Chloe Allen

Chloe Allen

Our Digital Marketing Executive Chloe is in charge of our e-newsletter. There's no one better placed to inform and delight you every month, so keep your eyes peeled for her newsletter hitting an email inbox near you soon.

Read time of 5 minutes.

Barbie owner Mattel was the first to understand what driving represents for women.

And it’s not just about pink paintwork. 

Alright, you’ve got us.

The new Barbie film is basically this writer’s entire personality right now. But there’s genuinely some really interesting history behind the world’s most famous doll and her fleet of dream cars which echoes the rise of the women’s liberation movement.

It might seem strange to talk about women’s rights in the same sentence as Barbie, but bear with us – they both took the 20th century by storm during the same time period after all.

Remember that women only earned the right to vote for the first time in 1928 – that’s less than 100 years ago!

But it wasn’t until the First and Second World Wars that women as a group were able to leave the domestic sphere and take up roles that had always been traditionally filled by men. In WW2, women became mechanics, air raid wardens and – most tellingly – emergency service drivers.

Driving gave many women a sense of freedom and independence that they had never experienced before and which they struggled to retain as men returned from the warfront. This struggle continued well into the 60s and 70s with the rise of the women’s liberation movement and second-wave feminism taking the world (and the workforce) by storm.

Women had had a taste of independence in the 1940s and they were fighting against a world that had tried to push them firmly back into the domestic sphere.

Cue, the arrival of Barbie – and the invention of her eponymous Dream Car appearing on shelves everywhere.

The doll that sets the trend

We don’t need to tell you how popular (and beloved) Barbie is. But her influence might be more far-reaching than you think.

Experts all agree that play is a crucial component of childhood development. Alongside improving their cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being, it’s also how children learn about the world.

Is it any surprise then, that until Barbie came on the scene in 1959, the best-selling toy dolls for children were all babies? This is because it wasn’t typically expected that young girls would grow up to be anything except a wife and mother.

However, the first Barbie model was neither of these things.

Instead, Mattel produced the iconic figure we’ve all seen throughout our childhoods in her original iteration; a blonde (or brunette for that first edition) bombshell in a black and white striped swimsuit, christened as a ‘teenage fashion model’.

For the first time, toymakers were mass-producing a doll marketed specifically for young girls that was not centred on the domestic sphere. Barbie was a young, unmarried woman with a career and aspirations of her own. Whether or not it was Mattel’s intention, they had just transformed playtime for young girls.

Barbie was setting the standard.

If you need further convincing of her cultural impact, we’d encourage you to take a peek at the first teaser trailer for the Barbie movie. There is nothing quite so unhinged (or accurate) as little girls reacting to the existence of Barbie in the style of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Original poster advertising the La Femme car

The first dream car

Barbie’s first car was released in 1962 and Mattel chose the Mark II Austin-Healey roadster to reproduce in miniature. Not a family car, the Austin-Healey Mark II 3000 was a sports convertible with both power and style.

An odd first choice? Perhaps. But it’s clear the toymaker had learned from the mistakes of the automotive industry a few years prior.

Attempting to conquer the female market, Dodge debuted the first car designed exclusively for women in 1955. Christened the “La Femme”, it appears that little real thought went into the design other than pink-washing the interior and exterior.

Each vehicle was painted in Heather Rose (pink), with a white base and the seats and door panels with a pale pink vinyl.

It also came with a range of feminine targeted accessories – a full complement of beauty products, a lipstick case, cigarette lighter and case, compact and change purse. Almost exactly what one might imagine when hearing the words “Barbie” and “dream car” in a sentence – if you didn’t know any better.

The La Femme was pink and pretty – and an enormous and resounding flop in the automotive market, with fewer than 1,000 models moving off dealer lots in its first year of production.

By the time it was cancelled in 1957, fewer than 2,000 units had sold to its target audience.

So why did it fail?

Perhaps because the so-called innovations carmakers visualised as being essential for their female target audience were only a skin-deep understanding of what women want and value.

As the La Femme originated from a “his” and “hers” range produced by parent company Chrysler, this armchair understanding of women is not surprising. While the La Femme was marketed as being for women, it was always the pocketbooks of their rich husbands that Dodge was targeting.

As far as marketing strategies go, this was a fundamental error.

Mattel, as may seem obvious by Barbie’s massive commercial success, has been a lot savvier than that from the outset. In a world where women still weren’t legally allowed to open their own bank accounts, it gave Barbie a high-performing sports car for her own exclusive use.

This dreamy convertible capable of exceeding 115mph belonged to Barbie alone, not Barbie and her boyfriend. Imagine the impact that must have made on the little girls of 1962 – the daughters of women still fighting for complete financial independence from their husbands.

Tellingly, the Austin-Healey Mattel made for Barbie was not, even in 1962, pink (though it certainly would have looked good in that colour).

The evolving Dream Car and what it means

The iconic Austin-Healy is just the first in an extensive collection of vehicles Barbie has owned over the years she’s been on our shelves.

Marketed from the outset as a modern woman, it’s clear that a doll with over 200 careers to her name (doctor, presidential candidate, and astronaut among them), was never going to be limited to a generic, plastic toy car.

And neither should the children who play with them if you ask us.

Barbie’s ever evolving career path is mirrored in her extensive fleet of personal vehicles, which has included everything over the years, from Corvette’s, to Porsche’s, to Ferrari’s – powerful, high spec and sporty.

And these toy replicas of real makes and models have been reproduced in surprisingly exquisite detail.

Forget lipstick holders and compact cases, Barbie’s targa-top Ferrari 328 GTS came with a little Pinifarina badge on the side. Her C4 Corvette reproduced the dashboard from the life size model right down to the button layout. Even though so many toy cars are marketed towards boys, Mattel has never assumed that girls are disinterested in the cars themselves.

It’s also never assumed that one car is fit for all.

The mistake Dodge made with the La Femme was to approach women as one singular demographic, as if all women are essentially the same. But people are a lot more complex than that.

Though some of Barbie’s many cars and vehicles have been pink – it is her signature colour after all – what matters is that each car is tailored to where Barbie is in her life and career. In this way, many facets of modern womanhood are represented by the ever-expanding fleet Barbie has had her disposal. 

The core need, however, always remains the same; mobility and empowerment.

The La Femme

Why is the existence of the Dream Car important?

It’s all about what the car represents.

Driving – and access to your own car – is a personal freedom unlike any other. You have the power to control your mobility, to exit uncomfortable situations, and to leave whenever you want.

When you can drive yourself, you don’t have to hang around waiting for someone else to get behind the wheel.

No doubt this why so many 17-year-olds in the UK clamour to start their driving lessons at the earliest opportunity.

It’s also most likely why even today there are still parts of the world that try and stop women driving at all. Did you know that up until 2018, women were legally forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia?

Sadly, the lifting of the ban only happened after long years of brave Saudi women protesting and campaigning for their right to drive – a campaign which resulted in many arrests, detainments and reported violations of human rights.

Unfortunately, this attitude has crept a lot closer to home (if on a smaller scale) in recent years.

In London, 2015, an Orthodox Jewish school reportedly attempted to ban mothers from driving their children to school. A letter sent out to parents stated that any child driven to school by a woman would be turned away and sent home.

The school back-peddled after this edict was reported as national news and following censure from the UK government – but not before many parents of the school had voiced support for the policy.

The argument (whether in London, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the world) seems to be that driving promotes immodest behaviour in women and it’s better that they don’t drive at all.

In this context, Barbie’s first Dream Car in 1962 was – and remains – a vital statement on the rights and capability of women.

But every version of the Dream Car since has been just as important in reinforcing this message to the next generation of children; everyone has the right to access the freedom that driving provides.

And we’re pretty confident the Barbie film is going to echo this message.

After all, when adventure beckons from the Real World, Barbie doesn’t simply walk towards it. Instead, she drives – in a modified C1 Corvette that is so iconic it’s caused interest in pink Chevrolet Corvette’s to skyrocket by 120% in the space of a month.

Make of that what you will.

Looking for a dream car of your own?