By Alex Perdikis
If you think about vehicle innovations and driving acumen, you probably picture a group of men. They may have gotten short shift, but women have also played a substantive role in designing, engineering and driving cars. Here are some of their stories.
What does a wife do when she’s fed up with all the time her husband spends in the garage tinkering with his new invention? At a time when the only horseless carriages were experimental and driven in short spurts for testing, Bertha Benz decided she’d had enough with husband Karl and his vehicular experiment.
Bertha and her teenage sons stole into the garage, sneaked out with the Patent Motorwagen No. 3 and took the first recorded long-distance trip in a horseless carriage.
Bertha drove an astonishing 65 miles to Pforzheim, Germany, from Mannheim. The trip wasn’t without its annoyances. At one point the fuel line plugged. Resourceful Bertha used her hatpin to unclog the line. She also sacrificed a garter to insulate a wire. But, she and her boys made it.
The dawn-to-dusk trip made Bertha a legend. Her name now graces a roadway, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, within the European Route of Industrial Heritage. A fitting tribute indeed.
Early Days Were Glory Days for Women
Georgine Clarsen’s book, “Eat My Dust,” published in 2008, covers much of the early history of women and their relationship with cars. According to Clarsen, women drove, owned auto-related businesses, such as taxi services and driving schools and trained as mechanics from the earliest days of the automobile. Even in those days of opportunity for women, however, there were challenges.
Clarsen’s book describes an incident where a pair of mechanically trained women in the 1920s decided to take a cross-country road trip.
“Vehicles were not known for reliability at the time and the Dodge roadster they drove was no exception. Unworried, the two were confident they could fix whatever went wrong.” — Alex Perdikis
Unfortunately, whenever the women had to make a necessary repair, they were overwhelmed with male “helpers” who took over. The women took to hiding off-road behind trees or whatever landscape they could find so they could work on the vehicle themselves. Apparently, even in the early days, women who knew their way around a car were considered rarities.
On the Road With Alice Ramsey
In June 1909 Alice Ramsey and three cohorts embarked on a cross-country journey to prove they could do it. The Maxwell DA touring car they drove had two bench seats and removable roof. The dark green vehicle ran on four cylinders at 3-horsepower. But not many in the crowd were interested in the car as the group set off. It was Alice Ramsey the public came to see.
Alice was already an experienced driver and had made a name for herself in the driving world. Her husband bought her a car of her own years before after a frightening incident occurred one day when Alice was driving her horse and buggy. A “monster,” or car, came out of nowhere frightening the horse so badly it was a miracle no one was hurt.
Alice and driving seemed made for each other. She drove over 6,000 miles the first summer she owned a car. But it was Alice’s performance in a 200-mile endurance trip that commanded attention. A Maxwell-Briscoe Company representative was so impressed with her driving skills he came up with a plan.
It was genius, really: The company would pay for an all-expense paid cross-country trip with Alice at the wheel. Alice Ramsey would prove to the world that anyone, even a woman, could drive across the country.
Of course, the trip was not without its moments of drama. There were tire blowouts, damaged coils and at the radiator ran dry at least once. Not to worry, the resilient women used the tools on hand — small toothbrush and toiletry holders — to gather water from roadside ditches to fill the radiator. Determined women and sterling silver containers got the job done.
After traveling for 59 days and covering 3,800 miles, Alice Ramsey and her passengers made it across the transcontinental finish line and in to history.
These Inventors Weren’t Damsels in Distress
Women not only made history and spurred innovation by driving, they also made their mark with life-saving inventions and family-friendly designs.
Florence Lawrence was an actress and auto enthusiast. Florence was the first actor to be named publicly, this at a time when acting was considered a less than respectable career. She also invented the vehicle turn signal and brake light.
Here’s a bit of trivia to remember when you need it — Charlotte Bridgwood, who was the mother of Florence Lawrence, invented the windshield wiper. Unfortunately, neither woman pursued commercial production of their inventions.
Harley J. Earl, vice president of design at General Motors in the 1950s, realized something not a lot of other executives thought about. That something was the fact that the same women who joined the workforce during WWII had more confidence, buying power and training than women of previous generations.
Earl pulled together a team of women designers to design car interiors with an emphasis on comfort and appeal. But these women did so much more than choose fabrics and colors.
Dubbed “The Damsels of Design,” a title none of the women on the team liked, the team designed car interiors from the ground up doing exactly the same work as the male designers.
And they came up with safety features no one else had. The “Damsel” team came up with the first retractable seat belt. They developed the first glove compartments. They designed dashboard-controlled safety latches to protect children in the back seat.
These are just a few stories of inspiring women who invented, adventured and engineered their ways into automotive history.
Alex Perdikis, Koons of Silver Spring general manager and owner, lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and daughters.