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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
One of the annual traditions in the metropolitan Motor City is the Woodward Dream Cruise. Held annually on the third Saturday of August, the cruise is a day-long celebration of car culture. Instituted in 1995 as an effort to raise money for a children’s soccer field in Ferndale, Michigan, the event now attracts more than 1.5 million visitors. Featuring more than 40,000 muscle cars and street machines, the Woodward Dream Cruise is now considered the world’s largest one-day vintage car event.
Woodward Avenue was chosen not only for its central location – it is the unofficial divider of metropolitan Detroit’s east and west sides – but more importantly for its significant muscle car history. It is rumored that John DeLorean found inspiration for the Pontiac GTO – considered by aficionados as the original muscle car – while driving home from General Motors in downtown Detroit to his home in Bloomfield Hills. In the glory days of muscle car culture, young men in their Chevelles, Camaros, Challengers, and Barracudas could be spotted on summer evenings drag racing from light to light down the long suburban expanse of Woodward Avenue. The original Dream Cruise was true to this vision; the two right lanes were devoted to classic muscle cars and hot rods, while auto enthusiasts and curious spectators lined up curbside to take in the style and sounds of the magnificent machines of the past.
However in recent years, the cruise and the cars that drive in it have changed. While there are still a few true muscle cars in attendance they have been taken over by modern muscle. This was nowhere more evident than at the traditional “Mustang Alley” display held each year in Ferndale. Once populated by classic Mustangs, 9 Mile Road is now the place to park the new generation of pony cars. What has also changed are the folks who own them. As a product of the 60s and 70s, classic muscle cars are overwhelmingly driven by members of the baby boomer generation. Now in their 70s, the grey haired men are less inclined to take an unreliable 50 year old car into the stop and go traffic of Woodward on Dream Cruise day. The newer cars reflect a changing population of muscle car aficionados. The younger generation, while acknowledging the Mustang’s significant history, prefer the speed, safety, economy, reliability and superior power of modern muscle. And once discouraged, if not outright banished, from participating in muscle car culture, women now take pleasure and pride in the power and excitement the new cars have to offer. Women are now credited with purchasing over one third of Mustangs, suggesting not only that the female motorist has become more car savvy, but also that the masculinity associated with Detroit muscle is ever-so-slowly shifting.
A recent Detroit Free Press article made note of the changing automotive population, referring to the 2022 Woodward Dream Cruise as ‘a celebration of tradition and new.’ As an aging boomer who has done extensive research on the muscle car, I miss seeing the panther pink and grabber blue muscle cars of the past driving down the Woodward Avenue of my youth. But as one who writes about women and cars, I am delighted to see women challenging gender stereotypes and embracing performance and power through the purchase and display of fast and noisy modern muscle.
Note: One month after this blog was posted, Phoebe Wall Howard, an auto writer for the Detroit Free Press, spoke to a number of Mustang-owning-women – which she refers to as ‘Mustang Mamas’ – in an article to promote the Detroit Auto Show.
Today I had the pleasure of presenting one of my research projects to the American Association of University Women – Birmingham MI Branch. When I received the invitation to speak, I wasn’t sure what I could say that would be relevant to this intelligent and enthusiastic group of university women. When I have been asked to speak on women and cars in the past, the invitation has most often come from a group of auto historians or car enthusiasts – a natural audience for the type of work I do. So I wondered how I could make my research relevant to the AAUW – an organization of women focused on advancing gender equity in education and the workplace. However, when I discovered where the luncheon was to take place, I decided to speak on a topic that has relevance to the location – The Iroquois Club – as well as to women working toward gender equity, albeit in a rather unusual way.
As it turns out, The Iroquois Club is located on Woodward Avenue and Square Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, an intersection that played an important role in automotive history. While many recognize Woodward Avenue as the site of the annual Dream Cruise – the world’s largest one day automotive event – this very stretch of highway was instrumental in the development of the American muscle car, a category of vehicle that ruled the roads during the 1960s and early 1970s and is the inspiration for the celebration of car culture that ties up traffic on Woodward Avenue every year. Since this research project builds on muscle car history to incorporate women’s current participation in muscle car culture, the topic of women enthusiasts of American muscle cars seemed fitting for a Birmingham/Bloomfield Hills based organization of university women.
In terms of the AAUW goal of equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research, the research touches on those concerns in rather unique and perhaps surprising ways. One of the goals in all of my research – including women and muscle cars – is to emphasize how women’s participation in masculine car cultures can create female interest in historically male dominated occupations and can also, in fact, serve as a stimulus to future roles and careers in the auto industry and other autocentric environments. And what this project also examines is how women involved in automobile cultures develop unique and inventive strategies to create a sense of gender equity in environments that are overwhelmingly conservative in ideology and practice. As I argued, the working-from-within methods employed by muscle car owning women can be applied to not only car cultures, but to any historically male dominated location.
The women in attendance acknowledged the connections I established between my own work and that of the AAUW and seemed responsive to the presentation, asking good questions and talking to me about their own automotive experiences afterward. I even sold a few books, which makes me hopeful that I have made a connection with the audience in some way. Although I am not a natural speaker and am always nervous before these types of events, the women were warm, welcoming, and enthusiastic. It was both an honor and a pleasure to speak with them today.
In a recent Jalopnik article, auto writer Elizabeth Blackstock expresses frustration at her inability to determine the perfect name for her soon-to-be purchased car. She lists a number of possibilities, but ultimately finds them to be lacking in one way or another. Blackstock implores her readers to come to her aid not through suggestions for her own automobile, but to provide stories of how, why, and what their own cars were named as a means of inspiration. She received a great number of responses – funny, irreverent, and personal – which suggests that car naming is a popular activity among devoted car owners.
In my research focused on female muscle car ownership, I discovered that women often name cars as a way to claim ownership and display a personal identity. As Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car authors Marsh and Collett write, ‘naming is a particularly strong way in which to announce our attachment to something which is much more than just an object’ (13). Because the muscle car has a longstanding and engrained association with masculinity and the male driver, car naming becomes an important way for the female motorist to proclaim ‘this car is mine.’ In order to assure that ownership of a 1965 red Mustang convertible was attributed to her rather than her husband, a 47-year-old analyst attached a personalized license plate inscribed with a girly moniker on the back bumper. Car naming also allows women to call upon shared automotive qualities to project identities. A 47-year-old teacher had ‘She Devil’ air brushed prominently on both her 1989 RS and 2001 Berger SS Camaros. As she noted, ‘I get the funniest comments about that. “So is that the car or the woman?”‘ A 29-year-old New Zealand native, whose 2010 Camaro SS RS is adorned with bumble bee imagery and carries the license plate ‘Kiwi Bee,’ has taken identification with the car to a whole new level. As the automotive product manager explained, ‘I’m constantly accessorizing myself to match the car. My computer laptop bag is yellow; I have a yellow purse; my fingernails I paint yellow and put black bowties on them.’While the owner is proud to own an iconic symbol of American muscle, the name on the license plate assures that others know who she is and where she came from.
Women often name cars as a way to connect to an individual from the past, or to establish themselves firmly in the present. A classic Mustang owner often accompanied her father to his job as a mechanic when she was a girl. As she remarked, ‘I remember going into the garage where he worked, and I just loved the smell.’ After his passing, she decided to honor him and his love for cars by using his childhood nickname for her on the automobile’s personalized license plate. The 51-year-old executive director of a non-profit likes to think of herself as a ‘badass’ when behind the wheel of her 1966 Chevrolet Impala. As she exclaimed, ‘I identify my car as female; she has a name and she is a badass, too.’ Marsh and Collett claim that American drivers often use specialized license plates to draw attention to themselves. As they assert, for some drivers the vanity plate ‘serves the role of a personal testimonial, displaying the owner’s sense of humor or his ability to challenge the wits of other drivers’ (75). A 54-year-old 2014 Chevy Camaro 2SS/RS owner calls upon a vanity plate to express the identity she claims – BANSSHE – when behind the wheel. When a 50-year-old school bus driver pulls into a car show in her Frost Blue 1968 Plymouth Barracuda with a personalized ‘princess’ vanity plate on the front, attired in an ensemble color coordinated with her car, she is not only announcing herself as the owner of the vehicle, but is suggesting she is as ‘flashy and out there’ as the car she drives.
Marsh and Collett argue that the original muscle car served as a ‘standard form of uniform’ for young men; embellishment provided the opportunity to ‘transform the vehicle into social statement”’ (93). The women in this project call upon naming and marking to identify with a category of automobile historically associated with the man behind the wheel. In doing so they make the car their own, and project a revised and reimagined image of the woman driver.
 ‘Bowtie’ is the common term used to refer to the Chevrolet logo.
Blackstock, Elizabeth. ‘What Did You Name Your Car?’ Jalopnik.com 3 April, 2021.
Marsh, Peter and Peter Collett. Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. 2nd ed. Winchester MA: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1989.
One of the benefits of living in the metro Detroit area is access to automotive museums and collections. While taking a class in material culture as a PhD student a number of years ago, one of the assignments was to write an object biography. As I was researching muscle cars at the time, I chose the 1965 Pontiac GTO on display at the Henry Ford as the subject of my essay. What follows is the result of my investigation, which I attribute to successful detective work and a lot of luck. [As this was written in 2010, the Henry Ford exhibit is no longer as described here].
On any given day at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a small crowd, most often male, can be found gathered around a 1965 white, two-door Pontiac GTO on display. Part of the museum’s The Automobile in American Life exhibit, which opened in November 1987, the GTO commands attention through its considerable size and sleek design, privileged position on the exhibition floor, and as a representative of a particular era in American car and cultural history. The GTO, over 17 feet in length of gleaming sheet metal, stands slightly apart from the main exhibit, in a section described in Henry Ford literature as The Automobile as American Symbol (Hyde, 1989, p. 108). The hanging sign overhead that reads simply “power” , the console mounted high-performance Hurst shift lever controls and four-speed manual transmission found within the interior, and the polished V-8, 389 cubic inch, tri-power engine visible under the propped-up hood leave little doubt as to what the GTO was, in fact, built to symbolize. Produced during the height of America’s dominance in the automobile industry, the Pontiac GTO was manufactured to reflect the power of a nation, a car company, and by association, that of the man who drove it.
The text that accompanies the GTO display consists of a short paragraph that places the automobile in a cultural context as a “symbol of 1960s youth culture” (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). A 1965 black and white print advertisement – which compares the GTO to a prowling tiger– is situated next to it. The label adhered to the base on which the GTO stands offers little background to the car’s origin. While it provides information as to the automobile’s manufacture – General Motors Corporation, Pontiac Motor Division – the life history of the 1965 GTO, as a product, generational icon, as well as personal transportation for a particular individual, is notably absent (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Yet upon observation of those who stop to stare at the 45-year-old automobile – aging baby boomer men, young male professionals, middle-aged blue-collar workers, and gangly teenage boys – it becomes evident that the GTO contains meanings that extend well beyond its role as a means of transportation.
In creating the exhibit, the Henry Ford was certainly aware of how particular characteristics would resonate with visitors. As Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest, curators are instinctively attracted to objects through “their aesthetic qualities, their cultural resonances,” as well as what is known “about the drama of their individual histories” (p. 145). Therefore, in order to better understand the importance of the 1965 GTO to the Automobile and American Life exhibit and its visitors, it is helpful to construct what Wehner and Sear define as an object biography. Such a process will not only examine the automobile’s history as both product and symbol, but will also attempt to uncover the route of the Henry Ford GTO – Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) 237275P339452 – from the assembly line to the museum floor (Benson Ford, 87.70.1).
The 1964 Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omolgato) is often credited for being the first “muscle car.” It was the brainchild of John DeLorean, who became chief engineer of Pontiac, a division of General Motors, in 1961. Searching for a way to address the flagging sales of the Tempest, Pontiac’s disappointing entry into the mid-size automotive market, DeLorean found inspiration for the GTO on the streets of Detroit. During his daily drive down Woodward Avenue from his Bloomfield Hills home to the General Motors downtown offices, DeLorean couldn’t help but notice the increasing proliferation of teenage boys engaged in illegal street racing. This untapped growing consumer market – male baby boomers of driving age – suggested to DeLorean there was money to be made by appealing to the large number of young men “with money in their pockets looking for excitement” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177). Reexamining the dimensions of the Tempest, DeLorean realized that a 389-cubic-engine V-8 engine had the same external size as the current Tempest option, a 322-cubic-inch V-8. Calling upon the California hot-rod philosophy of the 1950s – light weight plus big engine equals fast car – DeLorean found he was able to deliver sixty-seven more horsepower in the Tempest simply by placing the more powerful engine under the hood. And in removing all the luxury frills from the Tempest – i.e. air conditioning, power windows and FM radio – DeLorean produced a crazy-fast car for a price ($3200) street-racing teenage boys could afford.
However, DeLorean was faced with one minor problem. In 1963, General Motors made a ruling that forbade the use of engines larger than 330 cubic inches in their intermediate sized automobiles. Realizing that it would be impossible to receive permission to install the larger engine before the 1964 product introduction, DeLorean devised – and got away with – a scheme to offer the 389 as part of an option package. An extra $296 not only provided the buyer with a more powerful engine, but also included pseudo hood scoops, chrome air cleaner and valve covers, four-speed manual transmission with floor-mounted Hurst shifter, heavy-duty clutch and suspension, B.F. Goodrich Red Line nylon tires, and chrome GTO nameplates on all four sides (Zavitz, 1989, p. 19). As Mark Foster (2003) writes, “DeLorean and his men found themselves playing with a very hot set of wheels, which was fun to drive” (p. 75). The immediate success of the Pontiac GTO inspired other American automakers to follow suit; the streets of Detroit were soon rumbling with an assortment of muscle cars that included the Dodge Charger, Plymouth Roadrunner, and Chevrolet Chevelle. Auto journalists also got on the muscle car bandwagon, and wrote about them in glowing – albeit masculine – terms. John Campisano (1995), former editor-in-chief of Muscle Cars magazine, remarked, “Muscle cars are about screaming big blocks revving to the redline. They’re about full-throttle power-shifts at the drags. […] They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone” (p. 8). Automobile magazine founder David E. Davis depicted the muscle car driving experience as “losing your virginity, going into combat and tasting your first beer all in about seven seconds” (Mueller, 1997, p. 17). As an important component of urban male teenage culture from the mid 1960s to early 1970s, it can easily be argued that the Detroit muscle car – of which the 1964 GTO was the acknowledged forerunner – was the automotive product most strongly associated with masculinity. As a “dominant icon in car culture America” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177), the GTO offered its young male drivers – literally and figuratively – possibilities of unlimited power.
The information gleaned from an investigation of the 1965 GTO on display at the Henry Ford often parallels that of the product’s own storied history. The object folder provided by the Benson Ford Research Center provides clues to the automobile’s personal 45-year trajectory. The automobile’s VIN – located on the left front door hinge pillar and noted in the museum object report – not only indicates the color, model, and body style of the car, but also reveals that the GTO was manufactured at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Pontiac, Michigan. As the Florida license plate suggests and the original bill of sale confirms, after production, the GTO made its way from Pontiac, Michigan to the Colonial Pontiac dealership in Miami, Florida. Auto dealer B. Green sold the car to Otis Wegley on July 20, 1965 (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). The Guardian Maintenance Coupon Book, included with the car’s purchase, indicates that the GTO’s scheduled maintenance was never performed. Perhaps this was because Wegley only drove the car for seven months and 4220 miles before transferring ownership on February 24, 1966 to Anthony Vassilakakis (Tony Vass) of Hollywood, Florida. As the documents in the museum folder show, the GTO eventually wound up in the hands of Jeffrey D. Burch of Fort Lauderdale, who sold the car to the Henry Ford in 1987. With this transaction, the cycle was complete; the GTO returned to the state of its origin for a long and comfortable retirement.
Items within the object folder hint at the negotiations that took place between Burch and Edison Institute (renamed the Henry Ford) transportation curator Randy Mason on the transfer of the GTO. Burch sent Mason fourteen color photographs of the car, accompanied by handwritten descriptions on the back of each, to confirm its condition and authenticity. In the memo dated March 26, 1987 included with the photographs, Burch suggests that the museum’s offering price for the GTO does not reflect its true value (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Perhaps the argument that the car would be preserved for posterity in a museum convinced Burch to accept a reduced payment. While the object folder provided information on the car’s ownership, there was nothing to indicate when, why, and from whom Burch purchased the GTO. Using the information at hand, a little detective work was performed to uncover more of the car’s personal history.
After compiling a list of questions, an attempt was made to contact Burch by phone and email to fill in the blanks of the 1965 GTO’s biography. However, although current contact information was available on the Internet, both the number and the address provided were no longer valid. However, a chance “Googling” of “Burch GTO” produced an August 26, 1987 article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that, surprisingly and miraculously, answered almost all of the proposed questions. “Classic Auto Drives Into Place in History,” reported by Pat Curry, tells the story of Burch’s acquisition of the GTO as well the circumstances that led to the car’s journey back to Michigan. As Curry discovered, Florida native Burch had a personal history with the GTO. In 1967, recently graduated from Stranahan High School, 18-year-old Burch purchased a red, four-on-the-floor Pontiac GTO through the classifieds. However, in just one year’s time, an excessive number of speeding tickets – inspired by the tiger under the hood, no doubt – forced Burch to sell the car. However, Burch never forgot his teenage experience with the GTO; as Curry remarked, “the memories hung on like the squealing tires on quiet Broward County back roads.”
Almost twenty years later, after settling down and raising a family, Burch got the urge to once more drive the car of his youth. A chance encounter with an exterminator working in the neighborhood led Burch to Tony Vass, who had owned, but rarely driven, the white 1965 GTO. Once Burch saw the automobile, memories of his past experience, and his teenage years, were impossible to ignore. As Curry (1987) wrote, “There he was with the guys, […] hanging out and bragging about his car. He was sitting behind the wheel of his old GTO, a hot red monster of a car just made to go faster than the law allowed.” Burch talked Vass into selling him the car, and spent the next two-and-a-half years restoring it, taking it to car shows, and coming home with first place prizes. It was at one of these shows – the Antique Automobile Club of America regional – that Randy Mason came across the GTO, and convinced Burch to sell it to the Henry Ford. Within Florida, with its warm climate and absence of salt on the roads, Mason hoped he would find just the right car for the new exhibit opening in the completely redesigned Henry Ford. Once the transaction between Burch and Mason was completed, the museum sent a semi-truck to Burch’s home to pick up the car; upon arrival it was installed into The Automobile and American Life exhibit where it has remained ever since.
The comments made by the original owners Vass and Burch, included in the article written over 20 years ago by Pat Curry, provide insight into the attraction of the 1965 Pontiac GTO to today’s visitors to the Henry Ford. Of his experience driving the car, Vass remarked, “It had a certain feel to it. When you shifted, you were in full command.” This sentiment is reflected in the ad that accompanies the Henry Ford display, as it informs the reader the GTO “Snarls when you prod it” (Frumkin, 2002, p. 127). More recent literature describes the GTO, and all muscle cars, in this manner: “They’re about power that pins you to your seat. They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone. They are about a bygone era that changed America (and the automobile industry) forever” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8). What these quotes suggest is that the meanings ascribed to the GTO by its owners, drivers, and admirers haven’t significantly changed since the automobile’s introduction. Yet what was once experiential meaning is now often encased in nostalgia for a “more innocent age […] when men were men, women weren’t, and fewer rules ruled, so much so that next to no one worried about the implications of the unlimited sale of raw horsepower” (Mueller, 2004, p. 18).
Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest that museum objects most attractive to visitors and curators alike are those with strong personal stories and provenance that link the object to a person’s life (p. 145). The commonality of experience and meaning shared by past owners and current admirers of the GTO serves to link them to the automobile and to each other. Mimi Sheller and John Urry (2000) suggest the automobile, as a container of meaning, is deeply entrenched in the ways individuals inhabit the world. As they argue, the car “not only appeals to an apparently ‘instinctual’ aesthetic and kinaesthetic sense, but it transforms the way we sense the world and the capacities of human bodies to interact with that world through the visual, aural, olfactory, interoceptive and proprioceptive senses. We not only feel the car, but we feel through the car and with the car” (p. 228). For a particular group of individuals, the 1965 GTO not only recalls a past driving experience, but also represents how they once envisioned themselves in the world.
The GTO, to those who remember it and those who long after it, contains meanings that extend far beyond its function as a means of transportation. It represents an era in which the USA ruled the auto industry, when America was positioned as a “leader, not a follower” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8), and a time when teenage boys proved their manhood behind the wheel of a fast and powerful automobile.
Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Object folder: Pontiac GTO, 1965. Acc. 87.70.1.
Campisano, J. (1995). American muscle cars. New York: MetroBooks.
Curry, P. (1987). Classic auto drives into place in history. SunSentinel.com, 26 Aug 1987. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-08-26/news/8703090934_1_car-symbol-henry-ford-museum
Foster, M. (2003). A nation on wheels: the automobile culture in America since 1945. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth.
Frumkin, M.J. (2002). Classic muscle car advertising: The art of selling horsepower. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.
Heitmann, J. (2009). The automobile and American life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Hyde, C. (1989). The automobile in American life: An exhibit at Henry Ford museum. Technology and Culture. 30.1,105-111.
Mueller, M. (2004). Motor city muscle. St. Paul: MBI Publishing.
Sheller, M. and J. Urry. (2000). The city and the car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 24.4, 737-757.
Wehner, K. and M. Sear. (2010) Engaging in the material world: Object knowledge and ‘Australian Journeys’. Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. S. Dudley, ed. London: Routledge.
Zavitz, R.P. (1989). Post war scripts: When the GTO got going. Old Cars Weekly. 31 Aug 1989, 19-20.
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!
I had the wonderful opportunity to return to the Society of Automotive Historians book signing event at the 2019 Hershey Fall Meet to promote my book Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars. It’s always a great time to connect with other auto history buffs, check out new titles, and of course, sell a few books. This year I was joined by two other female authors: Sigur Whitaker, who writes extensively about the people and places of Indianapolis, and Constance Smith, who authored the award-winning Damsels in Design: Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939-1959. Constance spoke at an event in downtown Detroit last year, accompanied by Elizabeth Wetzel of General Motors and featured designer Mary Ellen Green, which I had the pleasure of attending. In Damsels, Constance has collected the stories of the women of Harvey Earl’s GM styling group of the early 1950s. These female designers were a significant – and often overlooked – part of automotive history. A former GM employee herself, Constance provides unique insight as well as an inside look into the careers and lives of these groundbreaking women.
Traditionally, the SAH book signing tent has been filled primarily with male authors. Thus it was great to share the table with these two outstanding writers of the female persuasion. May subsequent years see many more women under the tent.
Have you read any automotive books written by women? Do you think female authors offer a new perspective to automotive literature and history?
A former coworker of mine – who once worked at the ad agency for Chevrolet – posted this political advertisement on her Facebook page. She commented, ‘Great political ad from an awesome woman. And for my Chevy friends it’s not a bad car commercial either.’ The spot features Valerie Plame, a former CIA officer running for Congress as a Democrat in New Mexico. In the commercial, Plame tells her story: while working as a covert for the CIA, Plame was outed by then Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, who was later convicted of lying to investigators. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence and in 2018, Libby was pardoned by Trump. Plame’s appeal to voters focuses on her experience with the CIA, her betrayal by Republican politicians, her toughness, and the need to ‘turn the country around’ on national security, health care, and women’s rights. She makes her pitch by driving very fast – in reverse – in a Chevy Camaro.
Whether or not your political leanings side with Plame, the car is an interesting and important component to Plame’s message. While the ‘country going backward’ metaphor may be a little heavy-handed [or heavy-footed, as the case may be], the way in which Plame handles the Camaro provides an insight into her character, ambition, and fortitude. The fact that she is driving a modern and iconic American muscle car reflects on Plame’s past and present dedication to country. And because the muscle car has a long association with masculinity, it announces Plame as someone who can play tough with the big boys. While there may those who suspect a stunt driver was involved, Plame dispels that notion when she declares, ‘Yes, the CIA really does teach us how to drive like this.’
As my work focuses on the relationship between women and the automobile, I found Plame’s deliberate use of the car in this non-car commercial to be significant on a number of levels. First of all, the Plame/Camaro pairing disrupts the longstanding notion that women’s interest in cars is centered on practicality. It dispels the myth that high-horsepowered muscle cars are only for men. It calls upon the characteristics of the car – power, performance, boldness, noise, and outrageousness – to define the woman, rather than the man, who drives it. And it suggests that – unlike the popular perception – women may also call upon the automobile as a source of identity, agency, and empowerment.
Do you think cars in non-automotive advertising, or in other media including films and television, have the ability to suggest something about the individual who drives it? Your comments are welcome below.
Today I had the pleasure of presenting my book – Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars – as part of the Hackett Auto Museum Speaker Series. The presentation was held at the Carnegie Library in Jackson, Michigan, an old historic building with an interesting past. It was a very cold day – with temperatures hovering around zero – which no doubt affected the attendance. But those who braved the frigid temperatures were polite, interested, asked good questions, and purchased a few books. All in all a good day.
Do you ever attend automotive book readings? If so, what have been some of your favorites? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.