The world of cars is usually thought of as a man’s one but there are just as many women who influenced the vehicles we drive today. From Bertha Benz through to Simona de Silvestro join us as we look at twenty of the most influential women throughout the history of the car.

We’ve broken our picks down into three sections; powerful women in the automotive industry, women who helped design and build the car making it what it is today and women who are breaking into the male-dominated racing industry.

Women in the Automotive Industry:

In this section we’ve included women who have risen to powerful positions within the automotive industry, working at the very top levels in some of the biggest brands.

Bertha Benz

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You might recognise her surname as Bertha Benz was the wife of Carl Benz, founder of Mercedes-Benz.

Bertha Benz contributed a large sum of money to her husband’s, and the world’s, very first motor car design.

Not only did she provide financial support for her husband to build his automobile company, but she also completed the very first publicity tour for his first motor vehicle when they realised that the public was sceptical of the machine seemingly powered by nothing.

With her two children she drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim, and then a few days later the same trip in reverse, letting people see what the motor car could really do and generated a tonne of publicity for the business.

Today you can still travel the same roads she drove over 130 years ago on the 120 mile Bertha Benz Memorial Route.

We’ve included Bertha on our list because she was instrumental in helping get the first motor car onto our roads.


Barbara Samardzich

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Better known as Barb, Barbara Samardzich was the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President at Ford Europe between November 2013 and October 2016 when she retired.

Within this role she was responsible for all European manufacturing, product development, purchasing, quality, safety and environmental operations. She also led a team of over 30,000 to help restore Ford’s European operations to sustainable profitability.

During her 26-year career with Ford she held a number of leadership roles in powertrain operations, powertrain engineering and product development.

She was named as one of 25 leading women in the European Auto Industry in 2016 for her contribution to the sector, and her achievements within Ford are why we’ve included her in our top 20.


Elena Ford

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Elena Ford is the Chief Customer Experience Officer at Ford, which involves working with Ford’s Customer Service Division and the Quality Organisation to provide an industry-leading experience for all of their customers.

The great-great-granddaughter of founder Henry Ford she has worked for the family business for 25 years since joining in 1995 and has worked in a number of marketing, brand strategy and business management roles including as Global Marketing, Sales and Service Director, Customer Experience and Global Dealer and working on the development of the FordPass and Lincoln Way apps.

Before taking on this new role she was the first female member of the Ford family to hold the position of Vice President.

She was also included on the Automotive News’ list of 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry twice.

Although her name might fool you into thinking she’s where she is because of her family, it’s clear from all her achievements and the recognition she’s garnered from within the industry that Elena has earnt her position.


Mary Barra

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Mary Barra is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Motors.

She’s been the CEO since January 2014, the first woman to reach this position in a major automotive company, and then was elected chairman of the board of directors two years later in January 2016.

She began with the business as a General Motors Institute co-op student at the Pontiac Motor Division in 1980 and since then has worked a number of different roles within the company, including Senior Vice President of Global Product Development, Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, and a Plant Manager.

Under her leadership, the company was ranked number one on the 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality and that year was only one of two global companies that had no gender pay gap. In last year’s report General Motors had slipped from the top position but they remain in the top 20 companies globally.

Her contributions to the industry have not gone unrecognised, with both Forbes and Fortune Magazine including her on lists of powerful women, and now Xcite Car Leasing as well.


Mandy Dean

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Mandy Dean was appointed the Marketing Director at Ford of Britain in January 2019, replacing another great woman, Lisa Brankin, who moved to become Sales Director.

Within this role she is responsible for all of Ford’s product and communication marketing in the UK.

Previously she was a Marketing Communications Manager at Ford of Britain and while in that role she led the all-new Focus “Beauty of Change” campaign and the “Elephant in the Transit” campaign, raising mental health awareness.

Her life at Ford began in 1995 when she enrolled on an undergraduate programme with the company. She went on to complete two part-time degrees and worked various roles in manufacturing, purchasing and logistics before moving to sales and marketing and rising to her current position.

Her years of experience are why she’s become so successful, and why we think she deserves her place in our top 20 most influential women.


Laura Schwab

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Laura Schwab is President of Aston Martin in the Americas and has been for nearly five years since she took the position in October 2015.

Aston Martin is a bespoke English car manufacturer who hand-build luxury cars and is a popular export to America. Her role includes overseeing the sales, service, marketing and communications to and with Aston Martin’s customers and dealers in North, Central and South America.

She was brought on board to launch seven cars in seven years and transform the brand’s American team and improve their relationships with dealers.

Since joining the team she has made efforts to ensure more women are working in the company, with around 50% of the management staff now female.

We’ve included Laura in our top 20, not only because she’s become a powerful woman in her own right, but for her commitment to helping other women climb become more successful in the industry as well.


Jessica Stafford

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Jessica Strafford was named Senior Vice President and General Manager at Autotrader in 2017.

She began as an associate manager of digital marketing at Autotrader in 2007 and moved onto various other marketing positions before her current role.

She has been recognized as one of AdWeek’s Rising Stars, as well as on Auto Remarketing’s 40 Under 40 and Top Women in Remarketing for her work in marketing Autotrader and helping improve its position on the used and new car market, and her peer recognition is part of the reason we’ve included her in our top 20.


Linda Hasenfratz

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Linda Hasenfratz succeeded her father, Frank Hasenfratz, as the CEO of Linamar Corporation in 2002.

Linamar Corporation is Canada’s second-largest automotive parts manufacturer that makes high-quality parts for the automotive trade around the world. Since settling into the role, she has tripled revenue into the company and her succes with the company is why she’s made our list.

Xcite Car Leasing is not the only one to recognise Linda’s success. In 2014 she was named Canada’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year and was the first woman to ever be given that title.

In 2018 she was also named as Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year and named to the Order of Canada.


Women Who Built and Designed the Car:

Take a look at some of the women who helped make the car what it is today. From the inventor of the first heating system through to the designer of GM’s battery electric vehicles we’ve collated a group of women who helped make the car you drive.

Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgewater

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Mary Anderson invented the first windscreen wiper.

After observing trolley drivers open their windows and even get out to wipe their windshields in the rain she realised there must be a better way to do this. She designed the first manual leaver that could be operated from inside the vehicle to wipe the vehicle’s windscreen.

Patented in 1903 the wiper would go on to be used across the automotive industry as cars across the US began to install them but not for several years.

Charlotte Bridgewater built on Mary Anderson’s manual windscreen wiper by developing an electronic wiper, which she patented in 1917.

This wiper was unsuccessful at the time of invention but is the foundation of the windscreen wipers we use today.

Today, if your windscreen wipers aren’t working in the UK you fail your MOT, which shows just what an important part of the car they are, and why Mary and Charlotte had to be included in our most influential women.

Katharine Blodgett

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Katharine Blodgett was a physicist and chemist and was also the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Physics from Cambridge University in 1926.

She worked at the General Electric’s Research Lab in Schenectady New York and discovered methods for working with monomolecular coating on glass. Her work improved the glass used in eyeglasses, camera lenses, de-icing for aircraft materials, poison gas absorbents and even car windscreens.

In 1938 she invented non-reflecting glass which forms the basis of the technology that is now used on every car windscreen across the world. GE called this invisible glass, as ordinary glass is visible due to the light rays reflecting on it. This revolutionary design is why she’s made it into our top 20.


Margaret Wilcox

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Margaret Wilcox designed the very first car heater which she patented in 1893. The invention directed the warm air from over the engines back into the car to warm the driver and passengers’ toes.

She was one of the few female mechanical engineers of her time, in a heavily male-dominated industry.

The invention was well received at the time but there were concerns over the fact the temperature couldn’t be controlled.

However, her invention went on to be the basis of the heaters used in today’s cars, which is why she’s one of the most influential women in the history of the automotive industry.


Dorothée Pullinger

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Dorothée Pullinger is credited as being the first woman to design a car specifically with women in mind and this is why we’ve chosen to highlight her as one of our top 20 women in the industry.

She trained as an engineer under her father at his car factory and then worked for Vickers during WW1.

Her design, the Galloway 10/20 was based on a combination of her father’s designs and the Fiat 501. It was much lighter and smaller than other vehicles on the market. On some models of the Galloway the gears were placed in the middle of the vehicle, seats were raised, additional storage space was added, the dashboard lowered and the steering wheel smaller. All of these measures were designed to make driving easier for women.

She was finally accepted to join the Institution of Automobile Engineers after WW1, despite a previously rejected application in 1914 on the basis of her being a woman.


Suzanne Vanderbilt

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Suzanne Vanderbilt joined General Motors as a Junior Designer along with five other women. The six women were brought in to design the interior for some models to try and appeal to the company’s growing female buyers.

She stayed with GM for the next 23 years, rising to chief designer for Chevrolet and patenting three designs; the inflatable seat back, a safety switch for automotive panels and a motorcycle helmet design.

Her female-focused designs and innovative patents are what earnt her a spot on our list.


Mimi Vandermolen

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Mimi Vandermolen was one of Ford’s best designers in the 1980s and 90s.

She joined Ford in 1970 and was responsible for the redesign of a number of models, beginning with the 1974 Mustang II, which she worked as a trainee on both its exterior and later its interior.

She also worked on the team redesigning the Ford Granada in 1975, which again she worked on the interior and exterior of. You can see her with one of the finished cars in the photo above.

In 1987 she was promoted to Design Executive for Small Cars, overseeing the interior and exterior design developments in North America and running a special studio that develops futuristic design concepts. She was the first woman to be promoted to this position.

The 1993 Ford Probe, a second-generation small sports coupe, was the first design that she headed from start to finish. In order to help her team improve the driving experience for women she also asked her male designers to wear fake fingernails and even threatened them with having to wear skirts.

Her focus on female drivers in a male dominated industry, and her commitment to having all those around her thinking of women as well as men during the design process is why we’ve chosen her as part of our top 20.


Trista Schieffer

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Trista Schieffer is the Lead Development Engineer for Battery Powered Vehicles at General Motors.

Whilst petrol and diesel cars are still the norm we are globally moving towards more environmentally friendly vehicles, like the fully electric battery powered ones that Trista works on.

She collaborates with other engineers to ensure that GM’s electric vehicles are the very best they can be, with all parts and systems fully integrated to provide the driver with the familiar GM driving experience.

GM has a range of electric vehicles currently on offer and announced plans earlier this year to have 20 electrified models on the market by 2023, all of which as part of the business’ commitment to manufacturing more electric and hybrid vehicles.

Along with Rebecca Roth and Jessica Moreno, Trista is one of GM’s female engineers at the forefront of a cleaner, smarter automotive industry and her work towards a greener car industry is why she’s made it into our top 20.


Women in the Racing Industry:

Although motor racing is a sport that is still dominated by men there are a few women who have managed to break out onto the track. These are our top female drivers and owners from over the years.

Joan Newton Cuneo

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Joan Newton Cuneo is credited as being the first female race car driver, setting records and winning races within just a few years of learning to drive.

In 1902 she received her first car, a Locomobile Steam Car, but within a year she upgraded to a faster model that she then traded in as well just a couple of years later, before her first competition as the only female participant in the very first Glidden Tour in 1905.

The tour was a 1,355-mile drive from St Louis Missouri to New Your City and although Joan and her team made it to the finish line they did not receive a first-class certificate of completion. This was because she had been banned from ascending the road up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington due to the winding road being classed as too dangerous for women.

Joan went on to compete in a number of competitions, including the 1908 Glidden Tour where she finished with a perfect 1,000 point score. She also came a close second to the legendary Ralph de Palmer in the 1909 Mardi Gras Races, finishing just 63 seconds behind him with nobody else coming close to either of their times.

Racing against some of the fastest men, beating many of them, Joan eventually made her male counterparts so nervous that the American Automobile Association banned female drivers from competing in their sanctioned competitions in 1909.

But she didn’t let this stop her from driving and in 1911 she set the women’s speed record of 112mph on the Long Island Motor Parkway. As well as racing she was also a competent mechanic and worked on her own vehicles.

Before her death, she was considered an advocate for female racers and drivers across the US. and her advocacy as well as her personal driving achievements are why we think she’s been one of the most influential women in racing history.


Danica Patrick

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Danica Patrick is a record setting racing driver whose career began when she was only 10 years old and started go-kart racing.

After winning numerous regional and national go-kart titles she left America at just 16 years old to compete in the European road racing circuit.

In 2005 she led 19 laps and finished fourth in her first Indianapolis 500 race, becoming the first woman to lead laps and score a top five finishing position.

Three years later she made history again, as the first woman to win a major league open wheel race in a North American series with her victory in the IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300 race. For the following two years she placed in the top ten.

When she transitioned into NASCAR she made headlines around the work with her record setting performance in the 55th Daytona 500 race. She was the first woman to win a NASCAR Cup Series pole when she set the fastest time in qualifying 500 and then finished in eighth place, the highest position ever for a woman.

She is now retired from the sport and has written a book, hosts a podcast and owns a vineyard. Although she’s now retired, the impact she had on the industry for women drivers is why she’s included in our top 20 women.


Simona de Silvestro

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Simona de Silvestro is a Swiss racing car driver who placed in the top 10 of the 2010 IndyCar Race. In the same year, she was named the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year and Tony Renna Firestone’s Rising Star.

Over the years she’s had many achievements including winning the 2008 Atlantic Championship Season Opener, the second woman to do so.

In 2015 she made her Formula E debut and in the next year she became the first and only woman in history to score points in the competition.  

From 2017 she spent two years racing full-time in the Australian Supercars series with Kelly Racing and Team Harvey Norman and was the first woman to do so.

Last year she joined the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team as one of their test and development drivers and continues to drive for them. The number of firsts she’s achieved and continues to achieve as a woman in the racing industry are why we wanted to include her.


Melissa Harville-Lebron

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Melissa Harville-Lebron is the first African American woman to be the sole owner of a NASCAR licenced team in E2 Notheast Motorsports.

Her team was also the first multicultural team to race competitively in NASCAR with four black and Latino drivers, two in the camping world truck series and two in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series.

Not only does she own her own team she’s also the mother of two sons, Eric and Enico who race competitively and are pictured with her to the left.

Although the team has yet to qualify for a NASCAR race they are still making history and have hopes to qualify shortly, which is why she’s included in our top 20.

If there’s a woman that you wish was included let us know about her in the comments below.  

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