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First Women in Car Design

The first post of the year after a long break. First women in car design.

I have been searching articles and stories this topic quite a while. About women started to work in this industry first time in history.

First I found a really interesting article about the „Demsels of Design”

I have learned that Harley Earl the pioneer of transportation design and the inventor of the so called "concept cars" was the first automotive designer in history who hired women in a car design studio. And after taht I wanted to find out more.........................................................

Helen Dryden

The first studio employed woman transportation designer was Studebaker.

She was Helen Dryden.

Dryden who was designing magazine covers including Vogue in the 1910's worked for Studebaker  from 1934 to 1937.  Automotive designer Raymond Loewy  contracted with her to help him design Studebaker interiors. Her work on the interior of the 1936 Studbaker Dictator  and President that established Helen Dryden as an important twentieth-century industrial designer. The advertisements by the automaker proclaimed, "It's styled by Helen Dryden." Dryden designed the Studebaker President throughout, and the press marveled that a woman had attained this eminence in mechanical engineering. She was considered "one of the top industrial designers and one of the few women in the automotive field." Dryden worked with Loewy through 1940.

The other woman from that time who was also worked for Studebaker was Audrey Moore Hodges

Audrey Moore Hodges

She started her job in 1944 as a female stylist at Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker design group in South Bend, a contact she had made through Joe Thompson, designer there. Ms. Hodges designed the Studebaker hood ornament. 1948 she began working on interior design for the Tucker Torpedo.

The hood ornament designed by Audrey Moore Hodges

HudsonMotor Company, also wanting a woman to contribute a female point of view to automotive design, hired Betty Thatcher Oros as the first female American automotive designer at the company in 1939.

Oros' contributions to the 1941 Hudson included exterior trim with side lighting, interior instrument panel, interiors and interior trim fabrics.

Oros designed for Hudson Motor Co. from 1939 into 1941. As her husband Joe Oros was working in the Cadillac Studio at GM, Betty resigned from Hudson to avoid a conflict of interest.

The other really important designer from this time is Helene Rother.

She joined the interior styling staff at General Motors in 1943 working on elegant interior designs. She was the first women in Harley Earl's Design team. She specialized in designs for automotive interiors, as well as furniture, jewelry, fashion acessories and stained glass windows. In 1951, Rother became the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers and was awarded the Jackson Medal for excellence of design. 

Helene worked with General Motors for four years before leaving to open her own industrial design studio in 1947. As her creative journey would continue she later became employed with the Nash Motor Car Company, designing many of the great interiors for Nash automobiles. Her career would span for many years from 1948 to 1956. In 1955,Rambler began selling new models for the consumer market. They called some of their models “Glamour on wheels." Helene Rother designed many of the great interiors at the time. She knew exactly what women were looking for in a car, which helped her create some of the most stylish interior color and trim in the automotive industry.

The auto industry in its early years didn’t really seem to pay much attention to women. Only in the postwar era did automakers start to think seriously about women.  By the mid-1950s, the biggest question in the car business was how to appeal to women. Earl believed that the best way to sell more cars to women would be to involve them in the design process.

GM designers, clockwise from left, Sue Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, styling chief Harley Earl, Jeanette Linder, Peggy Sauer, Sandra Longyear, and Marjorie Ford Pohlman.

In 1955 he traveled to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, to find suitable candidates. The women relocated to Detroit. Six worked in the design studios within each of GM’s automotive brands—two at Chevrolet and one each at Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac. The remaining three went to GM subsidiary Frigidaire, working on the “Kitchen of Tomorrow,” as well as displays and details for the automotive studios. Within the car division studios, the women were all assigned to interior studios and worked with color and trim, as well as with interior detailing.

From Chevrolet came Jeanette Linder’s Impala Martinique, a convertible in pearlescent yellow

Ruth Glennie painted her Fancy Free Corvette in a metallic silvery olive and created a matching interior.

From the Buick studio, Marjorie Ford Pohlman created two cars. Her Tampico Buick Special convertible was painted alabaster with a flame orange interior.

She also designed Shalimar, a top-of-the-line Limited four-door hardtop painted deep royal purple with an interior of purple and black leather and a special purple cloth.

Marjorie Ford Pohlman with her Buick

Peggy Sauer created the Oldsmobile Fiesta Carousel station wagon in a metallic blue with matching interior. Carousel was designed with children in mind, and it featured a magnetic game board that could be attached to the back of the front seat.

Sauer placed umbrella holders in the front doors and also located parent-friendly controls on the dashboard for the rear-seat door latches and window switches.

From the Pontiac Studio, Sandra Longyear designed a Star Chief hardtop called the Bordeaux in a deep maroon.

Sue Vanderbilt created two Cadillacs. Her Saxony convertible was finished in a gray-green metallic with a matching cloth- and leather-trimmed interior

She also did an Eldorado Seville coupe called the Baroness in black with a black vinyl top.

The 1958 event was dubbed the Spring Fashion Festival of Women Designed Cars. it was the first exhibition by female auto designers anywhere in the world.

Spring Fashion Festival in 1958

The immediate results of the Feminine Auto Show were minimal. But the long lens of the modern era is more telling, as many of the special features that the Damsels promoted—child-proof doors, makeup mirrors, retractable seat belts, and storage consoles—have found their way into contemporary automobile design

Before Earl retired, General Motors became the largest corporation in the world, and design was acknowledged as the leading sales factor within the automotive industry.

In 1958 his successor, Bill Mitchell, did not share Earl’s enthusiasm for female designers.

Only one Damsel Sue Vanderbilt stayed at GM. Undaunted, she worked her way up to being the first female studio chief at GM, taking control of Chevrolet Interior Studio II in 1971.

Most of them moved on to other companies. All of the women were successful in their subsequent careers, and their accomplishments are still celebrated from time to time in special displays by either GM or various museums.

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