Man’s World? A Feminist’s Experience of Classic Car Shows

Please note, this is a subjective account of a recent experience and may not, of course, be representative.

I have been the proud owner of a classic car for the last two years. When I bought this 1952 Jowett Jupiter, I joined the marque owners’ club (the Jowett Car Club), and have since attended club events and exhibited the car as part of club appearances at shows over two summers. I’ve always enjoyed driving and cars. As a child one of my most prized toys was a Corgi model Ford Escort XR3i in metallic mint green, and I had posters of Porsche and Ferrari sports cars on my bedroom walls along with images of 80s pop stars. I didn’t think that particularly unusual at the time.

Last month the car was part of the club stand at the NEC Classic Car Show, and I spent three whole days there, staffing the stand for part of each day. As a woman owner-driver and feminist, I knew this would be a noteworthy experience. This year’s theme was ‘She’s a Beauty’: the annual theme supposedly provides ‘inspiration for feature and club displays’. I agreed that my car would be exhibited but had some reservations about the way this theme was presented on the show website. My expectations, then, were shaped by my reception within my own club (as a ‘lady driver’) and my experience of exhibiting at classic car shows over the past two years and I expected that the show would be dominated by men, and that the theme, especially the part about celebrating ‘all the women involved in the classic community over the years’, would be largely ignored. This was indeed my impression, but I still found myself unprepared for how isolating and downright infuriating the whole experience was for a female exhibitor and even a female visitor. Years of living with a non-conforming gender identity and identifying as a feminist should perhaps have made me more aware of just how traditional some people’s views are, but my experience of working (and let’s be honest, mostly socialising) in academic circles, where people are at least wary of voicing politically incorrect views or behaving in ways that might seem exclusionary often makes me forget what it’s like in other ‘worlds’. Apparently, in the world of classic car enthusiasts, men are still from Mars and women from Venus.

I certainly am in agreement with Richard Morley, Operations Director for Lancaster Insurance, who said, “seeing how the theme has been interpreted by so many is incredible” — though our intended meaning may vary. Some feature and club stands obviously found it difficult to depict or include real women and opted for dummy women instead, offering somewhat incongruous takes on the theme. Women appeared to be most abundant on stalls handing out freebies or selling products while wearing conventionally ‘feminine’ outfits and high heels. There were, of course, many instances of the dubious use of women in advertising, and many ‘traditional’ — aka highly sexualised — depictions of women on products clearly aimed at male consumers. Some of these were, admittedly, historical, but others were jaw-droppingly recent. And I will just note that one of the most successful parts of this year’s show, in line with the theme, was a Miss World contest featuring ‘six stunning cars’. There were a few exceptions across all five halls and hundreds of stands: three women rally drivers or female rally teams, a stand promoting the British Women Racing Driver’s Club, a Gay Classic Car Club stand, and Lady Penelope’s FAB1 from TV series Thunderbirds.

In terms of visitors, this year’s show was reported to be ‘record breaking,’ with nearly 69,000 attendees, but there are no figures on the gender breakdown of this number. I stopped counting women yawning on the sidelines, though admittedly women (and girls) did not make up a large percentage of visitors, even on the more family-friendly Sunday. I also stopped counting the number of men who approached the stand, found no other man available and either visibly decided not to speak to me, spoke to me only until a man became available, or found themselves incapable of speaking to me as though I were another human being. Several were visibly shocked when I said I owned the Jupiter, or when I pointed something out about its engine. I found myself tempted to ‘perform’ or, more accurately, to parody femininity, and told some visitors that I had bought the car because ‘it has my name on it’, or because it is ‘shiny’. Still other male visitors to the club knew that I was there (and my exhibitor badge clearly indicated that I was staffing the stand) but did not speak to me, preferring to point out various features of the car to their companions (male and female), often erroneously. To be fair, this happened to men on the stand too: self-proclaimed experts are happy to ignore anyone who might contradict their own ‘knowledge’ irrespective of gender.

So kudos to those men who approached me without trepidation or disdain and spoke to me like a member of the same species — though these were few and far between, especially on the Friday and Saturday. I’m not sure if I will be exhibiting or staffing a stand at the NEC Classic again, but if I do I will think more carefully about how to negotiate its highly gendered environment.

Lorna Jowett — Reader in Television Studies