“Baby, you can drive my car!”
(The Beatles, 1965)
Women and cars, viewed from different angles
“Baby, you can drive my car” were definitely not the words Bertha Benz heard from her husband Karl Benz, the famous inventor and manufacturer of the first car with a fuel-burning engine, when she went for an extended jaunt with his automobile without his knowledge.
She also went down in history as the first woman to drive a car over a longer distance when she got into the vehicle on August 5, 1888 to drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim, covering a distance of 106 km.
The good Bertha was not only a forerunner for women when it comes to driving motor vehicles, but also a pioneer for inventions related to the car, as we use it today and take for granted. When, during her drive, she noticed that the brakes were wearing off, she quickly had a blacksmith wrap horse leather fittings around them to increase their lifespan and improve their effectiveness. That is why she is also considered to be the inventor of brake pads.
But she was not the only woman with automotive-related inventive spirit. In 1893, her “colleague” from Chicago, Margaret Wilcox, applied for a patent for the car heater. In her construction, water was heated over the car engine with the help of a pipe system and fed into the passenger compartment, where it ultimately warmed the air. The car heating systems we know today are still based on these principles.
The invention of the windshield wiper was based on a woman’s considerations, too. When Mary Anderson was visiting New York in the winter of 1902 and was travelling on the trolley in a snowstorm, she noticed that the driver had to drive with the windshield down – otherwise rain, ice and snow would block his view. She then developed a device that could be operated from the inside of the vehicle, using a lever and that had a swinging arm “with rubber blades” on the outside to keep the windshield clean. After their patent expired in 1920 and car production increased rapidly, “her” windshield wipers became a standard equipment in automobiles.
Florence Lawrence was actually an actress and a Canadian silent film star. Apart from acting, she was so fascinated and taken with the new automobiles that in 1914 she designed the so-called “auto signal arm” for cars. At the push of a button, a flag on the rear bumper raised or lowered to indicate and warn other drivers in which direction one was about to drive. This is how the foundation stone was laid for what is known today as the turn signal. She did the same for the brake light, by using a stop sign at the rear of the vehicle, appearing as soon as the brake pedal was pressed.
The first automobile ever designed by a woman was the Galloway, built in a Scottish factory in 1923 and it was one of the first cars produced in the country. The woman responsible for this achievement was Dorothée Pullinger, born in France, who in the same year also became the first female member of the Institution of Automobile Engineers. The Galloway car was explicitly designed by women for women. It was smaller and lighter, with a raised seat, a lower dashboard, and a smaller steering wheel.
Although in the 1920s the proportion of female drivers accounted for only a small percentage, this was a good approach to meet their demands.
Unfortunately, this outlook was neglected in the decades that followed with the choice and purchase of a car viewed as something that should be a man’s responsibility. At the same time, the automobile per se was increasingly hyped up, not to say adored, often referred to by men as „she“ or given feminine nicknames, and its attributes, shapes and curves were often compared to those of a woman.
It’s not that women don’t like beautiful cars, but by and large theirs is a more rational and practical approach to an object that can move. The main criteria are rather security, operating costs, size, and additional loading options, whereby performance, prestige and status still play an important role mostly for men.
In addition, nowadays a woman’s car is often the family’s second car. The woman can convince her husband that he is driving the family car himself or, in case the woman is single, the wheeled vehicle can be more individual.
In this context the 1964, Ford Mustang, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, could be pointed out as an example. The classic sports car, that makes every man’s nerve quiver and his heart beat faster, was originally intended for women. In the course of the first advertising campaigns, advertisements were placed in the women’s sections of about 2,500 newspapers, targeting both single women and mothers. The main reason for this marketing strategy was the purchasing power of working women after the Second World War. For households with double incomes, there was a good perspective and hope for purchasing a second car. Rightly so, because the Ford Mustang is the most popular sports car among American women at that time, and is still today. It is worth mentioning that women buy the Mustang as much as men do!
In the year of the Mustang’s launch, the ratio of licensed drivers of men vs women in the USA was 60:40. This ratio is still kept in the European / German-speaking countries nowadays, whereas in the US in 2012 (almost 10 years ago) the ratio turned in favour of women.
Now and in the next few years, the car manufacturers have to take into consideration the female purchasers more than ever and come up with cars in their showrooms that look good, are stylish, have less horsepower, but are designed with a clear dashboard instead of a rev counter.
Sixty-two percent of all new car purchases in the US are already made by women. They are also involved in the decision-making process for more than 85 percent of all car purchases.
Women have shown in the past and present that there is no automotive world without them and that they will be an increasingly expected decisive factor in the future.
–by Martin Hofbauer
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