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women and cars

Women and Auto Design

Honda/Acura NSX

The chances are your car was designed by a man, but with more women becoming involved in the automotive industry we might well wonder whether our car was designed by a man or a woman?  This is an interesting question that many of us have likely never given much thought to.  We all love a nice looking, nice driving car, so I wonder how many women are involved in the automotive design industry that we don’t know about.  Really, there are very few clues that would reveal a car designer’s gender.

There’s no doubt that the automotive industry is still dominated by men, but women are beginning to make important inroads.  The vast majority of female car designers are employed doing textile jobs where they select seat fabrics, choose exterior colours, and oversee the interior design and styling.

Exterior design, which is considered to be the choice job in automotive design, is led by men.  It’s not that automakers are wilfully trying to keep women out of the top design jobs.  Indeed, Motor Trend’s spokesperson MacKenzie thinks that “If there was a woman designer who was talented, a hard worker and competitive, which is what this job demands, the car companies would knock each other out of the way and rush to hire her.”  Maybe the early years of a person’s life, and there exposure to certain things, has more to do with what type of work will interest them later in life.  The stereotypical one kind of toy for boys when they’re young and another kind of toy for girls might have more influence on the shaping of their career choices than first thought.  MacKenzie says that the majority of students who come to the design school were smitten at some point in their lives by the look and performance of vehicles – and not just cars but things with wings or things that zip down rails.

This is fascinating stuff and begs the question that perhaps dolls and tea parties aren’t the only thing small girls might be interested in.  Definitely, I found our daughter, as a child, often played with cars and blocks as well as playing rugby with her older brother.  She also had dolls to play with, too.  Her passion for rugby still continues to this day as well as her love for Jeeps.  She is just about to finish high school and attend university to study physiotherapy.

Michelle Christensen and the NSX

2018 has provided us with some wonderful new car designs, and one of the raciest and best looking super car designs has to be that of the beautiful Honda NSX.  This gorgeous design was, in fact, designed by Michelle Christensen, the Acura NSX exterior design lead.  How did she get there?  Michelle Christensen is the first woman to lead design on a supercar.  She directed the eight-person team responsible for Acura’s (Honda’s) resurrection of the NSX, which ended production in 2005.  In her words: “They wanted an emotional, 3-D kind of feeling,” Christensen says. “My priority was to keep that.”  Prior to designing the NSX, Michelle worked on Acura’s RLX sedan and its now-discontinued ZDX crossover.  She grew up working on muscle cars with her father in their San Jose, Calif. garage and got her design chops at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.  There’s that childhood input again.  The fact that Acura chose Michelle Christensen as the lead for the awesome NSX’s exterior speaks volumes about the inroads women are finally making at the upper ranks of automotive design.  Awesome!

Did you know that the once GM’s leading artist-engineer H.J. Earl (Harley) saw into the the future and drew input from his group of talented women designers, and they came alongside his “all-male” car designers.  His women automotive designers of the 1950s proved to be ground-breaking, controversial and extremely successful.

In 2004 Volvo Cars unveiled a concept car that, till then, had never been attempted in the more than 100 years of automotive manufacturing: the first car designed and developed almost exclusively by women.  Unveiled at the New York Auto Show, the car, though created from a woman’s perspective, included features appealing to both sexes — including easier maintenance, intelligent storage solutions, a better line of vision, computer-aided parking and a bold, yet elegant, exterior.

The car included features not typically found in man-made cars: no hood; no gas cap; easy-clean paint; head restraints with room for ponytails; numerous exchangeable seat covers of various colours and materials (linen, leather, felt, etc.); compartments for handbags; gull-wing doors that make it easier to load and unload larger items and children; computerized assistance for parallel parking; and improved sight lines.  Owners carrying large items were able to set the doors to open automatically when they reach the doors.  At the point-of-purchase, retailers can conduct a body scan of the driver measuring height and length of arms and legs.  The data is stored in the vehicle’s key, and the car recommends a seat position for the driver that provides her or him an optimal line of vision and reach.  The car also electronically notifies the owners chosen service centre when maintenance is due, and the service technician contacts the owner to book the appointment.  Do any of these ideas/features that these women thought of sound familiar in any of our brand new cars today?  The answer is definitely yes – the automatic door and boot rings a bell!

Bridget Hamblin and Honda

Bridget Hamblin, a Honda Civic engineer, led the car dynamics team responsible for the performance of the 2016 Honda Civic, the brand’s most important car and winner of the prestigious North American Car of the Year award.  Hamblin earned degrees in mechanical engineering at Penn State and the University of Dayton before joining Honda as an engineer working on vehicle suspension and steering in the research and development department.  She says that: “Rather than having sought out the automotive industry, it found me.  My education in mechanical engineering proved to be a perfect fit in vehicle development.”  An Automotive research and development engineer with nine years of experience and a strong background in vehicle dynamics, objective vehicle testing, vehicle handling metric development and passenger car development has gotten her along way ahead in automotive design.

Before joining the Civic project, Hamblin helped develop the Honda Odyssey.  “Because it was my responsibility to lead the development of Civic’s vehicle dynamics, I find a lot of pride in the car’s steering, ride, handling and stability, which is truly impressive.  We really pushed the envelope by benchmarking the Civic, an entry-level vehicle, against European luxury competitors like the Audi A3. And it shows. Being awarded the North American Car of the Year was the icing on top.”

Anna Gallagher, a senior launch manager for Jaguar Sports and Lifestyle cars, held several positions at Jaguar Land Rover, including global brand manager for the new Jaguar F-PACE SUV, before being promoted to senior launch manager for Jaguar Sports and Lifestyle cars.  She was also responsible for the launches of the Jaguar XJ and XJR sedans.  Gallagher says. “I found that I can also give a different perspective so we end up with a more balanced discussion or even solutions we wouldn’t have found with an all-male team.”  The stylish Jaguar F-PACE is the only Jaguar that has always had a female marketing manager heading up the program.  “We needed to protect the coupe-like design, but I also knew that a reason for rejecting cars, particularly from women, in this segment is rear visibility.  Our target customer would have children in the rear so we had to ensure as many children as possible can see out of the windows.”

Women purchase about half of all cars on the market and influence the vast majority of car sales, yet for a century men have made most of the decisions in the design, development and production of a car.  Let’s see a greater shift in these traits!