CAMPAIGN: Women's History Month
In 1943, Harley Earl, GM’s legendary Chief of Design, hired Helene Rother as a designer on the interior styling staff. Rother, who focused on upholstery colors and fabrics, lighting and door hardware, was the industry’s first female auto designer.
As the American economy improved after WWII, Earl realized women were playing a larger role in the automotive marketplace. Women were increasingly responsible for and involved in auto purchases, with some estimates showing them as having the final say in up to 75 percent of decisions.
Earl had a longstanding relationship with many art and design schools, and he began to recruit female industrial design students. This group of women, sometimes referred to as the “Damsels of Design,” worked for a variety of marques at the GM Tech Center and focused primarily on interior styling. By 1956, GM had 11 female designers on staff.
Earl and other GM designers were immediately impressed by the new perspective the female stylists brought to the studio.
“They prove conclusively that women have established a real toe-hold in automotive designing and that they have a limitless future,” said Earl in 1958. “The skilled feminine hands helping to shape our cars of tomorrow are worthy representatives of American women.”
In April of 1958, GM held what it called “The Spring Fashion Festival of Women Designed Cars” at the Design Dome in Warren, Mich. This display was designed to showcase female-focused editions of GM vehicles.
The female designers from the Chevrolet, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick staffs modified two vehicles from each brand to demonstrate the female point of view. Vehicles displayed included six convertibles, a station wagon and three hardtops.
Along with stunningly detailed interiors and custom hardware, the designers proposed ideas that would lead to improved safety, including retractable seat belts and open door warning lights. The women also focused heavily on storage in the vehicles, and included a variety of compartments for umbrellas, maps, cameras and even picnic supplies.
For the 1958 show, the Cadillac Baroness was styled by Sue Vanderbilt. The Baroness was a two-door hardtop that featured a variety of storage compartments. There was also an umbrella hidden in the passenger door armrest.
The royal purple Buick Shalimar was styled by Marjorie Ford Pohlman and featured a dictating machine installed in the glove box so passengers could record thoughts while traveling. This four-door hardtop also included a fold out in the armrest for a cosmetics case and hidden umbrella.
Pohlman also designed the Buick Special Tampico convertible with an alabaster exterior and accents of flaming orange. The compartment between the bucket seats featured space for binoculars and a camera.
Sandra Longyear styled the 1958 Pontiac Polaris for the show. The center console of the starfire blue convertible housed storage for picnic supplies, a thermos matching the interior and a radio.
The Chevrolet Impala Martinique convertible was styled by Jeanette Linder and included a three-piece set of fiberglass luggage to match the pastel striped upholstery. Linder also designed a spare tire cover to match the interior.
The Corvette Fancy Free, styled by Ruth Glennie, was the first vehicle to feature a hydraulic seatbelt retractor system. The seats were fitted with interchangeable slings, which provided a wide range of color options for the interior including orange cloth or imitation black fur.
In the 1958 Oldsmobile Carousel Station Wagon, Peggy Sauer paid special attention to the entertainment and safety of children. Toys could be stored against the rear panel of the front seat, which featured magnetized backing. Elastic bands enhanced storage capability. Door and window hardware was removed from the rear doors and placed on the driver instrument panels to prevent children from opening.
These women designers paved the way for other women at General Motors. Today, there are women in all divisions of the company, from the plant to highest levels of leadership.