I'm Paramjit Sehmi, Assistant Archivist, and for August's Document of the Month I am taking a closer look at a sales brochure entitled 'When A Woman Buys a Car…'. This publication was produced by the Austin Motor Company to advertise their vehicle range specifically to women drivers.
This brochure was created in 1933 and is arguably quite forward thinking for the time period. Despite motoring gaining increasing popularity since the 1890s, by the 1920s it seems that the motoring world was already largely dominated by men. Understandably this is due to financial and work commitments largely falling on men. Additionally, contemporary literature identifies motoring as being complicated, heavy handed and dirty. Generally, these attributes were not deemed feminine and were a deterrent to a lot of potential women drivers.
It seems that by the 1920s though women drivers were on the rise, perhaps in part due to post-war society and some women earning their own income. So it's no surprise that contemporary literature reflected this change in motoring. Some articles were critical, stereotyping 'women motorists’ driving habits' and already coining jokes such as 'caution woman driver'. However, there is also an increased promotion of driving schools aimed at women, as well as articles written by women to appeal to fellow women drivers.
Within this context, it would be understandable for the majority of car manufacturers to simply advertise to the masses. Fortunately, it seems that Austin saw the potential in advertising their cars to women!
'When a Woman Buys a Car' is an eleven-page document featuring persuasive reasoning for women to invest in an Austin vehicle, whether the Seven, Ten or Twelve. It covers basic information such as the cost of buying a car, the ease of use, and safety which aims to give the driver confidence in their vehicle. The car is advertised as a means of freedom for women and this brochure often refers to a woman getting the most out of ‘her money’ rather than that of a partner or a family member. The car is seen as gifting them the ability to travel at a moment’s notice: 'holidays not tied down to this or that route, this or that starting time, this or that anything'. Finally, the brochure goes over the more technical details of the car, rather than simply what it means to the driver. The controls, comfortable seating, sunroofs and furnishings are all presented in a readable and pedagogic tone.
It is apparent from reading this brochure that particular Austin features and accessories were made with women drivers in mind. For example, the adjustable seating and close-set controls would ensure that everything is within reach, even for those with a smaller frame. The emphasis on light steering and gears is also to give women ease of use whilst making them feel in control of the vehicle.
My favourite inclusion is arguably the additional storage made with women in mind – apparently men didn’t take anything with them when they travelled?! I think even today most drivers and passengers would appreciate in-door pocket storage as well as 'folding footrests, assist-cords, comfortable floor-mats, roof lights, parcel nets, trinket sets and a large parcel compartment' in their car!
The use of photographs is also a big marketing tool in this brochure, especially as Austin insists that their vehicles are uniquely easy to maintain without any messy work required from the owner. Therefore, throughout the brochure there are images of stylish women drivers wearing fashionable clothing. Many contemporary articles mention tips on practical driving attire so clearly Austin was tapping into a genuine point of concern for the uninitiated driver. Seeing photographs of these models at the wheel would have certainly eased the minds of potential women drivers.
The brochure really leans into appealing to the 'feminine' audience – arguably with varying degrees of success. The section on 'features to satisfy the feminine mind' emphasises the colour and upholstery options, as well as the longevity of buying an Austin – because no woman would want an outdated, unfashionable car, would they? However, when describing the retained re-sale value of an Austin car, there is a comparison made to investing in a house. This analogy is quickly dropped though as the text reads that: 'a car, of course, is not at all the same thing as buying a house'. Perhaps this is because a house is a large and scary commitment. Rather, the brochure aims to put the woman buyer at ease and instead frivolously compares buying a car to buying a dress. Much better!
This brochure is still a product of its time and therefore it does make some assumptions about the reader. For example, it seems subtly apparent that the woman reader would be married with children. It mentions that having her own car would allow a woman to provide 'more fresh air and freedom for the children', and following it with 'try asking them if you should get one!'. Further to this, there is a constant use of wording such as 'dependable', 'faithful years' and 'wedded' to describe the expected faithful service from Austin vehicles. Clearly these marital terms imply a long and happy relationship between an owner and their car, comparable to a marriage.
Overall, I think the sales brochure attempts to keep the tone light to persuade prospective Austin buyers. Everything about the Austin vehicle range is presented with women in mind, whether it is the colour, the accessories, the weight of the steering or the general price and maintenance of the cars. So it’s understandable that these Austin vehicles, which were cosier, easy to handle, and cost effective, would be appealing to women. This brochure captures a very significant moment in motoring marketing, especially the recognition that women drivers are here to stay.
This brochure is on view in our Archive Display Cabinet throughout August in the Museum alongside many other promotional publications marketing the Austin Seven to women. If you would like to see any of the material up close, email us to book an appointment in our Reading Room: firstname.lastname@example.org
Interested in more information on the Austin 7? Why not visit our Museum exhibition 'Small car. Big history: 100 years of the Austin Seven': https://www.britishmotormuseum.co.uk/explore/austin-seven