The Bizarre History of Trying to Design Cars for Women
After decades of the auto industry reducing women's needs to the color pink, a team of women designers at Volvo attempted to design a concept car that women would actually want to drive.
The team behind the 2002 Volvo Your Concept Car, with their creation. Via Volvo.
Exactly which man invented the first automobile is up for debate, but most agree that it was a woman who went for the first long-distance drive. On an early August morning in 1888, Bertha Benz took her husband, Karl Benz’ automobile prototype for a historic 120-mile road trip.
Benz was accustomed to being underestimated. On the day she was born in Pforzheim, Germany, her father wrote in the family bible, “Unfortunately, only a girl again.” Against his will, she fell in love with a hard-up engineer, Karl, who had a madcap plan to build a horseless carriage. The idea impressed her enough to offer him a prenuptial advance on her dowry.
With Bertha’s continual financial support, Karl was able to build several models of the Benz Patent Motorwagen, but after a few bad publicity attempts—including a dramatic crash into a wall—he was reluctant to try again. Bent on proving the car’s capability, Bertha packed up a Model III and, without telling her husband, hit the road. It was a rocky journey, but Benz steered through with unruffled resourcefulness, as the story goes—unclogging a valve with a hatpin and patching a chafed engine with her garter. As the wooden brakes wore down, she padded them with a shoemaker’s leather soles.
News of the horseless buggy travelled fast, and it wasn’t long before orders came pouring in. Insights from her excursion, which at times involved pushing the steam monster uphill, drove Karl to refine the design and invent the first gear shifter. Meanwhile, Bertha Benz had proven both that cars could drive and women would drive them.
Women have been hitting the road since day one. In 1905, British speed queen Dorothy Levitt’s record-breaking, two-day drive from London to Liverpool and back earned her the epithet “Fastest Girl on Earth.” Like Benz, Levitt’s resourcefulness translated to ingenuity. In The Woman and the Car her women’s driving handbook published in 1909, she advises women to travel with hairpins, chocolates, a gun, and a handheld mirror for looking backward, making her the foremother of the fixed rearview mirror.
By the 1920s and 30s, chauffeuses, as female motorists were called, were burning up racetracks, proving to be regular gearheads at auto shows, and driving safe-service taxis for women.
Despite the early interest, contributions, and buying power of women in the auto industry, male-dominated manufacturers laid full claim to cars. “Most automotive companies expressed continual surprise when they discovered evidence of women’s economic power,” says Katherine J. Parkin in Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars. “Although automobile companies did occasionally seek out female consumers, their fundamental inclination was to ignore them.”
When women were not ignored, automakers relied on stereotypes to appeal to them. As Virginia Scharff explains in Taking the Wheel, Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, while “wealthy men and woman shared a taste for luxury and leisure, as well as bracing adventure in their motoring… manufacturers tended to associate the qualities of comfort, convenience, and aesthetic appeal with women.” In other words: Cars, but make it pink.
In 1955, Dodge put that thinking to work with La Femme, a car made for women. The dolled-up version of the Custom Royal Lancer was offered in heather rose or sapphire white, with dainty rose upholstery and Cordagrain trim. The sedan also came with accessories: A matching pink rain cape, handbag, compact and lipstick. Despite an attempt to revive sales the following year with a “queenly purple” paintjob, La Femme flopped.
Nearly half a century later, General Motors took a different approach in an effort to reach women in the full-size truck market. At the time, in 2002, GM market research showed that women held 50 percent of the market segment and influenced 85 percent of purchase decisions. According to Automotive News, to help GM’s male-dominated workforce think more like female consumers, a line director hatched a plan called “Mr. Mom.” On a summer workday, 100 male engineers were asked to don heels, garbage-bag skirts, and press-on nails while completing various tasks with a purse and pram in tow.
The enduring buying power of women has forced male automakers to ask time and again: What do women want in a car? The only problem is, they were mostly asking men.
In the late 1980s, Volvo Cars had similarly recognized that in the United States, more women were buying their cars than men—yet eight out of 10 designers were men. In response, the automaker formed a Female Customer Reference Group comprised of eight female employees from different departments who would offer feedback on prototypes in development.
In Autumn 2001, women consumer specialist Marti Barletta was invited to Volvo’s headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden, to run a half-day workshop on how to better understand woman’s needs. After the sessions, Camilla Palmertz, then a biomechanical engineer with the Volvo Car Safety Centre, struck upon an idea with some colleagues: What if an all-women team designed a car?
The small group of women decided to meet in their free time on to bring their concept car to life. “We were adamant that this was something we wanted to do,” says Tatiana Temm, communications director and leader on the project. They held workshops with women across the company and collected data from Market Insights. In the premium segment, they learned, women wanted everything that men wanted and more. Across the board, women’s extended wish list included better visibility, practical storage, parking assistance, and smoother ingress and egress.
Days before presenting their concept to Hans-Olov Olsson, Volvo’s former president and CEO, they managed to snatch the company’s first female exterior designer, Anna Rosén, on her first day of work. Derived from Barletta’s workshop, the team’s rationale was simple: If you meet the expectations of women, you will exceed the expectations of men. Olsson gave them the green light. “We went out of there and said: God, what do we do now?” recounts Temm.
Pressure was high for the nine-person team, and it got higher on International Women’s Day in 2003 when press were first briefed on the upcoming launch. The most common question fielded by the expert crew was: Will the car be pink? “No, it will be anything but pink,” Temm recalls responding, “and it will not be cute.”
The question of whether the car should include some form of parking assistance, a feature that was still novel in the early aughts, was a pricklier matter. “We were quite reluctant, actually, because we were aware of the general thinking that a woman can’t park a car,” says Maria Widell Christiansen, who managed project design. But a study they commissioned found that the average woman parks much more often than the average man and frequently in unfamiliar spots. Men and women demonstrated equal capability with parking; the only difference was women expressed lower confidence. Male over-confidence, on the other hand, meant more dingers.
When the Volvo Your Concept Car debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in 2004, as promised, it wasn’t pink. Sporty and muscular, the three-door coupe was designed with broad shoulders so corners could be viewed from the driver’s seat for easier handling, while a higher chassis improved visibility. Color and trim designer Maria Uggla applied light neutral tones reminiscent of a Nordic living room—rather than the typical cockpit look. Gear levers were positioned by the steering, freeing up space for a center console that could store belongings.
Upon entry, the seat, steering wheel, and pedals moved into a personalized driving position with the help of the patented Ergovision system. All of the doors, including the trunk, could open automatically. The Autopark system could help drivers steer through a parallel parking maneuver with the touch of a button. The windshield washer fluid valve was moved to the exterior, beside the capless gas valve, making it possible to keep the hood locked. Automatic diagnostic checks could be performed at regular intervals so when service was needed, the car would contact a service center to schedule an appointment.
The YCC was a hit with the press. By Volvo’s measure, in the two years following the launch, roughly 1.5 miles of paper and ink were devoted to the YCC. “I don’t think the company expected us to be that successful,” says Widell Christiansen.
There were some detractors—many of them women—who thought the car’s locked hood and park assist feature made women look stupid. “We found that funny because when we put something in a car that makes life easier, it’s not because we are incapable of doing it otherwise,” says Temm. “If you apply the same logic, that would mean that man invented the automatic gearshift because he can’t drive stick.”
While the car was never intended for production, at least 22 of its features found their way into Volvo models, including the Park Assist Pilot. “Actually quite a lot of the current focus can be traced back to those early thoughts from the YCC team,” adds Widell Christiansen.
Notably, polls taken by Volvo during the car’s two-year press tour show that men and women favored the same YCC features—from run-flat tires to easy-to-clean paintwork—just in different order. “What we ended up with was a car for everyone,” says Palmertz. “It doesn’t mean that we excluded the men. It was more that we included women.”
In the years following the launch of Volvo YCC, automakers got savvier at marketing to women. But despite small gains, women are still grossly underserved and underrepresented in the auto world, holding only a quarter of manufacturing jobs in the United States last year. Some sectors are even trending down, with a recent Deloitte report finding that the percentage of women aspiring to senior executive positions has dropped by 10 percent since 2015.
As Palmertz notes, “I believe that we could look further into certain needs for women still.”