10 March 2021
TRAILBLAZERS: 10 famous women in the automotive industry

This Women’s History Month, we look at 10 famous women whose (tyre) marks have been left on the automotive industry!

The automotive and motorsports industries are not without their stereotypes, and the rather skewed gender distribution is one such instance. One might not need to look far to find a male car enthusiast — my colleague right beside me is a fine example. The female counterparts, on the other hand, are few and far between. However, this doesn’t mean that women were never involved in automobiles or motorsports. Far from it, they’ve played integral roles in the industry!

As we commemorate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we celebrate the lives of 10 famous women in the automotive industry. These inspiring women are true trailblazers who have left their (tyre) marks in the car scene.

Bertha Benz, the great woman behind the great Karl Benz.

A dramatic interpretation of Bertha Benz’s journey.

You might have heard of the famed inventor Karl Benz, but do you know of his wife, Bertha? Bertha Benz too made a name for herself through her inventions. Now, consider your brakes today and how they wear and tear. The old “Motorwagen” was no different — Karl Benz’s first horseless carriage employed wooden brakes to slow the vehicle down. Bertha drove the Motorwagen to visit her mother; a long journey she undertook that proved fruitful. Enroute, Bertha thought to supplement the wooden brake pads with leather. Doing so prevented the wooden brakes from wearing out too quickly during the long journey.

Like mother, like daughter: Charlotte Bridgwood and Florence Lawrence, actors and inventors.

If you’ve trusted your windscreen wipers to keep your vision clear on a rainy day, it’s thanks to two women.

The first is Mary Anderson, who invented the first windscreen wipers in the early 1900s. Her early version still required manual handling of levers to work the wipers and proved quite unpopular. However, Charlotte Bridgwood took things a step further and invented the first automatic windscreen wipers. She received the patent for the wipers in 1917, though the use of rollers instead of rubber blades didn’t gain traction. Eventually, the electronic mechanisms made important contributions to the modern windscreen wipers found on the cars of today. 

What of Florence Lawrence then, Charlotte’s daughter and the “first movie star”?

Florence Lawrence. Source: Historic Vehicle Association

Florence Lawrence was famed for having a passion for driving only rivalled by that for acting. Like any other car enthusiast, she sought to understand as much as she could about the way cars worked. Her fascination led her to invent the predecessor of today’s signal lights; a simple mechanism that raised and lowered a flag on the rear bumper so drivers could indicate which direction they were turning. These, along with a similarly designed “stop” sign that predates the brake lights, were unfortunately unpatented by Lawrence. However, it is difficult to deny the influence of her safety-centric inventions, having proved invaluable all the more on modern roads. 

Denise McCluggage and Jean Jennings, bringing you automotive content.

Much like the rest of the car industry, even automotive journalism is ever the male-centric industry. But, two women have proven capable of holding their own, and they are none other than the award winning Denise McCluggage and Jean Jennings.

Denice McCluggage. Source: McPherson College

McCluggage made a name for herself in not only journalism but also on the track. In 1958, she was one of the key creators of Competitor Press, a bi-weekly motorsports newsletter that would later be rebranded as AutoWeek. Her contributions to automotive journalism won her prestigious awards such as the Ken W. Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism and an induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame. She remains the only automotive journalist to be inducted.

As for Jean Jennings, one might say her foray into automotive journalism should come as no surprise. Her father had been the editor of Automotive News, and she grew up around a steady stream of interesting cars. While she never did hit the track like McCluggage did, Jennings got her career jumpstart as a Chrysler welder, mechanic and test driver. Since then, she has founded Automobile, worked as the automotive correspondent for Good Morning America and founded her own website, Jean Knows Cars.

Jean Jennings. Source: MotorBiscuit

While she may have many accolades to her name, Jennings’ proudest moment comes from the fourth Caden’s Car Show. That year, she and the team successfully featured the real Optimus Prime among 70-over vintage and exotic cars. All in celebration of one young Caden Bowles who died while waiting for a heart transplant.

Serving you looks with the BMW Z4, Juliane Blasi and Nadya Arnaout.

Now, hear me out before you come at me with pitchforks. Another common stereotype in the automotive industry deals with the sort of cars that appeal to women aesthetically. The idea that women tend to prefer softer shapes and round, cute cars isn’t an unusual conclusion to come to. However, that doesn’t mean that women are incapable of appreciating and creating designs that become synonymous with more masculine adjectives such as aggressive and macho.

Which brings me to Juliane Blasi and Nadya Arnaout. If you’ve expressed admiration for the 2009 BMW Z4 and find the aesthetics particularly to your tastes, the design credit belongs to these women.

Juliane Blasi working on another BMW project. Source: BMW

Blasi and Arnaout earned the recognition following an internal design competition held by BMW. In order to ensure the submitted sketches and clay models were assessed fairly, all entries were anonymised. Blasi and Arnaout emerged victorious to both pleasant surprise and perhaps, jealous admiration. According to Blasi, whose focus was on the exterior of the Z4, a masculine look was never her aim. “I tried to make it look fierce and strong, and some people would probably relate it to the male” — a conclusion stemming from deeply ingrained values.

And indeed, who says women can’t be fierce and strong too?

Shirley Muldowney and Leilani Münter, right where the racing action is.

Speaking of fierce and strong, it takes a certain mettle to go toe to toe with other racers in a male-dominated arena.

Known as “First Lady of Drag Racing”, Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney was the first female Top Fuel dragster driver to be licensed by the NHRA. She cultivated her passion for racing from a young age, learning to drive from her boyfriend-turn husband Jack Muldowney. Eventually, she made her debut competing on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway in 1958. Muldowney went on to compete in national competitions and won the International Hot Rod Association Southern Nationals in 1971.

Shirley Muldowney. Source: boingboing

Muldowney was also not one to take setbacks lying down. After a severe crash in 1984 that left her with serious injuries requiring 18 months of rehabilitation, she bounced back and won the NHIRA National title in 1989. She retired from the sport in 2006, and the biopic Heart Like a Wheel is based on her life story.

Leilani Münter’s story is a little different, but no less inspiring. Before recently retiring from professional driving, Münter’s 18-year career consisted not only of her driving accolades but also her environmental activism.

Leilani Münter. Source: VegNews

She walked the talk and made history in 2014 when she became the first ARCA driver to drive oil-free. The road trip in her Tesla Model S took her from her hometown in North Carolina to Chicagoland Speedway. Among many other firsts, her race team was also the first to have the pit box completely solar powered. Throughout her career, Münter continued to advocate for cleaner energy, which she hopes becomes a reality by 2050.

Mary Teresa Barra and a lifetime in the automotive industry.

Last, but certainly not the least, is Mary Teresa Barra. Many might recognise her as the current chairperson and CEO of General Motors. Here is a woman who has dedicated the entirety of her professional career to a single company.

Mary Teresa Barra. Source: General Motors

From the time she was eighteen, Barra worked at General Motors and rose through the ranks. Starting as a co-op student, she became vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering, and eventually assumed role of CEO in 2014. She became the first woman CEO of a major automotive company, and also ranked in several lists including Forbes Most Powerful Women and Fortune’s Most Powerful Women.

Her dedication to General Motors is only further buffed by her leadership style. Her vast knowledge of the company’s operations and attentive leadership helped GM weather several challenges, including one which saw over 30 million cars recalled over safety issues.

Now that you’ve read about 10 famous women in the automotive industry, could we interest you in more car trivia? Read more about some of these car brand mascots and how they came to be!