Riding in cars with women
Cool wheels are a guy thing, right? Not according to the women we talked to.
I have a theory that people’s biographies can be told though their cars. My own vehicle, an otherwise uninteresting 14-year-old Toyota pickup, is a good example. It contains a fairly extensive history of its owner.
The large dent on the right front fender, for instance, tells how, one giddy night, my attempt to show a friend a game I call “grocery cart launching” went horribly awry. And the spot where there used to be a radio antenna tells of the time my new neighbors welcomed me when I moved to Chicago—into one of the, ahem, less prestigious neighborhoods. (My new “friends” also punctured all four tires, but those have been replaced.)
Few other possessions tell our stories quite like our cars. And yet, though almost everyone in America, male and female, drives cars, enthusiasm for cars is still considered a mostly male phenomenon. Do a Google search with the words “women” and “cars,” and you won’t find a list of women’s car clubs or Weblogs by female car enthusiasts. Instead, you’ll mostly find an odd assortment of pornographic Web sites—women inexplicably naked in or on sports cars.
One of the most notable Web sites you will find is carstuckgirls.com, a European site that sells videos of fully clothed (but sexy) ladies who are trying to dislodge their vehicles in various unfavorable conditions—ice, sand, etc. The women are usually unwisely dressed in short skirts and pumps, and the videos feature plenty of close-ups of the women’s feet arousingly pumping their accelerators.
There are women who are interested in classic and sports cars, of course. What are such women doing with their cars when they’re not lounging in them nude or driving them into snow drifts? What stories do their cars tell? Surely these vehicles have more to say than “please put on pants.”
To try to find the answers to these questions, I talk with three women who have cars that are much cooler than mine.
I convince a friend of mine, Neil, to ride to Fernley with me to attend a car show put on by the Reno Classic Chevy Club. When we arrive in Fernley, he asks, “So where exactly is the show?”
“You don’t know where it is?”
“How big can Fernley be?”
“You’re an idiot.”
After getting lunch at a casino, we made a loop of the entire town. When I’ve about decided to give up and drive back to Reno, we find the show on the opposite side of the casino where we have just dined. (Who’s the idiot now?!)
Neil and I stroll around looking at the cars. Since he’s never even had a driver’s license, I’m a little surprised at his excitement over a few of the muscle cars. A love instilled by 1970s television shows, he explains.
Though the show is sponsored by the Chevy Club, the cars on display aren’t limited to Chevrolets. There’s even a good number of Fords. It’s reassuring to see there’s one place where the vicious Ford/Chevrolet feud has achieved a truce. It gives me hope for the human race. Neil promises he will get a license if I’ll buy him a 1972 Mustang. The idea of him driving a muscle car terrifies me.
I’m here to talk to a woman named Polly, a member of The Classic Chevy Club and driver of a Viper. I wait to approach her because of the noise from an impromptu music trivia contest. The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” is playing. “Who was the lead singer on this song?” a woman with a microphone asks over the PA system. “… Davy Jones is correct!” No, it’s not.
After the noise and excitement die down, I make my way to the Chevy Club table and find Polly. I immediately make a fatal blunder.
“Is the Viper the only Chevy you have?” I ask.
“Vipers are made by Dodge,” she replies coolly.
I want to tell her I actually did know this, and I merely misspoke because of the prevalence of Chevy banners and the mind-numbing heat, but I know it’s too late. She has already learned what it took Neil slightly longer to learn—I’m an idiot.
She explains that the vehicle she and her husband have brought to this show is a very rare Chevy truck with a partially fiberglass body—a 1955 Cameo. It’s a beautiful truck. It would look great stuck in gravel.
“It was the first of the fleet side pickup trucks,” Polly tells me. Until recently, it had been on loan to the Harrah’s Automobile Museum.
After a few minutes, Polly’s husband John joins us. John works at Carson Dodge with my father—another car enthusiast who, I’ve felt, has always been disappointed by my wretched ignorance of the internal-combustion engine.
“This is Alan’s son. … He doesn’t change the oil in his truck,” Polly tells her husband, by way of introduction.
“I don’t think you really need to do that, though,” I reply, doubtful that my irony has been appreciated. But they let it slide.
John tells me he wishes he’d brought some photos to show me, particularly one from 1969 showing Polly accepting a drag racing trophy at the Fremont Dragstrip.
“She’s wearing a red mini-skirt, white go-go boots, which were the thing then, and a red, white and blue top,” he says.
I have some trouble reconciling the reticent, middle-aged woman I see in front of me with the go-go-booted drag-racer of 35 years ago. But then, I also can’t quite imagine her driving a Viper.
“I wasn’t real fast, but I was consistent,” she says.
The car she was driving at the time was a 1967 Marlin.
“It was the car we got married in,” she says.
For their honeymoon, they drove the Marlin from California, where they were living at the time, to, of all places, Reno.
Both John and Polly currently write columns for Turbo Diesel Register Magazine. Polly writes a women’s column about diesel pickups. John tells me such trucks are popular among barrel-racing cowgirls. They use them to haul their horse trailers.
“Diesels talk to him,” Polly tells me.
“Really? What do they say?”
She doesn’t answer. Probably because she knows I wouldn’t understand anyway. But she spends some time trying to educate me about the Dodge Cummins diesel. I savor the reversal of gender roles as I stand there wanting to hear more about go-go boots and honeymoons.
“It’s one of these rare occasions where two car nuts got married,” John tells me.
Parked in her garage next to a convertible Jaguar with a license plate frame that reads “This is not my boyfriend’s car” is Norah Brennan’s bright-pink 1932 Ford roadster.
Norah, nearly 70 years old, gets in and fires it up. The car is fairly loud, with a healthy, throaty rumble—the way hot-rods are supposed to sound. She turns her head toward me with a sly grin as she revs the engine.
The car was restored by her late husband, race-driver Merle Brennan. Brennan won an SCCA National Championship in 1964, driving an E-Type Jaguar. Among his accomplishments of local interest, in 1980 he set the record for the Virginia City Hill Climb, a record that still stands. How much did he love motor sports? Enough that, when he died in 1995, his body was dressed in his racing suit for the open-casket memorial service.
In the early ‘50s, the ‘32 roadster was his car for transportation.
“When he bought another car, he raced it at Bonneville, and it set records,” Norah tells me. He sold the car in the ‘50s, but in the mid-'60s he again wanted a 1932 roadster. By pure chance he purchased the very same car.
“When he got it home and tore it down, he found his old turquoise body paint on it. It was his old car,” she says.
He restored the car again, this time with a Morris Minor rack and pinion and Jaguar rear-end and dashboard components.
Almost 20 years later, in 1986, after advanced Alzheimer’s required that Merle be placed in a nursing home, Norah began driving the roadster, familiarizing herself with the car during an impulsive trip to a hot-rod meet in Pleasanton.
“I threw a suitcase in the back of the car … and without a toolbox or a brain, I think, I took off for the hot-rod meet,” she says.
At the time, the car was tomato red, one of three colors that cars of that model were generally painted. Dismayed that her ‘32 Ford was, from a distance, indistinguishable among the sea of like-painted ‘32 Fords, she decided to make a change.
“I came home, and I took it to a painter and I took my fingernail polish down—a color I liked which was hot pink—and he matched it up and painted it fingernail-polish pink,” she says.
Though brightly painted hot rods are no longer uncommon, it was a bold decision at the time, when most roadsters were conservatively painted red, yellow or black. She claims it’s possibly the original hot-pink roadster.
“It was probably one of the most fun things I did that kept me contacted with him. … It’s a happy car, and at the time I needed some happiness.”
Paradoxically, this process of making the car her own kept her in touch with her husband, who was slowly slipping away. Eventually, she learned all the tricks of the car her husband had built.
“I didn’t literally build it at the time, but I pretty much know everything about it,” she says.
But what did her husband think of the car’s new paint job? As soon as she got the car back from the paint shop, she took it to show him.
“I was so proud of it, I thought I’d drive it over and get Merle and take him for a ride. … I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, wait till he sees this car out here. He’s gonna roll his eyes at me.'” But he had no comment. He didn’t remember the car at all.
Since then, the car has been in the Hot August Nights parade every year. And every year the car causes a sensation among the ladies in attendance.
“I think you see more and more women driving rods,” Norah says.
This is a trend Norah encourages. After I talked to her at her home she called me because she thought it was important that she add:
“I’m pushing 70, and I think it’s something all grandmothers should get involved with.”
Christine’s interest in cars began at a very young age.
“My mom has this blurry old picture of me. I was standing on a stool and looking into the engine bay with my grandfather,” she says.
Though she may have inherited her mechanical inclinations from her grandfather, he was less than thrilled to have passed them on.
“He got mad at me when I got my first car and I changed the oil once. … He was like, ‘Girls can’t work on cars! They’re going to call you a mechanic! It’s horrible! You’re a lady!’ … He’d probably roll over in his grave if he saw all the work I’ve done,” she tells me.
Her first classic car was a 1973 Valiant she inherited from her grandmother. Her grandmother had, in her turn, inherited it from Mrs. Lorne, “an old lady who always dressed in black.”
Wanting something sportier, a year and a half later Christine bought a 1967 Barracuda, later joining a Bay Area Mopar club.
“We’d just go out and drink. It wasn’t really an organized car club,” she says.
But they did have matching jackets.
When she bought the Barracuda, “it was in shambles,” she says. A friend of hers worked on it, letting Christine observe and assist, and, she says, “pretty soon I could do my own brakes and all the minor things that go wrong with these cars.”
Though not pristine, the Barracuda, apart from a couple minor dings and dents, is now in good shape. It’s big and looks mean. Christine shows me the engine, taken from a 1973 van, and explains some of the mechanical work she’s done. She needs to install a larger radiator, she says. I try to make relevant comments, but my limited automotive knowledge leaves me with little to say.
“Wow, the inside’s red,” I finally say.
In spite of this, she offers to take me for a ride.
She drag-raced this car once at Sears Point Raceway when she was still living in the Bay Area and more than once on South McCarran after she moved to Reno. Gassing the car, she demonstrates that, though it’s slow off the line, once it gets going it’s really fast.
In case you also think women who work on cars are less than ladylike, and if the idea of a mechanically inclined, drag-racing woman brings to mind the image of a burly female with thick grease-stained fingers, I’d like to point out that Christine is slim and pretty, with long hair.
But she’s a married woman, so I try not to get too excited by how she works the pedals.
Once we’re out on the road she apologizes for the stereo—only one speaker works.
“But it’s good enough for a Meatloaf tape,” she says.
“That’s true,” I tactlessly agree.
At the first intersection, she tells me “it has a 340 cam in it, so it’s a bit lumpy.”
I smile and nod, having no idea what she’s talking about.
Out on the freeway, she starts telling me about a road trip she took in this car with her now-husband Eric.
“We drove around Joshua Tree National Park at sunset, and that’s when I asked him to marry me. … I talked him into it, and from there we drove up to Las Vegas.” There they were married.
“Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” is playing on the tape deck. Meatloaf sings, “Will you love me forever? Will you need me? Will you never leave me? Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?” Is he asking about Christine’s relationship with her husband or her Barracuda?
I ask if she would ever be able to sell the car. She seems doubtful.
“This car was a part of my life at some important times. I have pictures of it with ‘Just Married’ written on the back. … It’s been a part of my life longer than just about anything."