The women that drove change in the automotive world

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we take a look at some of the top women who have made an immeasurable contribution to the traditionally male-dominated motoring industry. The 2021 theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Choose to Challenge’. Here are our top picks of inspirational ladies that have certainly done that and more!

Bertha Benz

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Although her husband Karl is known as the inventor of the now world-famous Mercedes Benz luxury car brand, it was Bertha that made his vision a reality by investing her own money in the world’s first automobile design, known in the late 19th century as ‘Benz Patent-Motorwagon’ horseless carriage. But it didn’t end there. To garner support for this new concept from a sceptical public, Bertha embarked on the fist car road trip with her two sons. She drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim – and back again – a 112-mile round journey unfathomable at the time. Her road trip doubled up as the world’s first test drive and, based on her experiences, Bertha made suggestions for improving performance. This included the introduction of the first brake pads (she asked a cobbler to line the brakes with leather after they failed), and she suggested the car be fitted with a lower gear so it could climb hills and well as lining for the brakes. Her escapades did wonders in drumming up support for her husband’s automobile design, and her road trip route has been immortalised on the Bertha Benz Memorial Route in Germany.

Mary Barra

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Mary became the first female CEO of a major automotive manufacturer when she took over the reins of US giant General Motors in 2014. Just two years later, she was elected chairman of the board of directors. In 2019 and 2020, Mary was named the second most powerful woman in the world by Fortune Magazine. Under her leadership, General Motors was ranked top on the 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality and that year was only one of two global companies that had no gender pay gap.

Margaret Wilcox

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For most of us, the car heater is something that we can’t live without, especially on those frosty early morning commutes. This humble mechanism that we take for granted today was first patented in 1893 by Margaret, who was one of the very few female mechanical engineers of that era. Her heating system was designed to push air through the engine to not only heat up the driver and passengers in cold conditions, it also made driving easy in foggy and frigid weather by keeping windows mist free. Although the temperature could not be regulated at the time, it still paved the way for the modern car heating system that comes standard in almost every model today.

Claire Williams OBE

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Claire started what would later become an illustrious F1 career as a press officer for Silverstone race track, before moving to the Williams F1 team as communications officer in 2002, eventually rising to head of communications in 2010 and director of marketing in 2011. In March 2013, she was appointed as Williams F1 deputy team principal. Claire’s tenure proved so successful that she was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2016 Birthday Honours for services to Formula 1 racing. Claire recently resigned from her position as Williams deputy team principal in September 2020, but her name remains synonymous with the sport.

Dr Gladys West

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What would we do without our SatNav or GPS today? Modern day motorists enjoy the luxury of having satellite guided navigation at their fingertips thanks to the groundwork laid by mathematician, Dr Gladys West. From a humble 1930s upbringing on a farm in Virginia, USA, Gladys rose to prominence when she began working with satellites and programmed an IBM computer to deliver precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth. Using complex algorithms which accounted for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, her data became the basis for the GPS we still use today. Thanks to Gladys, getting lost on route to your final destination is no longer the stress it once was!




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