Here's how automakers have looked at women over the years
The highs and lows of how they've appealed to women at the wheel
Women are car customers. It’s estimated we buy half of all vehicles sold, and influence the majority of the remaining sales. So you’d think automakers would have tried over the years to figure us out.
Instead, it’s been a mixed bag, ranging from, “Hey, that’s spot-on,” to “Seriously?! ” So in honour of International Women’s Day, here are some highlights—and lowlights—over the decades.
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Early Electric Cars
When cars first started replacing horses, gasoline and electric cars—and to a lesser extent, steam—battled for supremacy.
Gasoline cars had to be hand-cranked to start, and that took muscle, but you just pushed a button on an electric car. Automakers used that to appeal to women, pushing aside the cars’ short range and recharging issues. A few specifically targeted them—the 1903 Waverly was advertised as “the ideal automobile for ladies.” But most ads simply included a picture of women looking at the car, or driving it.
It worked, and they became popular with women. Even Henry Ford’s wife Clara bought one, and from another manufacturer because Ford didn’t make electrics. Battery cars lost their main advantage and soon left the market after Cadillac introduced a self-starter in 1912. Now electrics are back again, but a recent Canadian poll found that men are slightly more interested in buying one this time around.
When automatic transmissions were introduced in the 1940s, automakers generally ran two basic styles of ads. One had a woman at the wheel—always by herself, or with female passengers—and usually described how easy the car was to drive. The other ads had male drivers, but almost always with a woman alongside. The message appeared to be We know you’re a manly man who can work a clutch; and we know you’re buying it so your wife can drive it, too.
In 1968, Hurst made a dual-gate “His and Hers” shifter. It was for an automatic transmission, with regular operation on “her” side, and performance shifting on “his” side. You switched it over with a red key, which went on “his personal key ring” and prevented the performance side being used by “the automatic-minded little lady.”
Honda, bless ‘em, ran an ad for the 1974 Civic that said some automakers built cars for women that were “hopelessly automatic and dull,” and instead, “We’ve got a stick shift with an astonishing amount of zip.” The other choice was a semi-automatic that “doesn’t rob you of involvement.” Honda didn’t have a full automatic, and the ad was really an attempt to sell that as a benefit in an autobox-preference market. Still, it was refreshing for women to see themselves portrayed as enthusiasts.
The Dodge La Flop
The 1955 Dodge La Femme should have been a marketing slam-dunk, right? Set aside some Royal Lancer models, paint them pink and white with a pink interior, add a matching purse, raincoat and umbrella, throw in some cosmetics, and then advertise that it’s the “first and only car designed for Your Majesty, the modern American woman.”
What could possibly go wrong, especially when you follow up with a 1956 edition in lavender instead? The fact that there wasn’t a La Femme for 1957 should tell you how few of Her Majesties actually bought one of the things.
Women Aren’t Dummies
Well, we weren’t, not when it comes to crash safety, and we’re still not fully there. The first primitive crash-test dummy was created in 1949, and formed the basis of GM’s succession of advanced “Hybrid” dummies. These would become the industry standard for government-regulation testing, starting in 1972.
So when did anyone start developing a truly female-representative crash dummy? In 2012, and it’s still not in general use . Instead, since 2003— three decades after the initial standard kicked in—we’ve been officially represented by a smaller version of a male dummy. It’s closer in size and weight to a 12-year-old girl, and for that reason, is less likely to be tested behind the wheel. A male-variant also doesn’t account for our anatomical differences, how the seat belt fits us, or that women might be pregnant. Even a dummy can figure that out.
Automakers want women buying their cars, but they don’t necessarily want to show them driving them. Right back to the dawn of auto advertising, women are usually behind the wheel only when they’re alone, or all male passengers are too young to drive. With just a scant handful of exceptions, if there’s a man, he’s driving. It may sound nitpicky, but from our side, it’s also tiresome.
It Was “Our” Concept Car
A few women worked in design and engineering since at least the 1940s , but in 2004, Volvo unveiled the YCC, for Your Concept Car, designed and developed entirely by women. It went on a world tour after its debut at the Geneva Motor Show, including stops in the U.S. where Volvo hoped to increase the company’s appeal to female buyers.
It had the usual concept-car features of new fabrics and living-room-style seating, along with uncommon touches such as its windshield washer filler on the side of the car. It never went into production—most concepts don’t, regardless of who designs them—but Volvo did use some of its features on other cars, including a patented driver’s memory system, and a self-parking feature. And to top it off, the YCC was definitely not pink.
LISTEN: We kick off Season 4 with at look at new EVs available in Canada.
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