new_releases I Was a Female Motorhead

by Joan Radell

Published in Issue No. 22 ~ March, 1999

I love cars. I don’t care if they’re old cars, or new, shiny cars, or fast cars or minivans filled with kids. Somewhere, back in my teenage years, I discovered the allure of horsepower and exhaust fumes and the whirr of an internal combustion engine. Over time, I have come to appreciate the meaning of cars in my life. We all do that – when we sit playing “remember when,” we say – “I remember 1984, I was driving the Oldsmobile then.” I went through my lean Rambler Station wagon era, my carefree MGB convertible years, and I’ve settled happily into my Ford Explorer lifestyle. I change my oil every 3,000 miles. I check the water in the radiator. I rotate my tires. Carefree is a broken gas gauge; responsible is having the brakes checked.

Women aren’t supposed to know cars. When I am at an antique car show, and I squat down to follow the line of a jet-black fender and admire some beautiful bodywork, men look at me as though I’m a visitor from another planet. I utter the words, “Bondo, overspray, rechrome” and testosterone-fueled eyebrows raise, unmascara-ed eyes roll. I have been offered many rides in those lovely polished dinosaurs, but never once has a man said, “Want to look under the hood?” Sorry, buddy… I don’t want to take a spin; I want to drive. As women, we are offered the mystique but forbidden the mechanics. I want to see the delicate balance of carburetor and manifold, hear the purr of well-sealed pistons, and revel in the “thwop thwop thwop” of a Chevy short block in low gear.

These shows remind me of an old boyfriend who was a mechanic, and a good one. While our friends went to the movies on Saturday nights, we went to the garage. We passed countless hours listening to the radio echo in those bays, tearing down some old engine, rebuilding another one. What satisfaction there was in seeing those laid out parts become something whose very purpose was power.

Ah, Power. Perhaps there’s a clue there to the mystery of my attraction. My life is bound with appliances: washer, dryer, dishwasher, pumps of every description, mixer, can opener. But those motors are virtually powerless. The difference between a motor and an engine is that a motor doesn’t really let you go anywhere. Within an automobile engine lies the promise of adventure, of exotic places, and sometimes, of escape. The main character of the film Thelma and Louise was the Thunderbird convertible. Those women could not have adventured in a Greyhound bus. The car was the thing. It offered them a promise of freedom. They didn’t jump off of that cliff. They drove over it. Power.

Perhaps this word, power, explains my soft spot for old cars. Oh, not the ones you would guess. Granted, the antique MGTDs and opera-windowed Thunderbirds are beautiful and sexy, but I want to spend my time poking around the GTOs and Chevy IIs and Road Runners. I want to see cars whose main purpose was to Go, and to Go Fast. When I was growing up, the boys all carried copies of Hot Rod magazine. We girls had Seventeen, and Mademoiselle, and the message was clear: Boys got grease under their fingernails; we got lipstick in rear view mirrors. My mechanic friend was baffled the first time I stuck my head under the hood of his tweaked Nova. He didn’t understand my attraction at first; he didn’t realize that to me, an engine made sense. Every part fit in its place, and nothing was subject to the whims of fashion or season. No style points are awarded on a dragstrip. And when we took that car for a ride, late at night on the airport access road, dark and straight, and I watched the speedometer needle shudder when it hit 100, I knew in my gut that we could go anywhere and that we would get there first.

The whole automotive subculture is devoted to men. Manny, Moe and Jack don’t have a sister. The only woman to appear in those wonderful car songs of the ’60s is the Little Old Lady from Pasadena, and she has to get her gardening done before she can take her super stock Dodge down the boulevard. Natalie Wood got to start that fated drag race in Rebel Without a Cause, but the boys blew past her and left her in their dust. Why can’t Bruce Springsteen write an ode to a woman driving all night through South Jersey? Let’s face it, women do drive. All the time. And we actually enjoy it. Driving through town, I find myself wishing for a Hurst shifter and a tight clutch. And settled on the highway, I realize just how lazy my cruise control has let me become. Just once, let my daughter look over from the passenger seat, giggle, and say, “Hey, Mommy, grind me a pound?”

No matter… I accept my role as pioneer, as a stranger in a strange land. I’ll haunt the rows of souped up muscle machines parked on the football field, polished and waxed and sparkling in the sun. For now, I’ll settle for the SUV lifestyle – cargo space, shoulder belts, and reliability. But hot rods hold a dream for my future, even though they are firmly rooted in the past. One day I’ll have one of those monsters in my own garage, maybe even show it myself. I’ll know every bolt and belt and gasket. I’ll claim part of the power package that I’ve missed, and I have some catching up to do. Of course, catching up is much easier with 350 horsepower and a twelve bolt rear end. I’ll be right there, after I check my lipstick in the rear view mirror.

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Joan Radell is a homemaker and mother of one in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She likes to make things, she likes to look things up, and she likes to drive.