Detroit's ad machine — back when it ran on brown liquor and slathered on Old Spice without a touch of irony — used a not-so-subtle play on America's rigid gender roles to sell the country on automatic transmissions. The ladies, you see, can't be bothered to shift on their own.
To trace our way back to the start of the automatic epidemic we have to go back to the gadget-obsessed 1950s. It was a decade of strict separation between how men and women displayed themselves and it was a decade with an exceedingly competitive automotive market. Carmakers were selling a male-dominated car buying public on the high-tech style of the Cold War.
What we ended up with was a fight to introduce The Next Big Thing each and every year as manufacturers tried not only to outdo their rivals, but also just to keep buyers interested in spending big on a new car.
It was the decade of power seats, power windows, power locks, power everything. It was also the decade of automatic everything — automatic headlight dimmers, automatic speed control, automatic air suspension, automatic signal-seeking radios, automatic antennae, and if it was at all possible, I'm sure Detroit would've sold totally automatic cars. Everything had a pushbutton — not because it was any easier or safer, or better, but because it was one more gadget to stick into the ad machine.
As you'll see from these ads, men seem to have nothing to do with bringing automatic transmissions into the mainstream — it all comes down to their wives.
What Detroit figured out was that it could sell a lot more automatics if it touted how that their ease-of-use made them more female-friendly. In his book Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design, David Gartman points out that a 1957 article in the General Motors Engineering Journal quoted Harley Earl, saying he "credits women with inspiring increased beauty in car interiors, for the rapid growth of power accessories."
That's because, unlike today, women didn't make the decisions when it came to buying most cars. Lee Rainwater, in his 1959 survey of American working-class women, Workingman's wife: her personality, world and life style, found that the majority of wives said their husbands were entirely in charge of automotive purchases. So the question remains, if men were buying the cars and the newfangled labor-saving automatic transmissions, why were the carmakers marketing to women?
The problem was that the automatic transmission and other power fixtures were really labor-saving devices, and in the strict gender identification of the 1950s, those fell into the domain of women and not men. Gender roles dictated that men were supposed to be rational and not given to frivolous purchases and women were supposed to be given to consumption and ease. What this meant was that men would buy Ford-o-Matics, Hydra-Matics and Power-Flites and just chalk it up to pleasing the wife. Even if it was the husband who just wanted a car to shift for him on the tired commute back home, it was much easier to say "Oh yes, the little lady is scared to shift," or "It's perfect for the wife," than it was to admit that you just wanted an effortless, convenient automotive isolation from the drudgery of work.
The Detroit ad machine picked right up on it and marketed automatic transmissions to women even though it was clear that it was men buying the damn things. Men wanted automatics all on their own, but sexist ideology and the ever-watchful suburban eye kept them from admitting it.
We're no longer in the Mad Men era of advertising, but there are still gender-charged connotations to what gearbox you buy. I mean, there's a reason why we colloquially call manual transmissions a "stick" and automatics a "box," right?