There are the automotive icons who are household names. Then there are those who work diligently without public recognition to create the magic that makes those icons famous. Those two groups are the subjects of fascinating new books.
Quick: What do the automotive child seat, head-up display, door lamps, adjustable lumbar supports, retractable seat belts, childproof rear-door and -window lockouts, and the in-car Dictaphone all have in common?
These creations were all proposed, designed, or invented by female car designers—in an era well before the rise of modern feminism. These women, bold forebears of a movement in a then (and still) male-dominated business, are profiled in Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry.
Written by Constance A. Smith—a graduate of Pratt Institute hired into GM’s advanced design studio during the Chuck Jordan years—Damsels follows a biographical and technological approach to the women who contributed to Detroit design between 1939 and 1959 and beyond.
You think the Mad Men environment only applied to the advertising industry? Any woman entering the auto industry back then had to fight through institutional discrimination that shepherded them into soft sciences such as PR, HR, and legal. Design was men’s work, not something for “a mere slip of a girl,” as Studebaker designer Jake Aldrich referred to Audrey Hodges—who won the internal contest to design the hood ornament for the 1950 Champion.
Often hired as token color and trim “decorators,” these progressive professional artists and industrial designers bashed through the sheetmetal ceiling to create notable work—including landmark concept cars such as the 1957 Olds Mona Lisa, 1958 Olds Rendezvous, 1958 Corvette Fancy Free, and 1958 Chevrolet Impala Martinique. Virginia Van Brunt penned many of the 1950s Lincolns. The interior design of the 1973 Chevy Titan 90 tilt-cab truck—led by Jayne Van Alstyne—was renowned for its NVH advances (before ergonomic comfort was considered important). In charge of Chevrolet’s interior design, Suzanne Vanderbilt oversaw the layout of the Chevy Vega (which was Motor Trend’s 1971 Car of the Year).
Sometimes the accomplishments were more whimsical: Remember KITT from the TV show Knight Rider? Ripped off from a Firebird lighting concept done for Sylvania by Ruth Glennie.
But these women’s achievements were often quiet personal victories. They were frequently paid less than their subordinates. Pregnancy meant a pink slip. And when Bill Mitchell replaced Harley Earl atop GM Design, Mitchell cut short the nascent damsels movement for blatantly sexist reasons that were prevalent and acceptable at the time.
Painstakingly researched and archived, with hundreds of rare and private photographs, Damsels offers a rarely seen glimpse into the early history of automotive design and development.
Contrast those profiles to the 954-page eponymous hagiography of Enzo Ferrari. Books about this industry legend come a dime a dozen (seriously, check out Amazon). But this latest telling by one-time Ferrari USA public relations guru Luca Dal Monte takes the tale of the racer-turned-automaker beyond the usual fables into new, untold places.
At 3 pounds, 6 ounces, this biography is fit more for a beach bag at the Hamptons than a carry-on from LAX to BLQ. And although the narrative has perhaps lost some of its linguistic enthusiasm in the translation from the original Italian, Dal Monte’s book fills the collective consciousness with Enzo stories previously only told among close friends and family.
Dal Monte’s digging through decades of racing results accounts for a thorough chronicling of Enzo’s early years—which will be a delight for fans of obscurity and arcana. But it takes 400 pages to reach Enzo striking out on his own with his first Ferrari-built racing machine, so those expecting a rollicking start will be disappointed.
Those who are patient, however, will learn the narratives of what made The Man tick: the dealings and deceptions, the rages and the crises of faith, the loyalties struck and disloyalties damned. Perhaps the best summary of the man—and the book—comes halfway through: “Although you might not necessarily like Ferrari, his personality was so overwhelming that a single word from him was enough to focus all the adrenaline in one’s body.” Such leaders come once in a generation. And Dal Monte’s book is a fitting tribute.
More by Mark Rechtin:
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- The Changing Business Model of Auto Shows
- Jobs Jobs Jobs: But Where Are the Workers?
- Supra-Heated Economy
- Tapping the Brakes: Why the Autonomous-Car Society is Still Decades Away
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