Let’s be honest, we don’t hear too much about women at the forefront in the automotive industry. Well, the truth is, they are and have been as early as the late 19th century. Nowadays, it seems (this is just speculation on my part), that there are scores of women working behind the scenes. There are engineers, designers, software IT specialists, marketing strategists and in manufacturing. I am certain I’m leaving many other positions and areas of expertise out. (we will touch on that shortly). My point is that men have traditionally dominated the auto world
In fact, as I did research for this article, I would quiz friends, former coworkers, etc. “Can you name a prominent woman in the auto industry?” Henry Ford, Dodge Bros, David Buick, Enzo Ferrari, Ferdinand Porsche, just to name a few men. But no women. This is where the story takes a turn. Several turns, if you like.
There were women pioneers. They brilliantly brought their ideas to fruition, in that their developments became and are currently standard equipment on every car manufactured today. Worldwide. That’s impressive.
Bertha Benz, that last name I’m sure you are familiar with. Yes, Bertha was Karl Benz’s wife and business partner. The esteemed Mercedes-Benz manufacturer would not be if it were not for Bertha. See, she took this long “road trip” in one of Karl’s first horseless carriages. Her trip was about 66 miles one way. In 1886, that was an incredible distance! Along the way, she encountered numerous issues. She performed minor repairs, such as clearing out a fuel line with a pin. When she noticed that the wooden “brakes” had worn and fallen apart, she found a cobbler and with her direction, he fashioned leather pads to replace the wooden ones. In essence she created the first effective brake pad! Of course the rest is history!
This is the 1886 Benz that Bertha drove.
Picture courtesy of volovcars.com
Isn’t it nice, being able to see through your windshield during a down pour or the salt, slush and grime that the windshield accumulates? Well, you can thank Mary Anderson. She is credited with inventing a devise that the driver could use to rotate a handle, which in turn would move a “wiper” across the window to clear it. In 1903 she applied and was awarded a 17 year patent. She made an attempt to market the invention to a Canadian company, but was rejected, citing “that it wasn’t practical”. Unfortunately, by the time the patent expired in 1920, many cars were using a motorized variant of her design. Cadillac was the first manufacturer to use the system on all their cars as standard equipment. Thanks, Mary, I can see clearer now.
Margaret A. Wilcox was a mechanical engineer in Chicago that enjoyed experimenting with different ideas in hopes of creating something that would help others. Well, she did just that. In 1893 she invented the first car heater. She developed a system of tubes that would route the hot engine air into the cabin of the car. You can imagine in the late 19th century, riding around in one of these horseless carriages, your little tootsies would get frosty! There’s no doubt that her invention was well received!
Doesn’t it make you nuts when someone doesn’t use their turn signal? Or how about when they slam on their brakes at the last minute before a traffic light or stop sign? It sure is helpful to all drivers when using the turn signals and using the brakes slowly and evenly. Using these lights and responding accordingly are responsible driving habits. Florence Lawrence is credited with being the first movie star in the early 20th century. As her success and fortune grew she became able to purchase a car. She instantly fell in love with driving and making repairs when necessary. The more she drove, the more she saw a need for more safety with the cars. In 1914, she developed a mechanical “arm” that when the driver pushed a button, a small “flag” would pop out from one of the rear fenders indicating which direction they were headed. 60 years later several manufacturers took the idea a bit further with lighted arms, usually set in the “b” post. They were most commonly used on 50’s era VW Beetles, although other manufacturers used them as well. Ms. Lawrence wasn’t done. She also created a device that when pressing the brake pedal, a small flag that read “stop” popped up from the rear of the car. In my opinion the auto industry, the billions of drivers on the road, owes her quite a bit. There’s not one single car manufactured today that doesn’t have turn signals and stop/brake lights. In fact, in many countries, it’s LAW. Unfortunately, her ideas didn’t gain traction and were not used much. It wasn’t until 1925 when manufacturers began submitting patents for their own versions.
Here is Lawrence in a Lozier (a noted luxury car of the time).
Photo credit Wisconsin Center for film and Theatre Research
Alright, I know what you’re thinking. What about the 20th or 21st century? There are plenty. I’ll touch on a few, but list more that you can search and read about their accomplishments yourself. After all, it is Women’s History Month!
In 1980, Mary Barra got a job working for GM as a co-op student. Working in several positions, rising through the ranks, in 2011 she was named Executive VP of Global Product Development. In 2014 she succeeded Dan Ackerson as CEO of General Motors. This phenomenal accomplishment marks the first time a woman has been at the helm of a major international auto manufacturer. It’s not much of a surprise that Fortune’s List of Most Powerful Women in 2015, listed her at #1.
2017 Honda NSX. If you liked the first generation NSX, you’re going to love this one. Twin-turbo, V6, 3 electric motors, all wheel drive sitting on an aluminum and high strength steel framework. And this is the best part. It’s lead designer is Michelle Christensen. She is the first woman to lead the project of a super car, that can easily compete with other super cars on the global market. She grew up with a father who was into hotrods and muscle cars. She then went to school and learned about design. I believe that there is no doubt we will be seeing more of her creations in the future!
2017 Honda NSX
Women cannot be ignored within the automotive industry. They have the gas pedal to the floor and they are shifting into high gear!
Here are some more women in the industry that have and are leaving undeniable impacts.
-Denise McCluggage; race driver, journalist, author and photographer. Started racing in the 50’s with a MG TC Midget, then a Jaguar XK140 then in a Ferrari 250 GT won the grand touring class in 1961, she raced Porsches, Maseratis, Ford’s and others.
-Danica Patrick; is the most successful woman in American open-wheel racing history, rookie of the year 2005 for the Indy 500 and the Indycar series, she’s the first woman to win an open wheel race, Indy Japan 300 in 2008, taking pole position in the 2013 Daytona 500, and other remarkable accomplishments in autosports.
-Shirley Muldowney; first woman to get licensed by the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) to drive a top fuel dragster. She won three national championships in 1977, 1980, and 1982.
-Suzanne Vanderbuilt -Courtney Force
-Ruth Glennie -Ashley Force Hood
-Marjorie Ford Pohlman -Lyn St. James
-Jeanette Linder -Michele Mouton
-Sandra Logyear -Jutta Kleinschmidt
-Peggy Sauer -Helle Nice
-Sarah Fisher -Pat Moss
Women are pushing the boundaries in all areas of the automotive world. And to their credit, I am buckling my seatbelt!