Cars and Girls Then, Automobiles and Women Now

IMG_1466[1]I recently came upon this great article written by Dave Vahala from June 2014 about Cars and Girls then, Autombiles and Women Now. I think it really tells the story how women evolved into the world of autombiles. Ladies, ask yourself if you ever felt the way most women did pertaining to the type of automobile a guy drove?

A Story of History, Culture and Success

How did the culture of pairing stylish automobiles and beautiful women begin? What did the symbolism represent? Further, I wondered about women in the auto industry. Traditionally a man’s business, what was it like for women then? Are today’s stereotypes legitimate? A bit of research and talking to my “car girl” friends provided some surprises and proof that all is right in the automotive world.

My high school buddies used to think a cool car meant a date with the most popular girl. Let’s start by dispelling that myth – results from a recent women’s survey of the traits a man’s car reveals about him:

Almost half (48%) of women say a guy’s car reflects his economic status.
46% say it reflects the guy’s image of himself.
18% were motivated to date a guy based on the car he drives.
11% believe the car reflects the guy’s feelings about having a family.

Pretty practical imagery there, ladies! Historically, the 1950s introduced the uniquely American culture of cars and girls. Iconic Hot Rod magazine led all others, making the most of showing cars and a few girls in its issues. But it began much earlier. The first photos of cars and pretty girls can be traced back to the 1920s.

What else was happening in the early 20th century when cars were introduced? The following excerpts came from the Smithsonian Museum website, and show women had an important role in the early history and culture of automobiles.

“With the passing of the 19th Amendment giving women voting rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, college became a realistic option for women. During World War I & II, women joined the workforce, experiencing life beyond homemaking – even as auto mechanics! Car ownership became the norm for middle and even working-class families with more women driving. All these factors—freedoms from working outside the home, a push for equal rights, greater mobility and income—exposed women to new ideas and ways of living.”

“The automobile became central to American society and culture. Initially, men did all the buying and driving. Only wealthy women could afford a vehicle, but many participated in purchasing one. Manufacturers realized they needed to make their vehicles attractive to the female consumer. Advertising changed from technical descriptions and mechanical sketches to large color pictures showing women as passengers and drivers. Cars needed to be functional and comfortable.

As consumerism grew, Americans viewed women as purchasing agents; their ability to budget and buy smartly reflected a woman’s success. Wives participated with husbands in the buying decision – which model and how to pay for it. Cadillac, Chevrolet and Ford recognized the growing trend of women driving for necessity and fun. Cars became even more important to American identity, conveying social and economic status. Women understood how it improved their lives and that of their families.

Women continue to have a significant role in automotive purchases, influencing 80 percent of buying decisions, today. Manufacturers focus their advertising on active and working women, and busy mothers who are buying cars.

More than ever, women engineers and designers are influencing today’s vehicles. With careers in automotive journalism, marketing, dealer ownership and industry executives, women also represent 50 percent of the market, spending $80 billion a year on cars.

In January 2014, General Motors chose longtime GM employee Mary Barra as its CEO the first woman to lead an international car company. “There’s nobody with more years of honest ‘car-guy’ credentials than she has,” according to University of Michigan business professor Erik Gordon. “She started off as a girl-car guy and now she’s a woman-car guy.” Within GM, Barra demonstrated an interest in making automotive culture more accommodating for women. Previously, a pregnant Barra called on senior management to focus on “diversity and women’s issues.” She found the car guys receptive. “A lot of women’s issues are men’s issues too. Like figuring out which car to buy.”

Nicole Morse, owner/dealer of Rohrer’s Select Cars in downtown Spokane, has been around the business all her life. Her dad and mentor, Don Rohrer, opened his unique dealership in 1964, selling antique, classic and muscle cars. Nicole remembers when it all started. “I was 15 when my dad and I restored my first car, a 1967 Mustang convertible – that I still have today.” Rohrer did not plan a career as a car dealer. “I think it found me,” she says. “It was natural to be in business with Dad the last 12 years (he passed away three years ago). Working directly with men can be easier than working with women – I’ve earned their respect by proving myself. It’s a bit of a man’s world but if you can get past that, you’ll be fine.” From my own experience buying a Porsche 944 from Nicole, I can attest to her professionalism. She’s earned my respect!

Stereotypes? Two of today’s female racecar drivers – Danica Patrick and Courtney Force – are famous.

Are they famous more for their looks-driven media popularity than driving accomplishments? You decide. Rookie of the Year for the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and the Indy Car Series in 2008, Patrick was the first woman to win an Indy Car race at the 2009 Indy Japan 300 and has the highest finish, third place, for a woman in the Indy 500. In 2013, she achieved another first – the Daytona 500 pole. Force has won four NHRA events in just two seasons of racing. Her most recent win, topping 306 mph on May 25th, 2014, happened to be the 100th win for female NHRA drivers, earning her a commemorative pink 100th female win trophy. Stereotypes aside, these two women are professional racecar drivers, having earned the respect of their racing peers.

Women have a rich history as drivers in automobile racing. Over the years, these notable women paved the road for all the others:

camilla du gast

Camille Du Gast

Camille du Gast, the first female race car driver, 1901.

Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse, the first women drivers at the 24 Hours of Le Mans also had an all-women crew, racing to a seventh-place finish in 1930 and remain the most successful all-female team at Le Mans.

Kay Petre was the first woman to race a Formula 1 Grand Prix car in 1937, joining the English Austin Works team driving alongside men on equal terms.

Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. Guthrie was competing full time by 1972, was the first woman to compete in a NASCAR super speedway race, finishing 15th in the 1976 Charlotte 600 finished 12th in her first Daytona 500 in 1977. Janet was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006.

Shirley Muldowney became the first woman drag racer to exceed 250 mph. In 1977, she was the first woman to win the World Championship, then again in 1980 and 1982, becoming the first woman and the first driver ever to win it three times.

Lyn St. James won the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. She twice raced at Le Mans, scored two wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race plus set a world speed record for women, reaching 226 mph during Indy 500 qualifying in 1995.

The first female drivers’ racing efforts provided the “highway” for winners such as Patrick and Force to follow. It wasn’t just racing though. Early on, pioneering women laid the foundation for future generations to have successful automotive-related careers.

Mitzi VanVoorhis is the director of marketing for DAA Northwest, headquartered in Spokane and one of the largest independent wholesale auto auctions in the U.S. VanVoorhis joined DAA 14 years ago and has seen numerous changes in the business. “Our customer base is still primarily male, but there are more women than ever buying and selling,” she says. Bob McConkey, DAA’s owner, is a key mentor for VanVoorhis.

There are many women employed by DAA in all aspects of the business: sales, administration, accounting, vehicle reconditioning. DAA fosters a culture of camaraderie and contribution towards achievement regardless of gender.

VanVoorhis believes, “The future is wide open! With a higher percentage of women than men currently graduating from college (March 2013 – 60% of college graduates were women – NPR, May 2014), there will be an increase in opportunities for women in automotive technology, design, marketing and management.”

Larry H. Miller Hyundai Service Manager May Ward never had, “intentions of getting into the auto business.” Twenty-five years later, her career has taken off and she’s never looked back. “I would have to say the early years were everything you ever saw on television and I don’t mean in a good way. It was a male dominated industry and very stereotypical.” Being undermined or discriminated against was at times difficult. “I would say it definitely toughened me up and made me a stronger and more direct manager. Some might see this as an obstacle – I saw it as a reward.”

What about the future? “I would love to see more women give the auto industry a try,” says Ward. “Women are better listeners and customer service providers, exactly what we are looking for.”

My respect and admiration to all the women in the automobile world!



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