Amelia Earhart [an automobile aficionado] or women’s suffrage alongside an automobile of that era offers an opportunity to imagine how or why an automobile might be used. Women’s stories – anecdotes of an event or driving experience – are also integrated into the histories of particular automobiles. Women referred to by name as donors were often keepers of cars – maintaining the automobile after the death of a father or spouse before donating it to the museum archives. These women serve as touchstones within the cluster of vehicles, often providing a human element to the business of cars.

High society woman and the new 1935 Cord 810

This was not my first visit to the ACD Museum. I stopped in decades ago while in the area for a dog show [which is a whole other conversation]. More recently, I traveled to Auburn for SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] business. But this encounter provided me with the opportunity to search out women’s presence in what I suspect exists for most as a very masculine space. As I discovered in the ACD as well as most of the automotive museums I’ve spent time in, women are visible if only you look for them.

Women & the Model T

This past weekend my automotive museum project took me to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in downtown Detroit. Constructed in 1904, the Piquette Plant was the second center of automotive production for the Ford Motor Company. From 1904 until the end of 1909, the facility assembled Ford car models B, C, F, K, N, R, S, and T [known as the Ford alphabet cars]. The most famous is the Model T, the car credited with initiating the mass use of automobiles in the United States. The Model T was initially produced [station to station assembly] at the Piquette Plant in 1908; it was subsequently mass produced when the company transferred its operations to the Highland Park Assembly Plant in 1913. After Ford vacated the Piquette building, it had a series of owners before being sold in 2000 to the Model-T Automotive Heritage Complex, Inc, which restored the plant and now operates the historic site as a museum.

Automotive museums, as I’m discovering, most often reflect the interests and inspirations of the founders. While there are many institutions devoted to a particular automotive manufacturer, the focal point of the Paquette one specific model –  the Model T and the alphabet cars that preceded it. There are 60 cars of various provenance on two floors; the building also houses a reconstruction of Henry Ford’s office and provides a good deal of background on the daily operation of the factory back in the day. Many of Ford’s early automotive projects which took place at the Paquette are documented and on display.

As to be expected in a museum housed in a former automotive factory, which operated during a time when the automotive industry was owned and operated almost exclusively by white men, women’s presence as consumers, drivers, or workers is limited. However, if one looks hard enough at the various exhibits women’s influence surfaces in both stereotypical and unexpected ways.

Clara & Henry Ford testing the Kitchen Sink Engine Model

Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, is referenced often in the museum. Perhaps most impressive is her role in the testing of what became known as the Kitchen Sink Engine Model. As Ford lore would have it, on Christmas Eve, 1893, the apparatus was placed over the sink in the Ford family kitchen while Henry worked the ignition and Clara fed gasoline into the intake valve. As noted by auto aficionado Bill McGuire, ‘when the simple, hand-built engine sputtered to life over the sink, Ford’s earliest dream was realized and his remarkable automotive career began.’ Clara is also mentioned in connection to the museum’s non Ford electric vehicle. This story, that Henry purchased the electric vehicle from an automotive competitor for his wife, is one that can be found in nearly every Ford exhibit in any museum. Of course, the question of whether Mrs. Ford actually desired the vehicle, or rather it was purchased to keep her close to home, is never answered.

Another interesting exhibit in which women are prominent is that dedicated to automotive inventor Edward ‘Spider’ Huff. Huff helped to perfect the enclosed flywheel magneto – recognized as a major advantage of the Model T over other automobiles of the time. The magnetos were assembled by a team of women in the Winding and Insulating Department, located near Huff’s office and away from the working men. This group of workers were the first women to be employed by Ford. This hidden bit of information also provides a little insight into Ford as a segregated work environment.

Other references to women include photos of women behind the wheel of Model Ts as well as operating bicycles. Tucked into a corner on the second floor is a photo of women drivers with a caption that notes that, although women were routinely ignored by the auto industry, Ford recognized them as an important market for reliable, inexpensive cars.

One of the more interesting options of some of the early Fords was the ‘mother-in-law’ seat, a fold down, single person rumble seat in the rear. The commonly used term for this feature no doubt reflects some of the ‘back seat driver’ stereotypes of the time.

Model K Roadster with a mother-in-law seat

We arrived at the museum in time to join the last tour of the day. The tour was a bit rushed, as the facility was being set up for a wedding later that evening. While the tour guide was quite knowledgeable, he was also a bit sexist, embellishing or perhaps even fabricating stories about women’s preferences for particular automobiles. According to this gentleman, women were attracted to the 1907 Model R Runabout for its extensive ‘bling’; to the 1911 Brush Runabout for its easy ride and affordability; and the electric car for its high roof [to accommodate women’s hats], its extensive use of glass [so that women could be ‘seen’], and the seats arranged in living room fashion to ease conversation. None of this was documented in the museum; I suspect it was the guide’s attempt at being ‘funny’ to a captive audience.

The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant is an interesting and historically significant building that provides a unique chapter in the history of the Ford Motor Company. It is certainly worth a visit if you find yourself in downtown Detroit. 

Volvo, Women, & Cars

I’ve been writing about the relationship between women in cars since first discovering the topic in graduate school nearly 15 years ago. Since that time I’ve addressed the woman-car connection in a variety of contexts. Some of my work focuses on women who participate in car cultures associated with the male driver, including muscle cars, pickup trucks, chick cars, and motorsports. Other projects speak to the representation of women’s connection to cars in popular culture locations such as film, music, and children’s toys. While literature on women’s automotive history and participation has increased since I first embarked on the topic, it tends to fall into two camps. The first is a critique of how auto manufacturers and marketers have traditionally erected obstacles to women’s full engagement with automobiles, and the second is the focus on exceptional women in automotive – women who have successfully challenged barriers to become successful in venues such the auto industry and motorsports.

Chick Car project

In my own work, I have focused primarily on ordinary women – in popular culture as well as real life – in order to uncover the complicated, productive, positive, as well as empowering aspects of women’s relationship to cars. In each of these contexts, I attempt to reveal the potential of the automobile to enrich women’s lives. Although I often address the barriers to women’s participation in various car cultures, the major focus is on how women successfully negotiate membership in male dominated automotive spaces not to become famous, but rather to become stronger, more confident, and more powerful versions of themselves. In popular culture settings, I try to examine how cars hold special meanings for women that differ from those found in dominant male narratives. My goal in each of these projects is to give the woman driver a voice that has historically been silenced. 

Girl Gang Garage – credit Volvo

During this past week I came across an article in Advertising Age developed from an interview with Janique Helson, head of brand marketing at Volvo Car USA. As the article points out, Helson ‘has made combatting sexism in the automotive industry a tenant of Volvo’s marketing strategy.’ One of the ways this has been accomplished is through the unique female-friendly messaging that has made its way into Volvo advertising and promotional material since Helson took the helm in 2020. Some of these efforts include creating safety messaging that is more emotional, making a connection between feeling safe to the ability to endure challenges. Another is a collaboration with Girl Gang Garage as a means to ‘elevate, encourage, and champion women’s entry and advancement within the automotive and skilled trade industries.’ However, what was most interesting to me was a video created by Volvo last year for International Women’s Day. The recording features snippets of conversations with 26 female Volvo owners discussing the connections they have with their cars. The diverse group of women talk about the car’s ability to strengthen relationship with family members; the pride in owning something so strong and beautiful, how the car contributes to a woman’s personality and identity; how owning a Volvo can lead to a safer and cleaner environment for future generations; the ‘specialness’ of driving a vintage Volvo; how Volvo makes mothers and caretakers feel more safe; the car as an intimate space; and over a dozen other powerful vignettes that demonstrate the significance of cars to women’s lives. As Helson notes, ‘these women have this massive love for cars and the way they talk about it is very different than how men talk about their love for cars.’

International Women’s Day video – credit Martin Schoeller for Volvo

As few in academia write about women and cars as a relationship that is both positive and empowering, I often feel as though I am working in a vacuum. The work Helson has overseen since her appointment as brand marketing head in many ways serves as a legitimization of my own. [On another note, it also emphasizes the importance of having a woman in a position of power within an auto company]. Although Helson operates on a much grander scale and is therefore capable of a much greater reach and influence, we are in agreement regarding the importance of providing women drivers with a platform. As Helson asserts, ‘obviously we need more women working in automotive, but we also need to put women’s stories at the front and center of how they feel about cars and how they feel about driving.’ I am grateful to Janique Helson for the impetus to continue my own exploration of women’s relationship to cars.

International Women’s Day video – credit Martin Schoeller forVolvo

Schultz, E.J. “Volvo’s Marketing Head on Fixing Female Representation in Auto Ads.” Advertising Age. 3 May 2023.

Ford Does Women’s Day

In honor of International Women’s Day, the Ford Motor Company has introduced a rather unconventional marketing campaign which is creating a bit of a buzz. The 30-second commercial, narrated by Brian Cranston of Breaking Bad fame, introduces the Ford Explorer Men’s Only Edition as a completely reimagined vehicle. 

Gladys West, contributor to the development of the Global Positioning System [GPS]

Although the advertisement appears to be fairly typical, with running footage of a shiny black vehicle driving down winding roads, it soon takes an unexpected turn. For the special men’s edition is lacking a few important parts, notably windshield wipers, turn signals, a rearview mirror, brake lights, heaters, and GPS, innovations that were, in fact, developed by women. As a nod to women working in automotive industry Ford takes this opportunity to bring attention to the invisible female inventors, engineers, and designers over the past century who have made important contributions to the automobile. As the company website notes, ‘to support the campaign throughout the month, Ford will highlight the achievements and contributions of female innovators of the past and present on Ford.com and across the company’s social media accounts.’

The Ford campaign has made headlines in both the general and automotive press. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Auto journalists refer to the campaign as humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and clever. Many of the articles bring attention to the women responsible for these contributions, including Hedy Lamarr, Florence Lawrence, Dorothy Levitt, Dorothee Pullinger, and Dr. Gladys West. Women in particular are charmed by the commercial, referring to it as ‘10/10 advertisement,’ ‘perfection,’ and ‘makes me even more proud to be a Ford owner.’ As a former advertising person myself, I applaud the Ford ad agency that created a commercial that is not only creative, memorable, and fun, but one that celebrates women without disparaging men.

Mary Anderson, inventor of the first practical windshield wiper

However, not all who viewed this advertisement are pleased. The comment sections on many of the news sites are filled with complaints from those offended, with remarks that suggest the advertisement somehow threatens one’s masculinity. The posts include the unoriginal and expected ‘what is Ford doing for International Men’s Day?’, as well as many that engage in tired gender stereotypes, such as ‘the woman’s only version would only be a small pile of useless parts,’ and ‘since a man invented the internal combustion engine, I’m guessing the women’s addition [sic] would be a static display.’ Some argue that Ford got its facts wrong, with the claim, ‘all of the things mentioned were actually invented by men years before.’ Other individuals go further, admonishing the auto manufacturer for its wokeness and ‘confused’ sexual identity. 

Hedy Lamarr, innovator of the communication system used in cellular technology, Wi-Fi and GPS

Certainly the comments reflect convoluted logic and a lack of critical thinking, investing in the notion that praising women’s achievements somehow discredits men. Yet what is most troubling in these remarks is the culture they represent. The association between masculinity and the automobile has a long and entrenched history. In the early auto age, in order to perpetuate this ‘natural’ relationship between man and his machine, it became necessity to frame women as poor drivers, mentally incompetent, and technologically ignorant. While the ‘woman driver’ stereotype was developed nearly a century ago to degrade women’s driving ability and automotive competence, the barrage of negative comments incited by a 30 second car commercial suggest such beliefs remain common among a significant [male] population nearly 100 years later. This is worrisome for an individual interested in pursuing an automotive related career. It suggests that the automotive culture remains unwelcoming to women no matter the credentials, work ethic, or job performance. It intimates that despite the efforts within the automotive industry to address the underrepresentation of women, there is still a significant group within it that considers women as less. The sexist commentary not only brings renewed attention to the incredible obstacles faced by women in the automotive industry a century ago, but reveals that in the twenty-first century, many of those barriers stubbornly remain. 

Dr. Cynthia Flanigan – Chief Engineer, Hardware Integration in Vehicle Hardware Engineering

Ford is to be commended for celebrating women’s automotive achievements in this clever and thought-provoking ad. It provides the opportunity for all of us who drive – men and women alike –  to appreciate and respect the automotive innovations contributed by women in a historically male-dominated industry.

The ‘First Ladies’ of Oldsmobile

R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan

I continued my investigation of women’s representation in automotive museums by stopping by the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan. As I work my way through this project, I am discovering that the focus of a particular museum is most often determined by the interests and intention of its founders. While the museums I have visited thus far have been structured around either a place or a collector’s interest, the Olds Museum – like its name – is an automotive collection assembled based on a major car manufacturer and the man who lent it its name. The layout of the museum reveals its two identities: first, as a [literal] road through early Oldsmobile history, and second, as a looser collection of more recent Olds automobiles, additional REO endeavors, artifacts, related businesses and industries, and a bit of 1950s car culture. While the first section of the museum is tightly organized, the large back ‘dealership’ room is a little more hodgepodge, encompassing a wide variety of Olds, GM, Fisher Body, and tangential industry paraphernalia.

Oldsmobile Girls Club Artifacts

Because the museum is centered on a man and a car, women are not well represented. Like many of the museums I’ve visited, [visual] references to women are primarily related to fashion. There are many female mannequins placed throughout the museum garbed in the styles of a particular time related to the automobile. Other references to women include those who have donated vehicles to the collection, advertisements and promotional material, photos of [unidentified] female factory workers, and ephemera [such as employee nametags]. A glass case includes a small display of items related to the Oldsmobile Girls Club – a 1950s-60s women’s community organization – that includes photographs, programs, mugs, sewing kits, charm bracelets, vanity items, ashtrays, and a cookbook.

Metta Olds Reading Desk

While women – as workers, drivers, and club members – take a back seat to the major automotive leaders on display, there are two that are named, and thus deserve special attention. The first is Metta Olds, who was married to Ransom, popularly known as ‘R.E.’ The tour through the museum begins with a focus on the Olds family and homestead. Much of that is devoted to Metta – photos, family trees, furniture, personal items, and clothing. Metta was very much a silent partner and supporter of her husband; a book titled Loves, Lives, and Labors was written about their strong relationship and Metta’s roll as ‘woman-behind-the-man’. While, as the wife of the founder, Metta could easily be referred to as the ‘First Lady of Oldsmobile’, that title was, in fact, bestowed on Helen Earley, a longtime employee who, through a number of positions, created a position for herself as the resident Oldsmobile historian. Automotive historian Robert Tate writes that Earley, as a scholar, historian, and archivist, ‘contributed a great deal of knowledge to the automotive community.’ During her career, Earley and another retiree helped establish the Oldsmobile History Center. She also co-authored two books on Oldsmobile history: Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years written with James R. Walkinshaw, and Oldsmobile: A War Years Pictorial. Earley was also one of the founding task force members responsible for creating the R.E. Olds Museum; she also served as a board member for the National Automotive History Collection, the Library and Research Center for the Antique Automobile Club of America, and was a recipient of the prestigious James J. Bradley Award from the Society of Automotive Historians. This award recognized the ‘Outstanding contributions to the preservation of historical materials related to the automobiles produced by Oldsmobile and for the spirit of helpfulness to writers, researchers, historians and restorers’.

Despite Earley’s importance to Oldsmobile history and the museum, one has to search to find out anything about her. There is her name over the board room, a portrait on the board room wall, and a card clipped to a driving outfit on one of the displays. I finally discovered a glass case containing some photos and her self-authored obituary in a hidden away corner of the ‘dealership’ room. Although recognized as the designated ‘first lady’, Earley receives what can be described as second-class attention.

Helen Earley ‘The First Lady of Oldsmobile’

The RE Olds Transportation Museum was an interesting stop on my tour of automotive museums. While the collection focuses on a specific individual and the company he founded, women’s unique contributions to Oldsmobile can be uncovered if one looks hard enough.