The drive from Ann Arbor to Lansing

1968 Chevy Camaro 350

This past Friday night, I drove my ‘49 Ford to the annual Rolling Sculpture show in downtown Ann Arbor. I not only planned to have a little fun showing off my own car, but also hoped to find a few women with classic muscle cars among the other exhibitors. Just 10 miles from my house, I try to attend Rolling Sculpture each year – as either an exhibitor or spectator – as it is a wonderful way to spend a summer night in this great university town. From 2 until 10PM, the downtown streets are closed to traffic, and hundreds of pedestrians meander through the hundreds of parked cars, stopping to look under hoods, take photographs, chat with exhibitors, or just observe the proceedings from one of A2’s many outdoor restaurants.

The streets were lined with automobiles of every description, including two electric cars from the early twentieth century, contemporary high performance vehicles, the requisite cars from the 1950s with fuzzy dice hanging from rearview mirrors, a 1960s era Detroit Police patrol car with a blaring siren, as well as two original Mini Coopers with right-hand drive. Among the eclectic collection were less than a dozen muscle cars. Much to my dismay, I did not come across any muscle cars with women behind the wheel. Classic muscle cars dominate the majority of car shows in southeastern Michigan. Therefore, I began to wonder first of all why there were so few at the Rolling Sculpture show, and secondly, why there were so few cars – muscle and otherwise – with female owners.

The first reason may have to do with the nature of the show. Rolling Sculpture is not an event for serious classic car collectors or owners. It has a real Ann Arbor sensibility, i.e. just about anyone can enter, and it is not particularly competitive. And unlike most classic car events, the majority of spectators are not car show savvy. While pleasant and inquisitive, they do not exhibit a basic understanding of car show rules, of which the most important is “DO NOT TOUCH THE CAR!” Kids with ice cream cones, women with keys jangling from their purses, and young adults walking dogs get precariously close to the vehicles on display, making the exhibitors extremely nervous. The second reason for the lack of muscle cars on display could have to do with the vehicles, and the exhibitors, the event tends to attract. On this warm summer night, the cars parked on the streets of Ann Arbor included a notable number of imports, which is in many ways reflective of the town itself on a normal day. I have noticed that muscle car owners typically exhibit at shows in which the majority of cars were produced in the US. I have also come to realize that owners of American-made muscle cars tend to be politically conservative. As Ann Arbor has the reputation of being slightly left-of-center, perhaps the location and its pedestrian population was a deterrent to some exhibitors. Certainly these musings are speculative; it could also be that the muscle car owners simply had a better place to be. So while I had a great time at Rolling Sculpture exhibiting my own vehicle, I was disappointed that I could not find one woman with a muscle car to interview for this project. Discouraged but determined, I decided to make my next car show stop at the state capital.

On the following Sunday afternoon, I headed out to Lansing, Michigan for the Sparrow Hospice Benefit Car Show put on by the Capital Area Muscle Car Club. While a small event, held in the parking lot of the Lansing Mall, there were a respectable number of muscle cars on display. I was delighted when I came across two female muscle car owners with great cars and even greater stories to tell. The first car I noticed was a black 1968 Chevy Camaro 350 with an exposed engine and a band of skull detailing surrounding the grill. The car was a gift from the woman’s husband shortly before his premature death; as the lettering on the passenger front quarter panel indicates, the car is driven and exhibited in his memory. The owner told me that the car was purchased from a young man she worked with eight years ago. While the detailing was the work of the previous owner, the engine was replaced on the car shortly after it came into her possession. The second car I stopped at was a black 1971 Trans Am; the owner received it as a high school graduation present and has driven it ever since. As she told me, “This car has been a part of me since before I had my children.” The car was adorned with two stuffed tigers on the roof; framed articles about the history of the car leaned against its bumpers. The owner told me she is often the only female at muscle car events; the men in attendance often do a double take when she roars into her parking space.

In briefly talking to each of these women I was moved by the special meaning the vehicles hold for them. Looking at the articles placed in and on the cars, and noting the emotion with which each woman spoke, it became evident that the cars hold meanings for the women that go well beyond their use as transportation. I look forward to speaking to each of them in more depth as I believe they will provide great insight into the unique relationship between women and the muscle car.

As I walked down the aisle of cars, I came across a 1988 Firebird with a female owner. However, it was 15 years too “young” for this project as I have limited the focus to cars produced from 1964 through 1973, the golden age of the muscle car. Perhaps I can call upon the car’s owner for a future project.

This weekend was spent visiting two car shows with very different cars, exhibitors and venues. The vehicles and exhibitors present at both events provided me with a better understanding of the many ways individuals enjoy and connect to their automobiles. More importantly, I was able to converse with two women with the potential to contribute a great deal to this project.

 

Boys under the hood.

While anyone with a car could cruise Woodward Avenue, serious car buffs used the four-lane thoroughfare to test automobiles of their own construction. Influenced by the California hot rod movement, teenage gear heads modified older cars as means of self-expression as well as to reject the corporate styles dictated by Detroit (Gartman, 1986, p. 184). This group of “hot rodders,” writes auto historian John Rae, “took conventional cars and gave them extra power by reboring cylinders, installing extra carburetors or fuel-injection systems, and other methods. These ‘souped up’ vehicles were frequently used for drag-racing, which consisted of starting from a standing stop and trying to achieve maximum acceleration in a specified distance, usually a quarter of a mile” (1965, p. 215). The growing presence of hot rods on Woodward, and the increased popularity of organized drag racing across the United States, sparked a new teenage activity – illegal street racing. While drag racing took place on streets all over the state, the highway that led from downtown Detroit to the northern suburbs was particularly conducive to the unlawful activity. As former Woodward cruiser Robert Genat remarks, “Woodward had perfect storm of great cars (including some serious hard-core racers), a lot of drive-in restaurants and other locales to hang out, and an ideal boulevard layout with four lanes in each direction separated by a wide grass-covered median, and long straight sections with well placed traffic lights – ideal for racing” (2010, p. 13). The same set of cars might race four or five times, “then peel off and go south down Woodward in the other direction, matching up with the same or different cars and do it all over again” (Genat 2010, p. 9). The northern area of the thoroughfare is mostly straight, with perfectly timed traffic signals, making it possible to race from light to light. And during the 1950s and 1960s, there were few businesses lining Woodward Avenue. The feeling of remoteness, writes Genat, “gave the racers confidence in reduced police presence and minimal contact with non-racers” (p. 16).

As illegal street racing became popular on city and rural streets throughout the nation, Woodward Avenue became the destination for serious racers in suburban Detroit, as well as outlying areas as far away as Ohio and Ontario. As Genat remarks, “street racing brought fame and infamy to Woodward Avenue. Cars were built with the sole intention of racing on Woodward” (2010, p. 40). Racers who honed their skills on the Detroit thoroughfare often graduated to competing in legitimate venues such as the popular Detroit Dragway, which added to the Woodward mystique. What had started as a bunch of suburban Detroit teenage motor heads working on cars in parking lots and garages metamorphosed into the thrilling – and often dangerous – sport of street racing, regarded by many teenage boys as the ultimate masculine pastime.

The illegal street racing that took place on Woodward did not go unobserved, particularly by former gear heads – now gainfully employed in the auto industry – who traversed the twenty-one-mile-stretch-of-highway from Detroit to the northern suburbs most evenings. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was an unofficial, but acknowledged, exchange of knowledge, skill, and parts between designers, engineers, and teenage street racers. Engineers often “tested” their ideas on Woodward Avenue after dark, despite the illegality of the practice. In addition, drag racers on Woodward often received parts and support “under the table” from engineers in a “quasi official” interaction at local hangouts such as Ted’s Drive-in (Ambrosio & Luckerman, 2006, p. 92). As Anthony Ambrosio, who spoke with a myriad of former drag racers and auto industry personnel in preparation for the publication of Cruisin’ the Original, reveals, “What [the engineers] learned was not lost on the local teenage dragsters and cruisers. Nor did the car companies overlook the youngsters’ creative ‘tinkering’ to enhance their cars, giving them parts and exchanging advice” (p. 7). This exchange process resulted in the incorporation into mainstream automobiles a number of “subversive” automotive innovations that were pioneered by Detroit street racers (Gartman, 2004, p. 190). The illegal drag racing community that congregated frequently on Woodward Avenue not only benefited from the knowledge of automotive designers and engineers who mingled among them, but also inspired the development of the American muscle car.

 

Ambrosio, A. & S. Luckerman. (2006). Cruisin’ the original: Woodward avenue. Charleston NC: Arcadia.

Gartman, D. (1986). Reification of consumer products: A general history illustrated by the case of the American automobile.” Sociological theory 4.4, 167 – 185.

Gartman, D. (2004). Three stages of the automobile: The cultural logics of the car.” Theory, Culture and Society 21, 169 – 195.

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

Rae, J.B. (1965). The American automobile: A brief history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

Cruise to the Fountain

1967 Plymouth Firebird

Marshall is a small Michigan city recognized for the nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture that lines its historical streets. It is located midway between Lansing, the state capitol, and the Michigan-Indiana border. Annually, on the weekend before the Fourth of July, Marshall holds the “Cruise to the Fountain” classic car show at the Calhoun County Fairgrounds, a two-day event that features over 1000 automobiles from the 1950s and 1960s. Having previously visited car shows primarily in the southeastern part of the state, I ventured West, anticipating that there would be many female muscle car owners among the 1000 exhibitors at the event.

There were more muscle cars assembled at the Cruise to the Fountain than I had witnessed at previous car shows. However, much to my disappointment, I found very few cars owned and driven by women. Since the show draws from northern Indiana and eastern Illinois as well as Michigan, perhaps the absence of cars is due to the economy in this part of the Midwest. There were a large number of muscle cars with “For Sale” signs parked at this show. Many of the folks who participate in the classic car hobby have been hard hit by the recession, women especially so. In tough times, a classic car becomes an extraneous expense, one that many women cannot afford to keep. In addition, the association of the automobile with masculinity would suggest that in a household with more than one classic car, if a vehicle has to be sold, it is more likely it would be that owned by the woman of the house. Marshall is also a conservative part of the state; consequently, individuals are more apt to subscribe to traditional gender roles. Thus perhaps the reason for the absence of female muscle car owners at the Cruise to the Fountain is that women have not been encouraged to participate in this male dominated pastime.

However, the few women I did meet among the thousand car owners had interesting stories to tell. A proud woman standing next to a brilliant blue 1967 Plymouth Firebird informed me the car was a gift from her husband for her 40th birthday. Propped on the hood of the vehicle was a scrapbook documenting the work performed on the automobile, a common site at classic car shows. While some folks purchase classic cars in good condition, many are what some refer to as “garage” finds, cars that have been buried under various items for decades and are need of substantial restoration to become show ready. The Firebird sported a brand new paint job as well as a few other improvements under the hood.

I also spotted two silver 1966 Dodge Chargers parked next to each other, with license plates that read “Mr. Hemi” and “Mrs. Hemi” respectively. For the uninformed, a “hemi” is a high performance engine introduced by Chrysler in 1951. Hemi is short for “hemispherical, half of a sphere, the shape of the combustion chamber in the early Hemi engines” (HEMI). It was an important component of the Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars produced during the 1960s and early 1970s. When I asked to speak to “Mrs. Hemi,” I was told she was at the lake with her grandchildren, but her husband promised to pass on the consent form to her. “Mr. Hemi” filled me in on the history of the two cars, which had been rebuilt by the couple’s mechanically inclined son.  The 1966 Dodge Challenger, designed by Carl “CAM” Cameron, is distinguished by its fastback roofline. The Challenger owned by Mrs. Hemi has Mr. Cameron’s signature on the inside of the trunk hood. There was also a framed article on the history of both vehicles, published in Northern Rodder, prominently displayed in the open trunk. I hope that Mr. Hemi keeps his promise and convinces his wife to talk to me about her muscle car experiences. I imagine she has some fascinating car stories to tell.

 

The street that started it all

Woodward Avenue

During the early 1960s, Woodward Avenue – the thoroughfare that divides Detroit into east and west – was the birthplace of the muscle car. Despite its rather ordinary appearance, this twenty-one mile stretch of highway contained all of the necessary elements for the development of what has been referred to as a “dominant icon in car culture America” (Heitman, 2009, p. 177). Since the early 1950s, Woodward had been the site of an established cruising culture. Young men gathered on Woodward to show off their cars, draw the attention of young women on the sidelines, congregate with friends at the multitude of eating establishments along the way, and engage in illegal street racing. Woodward was also a testing ground for young hot rodders. The proliferation of auto shops and suppliers along the twenty-one mile stretch, the proximity of automotive engineers who lived and worked nearby, and the many parking lots that emptied out in the evening provided a perfect setting for automotive experimentation and the development of new technologies by blue collar gearheads and their professional mentors. And as the road that connected downtown Detroit to the growing northern suburbs, Woodward was often the route of choice for auto execs who traveled from work to home just as the night street action was getting started.

While the muscle car was conceived to meet the demands of the growing population of baby boomer youth with money to spend on fast cars, it was the previous generation of blue collar teenagers – those who came of age in the years following World War II – who established cruising as an American phenomenon. Members of this growing youth culture sought to separate themselves from their parents’ generation in the most effective and accessible way possible. Taking their cue from popular culture icon James Dean, these young men practiced rebellion through a fascination with and dedication to cars.

During the fifties, the automotive industry experienced tremendous growth; subsequently, cars became “more elaborate, much faster than they had been, and a sign of American prosperity and energy” (Salamone, 2002, p. 53). To the American teenager, the automobile not only emerged as a symbol of rebellion, but also offered the possibility of a certain kind of freedom. Much more than a form of transportation, the car “opened up a world of endless amusement that was completely beyond a parent’s reach” (Palladino, 1996, p. 166). Not only did the automobile provide the opportunity for personal mobility, but also allowed for a certain amount of privacy. As a teenage “room of one’s own,” the car became a space where parents, grandparents and pesky siblings dare not invade. As Grace Palladino writes, “a boy with a car had a place that he could call his own. He had a place to entertain dates and a place to get to know them better” (p. 166).  Among participants in post war American youth culture, it was soon recognized that “gaining a driving license and the freedom to press an accelerator to the floor was the most important rite of passage in the male high-school experience” (Walsh, 2006, p. 9).

Brenda Bright (1998) writes, “Men’s interest in cars often begins as a predominantly – but not exclusively – male adolescent concern with style, personal identity, and mechanical skills” (p. 594). Membership in the youth car culture of the 1950s and 1960s was most often dependent on mechanical ability. Some teenage boys worked on cars alone at home, while others converged in public parking lots or garages to share automotive knowledge. Many “motor heads” formed car clubs to further automotive expertise, and to bond with other auto aficionados. The ability to take a car and put it back together again became a badge of honor among “car crazy” young men. As Mark Foster (2003) writes, “nobody gained full acceptance into [the car] fraternity until they could remove, rebuild, and reinstall an engine in their vehicles” (p. 66). In the context of formal and informal auto clubs and organizations, cars functioned as representatives of masculinity and male relationships (Bright p. 594).

The young hot rodders and amateur auto mechanics who cruised along Woodward Avenue, or engaged in a bit of street racing, did not go unnoticed by the auto industry designers and engineers who passed them on the way home from work each summer evening. Inadvertently, they inspired the phenomenon known as the muscle car, a category of vehicle that held the imagination of young men for a over a decade.

 

Bright, B. (1998). “Heart like a car: Hispano/Chicano culture in Northern New Mexico.” American Ethnologist. 24.4 (1998) 583 – 609.

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.

Heitman, J. (2009). The automobile and American life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Palladino, G. (1996). Teenagers: An American history. New York: Basic Books.

Salamone, F. (2002). Popular culture in the fifties. Lanham MA: University Press of America, Inc.

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.

 

 

 

 

Classics for the Cure

Classics for the Cure

While the primary purpose of the classic car show is to celebrate the history of the automobile, many have a secondary objective. “Classics for the Cure” is an annual event put on by the Michigan Mopar Muscle Club to raise breast cancer awareness. The organizer of the event, a female officer of the MMM, works tirelessly throughout the year to advertise the show, accumulate sponsors, and garner donations. This year’s show – held at Baker’s of Milford, a weekly mecca for local car buffs – was the most successful in its short three-year history.

On Saturday morning, volunteers sporting “Classics for the Cure” t-shirts could be found wandering the show site with pink buckets selling raffle tickets. Young women along the sidelines provided free pink lemonade and bags of popcorn to all in attendance. Exhibitors meandered through the rows of cars marking ballots for the top cars as well selecting the prestigious “participant’s choice” award. There was good food on site, and live music throughout the afternoon. While the day started out cool and cloudy, by late morning the sun came out and lifted the spirits of exhibitors and spectators alike. As might be expected, this event, which drew over 100 entries, attracted a number of female exhibitors. I approached a few of those with classic muscle cars  – which included two 1965 Mustangs, a bright orange 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda, a pink 1970 Plymouth Dusters, and a 1968 Dodge Charger – to ask if they might be interested in participating in my project. Along the way, I heard some wonderful car stories from female classic muscle car owners.

The owner of a panther pink Charger related her own car history to me. While she and her husband now have a collection of classic cars, she did not come from a car family. Rather, she learned about cars on her own, continually asking her reluctant father for car maintenance advice. At the age of 19, which is the age in which individuals in Michigan are allowed to accompany individuals as driving instructors, this woman was determined to teach her mother how to drive. As she told me, “my father was against the idea; he did not want my mother behind the wheel.” However, even as a teenager, this woman understood the importance of the automobile to a woman’s independence. Thanks to her insistence, not to mention patience, her mother soon received her driver’s license and never looked back.

This story reminded me of my own car history. My mother, a first generation Pole, was sheltered as a young girl on Detroit’s eastside. Not only did she not know how to drive, but also never learned to swim or ride a bike. When I was nine years old, my father died. Without a licensed driver in the house, we were forced to depend on public transportation or – to my humiliation – bumming rides from others. During the golden age of the automobile in the Motor City, the non-driver was considered a pariah; our non-mobile family certainly fit into that category. Therefore, I was determined to purchase my own car as soon as I was able to put enough money together and sign for one myself, which I did on my 21st birthday.

Young women today do not always realize the limitations that women have historically faced as car owners and drivers. As journalist Lesley Hazleton writes in Everything Women Need to Know About Cars but are Afraid to Ask, “While men take for granted the independence that cars bring, women do not. Our own car means freedom. It means control of our own lives. It means, in short, far more to us than it does to most men” (3). Female classic car owners, of whom the majority are aging baby boomers, share an understanding of how the automobile has the power to change a woman’s life. I look forward to learning more about women’s special relationship to the automobile as this project progresses.

“Classics for a Cure” provided the opportunity for women and men to contribute to an important cause through a shared passion for automobiles. It also allowed me to meet a number of female classic muscle car enthusiasts willing to share their personal car stories.

 

The car that started it all

1965 Pontiac GTO, on display at The Henry Ford

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 the General Motors downtown offices to his home in Bloomfield Hills, 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” (Heitman, 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. High powered “pony” cars – Mustang GT, Plymouth ‘Cuda, Pontiac Firebird, and Dodge Challenger – soon found their way onto Woodward Avenue as well.

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” (Heitman, 2009, p. 177), the GTO offered its young male drivers – literally and figuratively – possibilities of unlimited power.

Available accounts of the muscle car era – and there are many – rarely mention the young female driver. As auto journalist Robert Genat recalls, “the average young woman didn’t have the passion for [racing] like the young men did, and some flat-out told their dates not to race while they were in the car” (2010, p. 47). Margaret Walsh suggests teenage girls had no wish to participate as drivers, but rather, desired “to be seen, preferably as passengers, thereby enhancing their status with their female peers” (2006, p. 10). However, the growing number of women who own and drive classic muscle cars suggests that these limited accounts – in which young women are present as passengers, observers, or “cheerleaders” – do not tell the whole story. Certainly there is a relationship between women and the fast cars of the 1960s and 70s that is missing from the annals of muscle car culture. It is my hope that this project will not only uncover women’s stories, but also provide an alternative muscle car history, one that includes the voices of women behind the wheel.

 

Campisano, J. (1995). American muscle cars. New York: MetroBooks.

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.

Heitman, J. (2009). The automobile and American life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

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

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.

Zavitz, R.P. (1989). Post war scripts: When the GTO got going. Old Cars Weekly. 31 Aug 1989, 19-20.

 

Flexing some muscle at Motor Muster

1964 Mercury Marauder

One of the highlights of the summer is the annual two-day Motor Muster held on the grounds of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. It is a spectacular event; not only are 800 period-correct cars on display throughout the village, but there are numerous parades, lectures, and activities held throughout the day and into the evening for exhibitors and spectators alike. The goal of the Motor Muster is “to educate Greenfield Village visitors about the history and significance of the automobile in ways that are fun and engaging to all age levels” (The Henry Ford). As the rules state, vehicles entered in the show  – manufactured between 1933 and 1976 – must appear as they did when they were in daily use. Thus custom or modified vehicles are not allowed to participate in this event. This year, I was both a participant and observer, as the work on my 1949 Ford was completed just in time to make the trip to Greenfield Village. While I enjoyed talking to visitors about my own car, most of my time was spent looking for potential participants for my project on female muscle car owners.

As I made my way through the multitude of cars parked every place imaginable, I came across a young woman seated next to a “plum crazy” purple 1970 Dodge Challenger. Mopar (Chrysler) muscle cars seem to be very popular with women. Perhaps it is due to the “high impact” colors often found on Chrysler products manufactured between 1969 and 1973. Driving a car in Panther Pink, Citron Yella, Top Banana, Green Go, or Hemi Orange can provide a touch of individuality in what is often a ubiquitous sea of muscle cars. The Challenger owner purchased her car as a wreck fifteen years ago in order to learn how to work on automobiles. Judging by the pristine condition of her car, the educational project was a spectacular success. Although she attends quite a few car shows, she does not belong to any Mopar car clubs. Her experience around other muscle car owners has not been positive. As she told me, male drivers do not always respect the knowledge and expertise of female drivers. I truly hope that this woman agrees to participate in this project as I believe she will have a lot of interesting insights to offer.

While the majority of muscle car owners are owned by aging baby boomers, many are in the possession of “car crazy” women from automotive families. I met a recent Eastern Michigan University graduate with a beautiful black 1972 Plymouth Barracuda, one of several muscle cars owned by family members. When her sister started to list the cars in the family garage, I suggested they could put on their own event in their backyard. I have found the influence of families to be very common among female car enthusiasts. Many are indoctrinated into the car hobby by male family members, and learn about and become familiar with cars as they grow up. This young woman is engaged to a fellow car enthusiast, perhaps assuring that the love of cars will pass on to the next generation.

I also spoke with a number of women with classic Mustangs. “Pony” cars – which include the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Mercury Cougar, Pontiac Firebird, Mercury Cougar, AMC Javelin, and Dodge Challenger– are also popular with female drivers. One of the Mustang owners drove her 1965 red fastback from the Upper Pennisula to attend the show. One of the more unusual cars on display was a full-sized 1964 Mercury Marauder owned by a woman from Trenton, Michigan. I handed out consent forms and self addressed envelopes to all of the female muscle car owners I encountered; to those who were not present next to their vehicles, I left the documents under the wiper hoping for a response.

Due to a family obligation, I was only able to attend the Motor Muster on Sunday. However, it was a beautiful day, a great locale, and a fabulous collection of automobiles. I had the opportunity not only to look at some beautiful cars, but also spend a few moments with the proud women who own and drive them.

 

Women with Muscle at CEMA

1970 Dodge Challenger R/T Convertible 383

The unusually cold and rainy spring has put a damper on local car shows. Attendance at the CEMA car show (Chrysler Employee Motorsport Association) on Saturday, June 11 was down due to the threat of thunderstorms that lingered most of the day. However, that did not deter diehard car enthusiasts from displaying their vehicles on the grounds of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan. My husband – always suspicious of weather reports – decided to take a chance and drive his 1955 Chrysler 300 (last year’s CEMA winner) to the show grounds. I gladly accompanied him, not only in support of his classic car hobby, but also to begin my directed research project – an examination of women who own and drive classic muscle cars.

Among the many auto aficionados on the Chrysler Museum grounds were three women with classic muscle cars. I followed the rumbling engine of a 1967 red Dodge Dart GT convertible to speak to the car’s owner, a young woman in her thirties who had driven all the way from Wisconsin to show at CEMA. The car had belonged to the young woman’s father, and was his gift to her once she received her driver’s license. As her parents told me, their daughter does much of the work on the car herself. The young woman told me she comes by her love for cars naturally. A Michigan native, she has a degree in mechanical engineering and has always held a fascination for automobiles. I hope she agrees to participate in my project as she will certainly have some interesting insight to offer.

The next car I noticed was a “panther pink” 1970 Dodge Challenger Convertible. The owner of the car is from a muscle car family; she and her husband own a number of classic muscle cars from the 1970s and 1980s. The love of power and performance has been passed on to their 17-year-old daughter, who is the proud owner of a 1987 Pontiac Trans Am. Mother and daughter just returned from a trip to the Indy 500, where they had the opportunity to meet Danica Patrick as well as three other female Indy drivers. Like the first female muscle owner I encountered, the owner of the 1970 Challenger is a mechanical engineer, employed by General Motors. While I cannot interview the daughter due to her “minor” status, I look forward to talking to the matriarch of this muscle car family.

Across the aisle from the hot pink 1970 Challenger was a “plum crazy” purple convertible of the same make and model. Its owner was very interested in my project, and asked all sorts of questions about what I hope to accomplish and what I planned on doing with the results. She expressed frustration with the automotive media for its lack of attention to female car enthusiasts, and hoped that my project would eventually make its way into the mainstream. My goal for this project is not only to gain a better understanding of women’s relationship to the automobile and to muscle car culture, but perhaps more important, to provide a voice for the female car enthusiast. After speaking briefly with the female exhibitors at the CEMA show, I am encouraged that my objectives are within reach.

 

Changing the car buying experience one woman at a time

The common goal among car advice websites directed toward women is to educate the female driver in order to become a more knowledgeable and effective car buyer. However, while providing women with ammunition – in the form of information – is an important objective of women-drivers.com, its primary mission is to transform the automobile industry to become more “Women-Drivers Friendly.” Rather than submit to the frustrating and often humiliating car buying experience, female drivers are encouraged to become part of the transformation process through the submission of reviews on local dealerships and service establishments and to frequent those establishments that are “women friendly.” As founder Anne Fleming writes, “With input from women, we enrich the purchase and service experience of women in North America.”

When female drivers become part of the review process, they not only provide female consumers with the opportunity for a pleasant and non-confrontational car buying experience, but they deter potential customers from dealerships that patronize women. As women buy 54% of the new cars in the United States, and influence over 80% of automobile purchases, the loss of women’s business to local car dealers has the potential to be financially disastrous. However, in order for a change in the automotive industry to take place, it is necessary for women to reject those dealerships that treat them poorly, and to frequent those who regard them with respect. It is the vision of car advice websites such as women-drivers.com and AskPatty.com to educate those who serve the auto industry, which can be best accomplished if women become part of the review process. As Fleming states, “we connect millions of women with certified Women-Drivers Friendly dealers, therefore enhancing women’s buying experience and empowering them to negotiate and receive a fair price.” Fleming believes that an increase in “friendly” dealerships will put pressure on those establishments who receive negative reviews  – and who consequently risk the loss of a substantial market share –  to become more women friendly.

As one who “gave her power away” by hiring a negotiator, Fleming understands that not all women have the skills, automotive knowledge, or confidence to successfully deal with the car salesperson. Thus while educating the consumer is important, women’s car buying experience will not dramatically change until there is change in the auto industry. Women should not have to take a man along in order to be treated fairly; they should not be patronized or treated rudely when they are purchasing an item that costs tens of thousands of dollars. The mission of websites such as women-drivers.com is to remove the power from dealers and put it in the hands of the female consumer. Auto sales establishments will not change on their own; it is up to female consumers to change how dealerships operate through women’s purchasing power. Women-drivers.com believes that through participating as reviewers, doing business only with certified Women-Drivers Friendly dealers, and encouraging friends and family to the same, women can transform the automobile industry and provide other female drivers with a positive car buying experience.

Keeping car advice sites “familiar”

The military origins of the Internet are often considered responsible for the male domination of the technology in its early years. However, once the computer became an integral part of households and workplaces, its popularity among female users increased substantially. In fact, by the turn of the twenty-first century, women’s online participation exceeded that of men (Worthington 44). Research suggests that men rely on the Internet primarily for entertainment, while women increasingly turn to the web for help with tasks and to obtain information. Women often participate in online forums and mailing lists as a way to converse with others and share information; however, many women go online primarily as spectators, looking for specific information – i.e. health, parenting, or career advice – and quickly move on. As Susanna Paasonen writes in Flights of Fancy, “women’s Internet use is characterized as rational and determined, linked with saving time and money rather than fun or leisure” (137). As wage earning women, especially working mothers, have less free time than their male counterparts – often “juggling kids, jobs, and taking care of the house” – the time-saving potential of the Internet becomes both attractive and necessary (Flynn). Unfortunately, the information gathering capability of the Internet is not available to all women, as financial means often determines access. However, women who have computers at home or in places of work find the Internet to be an invaluable tool for obtaining advice and information about a particular service or product. Websites that offer automobile advice for women are representative of such online information sources.

Each of the online car advice sites discussed in this project  – the Edmunds.com “Women’s and Family Car Guide,” AskPatty.com, Road and Travel online magazine, and women-drivers.com – endeavors to create a unique resource for automobile knowledge and information. While many themes, as well as types of knowledge, are common to multiple websites, the way in which the information is gathered, arranged and accessed varies. Edmunds.com takes the form of an online research library. Articles are arranged and archived by subject matter, and can be easily retrieved, printed, or stored by the individual seeking reliable information. AskPatty.com is more interactive, and relies on the latest Internet technologies – blogs, podcasts, and forums – to engage the female driver. Not only does women-drivers.com “twitter” up-to-date auto news, but the entertaining and informative videos on the site provide a short respite from serious automotive research. While AskPatty.com and women-drivers.com each provide visitors with the opportunity to access automotive news and articles, they also encourage women to become actors in the knowledge accumulation process as reviewers of automobiles and car dealerships.

Online information sources, suggests Paasonen, are often configured in familiar formats and themes taken from other media. As Paasonen writes, “the topic areas, discussion forums, articles, and horoscopes of women’s websites owe much to the formats of women’s magazines” (139). Road and Travel, once a printed publication, has converted to an online format while retaining many of the former magazine features. It arranges and archives the articles – much like Edmunds.com – but is magazine-like in its inclusion of additional elements such as human interest stories and travel narratives.

Paasonen argues that the Internet’s use of familiar “feminine” formats is an attempt to appeal to ‘conservative’ media users (138). New York Times reporter Laurie Flynn asserts that female Internet users are interested in “a more efficient experience,” and use the Internet to “make life easier.” It is interesting, therefore, that the four car advice websites included in this project rely on familiar, “feminine” designs to amass knowledge on a product and service that has historically been considered masculine. Perhaps the creators of women’s car advice websites do not rely on feminine formats because they are familiar, but rather, to suggest that automotive knowledge should no longer be considered the province of men.