Friday, August 20, 2010

Dodge LaFemme, the first car designed for Your Majesty, the modern American woman

Imagine this scenario. Dodge takes the new Charger, offers it with a pink and white paint job and flowered fabric upholstery, includes a built-in purse and makeup compact, and unapologetically markets it to women. Doesn’t sound like it would make it through the marketing department, does it?

Well, 55 years ago, Dodge tried this exact same scenario, and it absolutely did make it into dealer showrooms. The car was called the “La Femme”, and it explored every female stereotype known to man. It seems fascinating today that a major car company actually produced this car. But it is hard to look back on the La Femme and not feel a bit of quaint ‘50s nostalgia.

Dodge actually based this idea off of a couple of 1954 Chrysler Newport show cars. The Le Compte show car was geared exclusively toward men, and the La Comtesse was supposed to appeal to women. The marketing department at Chrysler Corporation was aware that women were making many of the purchasing decisions when it came to the family car, and after observing a positive reaction to the La Comtesse, they decided to go ahead and apply the ‘for women only’ theme to a specially designed production Dodge.

Basically, the La Femme was a Dodge Custom Royal Lancer two-door hardtop. It was the color, trim, and accessories that set it apart.

For 1955, the La Femme was finished in a light Heather Rose and Sapphire White paint scheme (AKA, pink & white). The seats were upholstered in a fancy designer rosebud pattern. Now, pink and white cars weren’t unheard of on cars of this era anyway, but usually they didn’t include a golden “La Femme” badge on the front fenders.

But above and beyond the paint and fabric choices, it was the accessories that came in the La Femme that really put it over the top. Built into a special compartment in the back of the driver’s seat was an umbrella, women’s raincoat, and rain hat, all decorated in the same floral pattern as the seat upholstery. Built into the back of the passenger’s seat was a designer purse, which was decked-out with a makeup compact, lipstick, change purse, comb, cigarette lighter, and cigarette case.

The La Femme was also produced in smaller numbers in 1956, this time in the colors of Misty Orchid and Regal Orchid (sort of a two-tone lavender). The upholstery featured rich, elaborate gold-weave fabric, although the floral pattern was gone. It still came with designer female rain gear, but the purse and all the makeup and cigarette swag was discontinued.

Only 2,000-2,500 La Femmes were actually built between 1955 and 1956. This seems understandable, because if you were a one-car family, it probably wasn’t exactly the kind of car a man wanted to be seen driving to the office in. Clearly, this car had a limited market, both new, and as a used car of that time.
Finding a La Femme is even more unusual today. Less than 100 are known to exist, including a beautifully restored ’55 model in the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich. So rare is the La Femme that NADA does not even list the option in their Classic Car Appraisal Guide.

The La Femme wasn’t exactly a rousing sales success when new, and it’s an idea that absolutely wouldn’t fly today. Still, it is an interesting footnote to the colorful and creative 1950s automotive scene, and it’s fun to look back at this car and think about how automotive tastes and attitudes have changed over the past half-century.

The slideshow below has some neat old promotional pictures from this odd chapter in automotive marketing.

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