10 Influential Women Within the Motor Industry

By: Lisa Harper

We take a look at 10 women who have made and are still are making an impact on the motor industry.

1. Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz was the wife of engineer Karl Benz, the inventor of the first practical automobile. Whilst Karl was an engineering genius he didn’t see the true worth of his invention, however luckily for him his wife Bertha did. Sneaking out the house with her two sons one morning she took Karl’s ‘automobile’ on a 56mile trip to her mother’s house. With no roads, not knowing the way and an automobile that was far from perfect she managed to successfully reach her mother’s house. The journey was a massive marketing boost for the automobile as it successfully proved its worth as a viable mode of transport. Encountering a number of problems along the way including the brake shoes wearing, Bertha also inadvertently invented the idea of brake linings by getting a cobbler to cover them with a leather lining.

2. Florence Lawrence

Born in 1886 Florence was a famous American film actress. As a keen motor enthusiast Florence was frustrated by the number of accidents caused by not knowing that the car in front was slowing down or turning left or right. Her solution was simple, she developed auto-signalling arms that consisted of a couple of flags on either sides of the car that could be remotely raised at the touch of a button, to signal which way you intended to turn. To alert drivers to cars slowing down or stopping she developed a stop sign that flipped up at the back of the car when the brake pedal was depressed. Undeniably simple, both these inventions led to the development of indicators and brake lights that have been mandatory on cars now for many years.

3. Hedy Lamar

Another actress on our list, Hedy was born in 1914 in Austria but later moved to the US to pursue her acting career. During the Second World War she worked alongside George Antheil to develop a radio guidance system which allowed ships to guide their torpedoes by an un-jammable radio. This technology wasn’t recognised at the time and Lamar never saw any financial benefit from it. However the technology she co-developed is the founding of Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. With the continuing advance in on-board technology with features like integrated Satnav now often as standard and the increasing interest in autonomous automobiles this technology is more critical than ever before. We have both Lamar and Antheil to thank for its development.

Hedy Lamar Car Inventor

4. Alice Ramsey

Born in 1886 in New Jersey Alice’s uniqueness began early and at a time when few women attended university she graduated from Vassar. Upon graduation she followed a more conventional path, got married and had children. But not content to sit at home Alice developed an interest in automobiles and became an expert driver. Her passion grew and she became President of the First Women’s Motoring Club in the US. Her enthusiasm attracted the attention of the press and in 1909 Maxwell (a motoring company) offered her the chance to drive from New York to San Francisco. Alice accepted and was the first woman in history to navigate the US at a time when there were hardly any proper or marked roads. During her trip she also showed an impressive array of mechanical skills replacing tyres, fixing broken brake pedals and cleaning spark plugs.

5. Desiré Wilson

In the 62 year history of the Formula 1 World Championships only five women have ever entered a grand prix and only three of them actually qualified. Desiré Wilson is one of the three women who successfully qualified and professionally competed in Formula 1. Known as South Africa’s fastest lady she made history in 1980 by being the only woman to win in Formula 1, finishing first at Brands Hatch in the British Aurora F1 series. As a result of her success Brands Hatch named one of the grandstands after her.

6. Mary Barra

Mary Barra started her career with General Motors (GM) back in 1980 as a General Motors Institute co-op student. This hands on approach to learning seemed to have suited Mary, who within her 38-year career within the company has risen to CEO. In doing so Mary became the first female CEO of a major global automaker and she has since been labelled Forbes 7th most powerful woman in the world. Mary has already changed the fate of a demising company, which was facing difficult times when she took up the helm and there is more yet to come.

Mary Barra CEO of General Motors

7. Elena Ford

As the great-great granddaughter of Ford company founder Henry Ford, you could mistakenly think that Elena’s rise within the motor industry was inevitable. However this is very far from the truth. Elena joined Ford back in 1995 having previously been a senior account executive for Ad Company Wells Rich Greene.  In 2013 she was the first female Ford family member to ever hold a high level within Ford being the Director of Global Marketing and the company’s Vice President. Elena has also twice been named as a leading woman within the auto industry by Automotive News.

8. Michelle Chistensen

Having gained a Bachelor of Arts from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Michelle joined the design team at Honda. As one of only a handful of women designers within the motor industry she has shaken up the company. She was the first woman to ever lead a supercar design team, designing the new Honda Acura NSX.

9. Amy Rimmer

Winner of Autocar’s ‘Great British Women in the Car Industry - Rising Stars Award’ Amy has been working on autonomous vehicle technology at Jaguar Land Rover for the past 3 years and is set for great things. Having already taken massive strides with UK autonomous vehicles, Amy has tested hands free technology on motorways surrounding the Jaguar Land Rover base. With exceptional maths skills, a curious mind and desire to make things work better Amy has all the necessary skills to take Jaguar Land Rovers pioneering Level 4 autonomous vehicles to new levels.

10. Women

That’s right the final place in our top 10 goes out to women everywhere. Whilst the automotive industry is still seen as largely male dominated you may be surprised to know this is not actually the case. Statistics show that it’s actually women who purchase 52% of cars sold and who influence 85% of all car buying decisions. What’s more women are the fastest growing segment within both the new and used car industry.

Womens car buying power

If you enjoy articles like this, see our The automotive industry’s most influential leaders post.

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