The Women Who Shaped Modern Cars

The role of women in the automotive industry has been kept relatively quiet, but there have been many notable women — going back as far as the 1940's — who have contributed to the cars we know and love today.

As automobiles were growing in popularity, many women were drafted in to help make the vehicles more family-friendly. They were often put into design roles or given charge of products specifically targeted at other women, but their contributions had a ripple effect throughout the industry.

Helene Rother (1908-1999)

Helene Rother left France during WWII and made her way to New York. In 1941, she became an illustrator for Timely Publications — which later went on to become Marvel Comics — showing her flair for art and design. But, just one year later, she moved to Detroit and secured a place at General Motors.

This earned her the title of "Detroit's first female automotive designer" and allowed her to show her skill at designing sleek interiors for GM's vehicles. This success led her to open her own design studio in 1947 and secure her first client, Nash Motors. It was her work on the Nash Rambler that ushered in a whole new segment of vehicles to the US, as it's widely considered to be the first successful compact car.

Margaret "Peggy" Sauer (1925-1986)

Being able to entertain the kids on a road trip is one of life's modern luxuries, but the concept of a rear-seat entertainment system was invented back in the 1960's by Margaret "Peggy" Sauer. She was part of the GM's "Damsels of Design" team who flourished under the direction of Harley Earl in the 1950's and 1960's.

Sauer worked on the Oldsmobile Carousel station wagon, which was created for practical family living with a magnetic plate hidden under the back of the front seat. This allowed a child sitting in the back to play with small cars that would stick to its surface. The design also included elastic bands to hold other toys and clothing.

It's not quite the same as the high-tech systems cars are known for today, but Sauer's magnetic game board paved the way for vehicles that appealed to families and catered to children.

Suzanne Vanderbilt (1933-1988)

Another Damsel of Design, Suzanne Vanderbilt contributed to the design of many of GM's vehicle interiors and went on to become assistant chief designer for Chevrolet. You can see her handy work in the likes of the Chevrolet Vega and Monza models, but she was also responsible for a number of safety innovations, though they were ultimately never used by GM.

With a focus on improving vehicle comfort and safety, Vanderbilt secured two patents. One for an inflatable lumbar support that could be adjusted using a small switch-on motor and a second for a collapsible safety switch that was designed to recess on impact. This was designed to be used on the instrument panel to protect the driver and passengers in the event of an accident. While these ideas were never put into production, they were some of the first comfort and safety designs to be created for automobiles.

Mimi Vandermolen (1946-unknown)

In 1987, Mimi Vandermolen was the first woman to be promoted to the position of design executive at Ford. This put her in charge of the interior and exterior design developments of Ford's cars. As part of this role, she also ran a special studio developing futuristic design concepts.

In 1993, Vandermolen headed the design of the second-generation Ford Probe from start to finish. Much of her design process was engineered around making cars more comfortable for women to use. In fact, she once told her boss: "If I can solve all the problems inherent in operating a vehicle for a woman, that'll make it that much easier for a man to use."

In order to achieve this, her process included making her male designers wear fake nails, and she even threatened to make them wear skirts when getting in and out of the car. This was all done to improve the ergonomics of the vehicle for women.

Female designers and engineers have had a huge impact on the cars we know and love today — particularly when it comes to comfort and ergonomics. Helene Rother paved the way for women in the industry with many others following in her pioneering footsteps.

What design features do you love most in classic vehicles? Let us know in the comments.

Last updated March 8, 2022