A Moment in Time the Dodge La Femme

IMAGE La Femme Front 3-4

“By appointment to her majesty, the American Woman!”

Image La Femme Personally

The Dodge La Femme arrived on the scene in 1955, a year when America was thriving with post-war prosperity. The baby boom was in full swing, and more people lived in the growing suburbs than in any other type of community, drawn by elbow room, fresh air, and affordable housing for growing families.

The rise of these new communities also gave rise to commuting; the vast majority of suburban families had at least one parent who drove to work. Groceries, household items, and sundries were generally not available at a convenient mom-and-pop corner store like in the city, but rather down the road at supermarkets and shopping centers with sprawling parking lots. A second family car was needed.

Women were going to work in greater numbers than ever before by the mid-1950s, accounting for about one-third of the workforce and increasing overall household income. They were also taking a greater interest in cars; about one half of all adult women held a driver’s license. The automobile industry recognized that women were a growing presence in the marketplace, and actively sought to court to them.

In 1954, Nash was the first manufacturer to market a car specifically to women with the fresh, petite Metropolitan. That year saw the La Comtesse, the pink feminine half of “his and her” Chrysler show cars. General Motors also wanted a piece of the growing market, and design studio chief Harley Earl hired six women in 1955 to work across the various model lines in an effort to create cars that appealed to women. Those designers pioneered such modern automotive staples as retractable seat belts, child-proof doors, storage consoles, and vanity mirrors. One of those women, Sue Vanderbilt, overcame many obstacles to become a GM studio chief herself.

1955 also saw the unveiling of the Dodge La Femme, a trim package available for the Dodge Custom Royal Lancer. The car featured a pink-and-cream paint job and rose-printed upholstery, as well as a matching purse, umbrella, and other fashion accessories. It was marketed as being the first car for the modern American woman.

It can be hard to look back at a car like the La Femme. It is not an oddity; it represents the cultural values idealized by the media and advertising of its time. Today, offering a pink car with matching lipstick exclusively to women might be seen to be just as condescending as filling a car with potatoes and offering it to the Irish. Even in the period advertisement above, it’s not the driver’s door that is opened for her on what is said to be her own personal vehicle.

Yet what the La Femme represents, however obtusely, is a recognition by the American automotive industry, and therefore the largest sector of industrial manufacturing on the planet, that women were an rising economic force, and that it was imperative that their specific wants and needs be addressed. So great was this tide that by 1958, GM executives from all over the country came to the unofficially named Feminine Auto Show to see the cars created by its six female designers. Not too many years later, Ford released its own car created to appeal to women: the now world-famous Mustang.

Women now drive the automotive world. Women buy more than half of all new cars and influence up to eighty percent of car buying decisions. More women hold driver’s licenses than men. Women drive more miles and take more car trips than at any time in history, while the number of miles men drive has begun to decline. Car manufacturers now market their wares aggressively to women, and usually with dignity and respect. Yes, there are companies that take spectacular pratfalls and ignite social media firestorms, but overall the trend inspires pride in our societal accomplishments and hope for the future.

The La Femme can be viewed as a cynical design exercise, as Fifties kitsch, as social commentary, and many other things. The machine itself though, made of steel and fabric and devoid of the poisonous influences of humanity, is spectacular, in the strictest sense of the word.

IMAGE La Comtesse

Before the La Femme, Chrysler created the Le Comte and La Comtesse, “his and hers” show cars for 1954. La Comtesse had a two-tone exterior of pigeongray over dusty rose, with a cream and rose leather interior. The spectacular clear plastic top was used on both cars.

Favorable public opinion influenced Chrysler to move forward with the concept. The manufacturer handed the project over to its Dodge division.

IMAGE La Femme Rear 3-4

The La Femme was offered in 1955 and 1956 as a trim package for the top-of-the-line Dodge Custom Royal Lancer. Virgil Exner was leading the “Forward Look” design renaissance at Chrysler at the time, and all models across the corporate range-Chrysler, Imperial, Dodge, Plymouth, and DeSoto-were new for ‘55. Exner protege Maury Baldwin is credited with the 1955 Dodge products.

The “eyeliner” tracing back from the headlight surrounds is common to 1955 Custom Royal Lancers, not just the La Femme. It disappeared in 1956.

Exterior appointments included the alluring Heather Rose over Sapphire White two-tone paint scheme. Heather Rose was not unique to the La Femme; it could be ordered on other Dodges, as well.

Most American manufacturers in the mid-Fifties offered some form of pink, rose, or coral as an option.

IMAGE La Femme name emblem

The gold color of the name emblem was unique to the model. The lettering was done in the hand-painted style popular at the time, especially in automobile and fashion advertising.

IMAGE La Femme V8 Emblem

The “V8” emblem was shared with other Royal Lancers, but looked especially striking with the La Femme’s mid-century color scheme. The V8 in question was the Super Red Ram, 270 cubic inches with a four-barrel carburetor and polyspherical combustion chambers, running through a dual exhaust.

IMAGE La Femme rear

The famous automotive tail fins of the 1950s were still relatively restrained on American cars in 1955. This state of affairs didn’t last long.

IMAGE La Femme trunk emblem

The trunk emblem was also shared with other Royal Lancers.

IMAGE La Femme rear wheel

The hubcaps were also common to other Royal Lancers, but the star design was unique to 1955 and early 1956.

IMAGE Dodge La Femme Steering Wheel

The exterior Heather Rose color is continued inside on the dashboard and other painted trim pieces.

IMAGE La Femme passenger

The pink theme continued into the upholstery. The interior fabric is a “dainty rose” patterned Jacquard with pale pink Cordagrain (a vinyl material) seat tops, backs, and door inserts.

Image Femme Unbrella

The La Femme came with a rain apparel that matched the interior Jacquard fabric in color and design: coat, bonnet, boots, and umbrella.

Behind the driver’s seat was storage for the rain gear. The passenger’s seat held a keystone-shaped, fitted shoulder bag in rose leather. Each bag came complete with matching compact, lipstick, and cigarette cases, as well as a lighter and change purse.

Much of the La Femme’s marketing aped the fashion world, from the French name designed to invoke Paris runways to the word choices and language used in advertisements: “stylish,” “chic,” “smart,” “cashmere-soft,” “dainty,” and “right off Fifth Avenue.”

IMAGE La Femme American

This particular ad is a shining example of the fashion focus. The background apes the interior fabric of the ‘55 and the aristocratic model looks ready to attend the opera, but other than the word “Dodge” and the Lancer emblem atop her wand-cum-opera glasses, no automotive references can be seen.

1956 brought many changes to the La Femme. Rich new fabrics and colors were used in the interior. Orchid Jacquard seat fabric sported lavender and purple loops; gold Cordagrain was used for contrast. The headliner was made of white fabric with random gold specks of paint, and the carpet was a loop pile with more purple and lavender accents.

IMAGE La Femme la glaour

1956 brought an exterior restyle by Maury Baldwin, complete with fins. The paint was updated to Misty Orchid and Regal Orchid, and the shape of the color blocks was changed to highlight the new, jet-like accents.

The rain gear stayed, but the purse was not offered for ‘56.

IMAGE 1956 L

Women make or influence a majority of new car purchases today, and manufacturers do everything they can to appeal to them. Marketing is a science, and demographics can target a person by age, gender, region, education level, and myriad more variables. Once a target demographic is acquired, the manufacturers do their best to present a vehicle that has the performance levels, economy, and features that demographic wants. This La Femme ad from 1956 illustrates the difference between a car “designed with the ladies in mind” (as stated in the above ad) and the modern practice of designing a car that offers the attributes a particular demographic wants.

The La Femme was discontinued after 1956. As it was a trim package and not a standalone model, production numbers are undocumented, but most agree about 2,500 were produced. Because it was only a trim package, it was not widely advertised, nor were demonstration models available at most dealerships. It’s demise is generally credited to lack of widespread public awareness of the product.

Viewed through today’s standards, the marketing material shouts, “Hey, princess! Pink is for girls!” which hits every wrong nerve in modern psyches. It discolors perception of the La Femme, which is a powerful, well-engineered, and stylish vehicle. It’s designed by Exner, has a wicked Hemi under the hood, and comes with a matching umbrella, just like a new Rolls Royce.

Sadly, the Dodge La Femme may go down in history indistinguishable from the gibbering chauvinism that created it. Hopefully, we can learn to ignore its questionable parentage and let the La Femme be itself, standing proudly on its own four wheels.

This article was oringally published by Motoring Research and is reprinted with permission