Blog Update

This blog was originally constructed as a class project while working on my doctorate at Bowling Green State University. I am happy to report that I received my PhD in 2015 [at the age of 66!] and that what began as a course assignment developed into a journal article, dissertation chapter, and a book – Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts and the American Muscle Car – now available at McFarland.

Thanks for your interest in my work on women and muscle cars. Get out there and make some noise!

Nostalgia & the muscle car

The American muscle car was inspired by and produced for a very specific population. During the early 1960s, auto manufacturers conspired to create a category of automobile that would appeal to the legions of newly licensed young men of the baby boomer generation. Unlike the teenage drivers that preceded them, boomers were not drivers of self-constructed hot rods nor were they dependent on the family car for transportation. Rather, they were often blessed with enough financial resources to purchase cars of their own. Not just any automobile would do; as part of the “Me” generation, young boomer men sought to define and reinvent themselves by the cars they drove. It is not surprising, therefore, that the American muscle car – fast, sexy, “power-crazed” and “shamelessly macho” – quickly became the male baby boomer’s vehicle of choice (Ulrich, 2005). For over a decade, the rumbling of muscle cars could be heard on city streets, suburban highways, and country roads, i.e. anywhere teenage boys gathered to cruise, engage in illegal street racing, or flirt with members of the opposite sex.

Many of the tens of thousands of young men who owned or drove muscle cars during the 1960s and early 1970s are now card-carrying AARP members. However, the passion for power, style, and speed remains strong among aging baby boomer men. This fascination can be witnessed every warm-weather weekend as muscle cars – and their graying owners – gather at cars shows and cruises in varied and various locations across the United States and Canada. It can be observed on the “Speed Channel” reality car shows that provide an inside look at classic car restoration. It can be found in classic car publications and online sites that offer advice for “newbie” classic car buyers.  It is evident in the proliferation of classic car classifieds, which not only advertise vehicles for sale, but also provide an abundance of resources for old car parts and hard-to-find automotive materials. The classic muscle car has not only fueled a popular hobby among the aging baby boomer population, but has generated an important peripheral classic car industry as well.

Craig Jackson, of the Barrett-Jackson car auction house, credits the rising popularity of the classic collector muscle car to “nostalgia, the stability of the market, and the fact that it’s, well, ‘fun’” (Byrnes, 2002). Auto journalists, many of them aging baby boomers themselves, would agree. Boomers, many who have entered peak earning years, often view owning a classic car as an investment. Reports Nanette Byrnes of Business Week, “a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible sold at auction last year for $172,000. Not a bad return on a car that cost $3,200 new.” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance writer Ed Henry, while recognizing the attraction – or perhaps rationalization – of the classic muscle car as an investment, asserts, “muscle cars are really money in the garage, not money in the bank.” Thus, Henry advises, those interested in a classic muscle car should buy it “purely out of love.” USA Today auto writer Earle Eldridge (2002) contends that individuals are often driven to acquire a 60s muscle car by a “post-September 11 do-it-now attitude and a longing for something uniquely American from a simpler time.” Kevin Naughton (2006) of Newsweek concurs, remarking that aging boomers, aware of the world’s hostility toward the United States, often embrace the muscle car as a way to remember “a time when American power was celebrated.” The desire to revisit an idyllic past, at least for a few hours, motivates a good number of aging boomer men to purchase a muscle car. As auto writer Mike Mueller (2004) reminds us, “the early 60s was a more innocent age […], it was a time when men were men, women weren’t, and fewer rules ruled” (p. 18). Thus while there are boomer men who are financially motivated to purchase, restore, and sell classic muscle cars, the primary impetus for the acquisition of a muscle car from the 1960s and 70s is nostalgia.

Nostalgia, write Pickering and Keightley (2006), is often defined as a longing for a lost time, for something that is no longer attainable (920). To graying boomer men, ownership of a classic muscle car provides an opportunity to reconnect to a reimagined past. Behind the wheel of a fast, racy, and sexy GTO or Charger, balding, 60-year-old men are once more young, handsome, virile, and carefree. Gunning a big block engine, they reflect upon a time when American cars, and American men, were powerful and invincible. It is not uncommon for aging car buffs to purchase the same model they drove as young men, or to buy the car they longed for but couldn’t afford at the time. Theses fondly remembered relics of the past are purchased, restored, and buffed to perfection. The proud owners can often be found among other muscle car aficionados talking about engines, turn speeds, performance, and the good old days. As a 52-year-old female owner of a 69 Super Bee remarked, to guys of a certain age, owning a muscle car “is all about nostalgia” (Interview, 08 August, 2011).

However, while nostalgia may be the impetus for men’s participation in classic muscle car culture, the reasons for women’s involvement differ considerably. While there were a few women who drove muscle cars during the 1960s and 1970s, the majority participated vicariously through brothers or boyfriends, or not at all. As the owner of a 1965 Mustang remarked, “I got left out of that scene. [My ex-husband] and his boyfriend used to go up to Woodward all the time, up at the Totem Pole, or all of the other restaurants up there. No, I wasn’t ever taken” (Interview, 18 July, 2011). Thus a desire to turn back the clock or to relive the glory days of the muscle car era is not what motivates the majority of women to purchase a Dodge Charger or Plymouth ‘Cuda. Rather, women own muscle cars as a way to share an interest with husbands and sons, or to possess something denied to them when they were young. While the women who own classic muscle cars do not identify as feminist, they recognize that during the 1960s and 1970s, teenage girls were financially and culturally excluded from participating in muscle car culture as drivers. Thus to those women who admired muscle cars from afar as teenagers, owning a classic today is often considered a personal accomplishment. As the owner of a 1967 GTO remarked, “I always wanted one when I was in school. I wanted one but I couldn’t afford it” (Interview, 24 July, 2011). Now a 64-year-old grandmother, she had to wait until her five children were grown before considering the purchase of a muscle car. To a graying 59-year-old, driving the 1965 Mustang she longed for as a teenager demonstrates that “a woman can have a classic car just as much as a man can” (Interview, 18 July, 2011). And as the 58-year-old owner of a 1965 Mustang convertible exclaimed, “I never thought my dream would come true” (Interview, 07 July, 2011).

Nostalgia certainly factors into the exponential growth of the classic muscle car hobby among aging boomer men. However, while men may purchase muscle cars to recall the young men they were 40 years ago, women own and drive them to demonstrate who they are today.

 

Byrnes, N. (2002, November 11). Blowing blue chips off the road. Business Week, (3807), 16.

Eldridge, E. (2002, August 6). Collector cars flex muscle vs. markets. USA Today, 1B.

Henry, E. (2002, April). Get your motor runnin’. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, 56.4, 106.

Mueller, M. (2004). Motor city muscle. St. Paul: MBI Publishing.

Naughton, K. (2006, March 13). Detroit muscles up. Newsweek, 147.11, 40-42.

Pickering, M. & E. Keightley (2006). The modalities of nostalgia. Current Sociology, 54.6, 919-941.

Ulrich, L. (2005, October 17). The $4,000,000 Plymouth. Fortune, 52, 192-210.

 

 

Props, prizes, passengers, & prospects

Women’s participation in muscle car culture from 1964 to 1973 is, for the most part, undocumented in scholarship as well as popular culture. Historian Margaret Walsh (2006) suggests that young women took part in cruising culture as observers or passengers. Their main objective, Walsh contends, was to be seen, “thereby enhancing their status with their female peers” (p. 9). Author Robert Genat (2009) asserts the average young woman had very little interest in muscle cars; rather, “they just wanted to be there” (p. 44). As Genat writes, “in that era only a few women owned cars and the cars they owned would be considered sporty – such as a LeMans hardtop, Mustang, or Camaro – with convertibles high on the list” (p. 44). Other accounts of the muscle car era rarely mention young women at all.

Due to the absence of narratives from female participants in muscle car culture, other sources must be relied upon for information. One of the more accessible resources is advertising. As Deborah Clarke (2007) writes, “Given the extent to which ads become engrained in our heads, they seem to have the widest and strongest impact in shaping our awareness of cars and car culture” (p. 7). However, rather than indicate how young women participated in muscle car culture, advertisements are more indicative of what the auto industry, and American culture at large, thought women’s role in muscle car culture should be. As Jennifer Wicke, author of Advertising Fictions, observed, “Advertisements are cultural messages in a bottle” (quoted by Clarke, 2007, p. 8).

1969 Chevy Camaro

In muscle car print ads produced from 1964 to 1973, young women are presented in one of four roles. The most common is that of “prop.” Young women called upon to fulfill this role were often positioned strategically to attract the male buyer as well as to associate the automobile with sex. While automobiles from the 1950s were often considered feminine in form, their curves reminiscent of the female body, the muscle car, as long, lean, powerful, and fast, suggested another form of sexual conquest. Stephen Bayley (1986), in Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, argues that in the mind of the male driver, a fast car demonstrates sexual prowess. As Bayley contends, “Driving cars fast is an act of recklessness which […] recaptures some elements of the thrill of adolescent sex” (p. 32). The young woman in the 1969 Chevy Camaro print ad is perched on the passenger side of the vehicle so as not to be confused with the driver. The ad copy does not refer to her in any way; her presence is merely decorative.

1969 Dodge Charger

While the possibility of sexual conquest is alluded to when women appear as props, the role of the young woman as “prize”, demonstrated in an ad for the 1969 Dodge Charger, removes any doubt. The attractive blond, placed in front of the automobile, lifts her skirt as both an invitation and a promise. The copy reads, “Do you really think you can get to me with that long, low, tough machine you just rolled up in? “ The answer, of course, is “yes.” Witzel and Bash (1997), students of the California cruising scene, assert that the young men who participated in muscle car culture understood that driving a fast and racy car was the most effective way to attract young women. “Without a doubt,” write Witzel and Bash, “a cool car was a prerequisite to get girls and get laid” (p. 23).

Mustang convertible

Automotive scholars, such as historian Margaret Walsh (1986), suggest that the most common and preferred role of the young woman in muscle car culture was that of passenger. Understanding that only boys could raise a girl’s status among teenage peers, young women sought out young men in cool cars as a means to do so. Muscle car advertisements, such as that promoting the red Mustang convertible, often show attractive young women in the passenger seat. However, while the woman looks back to make sure she has been “seen,” the intent of such advertising is not to raise the status of the woman, but rather, that of the young man behind the wheel.

1970 Dodge Challenger

In advertising from the muscle car era, women are rarely presented as drivers. While Mustang occasionally featured women in the driver’s seat, it was to promote the non-muscle, non-performance, small V-6 engine models. In period ads for the Dodge Challenger – Chrysler’s entry into the “pony car” market – as well as the Dodge Charger, the position of the young woman on the driver’s side alludes to, but does not confirm, that the vehicle might be attractive to the female driver. The availability of the Dodge muscle car in “high impact” colors – such as Plum Crazy and Panther Pink pictured here – has made Dodge vehicles a very popular choice among today’s female classic muscle car owners. The owner of a classic Panther Pink 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible revealed that when growing up, she had coveted the Challenger owned by her boyfriend’s older sister. Her comments suggest that while young men may have perceived the attractive woman in either the Charger and Challenger ad as one of the spoils of owning such a vehicle, young women, in fact, may have seen in her the possibility of themselves as competent and capable muscle car drivers.

1970 Dodge Charger

As Deborah Clarke (2007) suggests, advertising has had a significant impact in shaping our perceptions of women’s place in muscle car culture. However, while images of young women as props, prizes, and passengers assume women occupied peripheral roles, the Dodge Charger and Challenger ads suggest that women may have also been considered potential customers, i.e. “prospects.”  If, as Clarke contends, advertising has considerable influence in shaping our awareness of cars and culture, then young women of the muscle car era could have very well imagined themselves as owners of Panther Pink or Passion Purple muscle cars. While most women lacked the financial means to purchase such vehicles in their youth, many, as aging baby boomers, have now acquired the means to own and drive the car they desired over 40 years ago.

Bayley, S. (1986). Sex, drink and fast cars. New York: Pantheon Books.

Clarke, D. (2007). Driving women: fiction and automobile culture in twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Genat, R. (2010). Woodward Avenue: cruising the legendary strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech.

Walsh, M. (2006). At home at the wheel? The woman and her automobile in the 1950s. Paper presented at The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture given at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference.

 

 

Mopars @ Baker’s

1971 Plymouth 'Cuda

Baker’s of Milford is a neighborhood restaurant with a special affinity toward classic cars. From the first Sunday in May until the last Sunday in September, Baker’s sponsors the Sunday Night Cruise, an eclectic car show held on the restaurant’s lawn and parking lots. Over 100 classic car owners participate in this event each weekend, vying for prizes, purchasing 50/50 raffle tickets for a community charity, enjoying the performance of a local magician, and listening to songs from the 1950s and 1960s. Baker’s also offers a 10% restaurant discount to all Sunday Cruise participants. It should be no surprise that classic car enthusiasts in southeastern Michigan make at least one trip to Baker’s during the balmy summer months.

The car-friendly atmosphere of Baker’s also makes it a frequent choice for other classic car events. On Saturday, July 30, the second annual Mopar @ Baker’s – an all Chrysler, AMC, and Jeep show – was held on the restaurant’s adjacent grounds. Close to 400 cars, from classic to contemporary, competed for prizes in 28 Mopar categories. The show was sponsored by the Michigan Mopar Muscle Club, which boasts over 130 members. As my husband is an MMM member, I had spoken with a number of female members with classic muscle cars at previous club activities. However, due to the popularity of Mopars in this part of the state, I was hopeful that a few more muscle-car-driving-women would attend this well publicized event.

As the cars filed in throughout the morning, I followed the roar of a black 1965 Plymouth Barracuda with a woman behind the wheel. The owner has driven the car for twelve years, and assured me that she has a number of great stories to tell about her experiences with this piece of automotive history. I also caught up with the spouse of a woman with whom I have been communicating through email. He assured me that the project consent form would be passed on to his wife, a muscle car owner and one of the first female mechanical engineering graduates from the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). In the section of featured Mopars, I discovered a Sunfire Yellow 1972 ‘Cuda owned by a female MMM member. As she was working at the show, I only had a chance to speak with her briefly; I hope she will take the time to talk with me further at a future date.

Mopars @ Baker’s was open to all Chrysler, AMC, and Jeep products; classic (25 years or older) status was not a requirement for inclusion in this event. Parked among the classic muscle cars on display were a number of contemporary Dodge Chargers and Challengers. Many of these modern muscle cars are owned and driven by women. This may be reflective of a growing female muscle car movement; Chrysler reports that for the 2009 and 2010 model years, women purchased 26 percent of Dodge Charger R/T and Charger SRT8 models (Ransom, 9 Aug 2010). While many of these women are too young to remember the classic muscle car, they have created a space for themselves in modern day muscle car culture through possession of one of its most recent and successful incarnations. The twenty-first century Challenger and Charger, while taking a few style cues from the past, are completely modern in engineering and technology. However, like their predecessors, they are all about power, presence, and attitude. A Motor Trend reviewer described the 2011 Challenger as big, brash, and unapologetic, and went on to remark, “half of the Challenger’s appeal is that it’s so politically incorrect” (Lieberman, 24 Nov 2010). Women who drive contemporary Challengers and Chargers – or what Motor Trend refers to as “old school done right” – are not likely to fancy hybrids or minivans. And while they understand and respect the muscle car’s place in automotive history, they desire a vehicle with the power and performance modern day technology and engineering make possible.

In Driving Women, Deborah Clarke (2007) suggests that in the context of the contemporary automobile, the image of a man working on his car has become largely obsolete, as very few drivers, male or female, possess the sophisticated technological knowledge to work on today’s cars. The increased computerization of the automobile, Clarke asserts, has led to a “somewhat more level playing field between men and women and their cars” (p. 193). While the majority of women who participate in classic muscle car culture do so with husbands or boyfriends, who often double as mechanics, many of the women who drive contemporary Challengers and Chargers to car events do so alone. While the modern day muscle car and the female driver is outside the scope of this project, I intend to return to it at a later point. Such an examination will not only offer insight into another segment of women as participants in car culture, but will also provide an understanding of how women’s relationship with the muscle car has changed over time.

 

Clarke, D. (2007). Driving women: Fiction and automobile culture in twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Lieberman, J. (2010). First test: Dodge Challenger R/T. Motor Trend <www.motortrend.com/roadtests/1011_2011_dodge_challenger_rt_test/index.html>

Ransom, K. (2010). Not all horsepower addicts are men. Aol autos. <http://autos.aol.com/article/women-love-muscle-cars/>

Back to Chelsea

1972 Ford Mustang 351 Cleveland

“Sounds and Sights” is the annual summer festival held in historic Chelsea, Michigan, a small city located 16 miles west of Ann Arbor. The two-day, three-night event includes live music from local bands, children’s entertainment and activities, cinema movies at dusk, an open-air market, and a classic car show. The car show, which features over 300 vehicles from across the Midwest, is a casual affair. Unlike the majority of such events, participants cannot pre-enter nor are they required to pay a registration fee. However, donations are accepted and exhibitors are encouraged to purchase tickets for a 50/50 raffle. The cars are not judged by auto aficionados, but primarily by members of the local community. Awards include the Merchants Choice, Chief of Police Choice, Mayor’s Choice, CCC (Chelsea Classic Cruisers) Ladies’ Choice, CCC Men’s Choice, and the Fire Chief’s Favorite Truck. The vehicles are parked curbside on shaded village streets; visitors stroll through the picturesque Chelsea neighborhood picking out their favorite cars and chatting with exhibitors. Rock n’ roll tunes from the 1950s and 1960s drift through the crowds; the requisite “Vegas” Elvis also makes an appearance. For participants and spectators, the Chelsea Car Show is a wonderful way to spend a warm summer evening in southeastern Michigan.

Our home is a half-hour drive along meandering back roads from downtown Chelsea. Therefore, we try to attend the car show each year, with or without our classic automobiles. This summer it was decided to take two cars, my 1949 Ford Coupe, and my husband’s 1950 Ford F-150 pickup. However, after repeated attempts the truck would not start; therefore, my husband jumped into my passenger seat and I drove the coupe to Chelsea. I was fortunate to receive a prime spot at the center of the car show festivities. My car received quite a bit attention as I drove up; many of the car folks were somewhat surprised to see a woman behind the wheel.

While I drove to Chelsea to show off my own automobile, my primary objective was to look for women exhibiting classic muscle cars. I was pleased to see cars and owners from past CCC years, as well as vehicles on exhibit in Chelsea for the first time. The owner of a purple 1971 Chevy Chevelle had work completed on her automobile just in time for the car show. The engine displayed a few modifications that indicated it was ready for racing. The Chevelle owner’s husband is active in the classic racing circuit; she seems very eager to join him. Racing classic muscle cars in a legitimate – rather than back street – venue appears to be a popular way for women to participate in muscle car culture. I hope that I can talk further with this enthusiast to learn more about the classic muscle car racing scene and her participation in it.

The next car that caught my eye was a 1972 Ford Mustang 351 Cleveland. The car’s owner told me that she had looked high and low for a Mustang with this particular engine, and finally found one in Tennessee. She was quite specific about the qualities she looked for in a muscle car and distance was apparently no object in getting the exact car she desired. The woman was very knowledgeable about cars in general and her Mustang in particular; she spoke with enthusiasm about the experience of driving her classic Mustang. Walking further down the street, I came across four Plymouth Firebirds owned by the same couple; when I asked the woman seated behind the “fleet” which car she drove, she pointed to the white convertible that was later selected as the Mayor’s Choice. When I mentioned my project to her, a male friend seated close by remarked that the woman’s husband would be only too glad to tell me all about the car. The woman indignantly reminded him that I was interested in what she – not her husband – had to say about the Firebird. I hope this is an indication that she will, in fact, talk to me.

As I started up my engine to leave the car show, a man walked up to my husband, pointed at me and remarked, “Are you going to let her drive this car?” When I informed the gentleman that the car was, in fact, mine, he was quite taken aback. While the increased participation of women in classic car culture is palpable, old stereotypes of women as drivers, and classic car owners, remain. One of the women I interviewed told me of her experience purchasing a 1965 white Mustang. After taking a test drive, having her mechanic perform an inspection, negotiating long and hard, and settling on a price, the seller suddenly and without explanation told her, “I’m not selling you this car” (Interview, 18 July, 2011). The woman, whose heart was set on this beautiful Mustang, was both confused and furious at the seller’s about face. As she told me, “I don’t think he really felt a woman should have this car because it was not your traditional classic car; it had too much sportiness to it, too much [power]” (Interview, 18 July 2011). When she spotted the car for sale six months later, still determined to have the car as her own, she decided to try again with her boyfriend posing as the buyer. Needless to say, the transaction was completed without incident. After the purchase was finalized, the woman exclaimed to the seller, “I’m not allowed to have a car like this? It’s only for a man?” (Interview, 19 July 2011). Clearly, the seller felt that the presence of an older woman behind the wheel of the 1965 Mustang would somehow devalue the car. In his eyes, the fact that a woman desired his car made it less.

This sentiment has historically permeated the auto industry and its advertisers, so much so that it is difficult to find advertising that features a woman behind the wheel of a fast and powerful vehicle. I found this to be especially true while doing research on the “chick car” for a forthcoming article in the Journal of Popular Culture. Despite the popularity of sporty, “fun-to-drive” models, auto manufacturers eschew the “chick car” label as they believe it devalues the automobile and makes it unattractive to the male buyer. While some may argue that the seller of the 75 Mustang refused the sale because he thought a woman could not and would not appreciate its finer points, it is more likely that he felt the car would decrease in value – materially and symbolically – with a 50-plus woman behind the wheel.

One of the spectators at the Chelsea car show made a point of shaking my hand for owning and driving a 49 Ford and having the gumption to “hot rod” it in a respectable fashion. As the experiences of the 65 Mustang owner and I can contest, the perception that women cannot appreciate the automobile – classic or contemporary – remains strong in American car culture.

 

 

The Pony Car gets Muscle

When muscle cars congregate at classic car shows across southeastern Michigan, there are always a large number of Ford Mustangs in attendance. One of the most successful vehicles to ever drive off Ford’s assembly line, the Mustang remains popular after 40 plus years. With the introduction of the Mustang in 1964, Ford created what was to become a new class of muscle car – the pony car – the only muscle car class that still exists today (musclecarclub.com). However, the Mustang was not originally conceived to fulfill demand for a high performance vehicle. Rather, as a quick, sporty, and fun-to-drive automobile with an affordable price tag, the Mustang was designed to appeal to both the young and young-at-heart. The wide selection of options available provided consumers with the opportunity to create a Mustang to meet automotive needs and personal desires. Lee Iacocca, who spearheaded the development of the Mustang, recognized the potential of the massive college educated baby boomer market. With the introduction of the Mustang, Iacocca sought to change Ford’s “stogy” image among boomers entering the workforce. (Clor, 2007, pg. 10). Unlike the development of the Pontiac GTO, which was geared specifically to young men with a need for speed, the Mustang attempted to reach a much more diverse audience.

However, the Ford Mustang’s lack of power, especially in those production models with smaller V-6 engines, contributed to its growing reputation as the “secretary’s car.” Writes Clor, “the hard core muscle-car performance crowd wasn’t embracing the Mustang as a true muscle car in the same way they recognized the GTOs, the big block Galaxies, Impalas, and a handful of torque-laden Mopars” (p. 30). While he recognized the demand for a more powerful Mustang, Iacocca could only do so much with the existing powertrain. Therefore, he relied on a partnership with Carroll Shelby to create a high-end, low volume “halo” performance car that would not only create “buzz” and give a boost to the Mustang’s street cred, but would also drive sales of the “more practical, affordable, and plentiful regular Mustangs” (Clor, 2007, p. 30). It wasn’t until 1967 – inspired by the introduction of pony car competitors such as the Chevy Camaro, Plymouth Barracuda, and Pontiac Firebird – that Ford designers and engineers “went back to the drawing board to give ‘America’s Favorite Fun Car’ more style and power” (Clor, 2007, pg. 37).

While the original Mustang was available with either a V-6 or V-8, the demand for the more powerful (relatively speaking) V-8 was high, no doubt inspired by the introduction of the GTO and other intermediate sized high performance muscle cars the same year. In the first year of the Mustang’s production, nearly three quarters of buyers demanded the V-8, which led to a surplus of the pedestrian six-cylinder model. Young women were targeted as buyers for the less powerful car; Ford cited the superior fuel economy of the smaller engine to entice the female buyer. An ad with the headline “Six and the Single Girl,” which played off the title of Helen Gurley Brown’s best seller, promoted the “practicality and sporty style of the six-cylinder Mustang” (Clor, 2007, p.22). Other advertisements in a similar vein soon followed. Through the application of gender to engine size, Ford was able to successfully define and market two different cars under one brand. While young women were encouraged to embrace the “secretary’s car,” the GT version, boasting 271 horsepower, became the popular choice of young male performance enthusiasts.

The Mustang was not conceived as a muscle car, but evolved into one as a response to the growing young male market hooked on power and performance. While the majority of classic Mustang owners today are male, the appeal of the Mustang to female drivers remains strong. The classic car hobby is built on nostalgia; those who participate in it often do so as a way to connect to a younger self. As the owner of a 1965 Mustang convertible told me, “this car lets me return to being a teen and crazy and I can relive all those things in my mind while I drive” (Interview, 07 July 2011). Unlike its automotive predecessors, the Mustang was designed to embody youth and freedom rather than functionality and practicality. Its buyers were attracted to its clean design, sportiness, affordability, and its promise as “fun-to-drive.” And unlike the GTO, Dodge Charger, and other “true” muscle cars, the Mustang – albeit the less powerful “secretary model” – was advertised to women. Thus many classic Mustang owners today remember the original not only in the context of muscle cars, but as an automobile driven and admired by women.

Classic Mustang owners often recall how female friends and family members reacted to the car’s introduction. “The year the Mustang was born,” writes the owner of a ‘65, “a good female friend of the family would point them out and say that is a classy car!” (Interview, 07 July 2011).  Women also remember Mustangs owned by mothers and big sisters. “When I was 13,” exclaims a classic Mustang owner, “my girlfriend’s mom owned a hard top automatic Mustang. I could not reach the pedals because my legs were too short so my girlfriend used her legs and I steered the car.” (Interview, 07 July 2011). Today’s classic Mustang owners often had teenage boyfriends with the more powerful models. Some had the opportunity to drive them, while others simply longed for one of their own. As one woman remarked about her recent purchase of a classic ‘65, “I wanted something that kind of brought back memories to me about that Mustang back in my older days” (Interview, 18 July 2011).  Perhaps because driving a Mustang – rather than a GTO or ‘Cuda – was in the realm of possibility to those young women coming of age during the 1960s, purchasing the car 40 years later provides an opportunity for a young woman’s dreams to come true. Driving her classic 1965 Mustang today, a graying 59-year-old woman remarked, “if we didn’t have to look in the mirror, inside the body feels [like] that young person again” (Interview, 18 July 2011).

 

Clor, J. (2007). The Mustang dynasty. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC.

Mopars at the Red Barns

1968 Plymouth Satellite, aka "Ms. Sinister"

In 1963, Donald Gilmore purchased 90 acres of farm property in Hickory Corners, Michigan as a site for his growing antique car collection. Several historic barns in the area were purchased, dismantled, and reassembled on the Gilmore farm to store and display the automobiles. In 1966, the Gilmores decided to open the collection to the public through the establishment of the Gilmore Car Museum. 45 years later, the pastoral site not only includes eight historic barns containing classic automobiles from the past one hundred years, but also a replica 1930s gas station, a small town train station, and three miles of meandering paved roads. On weekends during the summer, one often finds visiting classic cars of every description on display throughout the grounds. This past Saturday was no exception; the Mopars at the Red Barns event guaranteed that the rumbling of muscle cars would be heard on every acre of the Gilmore farm. For the uniformed, Mopar (short for Motor Parts) was originally the name of the Chrysler Corporation parts division. It has since become a synonym for any and all Chrysler vehicles. There were over 200 Mopars parked on the lawn of the Gilmore Car Museum Saturday afternoon, and a good many of them were muscle cars.

As I walked through the rows of muscle cars on display, I discovered three vehicles owned by women that I had not seen at previous car shows. I also came across the twin Dodge Chargers owned by Mr. and Mrs. “Hemi” that were at the Marshall show earlier in the month. While I had interviewed Mrs. Hemi over the phone a few weeks ago, this was my first opportunity to meet her in person. As I joined Mrs.Hemi and the group of classic car enthusiasts seated in the shade, Mr. Hemi directed me toward the owner of a 1967 Plymouth Satellite and convinced her to participate in my project. Mr. “Hemi” has been quite helpful in rounding up female muscle car owners; I have interviewed three women from the Auburn, Indiana group of “car friends” thanks to his gentle prodding.

While the focus of this study is women who own classic muscle cars, men in classic car culture – particularly husbands – often influence or encourage women’s participation within it. Many of the women I have encountered in the course of this research, while enthusiastic about their cars, are reluctant to formally take part in the project. Often it is the husband who must convince his wife to participate; however, even with a husband’s encouragement, a significant number of women are unwilling to sign the necessary consent form. At the Mopars at the Red Barns event, I watched as the female owner of a beautifully restored 1971 Plymouth Road Runner was awarded first place in her division. When I congratulated her and subsequently inquired about the possibility of an interview, she became flustered, stating that it was her husband’s car, too and that she didn’t want tread on anyone’s toes. Even though her husband stated that since her “name was on the title” it was her car, it was clear that the 30-something woman was uncomfortable claiming the car and the attention it received as her own. The majority of women I have encountered who participate in classic muscle car culture identify as conservative. Therefore, it is not surprising that many appear to be uncomfortable with the possibility of disrupting gender roles. While they recognize there is an acceptance of women as muscle car drivers that was unavailable 45 years ago, married women are more likely to claim this identity within the context of family values. While the male baby boomer teen raced down Woodward in his Mopar during the 1960s and early 1970s as a mean to display independence, the majority of the women who participate today ascribe the muscle car with very different meanings.

The third car that garnered my attention was a stripped and gutted 1968 Plymouth Satellite. Unlike the shiny and pristine muscle cars lined up on the lawn of the Gilmore Car Museum, this fenderless vehicle was painted matte black and had more than a few scratches on its veneer. The owner of  “Ms. Sinister” was a 30ish woman who clearly used the car for serious – not of the back street variety – racing. As she told me, she and her husband, who has a Mopar of his own, participate in classic drag races throughout the summer. She was proud to say how fast the car “turned,” i.e. how fast the car covers the quarter mile. The woman was eager to answer my questions and seemed interested in the project. I hope she agrees to participate, as she could no doubt provide a very different perspective of the female classic muscle car driver.

While the Gilmore Car Museum is noted for its collection of cars in the barns, research limited my visit to the lawn and the special Mopar exhibit. The Museum is currently under expansion with new buildings to open in the fall of 2011. I hope to return to the farm at a later date to see what else the Gilmores have to offer.

 

 

 

Fast cars and the boomer generation

During the 1950s and early 1960s, teenagers from Detroit’s working class gathered on Woodward Avenue to hone mechanical skills, exchange automotive information, and test-drive vehicles of their own design. Auto designers and engineers who traversed Woodward on a regular basis often stopped to converse with the young “gearheads” not only to provide materials and offer advice, but also to receive an automotive education available only on Detroit streets. What these auto executives learned on trips down Woodward was often incorporated into the design and engineering of American automobiles. As Witzel and Bash (1997) write, “Many of the performance specs written by hot rod buffs in the back alleys and garages became a part of Detroit’s mass-production repertoire” (p. 93). The muscle car was perhaps the most successful example of this collaboration between mechanically gifted hot rodders and business savvy auto execs. The incorporation of hot rod technology into a fast and affordable automobile for the growing youth market changed the fortunes of the auto manufacturers as well as the face of the teenage population that gathered on Woodward Avenue to cruise and race.

The post war baby boom phenomenon, coupled with the increasing affluence of the American middle class, created the first generation of teenagers with free time and discretionary income. The muscle car was engineered and developed to take advantage of this rapidly growing young male market. The mass-produced Pontiac GTO – taking its inspiration and technology from the Woodward hot rod – was immediately embraced by the baby boomer generation. Sold for just $2500, with an initial production run of 60,000, the GTO rapidly became Detroit’s best selling muscle car (Witzel & Bash, 1997, p. 93). Other American automakers were quick to follow General Motors’ lead, cranking up assembly on “fully warranted versions of the passenger coupe, sports car, and hot rod all rolled up into one fast, unified package” (Witzel & Bash, 1997, p. 93). Soon Woodward Avenue, and streets in cities and small towns all over the United States, were filled with the rumbling of GTOs, Dodge Chargers, Plymouth Roadrunners, and Chevy Chevelles.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, those who participated in illegal street racing did so in vehicles of their own invention or construction. Not only were these individuals practiced drivers, but also possessed a remarkable amount of automotive knowledge and mechanical skill. This all changed with the advent of the mass-produced muscle car. As Witzel and Bash (1997) recount, “Now, almost anybody without car know-how could slap down a few bucks for a fast car, challenge you to a race the next day, and beat your pants off” (p. 72). Suddenly, production-line racers outnumbered homemade hot rods not only on Woodward Avenue, but on illegal street racing venues all across the United States. Cruising and street racing were no longer activities shared by a select group of scrappy, mechanically adept working class teenage boys, but were practiced by anyone with the means to purchase an inexpensive yet crazy fast muscle car.

The relative affordability of the muscle car would suggest that some of the thousands of vehicles produced from 1964 to 1973 would wind up in the hands – if not under the “heavy feet” – of young women. However, the record of women who participated in muscle car culture as drivers is sketchy. Interviews suggest that teenage girls who liked to drive fast often borrowed the cars of boyfriends or brothers to race on Woodward Avenue. As one aging baby boomer remarked, “I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend whose father owned a Ford dealership and gave his son a new Mach 1 Mustang every year. So of course, I left the boyfriend at home and took his car out on Woodward Avenue […] every Friday night with the girls. We would race from light to light – one-mile runs. I lost to a Porsche but won every other race – the guys didn’t think a girl knew how to drive” (Interview, 22 Jul 2009). Other young women participated by combining family cars with a little imagination. As Susan Whithall, who often borrowed the family Pontiac Tempest to drive to her part-time job in suburban Detroit, writes, “I’d gun it down Woodward and hope people would think it was a GTO” (Genat, 2010, pg. 44). However, conversations with classic muscle car owners suggest that gender expectations of the era discouraged if not prohibited all but the most determined from participating in 1960s and early 1970s muscle car culture as drivers. When asked if she thought about getting a muscle car as a young woman, the owner of a classic 1965 Mustang remarked, “No, I was pretty focused on getting an education, getting married, having a family, and having a house” (Interview, 18 Jul 2011). The proud owner of a classic 1967 GTO had to wait until her five children were grown and gone before she could think of purchasing the car she longed for as a young woman. In addition, while the original muscle car was priced low enough for the male teenage buyer, $2500 was still out of reach for the majority of young driving women. The women’s movement, still in its infancy, had not yet equalized salaries; during the 1960s, “Help Wanted” ads were divided by sex, with the best paying jobs in the male column. Thus it was unlikely that young women with jobs would apply their meager paychecks to the purchase of something as extravagant and impractical as a fast and racy muscle car.

Many of the women who admired muscle cars from afar 40 years ago now have the financial means, as well as societal acceptance, to purchase the automobiles they desired as teenagers. Once on the sidelines of muscle car culture, they can now be found at car shows and cruises in southeastern Michigan talking cars and sharing stories with fellow graying car enthusiasts. Uncovering how and why aging baby boomer women acquire classic Mustangs, Challengers, Chargers, and GTOS, and discovering the meanings that accompany owning and driving them is the goal of this project. My hope is that this knowledge will not only increase our understanding of women’s relationship to the automobile, but will provide an alternative, and heretofore absent, history of the American muscle car.

 

Genat, R. (2010). Woodward avenue: Cruising the legendary strip. North Branch MN: CarTech.

Witzel, M.K. & K. Bash. (1997). Cruisin’: Car culture in America. Osceola WI: MBI Publishing.

 

 

The car show at MIS

Entrance to Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn MI

Although Saturday was an unseasonably hot and humid July day, it did not deter the hundreds of classic car owners from attending the annual Onsted Car Show. Vehicles of every description, from time periods spanning the early twentieth century to the present day, were lined up in orderly rows in the central paddock of the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. While the main attraction of the car show was to compete for prizes, exhibitors also had the opportunity to test drive their cars on the MIS racetrack. A parade of classic vehicles waited patiently at the track entranceway, the owners eager to drive on the pavement made famous by NASCAR drivers. Even kids were able to get into the act; as I glanced up, I saw a caravan of gocarts speeding in orderly fashion around the track. Many of the exhibitors had pictures taken to commemorate the day; these photos were proudly and prominently displayed on dashboards and windshields throughout the venue. As I made my way through the massive collection of classic cars, I was hopeful that a few of the many muscle cars on exhibit would have female owners.

I didn’t have to wait long, as one of the first cars I noticed was an “In-Violet” 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda. The introduction of the ‘Cuda in 1964 preceded the phenomenon known as the Ford Mustang by two weeks. While the Mustang is recognized as responsible for the term “pony car,” the ‘Cuda – as a small-bodied car with a large engine – was considered part of the category, along with the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Mercury Cougar, AMC Javelin, and Dodge Challenger (Timeless Rides). The strict definition of the muscle car refers to intermediate sized vehicles (Muscle Car Club); however, auto manufacturers beefed up pony cars by inserting larger engines and high-performance options as a way to broaden the muscle car category and take advantage of its growing popularity. These high performance pony cars appear to be admired by many female drivers. The majority of the women I have encountered at car shows thus far have driven Challengers, ‘Cudas, or Mustangs. No doubt the vehicle’s smaller size- which contributes to easier handling – is partly responsible for its popularity among female drivers.

I discovered that the ‘Cuda owner had a long history of muscle cars. Living in a small town near the speedway most of her life, she spent her teenage years cruising the main drag in Adrian, Michigan, often stopping at drive-ins along the route to meet up with friends. While the muscle car is strongly associated with Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, smaller towns in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana had main thoroughfares on which cruising and street racing were popular activities and means of socialization for teenagers during the 1950s and 1960s. To the woman with the purple ‘Cuda, cruising is now a family activity, as her husband and sons share in her passion, often accompanying her to shows and local cruise-ins in their own cars, as well as helping her with maintenance and car repair. As she expressed to me, driving the ‘Cuda is a way to connect to her past as well as share her love of cars and cruising with friends and family.

As I meandered through the sea of cars, a 1973 bright blue metallic Mercury Cougar convertible caught my eye. 1973 – the year of the oil embargo and new EPA regulations – was considered the beginning of the end of the muscle car era. Indeed, 1973 was the last year of the Mustang-based Cougar, as well as the end of the Cougar convertible. The Cougar’s owner – a woman in her late 40s – told me that the car was a way for her family to share in something – cruising and car shows – they all enjoyed. The family aspect of enjoying the muscle car is a common theme among female muscle car owners, and is a part of classic muscle car culture that was initially surprising to me. Rather than an expression of power – which is often how high performance cars are regarded by those who drive them – the majority of women I have talked to view the muscle car as a way to share the past and experience the present with family and friends. While women appreciate the performance of the muscle car, its greatest source of power appears to be its role as a shared source of pleasure and a common bond among family members. It will be interesting to see if this theme emerges among other female muscle car owners I encounter in the course of this project.

While the majority of women I have met thus far drive classic muscle cars of the pony variety, I was pleased to find two women at the Onsted show with vehicles that auto aficionados would define as true muscle cars. The first car was a 1967 Pontiac GTO. As the owner told me, she had always wanted a GTO as a teenager, but had to wait until her five children were grown before purchasing one. She did much of the restoration on the car herself, teaching herself along the way. The second car was a 1970 Chevelle, which the owner told me had always been in the family. I hope that these four muscle-car-driving-women will agree to participate in this project and tell me more about their experiences with the American muscle car.

 

 

 

 

 

Cruisin’ Culture

"Facing off" on Woodward. Photo by Tom Shaw/Musclecar Review magazine.

While the proper care and maintenance of the automobile was an importance part of car culture, it was the means to an end. And that “end” was showing off one’s car – and driving ability – through cruising or drag racing. The prosperity following World War II not only made the possibility of automobility available to a wider population, but also produced an increase in leisure time to the majority of Americans. While families responded by taking to the open road, teenagers took over local thoroughfares on weekends, driving for hours on end, hooking up with friends, and stopping at one of the many new drive-in restaurants along the way. Teenage girls – without cars of their own – could often be found cruising in the station wagons of their parents. Young men, on the other hand, were more likely to arrive and depart in “powerful, gaudily painted, ‘souped-up’ chariots amidst thunderclaps of noise, wildly spewing gravel, and engines usually at full throttle “ (Foster, 2003, p. 66).

Before the advent of the suburban shopping mall, the main street of most cities and towns was “where the people congregated to conduct the transactions of life” (Witzel and Bash, 1997, p. 44). To the young teenage driver, cruising down the highway and stopping at the teenage gathering spots along the way, served as a primary form of teenage socialization. As Bash writes of his own past experiences, “When Friday night rolled around, my friends and I hit the wild mix of cars, girls, drive-ins, bowling alleys, racing, [and] rock and roll music […]” (Witzel and Bash, 1997, p. 41). Cars not only served as the means of transporting teens from one lively meeting site to another, but also became important in their own right as personal and private teenage spaces. Within the self-contained confines of an automobile, a young man could find escape from judgmental parental eyes, as well experience intimacy with members of the opposite sex.

Among the young men who came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, a cool and sexy automobile not only served to impress peers, but was also considered a prerequisite to garnering the attention of the young women who congregated at the highway meeting spots. As Witzel and Bash write, “Driving an awesome automobile was the most effective way to attract females and keep their interest – far from the prying eyes of parents and other adult authority figures” (1997, p. 23). On a typical Saturday night in America, recall Witzel and Bash, young men who owned cars but lacked dates tried “almost every trick in the book to win over girls and get them to hop into their chariots” (p. 49). The mating rituals of teenage cruisers included cranking up the radio volume when stopped at a traffic lights, laying a “scratch,” i.e. long patch of rubber, when taking off, and letting up the gas to achieve an obnoxiously  loud “muffler rumbling” when heading out (Witzel & Bash, 1997, p. 50). Possession of a fast and racy automobile, combined with such attention-getting driving behavior, provided even the most socially inept young man with the possibility of attracting the girl of his dreams.

Margaret Walsh (2006) suggests that the glamorization of cruising, reinforced in popular films such as American Graffiti as well as the nostalgia that surrounds classic car culture today, serves to obscure how young women fared in cruising and muscle car culture. Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip author Robert Genat asserts that young women were satisfied with just being part of the cruising scene. Witzel and Bash – in Cruisin’: Car Culture in America – argue that cruising was mostly harmless fun, as “so-called ‘good girls’ seldom hopped into the back seat of the first deuce coupe to drive by […]” (p. 50). This lighthearted and romanticized view of cruising culture implies that sex took place in cars but neglects to mention its repercussions on the young women pursued by teenage boys. In addition, the young woman behind the wheel – rather than on the sidelines or in the passenger seat – appears infrequently in these two accounts as an anomaly. Rather, the teenage girl in cruising culture is most often presented as a naïve individual easily impressed by burning tires and shiny sheet metal. As Walsh writes, “Cruising, often to the tune of the new rock and roll music, frequenting the drive-in restaurants, the heart of teenage culture, or visiting the local drive-in theatre where teenagers could explore their burgeoning sexuality in relative seclusion, preserved the cultural mores of dominant male and submissive female. This new teenage ‘auto culture’ looked backwards rather than forwards in terms of gender equality” (p. 10). Perhaps an examination of women who currently own classic muscle cars, of which many are aging baby boomers who took part in cruising during the postwar era, will provide insight into the women’s true experience in cruising culture.

 

Foster, M. (2003). A nation on wheels: The automobile culture in America since 1945. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth.

Genat, R. (2010). Woodward Avenue: cruising the legendary strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech.

Walsh, M. (2006). At Home at the Wheel? The Woman and her Automobile in the 1950s. Paper presented at The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture given at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference.

Witzel, M.K. & K. Bash. (1997). Cruisin’: Car culture in America. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company.