Women car designers and designing cars for women

Cars have been on the roads for about 120 years and women have been involved in designing and driving them for all of that time. This involvement has become largely invisible – so much so that major car manufacturer Volvo went unchallenged in 2005 when it announced that its new team of women car designers was an innovation. But this is not so and women have been both drivers and designers of cars, right from the start.

Berta Benz

In 1888 Berta Benz was impatient with her husband’s endless tinkering and, needing a way to get herself and her two sons from Mannheim to the next town, Pforzheim, some 50km distant, she set off in Benz’s prototype automobile. This round trip meant she had to find fuel along the way, push the vehicle up hills and undertake roadside repairs herself. On her return, she was able to report to her husband the design changes necessary to make the vehicle more reliable. This first automobile road test, by the pioneering Frau Benz, is celebrated with an annual run of historic cars between the two German towns. Apart from this, women’s involvement with cars and their design has been less well known and certainly less celebrated than Berta’s involvement.

By the end of the 19th century, opportunities for women beyond the home were expanding, and the same type of modern-thinking woman, who was willing to ride a bicycle, was also likely to be excited by the idea of motoring and aviation. Many early women motorists were also keen flyers. Women often won prizes in the early long-distance races and Joan Cuneo’s successes, against prominent male racers in the USA, led to women being banned from racing by the American Automobile Association. Many of the wives of automobile manufacturers were keen racers and even Princess Dolgorukaya, Tsar Alexander II’s second wife, raced from St Petersburg to Kiev in 1911. However, this early sense of equality faded somewhat, with the return to highly traditional patriarchal values after the First World War. By 1933, English aviatrix and motor racer, Mrs Victor Bruce, was claiming that women were edging their way into ‘A sport that previously had almost entirely been a man’s game’.  This claim resurfaces at regular intervals, to this day.

Car makers were quick to realise that a woman seen with their car could imply reliability, comfort and ease of use. Female figures, either ‘goddess’ types or ‘real’ women drivers, were used to advertise cars from the earliest times, as many manufacturers sold to the woman, even if the man was the driver. To our modern eyes, the interiors of many early elite cars resembled living rooms, with seating often styled like a deep-buttoned leather settee with arms. This domestic interior and elegant, beautifully decorated shiny exterior, enabled women to feel comfortable as both passengers and drivers.

The mechanisation and modernist styling of the early 20th century, epitomised by the standard Model T Ford, was in many ways the antithesis: very plain, famously only available in black and with no variations. The automobile industry itself recognised the conflict between the adverts aimed at, and including images of, women drivers and the product with its harsh, plain and unappealing appearance. This prompted major design changes to paint and bodywork so that a wider range of elegant (feminised?) shapes, emulating the use of modernist streamlining in elite cars, was possible for mass-produced cheap cars too. The quality of beauty expected in the domestic sphere was reintroduced to some extent in the mass-produced, external sphere of the automobile. The car as an extension of the living space was made available to a wider range of buyers and the concept is with us still, as we shall see in the case of the Volvo YCC designs.

Motoring became more routine between the wars, particularly for professionals who needed transport for their work – doctors for example – and many women had learnt to drive in WW1.  In 1936, Packard advertised its new car as ‘An exceptionally good choice for the woman motorist’, on the basis of its low cost, reliability and ease of handing.

As part of the post-WW2 traditionalist effort to relocate women’s lives in the home, pink was used in every possible circumstance and shade, to stamp the feminine brand upon an item. Car makers used colours freely, often using two-tone styling, with lots of chrome decoration and elaborate bodywork shapes, with rocket-fins. Whilst this type of styling might nowadays be regarded as bordering on the phallic, at the time these massive cars were advertised to the American housewife, for whom a car was essential if she was to leave her home to go anywhere in the vast suburban sprawls of the USA. These large cars again started to resemble mobile living rooms and all the major US car makers employed female designers at this time, to ensure they were getting it right for the female target market.

In the 1960s, Fords advertised their Anglia car in a number of ways that aimed at the female market as well as the male. A range of ‘typical’ users, invited to contribute their views on the car to an advertising brochure, included one woman and a Ford Anglia poster invited women to buy the ‘world’s most exciting light car’- implying that, again, easy handling was regarded as a particularly feminine demand.

What is a ‘woman’s car’? At various times since, cars ‘for women’ have been deemed to be:

  • The small car, often the family’s second car, small cheap, ‘runabout’, for shopping, picking the kids up.
  • The massive ‘people carrier’, the strong, high ‘tank’ that will armour the family against the hazards of the road and carry most of their friends too, for the shared school run.
  • The small sporty car that is not as fast as it seems.
  • The cute car; small, rounded, personalised. Epitomised by the Volkswagen Beetle and Cabrio models, now considered the top ‘Chick cars’ for the young, single, funky woman.

Whilst the majority of car adverts today seem to be aimed at the status and speed oriented male market, rather than the female preferences for safety and drivability, there are some advertising campaigns that include women as users rather than decorative bystanders.  However, it is as though each generation of advertising creatives has to rediscover the female car buying market, all over again.

Cars Designed by Women

Although many manufacturers took advice from women in their staff about car design for the female market, few women were professional car designers until very recently. A notable exception was Dorothée Pullinger.

Dorothée Pullinger and the Galloway

Dorothée Pullinger

Dorothée Aurélie Marianne Pullinger, MBE, was born in Calais, France, on the 13th January 1892, the eldest of the 12 children of Aurélie Bérénice Sitwell and Thomas Charles Pullinger. Her father, a well-known automobile designer, had previously worked for Darracq and Teste de Moret in France. Returning to Britain, in 1902, he introduced many continental ideas to British car makers and worked for several automobile manufacturers: Sunbeam, Humber and, finally, Arrol Johnston’s factory at Paisley.

Dorothée (aged 16) apprenticed to her father, who was managing director at Sir William Beardmore’s Arrol Johnston car works in Paisley. She did drawing office work, and converted German aero engine designs from metric to imperial measurements for UK use. She was employed by Vickers during WW1, to supervise thousands of munitionettes at their plant in Barrow-in-Furness. She started a women’s apprenticeship scheme and managed the female staff, establishing their own football team.

After the war, Dorothée returned to Scotland and Arrol Johnstons, at their works in Tongland, Dumfries and Galloway. This was a new factory, specially built during the war, as an experimental effort to establish a ‘University for women engineers’ training women to be professional engineers. The women lived in a purpose-built hostel nearby and were expected to follow a specially-devised apprenticeship, initially supervised by Dorothy Rowbotham.

Galloway car, Myreton Motor Museum, near Edinburgh

Post-war, Arrol Johnstons needed to get back into the mainstream of car production again and one of their efforts was to turn the Tongland plant, and its women workers, over to the production of a small, economical car, designed by Dorothée Pullinger, for women. The product made by the women was the Galloway car, which remained in production until 1925. They were produced with an all-female workforce under the supervision of Dorothée Pullinger. The car design was based on an existing Arrol Johnston car, (10/20 CV, 4 cylinders, and 1528 cc capacity) but adapted for women.

It was a lighter, smaller version with a better sightline for the driver, a more conveniently situated handbrake, the first rear-view mirror, better storage and a reliable, easily maintained engine. The importance of some of these changes can be appreciated by trying both the ‘male’ and ‘female’ versions. For a woman of average modern height (165cm), the former provides virtually no view of the road. The unadjustable driver’s seat is very low and the only view is through the steering wheel, rather than over the top. This is made worse by an additional set of controls superimposed within the steering wheel itself, thus further obscuring what little can be seen. The handbrake, near the gear lever and beside the driver’s right knee requires the user to lean so far forward to fully engage it as to be actually under the dashboard. In the Galloway ‘woman’s’ car, these difficulties have been rectified, by raising the seat, reducing the size of the additional controls on the steering wheel and moving the handbrake to beside the seat.

Ultimately about 4,000 Galloways, in a variety of sizes, were built before the 1929 slump ended the demand. Dorothée was a successful participant in various time and reliability trials, driving her 10 h.p. Galloway around the Scottish countryside, rarely losing any marks against the other male and female competitors. She went onto become a successful businesswoman in London, establishing a huge modernistic steam-powered laundry.

Volvo’s ‘Your Concept’ Car

The women behind the YCC: Maria Widell Christiansen, Eva-Lisa Andersson, Elna Holmberg, Maria Uggla, Camilla Palmertz, Cynthia Charwick, Anna Rosén, Lena Ekelund, Tatiana Butovitsch Temm. Picture courtesy of Volvo Newsroom

In 2005 Volvo assembled a team of 9 women car designers from around the globe to design a concept car (YCC) for women drivers. A concept car is a platform to try out novel ideas in appearance and performance of a car. They were inspired by marketing guru, Martha Barletta, with her phrase: ‘If you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men’.
Based on an imagined ‘Reference customer’, their design criteria were that women want everything that men want (performance, style etc), but have additional demands:

  • Better storage
  • Easy to get in and out
  • Good visibility
  • A car that can be personalised
  • High reliability leading to minimal maintenance
  • Easy handling, e.g. for parking

Some of these demands required radical changes, especially within the driver/passenger space. Having identified the space between the front seats as the ideal place for putting items that the driver wants close-to-hand, the gear lever and handbrake had to be moved away from that gap, and up to the wheel column. On the assumption that their reference woman was only rarely carrying more than one passenger, the rear seats’ default position is folded, like a cinema seat, giving space behind the front seats to load larger bags from the side door. The doors themselves were, controversially, gull-wings, to enable easy entry, since the sill is part of the door and moves away on opening, but was widely criticised as impractical in most urban parking situations. The car is as maintenance free as possible, with windscreen wash fluid being topped up from a capless filling point next to a similar fuel filling point. Hence there is no need to be able to raise the bonnet (hood) and access is therefore only available by the mechanic at the service centre.

YCC driver’s seat. Picture courtesy of Volvo Newsroom

The driver’s seating position, relative to the hand and foot controls and her line of vision, were considered to be very important. The YCC solution to this is one of the more adventurous proposals: the driver’s ergonomic measurements are held in a digital personal key. The key docks with the car and tells it to adjust the seat, steering column, pedals and other features, to best suit the driver and provide her with the perfect access to controls and lines of vision. The car can be set to ride in a high position or low position, for a better view or sporty feel respectively, and an Autopark function steers the car while the driver controls the speed during awkward parking situations. This technological personalisation of the interior is complemented by aesthetic possibilities for personalisation: the team wanted to create a ‘beautiful car. The car’s seats are augmented by seat pads, which are available in a range of materials including leather or printed or embroidered fabrics, with matching carpets. Both are removable and washable, and bring us back to the idea of a car as a ‘living room’.

Attempts to address the ‘Women’s Market’

In addition to the Galloway and the Volvo concept car, there have been numerous other efforts to address the “women’s market”. At about the same time as the Galloway was in production in Scotland, across the Atlantic in the USA a few women were associated with car design at the elite end of the scale. A banking heiress, Miriam Warren Hubbard made design suggestions to the Biddle Motor Car Company. In the 1930s, aviatrix and motorist Anna Biddle, whose family made Biddle cars until 1923, was working with Buckminster-Fuller on the design of his extraordinary Dymaxion car. Nissan’s chief designer, Diane Allen, has reworked some of their truck and SUV designs to appeal to women buyers. In the 1940s and 50s, both Ford and General Motors employed small numbers of women in their design studios, but their influence at that time was restricted to the interior (female/domestic) of the cars. Ford’s ‘Windstar Moms’ and their Probe designer, Mimi Vandermolen; General Motors’ Saturn designer, Kate Zak, and Buick Rendezvous designer, Liz Wetzel; and Daimler Chrysler’s Anne Asensio have all led design teams on major model lines, with a view to appealing to the 80% of car purchase decisions that are made by women.

What do women really, really want?

We can see a remarkable continuity of demands from women in the 80 years of car design under consideration. The Galloway, in the 1920s, aimed to be a lighter car which would be easier for women to handle, featuring the first rear-view mirror, improved sight-lines for the driver, better storage and an engine that would be easy to maintain. Eighty years later the YCC featured easy handling and ‘Autopark’, better sight-lines, innovative storage solutions, and an engine so reliable that no access for maintenance is available to the owner. In each case, the attempt has been to start with a ‘male’ car and adapt it to include what it is thought that women might want. The prime features claimed for these ‘female’ demands have been reliability, comfort, drivability, convenience.

This prompts some intriguing questions –

  • Why are such criteria not the norm anyway, for all designs?
  • Do men not want these same features?
  • What would a car be like, if designed from first principles, on the assumption that only a woman was going to drive it?

Credit and Further reading

Dr Nina Baker is a research manager in the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. She has a particular interest in the history of women and engineering.

There is very little in book form on this topic, apart from:
V. Scharff, Taking the wheel: women and the coming of the automobile age, University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

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