Influential Women in the Automotive Industry

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March is Women’s History Month.

Vayan Group honors the contributions of Women in Automotive by recognizing four (4) female pioneers that have been instrumental in changing or advancing the auto industry. Read on to see who we’ve highlighted and be sure to do your own research to discover countless others.


Bertha Benz

First Known Woman to Drive a Motor Vehicle

Born in 1849 in the Ringer family, Bertha Benz was already an accomplished young lady, from a wealthy family and a graduate of natural science studies before she became the wife of motor engineer Carl Benz, founder of Mercedes-Benz.

In the Benz Motor Car early patent stages, the vehicle struggled to receive notoriety, so in 1888, Bertha undertook the first long distance automobile trip (66 miles) with her two teenage sons. The three traveled to Pforzheim, and along their way, Bertha single-handedly refueled and repaired mechanical problems during the journey, and even invented the concept of brake linings. Her daring trip brought the Benz automobile out in the public knowledge.


Florence Lawrence

Early Stage Inventor of Turn Signals and Brake Lights

Born in 1886, Florence Lawrence is often referred to as “The First Movie Star” and was the first film actor to be recognized publicly. Florence was also a serious auto-enthusiast and invented two key safety components that everyone around the world recognizes and utilizes to this day. 

After witnessing one too many traffic accidents, Florence came up with something she called “auto-signaling arms,” which used a couple of flags on both sides of the car that could be remotely raised and lowered with the push of a button. Her second invention was a sign that flipped up in the back of the car as a warning to cars to begin slowing down. This sign had the word “stop” painted on it and was triggered by the pressing of the brake pedal. Although there are no flags or signs popping out on cars, these innovations were the first contributors to the standardized turn signals and brake lights we all depend on today.


Suzanne E. Vanderbilt

Lead Auto Designer & Inventor

Suzanne Vanderbilt was born in Mt. Vernon, NY. She received her Bachelor of Industrial Design degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and her M.F.A. from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

After graduation from Pratt in 1955 she joined General Motors as a Junior Designer for Chevrolet Interiors. She advanced to Chief Designer for Chevrolet and finally to Design Assistant in charge of interior soft trim for all GM lines until her retirement in 1977.

Vanderbilt was part of a new group of women working in design centers for automobile companies that reflected the industry’s growing awareness of the female consumer. Her work was especially evident in her three patents for an inflatable back support for seats, a safety switch on auto instrument panels, and a motorcycle helmet design.


Denise McCluggage

Lead Partner of AutoWeek

Denise McCluggage, also known as “Lady Leadfoot”, was born in El Dorado, Kansas in January of 1927. Denise dabbled in a variety of professional pursuits, including photography, but her main passions were for motorsports and journalism.

McCluggage became a professional car racer, winning the grand touring category at Sebring in a Ferrari 250 GT in 1961, and a class win in the Monte Carlo Rally in a Ford Falcon in 1964. When Denise retired from professional car racing, she focused back on her love for journalism by helping to create the widely-known automotive magazine, AutoWeek. AutoWeek was a car culture publication founded in Detroit, MI that ran from 1958-2019.