More women muscle in on the world of vintage cars

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More women muscle in on the world of vintage cars
Caroline Cassini stands for a portrait in Marina Del Rey, Calif. on Aug. 8, 2021. Cassini, now 29, may have startled some neighbors in West Orange, N.J., when she announced that, rather than applying to an East Coast liberal arts college, she would follow a path charted by her family and pursue a curriculum in automotive restoration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times.

by Robert C. Yeager

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Caroline Cassini, now 29, may have startled some neighbors in West Orange, New Jersey, when she announced that, rather than applying to an East Coast liberal arts college, she would follow a path charted by her family and pursue a curriculum in automotive restoration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

“You can’t care what others think,” she said. “If you’ve got this passion, you must follow your dream.”

After graduation, Cassini went to work for Fantasy Junction, a well-known dealer of vintage automobiles in Emeryville, California. At the height of the pandemic last year, she sold a 1935 Auburn Boattail Speedster for $850,000.

“It was a big thrill,” she said. “Prewar cars are my special love.” Cassini was recently named general manager of The Market by Bonhams, a British website scheduled to launch in Europe this month and in the United States by year’s end.

Tabetha Hammer’s interest in collectible vehicles began on the Pueblo, Colorado, farm where she was born 33 years ago. “I grew up working with my hands,” she said. “It’s part of who I am.”

In high school, Hammer restored a 1935 John Deere tractor that her grandfather had bought from a local rancher. “I didn’t go on any dates or see any movies that summer,” she said, estimating she spent more than 200 hours fixing it up. Her efforts paid off when she became the first woman to win a nationwide tractor restoration contest sponsored by Chevron and the National FFA Organization.

That victory led to a scholarship at McPherson College in Kansas, one of the nation’s few institutions offering specialized degrees in vehicular preservation and restoration. This year, Hammer was named president and CEO of America’s Automotive Trust, based in Tacoma, Washington. The organization’s stated mission: “To honor and expand America’s automotive heritage.”

Gracie Hackenberg gained national attention when she was an engineering student at Smith College by converting a rust-bucket Mazda Miata into a full-blown race car.

Armed with a welding torch and bolstered by a college grant, a GoFundMe account and help from some enthusiastic classmates, she entered the 2017 Grassroots Motorsports Challenge in Florida, scoring a respectable seventh-place finish and coverage in The Wall Street Journal, Autoweek and other national media.

Last year, Hackenberg earned her official Sports Car Club of America racing license. She is training as a mechanic at Arrow McLaren SP, a firm in Indianapolis that competes in the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series races.

Whether their interest lies in vintage motor sports, automotive preservation and collecting or all of the above, “more and more young women want to participate,” said Theresa Gilpatrick, former longtime executive director of the Ferrari Club of America. She urges younger women to “go for it” and added, “Get on LinkedIn, search for women in the niche you’re interested in. Reach out and don’t be bashful.”

To encourage such interest, for the first time in its 70-year history, the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Carmel, California, will present a stand-alone women’s forum Friday. The event, “Women Who Love Their Cars,” will feature introductory remarks by Lyn St. James, the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award, and Sandra Button, chair of the Pebble Beach Co., which produces the Concours event. Panelists include Renee Brinkerhoff, the first woman to win her class in La Carrera Panamericana race in Mexico, who has campaigned her Porsche 356 in rallies around the globe to combat child trafficking, as well as well-known vintage car collectors Jacque Connor, Merle Mullin and Lisa Taylor.

“Our mantra is to get women in the left seat,” said a forum co-chair, Cindy Sisson, CEO of GSEvents, which recently introduced “Shifting Gears” Zoom meetings and podcasts aimed at female car enthusiasts. “Our forum will be an opportunity for the other gender to express their love of and for cars.”

In June, Hagerty, among the world’s largest insurer of collector cars and specialty vehicles, offered its perspective on women’s impact on the world of classic conveyances. According to the firm, though still small in absolute numbers, the number of its female policyholders grew almost 30% between 2010-20. The biggest increases were among women in Generation X (41-56 years old) and millennials (24-40).

Moreover, Hagerty notes, its data does not reflect the many collectible vehicles that women hold jointly with a husband or partner.

“The collectible car world has become far more diverse in recent years,” said John Wiley, Hagerty’s manager of valuation analytics. “At the same time, what constitutes an enthusiast vehicle has changed, too. Thirty years ago, serious collectors only bought prewar cars. Twenty years ago, they bought 1950s and ’60s Ferraris. Ten years ago, they bought Porsches.

“Now collectible cars are more varied, and so are their owners. Women collectors seem more focused on vintage vehicles they can actually use,” Wiley added, “at ‘cars and coffee’ and other informal events.”

One of the most ambitious studies of women’s interest in collectible automobiles was undertaken last year by The Key, the official magazine of the Classic Car Trust in Liechtenstein. The survey covered 1,100 women in the United States, England, Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland, including those “on the front line of participation”; those who shared their enthusiasm with husbands or partners; and, finally, women “who do not have a relationship with classic cars.”

More than 70% said they responded to classic cars emotionally, with “positive” feelings. “The most requested item,” the survey reported, “is to give the person in the passenger seat a real role in events, especially when it comes to driving.” It added, “Young women, in particular, ask for gender equality.”

As a girl, Cassini helped showcase her family’s impressive car collection. The payoff: sharing in two Cassini Best in Show triumphs at the Pebble Beach Concours. The winners were a 1938 Horch Sport Cabriolet in 2004 and a 1934 Dietrich-bodied Packard Twelve Convertible in 2013.

“I’ve had incredible mentors,” Cassini said. Among those she cited: her father, Joseph Cassini, a retired New Jersey judge and well-known car collector; Rob Myers, a restorer in Canada and a Sotheby’s auction house partner; Anne Brockinton Lee, a respected collector as well; and Lloyd Buck, her teacher at the Academy of Art University.

How unusual are young women like Cassini, Hammer and Hackenberg? Not very, it turns out. In his exhaustive 2009 work “Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers 1888 to 1970,” Jean-Franšois Bouzanquet cataloged nearly 600 women who played important — if often underrecognized — roles in shaping automotive history.

One of the earliest was Bertha Benz, wife of Carl Benz, inventor of the world’s first practical automobile in 1886. When her husband grew depressed over waning interest in his achievement, Benz crept out of the family home while he slept and drove the Benz Motorwagen on a historic 111-mile journey through southwest Germany from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back again — the first long-distance trip by a gasoline-powered automobile.

Along the way, she persuaded a local cobbler to cover the car’s brake shoes with leather (thus inventing the first brake linings); cleared a blocked fuel line with her hatpin; and, in what Bouzanquet called “the height of eroticism,” insulated the car’s worn ignition cable with one of her garters.

Although Benz’s trip drew widespread favorable attention and helped in the successful launch of her family’s company, not all early female enthusiasts were so fortunate.

In the 1920s, Baroness Maria Antonietta Avanzo successfully raced — at circuits across Europe — with and against male contemporaries such as Enzo Ferrari and Tazio Nuvolari. Nonetheless, she also “spent her life fighting prejudice, ostracism, obstacles and men,” recounts her biographer, Luca Malin, “especially when they would throw things in her way or herd sheep onto the track to keep her from getting to the finish line.”

Happily, women today can anticipate fewer barriers, at least of the bovid kind.

The Pebble Beach Company Foundation, for example, offers scholarships, among them one in honor of the late Phil Hill, America’s first Formula 1 champion and a longtime Concours participant. Much of the foundation’s assistance goes to young people pursuing careers in automotive preservation and restoration, often at institutions such as McPherson College and the Academy of Art University.

“It makes a lot of sense,” Button said. “Basically, our show is an historical celebration, and many of the people now actively engaged in restoring classic vehicles are at or near retirement age. We want the next generation, regardless of gender, to share in and contribute to what we love.”

Other potential sources of support include the RPM Foundation, an arm of America’s Automotive Trust; the Hagerty Foundation; and others. This summer, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles unveiled an “incubator program” targeted at female-owned California startups in the auto industry.

“This isn’t about women in a man’s world,” said Diane Parker, who led the Petersen project’s advisory team. “It’s about human beings living their passion.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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