8 influential women in automotive history that you should know about

Date Posted 16th March 2022
Read Time 9 min read

Influential women in automotive history: from the dawn of the 20th century up until now, women have played a pioneering role in the development and success of automobiles. Some of the driving features we enjoy today – the windscreen wiper or the sturdy tyres wrapped around your alloys – were invented by women.

Throughout time, women have embarked on first-of-a-kind road trips, broke into the mainstream via motorsport achievements, and become leaders for some of the world’s most renowned manufacturers.  

Whether it’s through invention, innovation, or behind-the-wheel talent, here are eight influential women in automotive history who have shaped, and impacted the world of cars…

August, 1888

Bertha Benz

The very embodiment of the saying: “behind every successful man there stands a woman” – Bertha Benz is perhaps the OG example of a woman supporting her man. She invested her entire dowry in husband Karl Benz’s company following his invention of the first practical automobile in Mannheim in 1886. When he registered the vehicle under German patent number 37435, the public’s response wasn’t what he’d expected.

The invention was met with scepticism and distrust – because making the transition from horse-drawn carriages seemed pretty wild at the time. At this point, it was Bertha who stood up and took the reins – or the wheel – so to speak. In 1888, to prove that the automobile could literally change the face of transport at the time, she drove 66 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim with her two sons by her side.

In doing so, her successful cross-country trip demonstrated what can only be described as one of the best PR stunts in history. More importantly, she also realised that brake pads would be a good addition to the car’s design and help brakes to endure long journeys. And so, Mercedes-Benz was born, and, according to a 2021 Statista report, the company is currently worth an all-time high of $25.84 billion.

August, 1888
November, 1903

Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgwood

The humble windscreen wiper is probably the most underrated – yet hard working – car feature. And we have both Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgwood to thank for it. On her winter’s day streetcar ride through New York City, Mary noticed the inconvenience to her driver – and the passengers – when he had to keep getting out to clear snow from the windscreen.
 
Her solution was a rubber blade attached to a spring-loaded arm that would move back and forth across the glass to wipe away rain, and snow – simple, but genius. At the time, it was attached to the outside of the car and operated from the inside. Mary patented the design in 1903 but it was shunned by mainstream carmakers for being “too distracting for drivers”.
 
A few years later, in 1917, Charlotte Bridgwood enhanced the windscreen wiper to be electronically operated – using rollers instead of blades. Once again, it didn’t garner much attention from manufacturers. Her patented design expired in 1920 and became available for bigger automotive brands to pick up.
 
Both Mary and Charlotte were ahead of their time and though neither profited from their inventions, windscreen wipers went on to become standard, integral parts of a vehicle. But the recognition remains, and Mary was even given a name check in a 2006 The Simpsons episode.

November, 1903
January, 1940

Hedy Lamarr

An actress by day and an engineer by choice, Austrian Hedy Lamarr moved to the US to pursue an acting career. She ended up being part of the duo who developed the technology that, today, allows you to connect your favourite music to the car’s infotainment system – and navigate your way on the roads. We’re talking about Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS, of course.

It was during the second world war that Hedy worked alongside George Antheil and together they created a device that blocked enemy ships from interrupting their torpedo signals. The device acted as a radio guidance system, jumping from frequency to frequency, and making it extremely difficult for an enemy to locate messages.

Though the technology wasn’t acknowledged at the time, it laid the foundations for the modern-day systems that allow us to stay connected in our cars. With the progressive development of features such as Bluetooth and Satnav, automobiles can operate autonomously in a way that was never comprehended in the early 20th century. For that, we have Hedy and George to thank.

January, 1940
November, 1964

Stephanie Kwolek

Dubbed the queen of Kevlar, it was chemist Stephanie Kwolek who discovered the synthetic fibre. The discovery was a combination of years of experience and knowledge, but also a happy accident. Whilst working at DuPont’s textile fibre laboratory in Buffalo, New York, she was having some trouble converting a solid polymer into liquid form.

She was left with a liquid that was thin and opaque. Stephanie persuaded another scientist to “spin” the liquid in a rotary evaporator, which then left behind some fibres. And not just any old fibres. They led to her discovery of a material that we know to be five times as strong as steel but lighter than fibreglass, and fire resistant too; enter, Kevlar.

Kevlar’s strength and temperature resistance has made it the choice of material for bulletproof vests, armour, and space travel. In cars, it’s used for seat belts, reinforced brake pads, tyres, and seals for different components. Kevlar fibres are incredibly advantageous; they allow you to drive at high temperatures and speeds and reduce driving noise and rotational weight – all making for better performance.

November, 1964
July, 1974

Lella Lombardi

Women have not only made significant contributions to the automotive world through inventions, but also as talented and driven sporting heroes. Lella Lombardi is one of the greatest examples of this. On April 27, 1975, at 34-years-old, she finished sixth at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, earning half a World Championship point. She is still the only woman to have scored championship points in Formula 1. Her journey to getting there made her success even more astounding.

The daughter of a butcher from Piedmont, Italy, Lella was being transported to hospital following a handball injury when she became fascinated with the speed at which the ambulance moved and reached its destination. She decided to pursue motor racing, and between 1974 and 1976 she drove in 12 World Champion Formula 1 races.  

Another record that Lella holds is for the highest starting number in F1 history. The digits “208” were etched on her car at Brands Hatch in 1974 as homage to her sponsor Radio Luxembourg who broadcasted on 208 metres medium wave. The record will likely never be broken again as F1 no longer allows starting numbers to exceed “99”. The impressive Italian driver dies of breast cancer at the age of 51.  

July, 1974
January, 1995

Elena Ford

The great-granddaughter of Ford company founder, Henry Ford, is one of the most influential women in automotive right now. You would think that her career path was inevitable, but this is not the case at all. Elena was previously a senior account executive for Ad Company Wells Rich Greene.

She joined Ford in 1995 and carved a prominent path within the company to become the first female Ford family member to hold high level positions. She was the Director of Global Marketing, and Vice President, both of which gained her inclusion on the Automotive News’ list of 100 leading women in the North American Auto Industry, twice.  

Elena is the powerhouse behind several of Ford’s brand strategies and global marketing initiatives, playing a key role in keeping the manufacturer at the forefront of the auto industry. She also worked on the development of both the FordPass and Lincoln Way apps, ushering the brand into new digital realms.

Elena’s industry experience and knowledge earned her the position of Chief Customer Experience Officer, at Ford Blue, in 2015 – a role she still holds today. 

January, 1995
November, 2005

Danica Patrick

You can’t talk about influential females in the automotive world without mentioning NASCAR and IndyCar driver Danica Patrick. At just 10-years-old, she was go-kart racing and setting the foundation for an illustrious career in motorsports.
 
One of the most successful women in motorsports, Danica’s first IndyCar race win came in 2008 at Motegi, Japan. She also took third place at the 2009 Indy 500 and came in eighth at the 24 hours of Daytona race. Danica drove in the IndyCar series until 2011. She contested 116 races in the American series and was able to secure seven podium finishes and three pole positions.
 
She entered NASCAR and drove her first full-time season in 2012, followed by graduating to the NASCAR Cup in 2013. She was the first woman to win a NASCAR Cup Series pole at the prestigious Daytona 500 race, setting the fastest time in qualifying and finishing in eighth place. This is still the highest position ever achieved by a woman. She managed seven top 10 finishes throughout her seven-year career in NASCAR.
 
In 2018, she made the courageous decision to leave motorsports but remains the most accomplished modern-day female race car driver. A role model for young girls and women everywhere, Danica has written a book, hosted podcasts, and now owns a vineyard. Following her retirement, the impact she has had on the industry for female drivers will continue to be significant for a long time to come.

November, 2005
January, 2014

Mary Barra

Starting her career at General Motors (GM) in 1980, Mary Barra is a female force and all-round inspiration, proving that knowledge and skill is built through longevity and loyalty. She joined the business in the role of General Motors Institute co-op student at the Pontiac Motor Division.

Her four-decade-plus hands-on approach was gained through various positions over the years, including Senior Vice President of Global Product Development, Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, and a Plant Manager.

In 2014, Mary became the CEO of the company, and the first female CEO of a major global automaker. Under her leadership, the company overcame a difficult period and has continued to thrive with Mary at the helm. She was named the 4th most powerful women in 2021 by Forbes magazine, and GM was ranked number one on the 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality as well as being one of the two companies who had no gender pay gap.

Mary went on to be elected chairman of the board of directors in January 2018 and GM remains in the top 20 global companies to work for. More recently, she has pioneered the division of car leasing which has led to an uptake in success for the company. It’s clear to see that her leadership as CEO has been hugely beneficial to both General Motors and the automotive industry.

January, 2014