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January 10, 2007

Chick Cars

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards--

That big, bad, macho Detroit auto industry has been chasing women for years and years.

Initially, that was because wives influenced the car-buying decision of their husbands. Later -- especially by the 1950s and after when automatic transmissions came into wide use and most women learned to drive -- gals were chased because they too did the buying.

Early efforts to entice women centered around exterior colors and interior fabrics and appointments. Later, car models or even brands were implicitly (and even sometimes almost explicitly) tailored for the female market. An early example was the original Nash Rambler convertible (see below).

Nash Rambler - 1952.jpg
Nash Rambler, 1952.
The Rambler compact was launched as a "second car" that wasn't cheap-looking. The first model released was the convertible -- normally the most expensive body style; a station wagon came out a little later. Its appeal to Baby Boom moms wanting a stylish little errand-running machine was strong enough to make the Rambler the most successful American "compact" of the early 50s.

Nowadays some cars seem to be strongly associated with either male or female owners. Huge pickup trucks and SUVs suggest a male owner, for instance.

And automobiles that women buy and drive? Those are called chick cars.

Even some women call them chick cars, a noteworthy example being Jean Jennings while she was editor of Automobile magazine.

Recently Jerry Flint found the matter of chick cars worthy of a column (click here). Flint is one of my favorite automobile industry observers, having entered that beat in 1958. For many years he was a Detroit correspondent for The New York Times and more recently he has been a columnist for Forbes magazine. Among other things, he states:

Here are some other so-called feminine cars, according to car writers we interviewed: the VW New Beetle and Convertible, Mazda Miata MX-5, Hummer H2 (that is strange), Lexus SC 430, Jeep Liberty, BMW X3, Chrysler Sebring Convertible and the Subaru Forester, which, rumor has it, is favored by lesbians. And Tom and Ray Magliozzi (aka Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers of Car Talk from NPR) called the VW Passat the "ultimate chick car."

Says John McElroy, host of Autoline Detroit, a TV show, "It's [a car for women], the kind of car no manly-man would be caught dead driving. It's the kind of car that would make your drinking buddies laugh out loud, right in front of your face, if you drove up in one."


All this is serious stuff and more than a joke. Labeling cars like this hurts business. It matters that women buy half the cars in this country, so automotive marketing people clearly need to reach this audience. "Chick car" is a derogatory term, and, apparently, men shy away from these vehicles. When half the market shies away from your product, it is trouble. I have heard rumors that Toyota may kill the Solara. Remember how some people labeled minivans as cars for "soccer moms?" That has hurt the minivan business to this day.

What Flint's column fails to mention -- probably because no one knows the answer for sure -- is how cars get the "chick" label in the first place. So far as I know, there's no single source. From time to time a casual mention in a car buff magazine might spark it. Or perhaps a popular car blog. Maybe it's simply a case of the gelling of public opinion.

Let's take a look at some chick cars.

VW New Beetle Cabriolet.jpg
Volkswagen New Beetle Cabriolet.

Honda Civic Del Sol - 1993-97.jpg
Honda Civic Del Sol, 1993-97.

VW Passat - 1998-2005.jpg
Volkswagen Passat, 1998-2005.
I don't regard this as a chick car, no matter what Click and Clack think.

For whatever it's worth, the chick cars that I happened to select, including the Rambler, are small, sporty convertibles that lack powerful motors. Cars for drivin' 'round town and perhaps showing oneself off.

Full disclosure: I drive a Chrysler 300. And my wife Nancy's vehicle is the Eddy Bauer version of the Ford Explorer.



posted by Donald at January 10, 2007


Surely the late and unlamented Dodge Neon was a top-ten chick car. My wife (tree-hugging liberal), usually completely oblivious to cars, perked up and took notice when she saw one the first time.

Posted by: thaprof on January 10, 2007 12:39 PM

small, sporty convertibles that lack powerful motors

That's it.

Posted by: Jonathan on January 10, 2007 12:52 PM

I wonder if there is any age breakdown here? The Del Sol and Cabriolet look like young, single-gal "display cars", as opposed to the minivan/ soccer Mom demographic. In terms of "Guy Cars" In know that my tastes are certainly different than they were 25 years ago - although they still differ significantly from my wife's.

Posted by: tschaferedu on January 10, 2007 2:08 PM

Somewhat ironic that minivan sales would be hurt by the association with "soccer moms". For either a male or female, driving around in one is solid evidence of being an actively practicing heterosexual who is not trying to compensate for anything. Certainly Borat might have done well to shop for a minivan...

Posted by: Chuck on January 10, 2007 2:24 PM

I fail the chick test. This's the one I'd had.
If I knew how to drive.

Posted by: Tat on January 10, 2007 2:33 PM

Well, I've owned a Miata convertible, and would love to have a Sebring convertible, so I guess I validate their labels. However, I have also owned a Mustang convertible and currently drive a Toyota RAV4 SUV--and not for kiddies. Although the color is pale gold, which probably sort of makes it a chick car. I would think a guy showing up in the VW bug convertible would get the biggest laugh of all, personally. Now THAT car is definitely a chick car. Most women I know have no interest in a big pickup truck---that has to be a guy vehicle. Is the auto industry worried that the sales of those vehicles are hurt by being associated with only half the population?

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2007 2:58 PM

I hope the new Challenger coming out will be labeled a chick car - then maybe I can afford to buy it if sales drop off. Its said to have a hemi in it. However it's not stick shift. The early plans seem to have it look a lot like the original muscle car. Which I love, & used to own (a 1971). Jamie somebodyorother in Automobile magazine wrote a column some time ago bemoaning all the chicks driving enormous pickup trucks. I thought that was pretty funny and I've been calling those oversize pickups chick cars for a long time now.

Posted by: bridget on January 10, 2007 3:15 PM

I have a Subaru Forester, the Ultimate (Lesbian) Driving Machine - good thing I'm a man, so no one will get the wrong impression :) Actually, while the Subaru/Lesbian connection's been around for some time, it's usually the Outback model that's been associated with the gals in plaid flannel lumberjack shirts.

Ford has been trying to market the entire Mercury lineup as a "chick brand" in a possibly last-ditch attempt to keep Mercury from going the way of Oldsmobile and Plymouth. There have been quite a few Mercury ads on television in recent months, and unlike most car ads they don't feature the vehicles being driven at high speeds (hence no "Professional Driver - Closed Course" disclaimers). In addition, the on-camera announcer in the Mercury ads is a woman, and she has the attractive-but-not-stunning looks that have been shown to appeal to women.

Finally, Mazda renamed the Miata the MX-5 in the hopes of keeping it from becoming too much of a chick car, "Miata" having been considered too feminine-sounding.

Posted by: Peter on January 10, 2007 3:21 PM

Wow, all these nuances! Living in Manhattan as I have for more almost 30 years -- ie., haven't owned a car since the late '70s -- they're all Greek to me. There are cars that are felt/thought to be lesbian cars? Er, cars lesbians especially enjoy? I'd like to know more about that car, and what it is lesbians like about 'em! Are there gay-guy cars too?

It's this whole universe of meanings and associations ... And I'm completely blind to it!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 10, 2007 3:44 PM

My mother's all-time favorite car was a Mustang, pea-green. But I drive a pickiup -- that's a small worn-out pickup near the rez. For many years I drove a full-sized Ford cargo van, but that's when it was safe to travel and camp in it.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 10, 2007 4:03 PM

To make it simple, I'd say all 4 cylinder cars are chick cars, regardless of the names plastered on them.

We guys have to have a minimum of 6 cylinders to pull our inflated egos around. Plus, gunning a 6 v. a 4 at the stoplight somehow makes our otherwise frustrating day.

Posted by: DarkoV on January 10, 2007 4:30 PM

Wow, Mercury is trying to become a line of cars appealing to women? Seeing as how that's Brian Setzer's favorite car, I'm stunned...

Posted by: tschafer on January 10, 2007 4:33 PM

In Britain, convertibles have become women cars for women. And hairdressers.

Posted by: dearieme on January 10, 2007 6:00 PM

Ooh, I know some lesbians that used to drive a Subaru Outback -- how weird. Now they have a Prius, as do I . . . what is the lesbian quotient of a Prius? Are Prii chick cars?

Posted by: missgrundy on January 10, 2007 6:19 PM

The Prius is the ultimate guilty-affluent-liberal car.

Posted by: Peter on January 10, 2007 7:30 PM

We guys have to have a minimum of 6 cylinders to pull our inflated egos around.

8 cylinders is better. And it's not necessarily ego: some people enjoy speed and acceleration.

Posted by: Jonathan on January 10, 2007 8:36 PM

"The Prius is the ultimate guilty-affluent-liberal car."

I'd though so as well...
until I started talking to the owners of the Priuses (or is that Priusi?) parked at work.
There are 6 of the Priusi. Each one is owned by a
1) NASCAR loving
2) Two-term Dubya voting
3) Regular church-going
4) Cable-Guy comedian loving
person. In some media corners, they may be know as rednecks. Here, I know them as decent hard-working folks who think paying over $2 for a gallon of gas if @#&*?! up.

So, they drive to work in a Prius and wash their F150's on the weekend.

Not a one Laurie David in the bunch.

Posted by: DarkoV on January 11, 2007 7:55 AM

"The Prius is the ultimate guilty-affluent-liberal car."

Yeah, that's me, all right. The fact that I have a 150 mile round trip commute to work and gas is close to $2.70/gallon where I live had nothing to do with my decision. I went from paying $150+ a month for gas to between $80-90.

Posted by: missgrundy on January 11, 2007 11:46 AM

I've always laughed at how Americans define themselves - and each other - by the cars they drive. It's ridiculous and, despite my finding humor in it, a little sad.

Posted by: Ron on January 11, 2007 10:57 PM

I've always laughed at people who think they know how Americans define themselves and each other. It's just idle chatter, dude, not psychotherapy. Don't pretend it doesn't happen anywhere else in the world, either, or I'll introduce you to Englishmen who import American pickup trucks (the most hilarious day of my British tour of duty was talking to a truck club.)

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 12, 2007 12:45 AM

I remember wanting a Miata from the day they were first advertised. It became associated as a "chick" car because they were less expensive than other sports cars. Men who select cars for their status do not want to take the cheap way out... better to get a used Jaguar than a new Miata.

Posted by: Miss Cellania on January 12, 2007 10:49 AM

Maybe you can introduce me to a hostile fat guy who calls people "dude".

Posted by: Ron on January 12, 2007 1:23 PM

I have been idly browsing thru pages of D.Westlakes' Kahawa (plot: how the whole train of coffee was stolen from Idi Amin in the 70's. Proceeded from one rail station and never appeared at the next; $30mln].

Ron, you might find it interesting that in Uganda local upper class is called, mockingly, "wa-benzi" [people/tribe of the Mercedes-Benz].

I guess Ugandans are covert Americans.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 12, 2007 5:30 PM

I remember wanting a Miata from the day they were first advertised. It became associated as a "chick" car because they were less expensive than other sports cars.

I don't think that's right. I think it became known as a chick/gay car because it has a small engine. It is all style and no bite. A typical woman or gay guy, not a car person, looks at it and thinks: that is attractive. A typical guy, who is much more likely to be a car person, looks at it and thinks: it's attractive and handles well, but it's underpowered, so what's the point? There are moderately priced cars that are guy cars, such as larger pickups and V-8 Mustangs. Guy cars are not underpowered but many chick cars are.

Posted by: Jonathan on January 12, 2007 9:07 PM

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