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12 of the Most Influential Women in Automotive History

As women around South Africa celebrate National Women’s Day today, the Digi Cars Team decided to take a trip back in time and highlight some of the women who have had a long historical relationship in the automotive history. Let’s take a look at just some of the amazing women whose journeys have been that of determination and perseverance, women who continuously defy the limits and boundaries pushed on them.

1893 – Margaret Wilcox

In 1893, Margaret Wilcox patented the world’s first in-car heating system. It took many years, decades actually, before automakers were sold on the idea. Even then, they only offered it as a luxurious optional extra.

Then, in 1929, Ford fitted the Model A with in-car heating, making it the first car to feature it straight from the factory. This marked a defining moment in Wilcox’s career as an inventor. It also came at a time when she was allowed to patent her work in her own name opposed to her husband’s name, which was common practice in the United States until 1809.

1897 – Minnie Palmer

American born actress Minnie Palmer became the first woman to drive and own her own car in England.

When Palmer took her new French-made Rougemont car to the streets, she proved that women can be as equal as men behind the wheel. At this point in time, women weren’t even allowed to vote as yet. It was only 31 years later that women achieved the same voting rights as men, so Palmer created quite a momentous milestone on the road.

Soon after, women began founding driving schools and repair shops. It was since then that women began redefining their identity in the automotive world.

1900 – Vera Hedges Butler

Vera Hedges Butler was the first British woman to pass a driving test. Since testing hadn’t opened up in Britain yet, she had to go all the way to Paris to get it done. Butler was evaluated on her ability to take off, steer and stop. She was further assessed on what to do in the case of a breakdown.

Also noteworthy, in 1983 France became the first country to introduce a driving test, vehicle registration plates and parking restrictions. Testing in Britain only became compulsory on 1 June 1935.

1903 – Mary Anderson

It was a snowy day in New York City when inventor Mary Anderson encountered a problem. While taking a streetcar ride, she noticed that the driver had to open his window to clear the ice off his windscreen. In doing so, the icy air filled the cabin making all the passengers cold. This also could’ve been the reason why she noticed the driver had his window open.

She came up with a solution of attaching a rubber blade to a spring-loaded arm that could move from side to side. This motion would then, in essence, wipe away anything that would interfere with the driver’s view. It would also be attached on the outside but have the ability to be controlled from the inside.

Mary patented the design in 1903, however, automakers weren’t immediately sold on the idea as they felt that it would actually distract the driver. Anderson was never really able to profit from it, despite wipers becoming a standard feature on all cars. Although, she did get a feature on an episode of The Simpsons in 2006.

1920s – Dorothée Pullinger

Dorothée Pullinger was denied entry into the Institution of Automobile Engineers, after being told that “the word person means a man and not a woman”. Imagine that! But that was not going to kill her dreams as she was determined to do the things that her father did.

Pullinger became the manager of a car factory called Galloway Motors in the early 20s. It was a factory run by an all-female workforce. She even hosted an on-site engineering college whereby apprenticeships for women were offered. These apprenticeships lasted only three years for women, opposed to the five years for men, as it believed that women were faster learners.

With influence from her father and the Fiat 501 model, she then designed and developed the Galloway car. It was the world’s first car specifically for women! With women in mind, it was made lighter and smaller, gear levers were placed inside the car, the steering wheel was smaller, the dashboard was lowered, the seat was raised, and storage space was added. The Galloway car was also one of the first automobiles of the time that came with a rear-view mirror as standard.

1930 – Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse

Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse made motorsport history in 1930 when they became the first women to race in the Le Mans 24 Hours. They raced in a Bugatti Type 40 and finished seventh overall - a result that hasn’t yet been beaten by another all-female team!

Marguerite Mareuse and Odette Siko raced at Le Mans together again in 1931, in Marguerite’s Bugatti T40, but were disqualified. Siko misunderstood a pit signal and went in for a refuel too early. Had they not been disqualified; they would’ve completed in ninth position.

After Le Mans, both of them raced in the 1931 Grand Prix Feminin at Montlhery. Siko finished in third place while Mareuse finished in fifth place.

1964 – Gail Wise

Gail Wise was known for making worldwide history in two ways: she was the first Mustang owner in the world, and she was the first woman in the world to own a Mustang.

After getting her first job as a teacher, Wise now needed a car, and the only criterion she had in mind was that it needed to be a convertible.

One fine day in 1964, Wise walked into the Ford dealership nearest to her. She looked around but nothing caught her eye. The dealership manager then said to her that they don’t have a convertible on the floor but that she should follow him to the back as there was something special there. Hiding in the back was a skylight blue convertible Mustang which she instantly fell in love with. Right there and then, she dropped her very first teacher’s pay cheque on it. Wise paid $3 400 for it and became the first Mustang owner two days before its official world debut! Talk about making history.

1983 – Helen Clifford

In the mid-70s, women were being called upon to fill positions, that were typically filled by males, in stations, garages, engineering works and depots. Helen Clifford then applied and completed a course at West Ham garage, and at the age of 18, became London Transport’s first female bus mechanic! It was not long after that Helen also became a qualified bus driver.

2005 – Nahla Al Rostamani

Nahla Al Rostamani is the UAE’s first female F3 driver. Her passion for motorsport began from the tender age of 12 when her uncle taught her to drive. Since then, she took every opportunity to get behind the wheel.

At the age of 20, she used to go karting at the Dubai Autodrome almost every day, and in 2005 she was nominated to acquire her racing license in Bahrain. Al Rostamani accepted and travelled alone to Bahrain for a three-day training program where she was the only woman among 17 participants. After successfully completing the program and acquiring the Formula Ford license, she became the first Emirati girl to take the course and pass it.

In 2007, Al Rostamani joined the Dubai Autodrome as a full-time employee and took on many jobs there. She then volunteered and learnt how to keep the timing for races. After timing more than 40 races over five years, she then became the first Emirati female certified race timekeeper. Additionally, she was the first Emirati woman to work closely with F1 management and famous F1 drivers, such as Sebastian Vettel, and even befriended former F1 drivers like Jonny Herbert and Jean Alesi.

2013 – Elena Ford

Elena Ford is the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Ford. Elena joined Ford in 1995 and filled several roles within the marketing department. In 2009, she became the Director of Global Marketing, Sales and Service Operations.

She was the first female member of the Ford family to hold an executive position in the company's history when she was announced as the Vice President of Customer Experience and Global Dealers in 2013. Then, in 2018, she was announced as the company's first Chief Customer Experience Officer.

The last time a member of the Ford family was announced as an executive was in 1994 when her cousin Bill Ford became Vice President of Commercial Trucks. He then progressed and worked his way up to becoming Ford’s executive chairman.

2016 – Mary T Barra

Mary Barra is the first female CEO for a major automotive company. She has worked at General Motors, which is the one largest automobile companies in the world, for over seven years. In 2016 she became the Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Her role as CEO has not only brought her to the forefront of the automotive world, but in business as well, as she was listed in the Forbes and Fortune Magazine as the one of most powerful women.

2020 - Marcia Mayaba

Marcia Mayaba is a South African woman who has spent 23 years in the automotive industry. She started out as a trainee at Barloworld Truck Hire being a driver and doing random tasks. Ten years later she became the first black female Operations Manager there.

After completing an original equipment manufacturer Dealer Principal Programme and the Sewell’s Dealership Management Trainee Programme, she became the first black female Dealer Principal in 2010.

In 2019, Mayaba became the first black female in South Africa (and at Barloworld) to become Franchise Executive of Ford and Mazda, at Barloworld.

In 2020, Mayaba was appointed Vice President (VP) of the National Automobile Dealers' Association (Nada). Later that year, she was appointed as the new Chief Executive of Barloworld Motor Retail.

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