A car built just for women, the La Femme turned out to be more insulting than anything else.
It is a well-documented fact that automakers have at times been breathtakingly condescending to women. We tend to see this in the form of absurd advertising, but there was once a time when Chrysler decided to build a car just for women. This car was the Dodge La Femme, a rebadged Dodge Custom Royal Lancer turned into a disaster of a vehicle and then painted pink. The idea for the car came from a pair of show cars in 1954. These were called La Comte and La Comtesse.
The La Comte was painted in masculine colors while the La Comtesse was painted pink and grey in an attempt to convey femininity. These actually received a fair amount of praise from the press, who found them to be agreeable enough in a show car kind of way. These kinds of show cars were common at the time. Pontiac had the Parisienne, which was also pink, and then there was the Chevy Impala Martinique and the Cadillac Eldorado Seville Baroness. It seems that, in addition to pink, automakers believed that women really loved French. This was all part of a bigger trend at the time.
By the mid Fifties, many large companies had realized that women represented a significant market force. Their influence was important when it came to household buying decisions, and quite a few products of all kinds were brought out to appeal just to them. But the female-appeal craze was almost invariably horrifying condescending. In more than a few cases, products were simply painted pink, under the apparent assumption that this would somehow work. There isn't much evidence that this trend had any kind of impact on any industry, and cars were no exception.The La Femme was a pretty standard car in most respects.
The Custom Royal Lancer coupe it was based on was one of Dodge's higher-end models, complete with a 361cu-in V8 engine which produced 305 horsepower. The body didn't receive any major changes and the powertrain was also left alone. It pretty much goes without saying that it was offered only with an automatic transmission. The production car received the same two-tone pink and grey paint job as the La Comtesse, although the production car was based on a different Dodge model than the concept had been. The interior for the first year of production in 1955 was a weird floral print for the seat upholstery and much of everything else was pink.
The interior was changed for 1956, but was still predominantly the same nauseating shade of Pepto-pink. The accessories which came with the car as standard equipment were where things started getting weird. The car came with a calfskin purse in the same shade of pink as the car's interior. There was a special compartment behind the passenger seat for this purse, where it could sit with the buckle facing outward. This buckle was large enough for owners to have their name engraved on them, and this is what they were encouraged to do. Inside the purse there was a makeup compact, lipstick case, cigarette case, comb, cigarette lighter and change purse.
These accessories were all finished in gold-color metal and (you guessed it) pink. For those who wanted them, Dodge also offered an umbrella, boots, a cape and a hat, all matching the seat upholstery. The whole thing came to a scarcely-believable head when you took a look at the promotional material, where it was said that the La Femme was built "By special appointment to Her Majesty... the American woman". One might think that the first step toward selling something to women might be to talk to one every now and then, but this was the Fifties, and that that sort of thing was clearly seen as a waste of time.
Dodge dropped the La Femme for 1957, after just two years of production. Since it was officially classified as an option package, Dodge managed to avoid having to disclose any embarrassingly low sales figures, but researchers have guessed that somewhere around 2,500 were built. The car said a lot about our society in the Fifties, and its failure says a lot about why things aren't like that anymore. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the lesson of the La Femme is that not everybody seems to have learned it. Right now, Honda is selling a special edition of the Fit in Japan known as the "She's".
It's nearly as pink as the La Femme and every bit as insulting to women. It will be interesting to see how many of these Honda can move. Japan has a different culture, after all, but we'd still be amazed if these became a sales sensation.