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How the 1955 Dodge La Femme missed the mark on designing cars for women
Targeted marketing is rampant in today’s digital world. Every banner ad you see online, linking to some embarrassing aspect of your Internet browsing history, stems from a long history of companies doing their best to figure out what you want to buy, before you want to buy it. If you’ve ever received bizarre emails from people trying to sell you random stuff, you know not all of these attempts are resounding successes.
The story was much the same in the 1950s, albeit in a much more nascent stage of targeted marketing. With the economy in full post-war swing and an entire generation burying their memories of wartime austerity in a consumerist blitz, marketers had free reign to explore all possible niches for potential revenue. The automotive industry was ripe for experimentation; car companies were churning out a bewildering array of trims and special editions in an experiment to understand what resonated with customers.
It’s a small step from pushing ads at a specific demographic to a company going out of its way to conceive of a product exclusively targeted at a specific type of buyer. Or so it would seem in Detroit, in any case, when Dodge debuted the 1955 La Femme, perhaps the first car to have been built exclusively for women.
Show car roots
The La Femme was actually the evolution of an idea that had been percolating at Chrysler for at least a few years prior to the car’s debut. Roughly 12 months before the Dodge hit showrooms in 1955, its parent company had toured the show car circuit with a pair of rides dubbed “La Comtesse” (The Countess) and “Le Conte” (The Count). Intended as “his and hers” options for well-moneyed couples, the cars were based on the New Yorker platform and featured a number of luxuries, as well as a unique plastic roof design.
The La Comtesse pivoted towards Madison Avenue’s arms-length impression of what women were looking for in a vehicle (by going heavy on the pink paint and brocatelle interior), but it was otherwise similar in look and feel to the different-colored (brown) Le Comte. After gathering impressions from the millions of eyeballs that had feasted on the prototypes during the 1954 season, Chrysler handed the idea off to Dodge and let it run with a production model intended to capture the deep well of lady-dollars that were apparently sitting just out of reach of the company’s 1955 vehicle lineup.
Dodge’s answer to Chrysler’s directive was the 1955 La Femme, a vehicle which claimed to be “the first car ever exclusively designed for the woman motorist.”
Unfortunately for women, very little of the La Femme’s posturing for feminine appeal went more than skin deep. The car was based on the Royal Lancer hardtop, which was itself redesigned for the ‘55 model year, but the only changes made to the vehicle before it gained the gold La Femme badge were related to styling. Each model was painted Heather Rose (read: pink) with a white base, and although the car was initially planned to include Heather Rose leather on the seats and door panels, these were replaced in production models with a paler pink vinyl. Gold Cordagrain trim and Orchid Jacquard fabric (resembling pink rosebuds) were found throughout the cabin, and a further gold La Femme script was affixed to the glove compartment.
Beyond the pretty-in-pink look, Dodge set out to hard-sell female drivers by way of an extensive accessories program associated with the La Femme. Each car came with its own full complement of beauty-related products, made by Chicago-based Evans, including a lipstick case, cigarette lighter and case, compact, and change purse. Colors for these items ranged from tortoise shell to gold-accented pink leather and were further paired with a rain cape, rain hat, and umbrella—all matching the Jacquard look of the car’s interior (as well as a pink purse). Each of these items also had its own bespoke storage compartment inside the vehicle.
Slow rollout, slower sales
Dodge introduced the La Femme to the general public in stages, with the vehicle debuting at the International Salon in New York (held at Chrysler’s offices). The event was in the early part of January, before Dodge made a push to get the vehicle out to dealers. Advertising for the model focused heavily on the beauty products that came with the car, as well as the utility of the umbrella and its holder, rather than any particular driving characteristics of the vehicle itself. The catchphrase for the model—”By Special Appointment to Her Majesty… the American Woman”—was sufficiently vague about what made the La Femme a good fit for anyone’s lifestyle, let alone that of its target market.
Sales were slow; fewer than 1000 La Femmes moved off of dealer lots in the model’s initial year. Undeterred, Dodge shook things up somewhat for 1956 by swapping in Misty Orchid backed by Regal Orchid as the only color scheme offered on the vehicle, splashing gold onto the orchid headliner, adding lavender carpets, and replacing the rosebud motif with a new, unique vinyl pattern (Orchid Jacquard) on the seats and other aspects of the interior trappings. Missing was the previous year’s purse and beauty products, but the raingear remained a La Femme staple.
Again, response was tepid to non-existent. It seemed few American women were interested in “driving the effortless, the lady-like way” via the Dodge’s push-button transmission and buttery power steering. In total, over two years, Dodge sold roughly 1500 La Femmes, which led to the vehicle’s cancellation for 1957.
Women step into actual design roles (and save the day)
Despite Dodge being the only company to bring a “woman’s model” to market in the ’50s, several other automakers flirted with the idea roughly during the same period. Of these concepts, the most notable would be produced by GM’s Damsels of Design, a group of female designers working under Harley Earl. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the models introduced at the group’s Spring Fashion Festival of Women Designed Cars in 1958 were painted pink; instead, they reflected actual styling trends of the day. These included the Martinique-model Chevrolet Impala with its matching luggage (designed by Jeanette Linder), and Suzanne Vanderbilt’s Cadillac Eldorado Seville Baroness (which included an extended passenger compartment and a telephone). These pioneer designers were notable for continuing to pave the way for women in general automotive design over the course of the next few decades, leading to other female-helmed automotive projects in other departments.
In many ways, the Dodge La Femme became a cautionary tale Detroit’s adventurous product planners. With the tailfin era on the verge of ending, and the bloodbath of the late-’50s/early-’60s about to endanger the welfare of almost every independent American automaker, there was little patience left on the part of bean counters for products that couldn’t definitively reach their target audience. Dodge’s misguided attempts to appeal to women’s wants and needs in an automobile doomed the La Femme from the start, and no amount of mansplaining its accessorized virtues via complementary advertising was enough to make up for that.