What happens when you let a bunch of (male) Chrysler designers loose with a crazy brief to design a car specifically for women? Well, they chuck a tin of pink paint and beauty accessories at it of course. Enter the Dodge La Femme.
After the end of World War 2, America was going through a change. It was suddenly a global superpower, was about to head into an economical boom, and women were entering jobs in executive positions, thus becoming more independent. America’s ever-ingenious car manufacturers wanted to capitalise on this societal shift. They were also experimenting with niche designs and producing wild arrays of packaging and trim levels.
The Dodge La Femme, however, wasn’t the first car designed specifically with lady drivers in mind. The Galloway car company, founded in Scotland in 1920, was largely staffed and run by women, which was highly unusual at the time. For a while, their cars were even advertised as ‘a car made by ladies for others of their sex’. The Galloway 10/20 had design features that were made to appeal to women for ease of driving, such as a rear-view mirror, reliable engine, raised seating position for improved sight-lines, bigger storage space and conveniently placed handbrake.
Chrysler’s La Comte and La Comptesse
Before the La Femme came La Comte and La Comtesse. These were a pair of prototype cars built by Chrysler in 1954 and based on the New Yorker. They were toured around shows and exhibitions as a pair; the more ‘macho’ La Comte had a black and bronze colour scheme, and its ‘feminine’ counterpart, La Comtesse, featured a two-tone dusty pink exterior. This excerpt is from Chrysler’s press release:
Chrysler’s exotic new plastic top car, presents a gorgeous two-tone exterior of dusty rose with a pigeon gray top. The interior is luxuriously finished in cream and dusty rose leather with seat back inserts of platinum brocatelle fabric. Interior appointments are set off by specially-designed chrome hardware. A long, low note is provided by heavy chrome molding running along the lower body of the car from the front wheel openings to the rear bumper. A continental tire mount and chrome wire wheels add to the car’s smart appearance. La Comtesse is built on a New Yorker Deluxe Newport chassis and is powered by a 235-horsepower Chrysler FirePower V-8 engine and features fully-automatic PowerFlite transmission, power steering and power brakes plus Chrysler’s high-roll front suspension for easier handling and improved roadability.
After its season of touring, these ‘his and hers’ cars were ogled by millions of viewers, and seemed to be a hit with the American public, who were eager to spend their new earned wealth in the post-war era. This said to the impressionable Chrysler company that the best thing to do would be to let Dodge run with this idea and create a predecessor to La Comtesse.
Dodge La Femme
It is a common misconception that the Dodge La Femme was a model of Dodge, whereas in reality it was actually an option package for Dodge’s Royal Lancer. It shared the same platform, drivetrain, body shape and 4.4l Redram V8 which produced 183hp.
For the extra $183 to get the La Femme, you would receive a car with a two-tone Heather Rose and Sapphire White paint job, as well as orchid jacquard fabric resembling pink rosebuds and pale pink vinyl interior with gold cordagrain trim throughout the cabin. Gold ‘La Femme’ script emblazoned the glovebox. This all does sound rather luxe, however Dodge’s idea of a car designed for women motorists went little more than skin deep, as demonstrated by the numerous complementary trinkets that came with the vehicle.
If it wasn’t obvious enough by the pink paintjob that this car was for women who need to do ‘women things’, the buyer would receive an umbrella, raincoat, rain bonnet, handbag, lipstick holder and keystone-shaped purse which could be stored behind the passenger seat, all of which were sporting – you guessed it – pink. There was also a powder compact, lipstick case, cigarette case, comb, cigarette lighter and change purse available in gold tone metal and pink calfskin, or, if you needed a break from the pink, a faux tortoiseshell. These accessories were designed by Evans of Chicago; a chain store who specialised in fine garments and accessories for women in the 1950s.
Despite the poor sales figures, Dodge continued the La Femme for its second model year, with several changes in 1956. It was relaunched with a new colour scheme of Misty Orchid and Regal Orchid. The cabin featured a gold-splattered Orchid vinyl headlining, lavender loop-pile carpets and a new Orchid Jacquard vinyl pattern. There was an optional 5.1l D500 V8 (Super RedRam). The beauty products were axed, however the raingear remained to ensure the lady motorist was never caught short in a spell of wet weather. One wouldn’t want to ruin her hairdo, naturally.
The La Femme Fiasco
Unfortunately, Dodge’s designers missed the mark with the La Femme. This is attributed to both bad marketing and failing to understand what women really wanted in a car.
When the Dodge La Femme was introduced to the general public in 1955, the rollout was in stages, with its debut at the International Salon in New York. Unfortunately, there was minimal advertising surrounding the La Femme, and what advertising there was focused mainly on the plethora of beauty products and gaudy pink gimmicks. At Dodge dealerships there was a lack of cars available to test drive, and in its place only single-sheet pamphlets were available. Dodge’s customers who did get to test drive the La Femme opted for the cheaper models of the Royal Lancer, as opposed to spending the extra for the beauty products. It turned out that, surprisingly, these inhabitants of Venus didn’t want gimmicks when they bought a car. Lady motorists simply wanted a car that could get them from A-Z, whilst looking stylish, same as their male counterparts.
Thus the La Femme was inevitably a flop. Due to the La Femme being a trim level and not its own model, the production numbers were never officially separated from that of the Royal Lancer, however it is thought that fewer than 1000 models were sold in 1955, and around 2,500 were produced over the two production years. Around 60 are still known to exist; 40 of the 1955 La Femme, and 20 of the 1956 La Femme. 3 D500 equipped 1956 La Femmes are confirmed to exist.
Due to its rarity, the Dodge La Femme has become somewhat of a double-edged sword; a warning to car designers of what NOT to do, and a cult classic that is rather desirable from a collector’s point of view. Personally, I sort of love them; for its gaudiness and for the accessories (my vintage loving side would love to own all the trinkets).
Written by Niamh Smith
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