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.



One thought on “Back to Chelsea

    #   nike dunks on 09.08.11 at 8:09 pm     

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