More women are joining the car hobby but bias is still a barrier

by Charlotte Vowden
8 March 2023 12 min read
More women are joining the car hobby but bias is still a barrier
Photo: Charlotte Vowden

To mark International Women’s Day, Hagerty is giving a platform to women driving change. Catch the other interview in this series and read about 80-year old Dorothea Smedley and her restomod Land Rover Defender

Until me, my MGA had been owned, rallied, repaired and driven by men. After a 57-year succession of hes with the keys, in 2017 I became the first she on the V5C when the car’s previous owner, my grandfather, passed away. Always the plus one and never the one with my foot on the pedal, I was unprepared for the responsibility – practical and emotional – that came with the privilege, but I embraced it and I’ve been empowered by it. It’s thrilling to be the first woman to chart the course of a chapter in the car’s story and dealing with biased attitudes, whether conscious or unconscious, has been par for that course.  

How much is your car to insure? Find out in four easy steps.
Get a quote

The pernicious ways bias has revealed itself to me has ranged from the irritating to the insulting and upsetting. At best, when I choose to share my roadster with a man, more often than not, admirers think it belongs to my passenger rather than me. At worst, I’ve experienced verbal and non-verbal sexual harassment. Entrenched stereotypes, assumptions and prejudices are often rooted in bias. With the number of female classic car owners on the rise, it’s time to cast a spotlight on the issue. It is, I believe, one of the main barriers women face when it comes to feeling welcome, comfortable and confident in this car hobby of ours. 

The good news is, over the last five years, change is afoot. The number of Hagerty policyholders who identify as women within the Generation X demographic (those born between 1965 and 1980) has nearly doubled, with an increase of 81 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for those who identify as men, and the overall number of female policy holders has increased by 187 per cent during that same period, which proportionally, represents a rise from 7.9 per cent to 12.1 per cent.

The gender gap is closing. Still, we should all examine and confront our own attitudes to women, their abilities, their presence and their potential within the automotive scene that’s why this International Women’s Day, I’ve asked four women, including my mum, to share their experiences of bias in the automotive scene. This is an opportunity for us all to listen, to learn, to celebrate how far we’ve come and work out where to go next.

Fiona Easterby: Petrolhead adventurer, camera operator and author

Photo: Fiona Easterby

“I can pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped caring what other people said about me; it was when I was working in Formula One, a hugely male-dominated environment, in 1998. The TV company I was working for comprised of 200 men and three women; a ratio that was typical of F1 companies at that time. There were rumours about me and men every day, including one of the drivers. If even half the gossip had been true I would never have got any work done! It was ridiculous so I stopped caring what anyone said about me. 

My first car was a classic, I’ve always had one, and I plan to jump into Ferrari ownership this year with a 360 Spyder. Unconscious bias? Yes, I encounter it all the time. If I have a male passenger, they are approached and asked about my car instead of me. Even when I have been on my own, I’ve had men asking if it’s my husband’s or my dad’s car.  Sometimes I think it’s a misguided attempt at a chat up line, perhaps to ascertain whether I’m single. I don’t think the thought actually crosses their minds that they may be insulting me. 

Photo: Fiona Easterby

When I drove my Baja from the UK to Singapore I sometimes got asked where my husband was and when I said I didn’t have one I was greeted with disbelief and the shaking of heads but I actually get asked that question more when I’m with my car at shows in the UK. People look at the car and the map that shows my global travels and can’t believe it was a woman who undertook the journey. I get the ‘didn’t your husband mind?’ question too. People are particularly shocked when they find out I drove across the Middle East alone but Iranian’s are some of the friendliest people in the world – as long as they’re not in uniform. The same was true in Pakistan. I was a little apprehensive at how I would be received, in more rural parts it was rare to see women outside of the home, but apart from a couple of crazies, I was treated with the same respect as a male traveller. 

There were some differences though, when I had a puncture, the men were horrified when I started changing the wheel myself. ‘No, no, no’ they said ‘we’ll do that.’  When I suffered various breakdowns on my travels there was never any shortage of men willing to help with repairs. Would they have been so forthcoming if I were a man? Or would they have assumed I could fix it myself? Embarrassingly I am a dreadful mechanic, so maybe unconscious bias isn’t always a bad thing. 

I’ve never had anyone assume I’m a less capable driver on an event, but then I’ve usually proved myself by the time they realise it’s a woman driving. It doesn’t tend to be other car club members that make the comments though, more often spectators, or general public in petrol stations.   

Photo: Fiona Easterby

I used to Autotest my first car, a 1969 Austin Healey Sprite and did pretty well too. On one occasion I had my foot to the floor on a straight, the corner was approaching fast, but when I lifted off and went for the brake I found the throttle was jammed open. The engine was screaming, so I turned the ignition off and utilised both hand and foot brake simultaneously to bring the car to a halt before the corner; thereby avoiding an accident. A man in the crowd commented ‘Woman driver, must have stalled it’ followed by giggling from his mates. As luck would have it one of my friends, also a petrolhead, was stood next to him and replied ‘If you knew anything about cars you’d have heard the engine over revving and know her throttle jammed open; she did bloody well to stop that before the corner, bet you couldn’t have.’ When I was younger those sort of comments bothered me, these days I treat it for what it is; envy. 

One area where it does annoy me is when trying to speak to traders at car shows; nine times out of 10 when I walk up to a stand the trader will ignore me completely. Even when asking a direct question I have had traders turn their back on me to speak to men. I pointed out to one of them that a woman at a car show on her own is likely to be a serious petrolhead. 

There is also a massive bias in the classic rally world. I’m a broadcast camera operator with more than 20 years experience working for Sky, BBC, ITV, Ch4, Ch5 and even on the Formula 1. For a while, I filmed classic car tours for a company called Rally Round, who were unique in that the company was owned by a woman and they employed a large proportion of women but sadly they closed the business during the covid pandemic. I had hoped to pick up some work with other rally companies but have found them very male-dominated; I don’t seem to be taken seriously despite my years of experience and positive feedback from rally staff and competitors. The events they organise also don’t seem to attract the same proportion of female entrants. 

When I wrote my book, Beetle Drive, I said, if it inspires just one person to get out there and enjoy life, then it was worth it. My advice; live your life for you! Do what makes you happy (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else) and drive cars that make you smile. The memory of driving a knackered Micra to Mongolia (I did that in 2007) will last a lot longer than a few hot laps of a race track in a supercar.” 

Follow Fiona on Instagram

Amy Ellicot: Classic car owner

Photo: Amy Ellicott

“It feels amazing to inspire and encourage other females to join the community because I really do understand that it might seem daunting but it is genuinely full of other passionate women who support each other. As females, we need to go into the community with ambition to learn. Don’t pretend to know everything, ask questions and enjoy gaining more knowledge about the cars you love. Approach people and have conversations, organise gatherings and cruises, enjoy the community for what it is. Don’t be scared to be you. This way, I genuinely believe biased opinions will slip. 

I currently own a 1986 VW Scirocco GT and a 1974 VW Beetle which I am restoring with my dad. I was brought up around cars by my car-enthusiast parents and inherited the same love for them. I am really fortunate to have a supportive family, group of friends and partner, Greg, who never doubt my expertise or passion. 

I have experienced unconscious bias on numerous occasions. Whether that’s passers-by at shows asking Greg questions about the car as I am getting out the drivers seat or the stereotypical ‘is that your dads car?’. An occasion that will always stick with me was in a McDonald’s drive-thru. As I drove the Scirocco round to the payment window, the employee looked past me, focused on Greg (who was in the passenger seat) and complimented ‘his’ car. I felt like I was completely invisible. I have a long list of similar examples. 

Photo: Amy Ellicott

Whenever I experience this, I do feel disheartened. My coping mechanism is to laugh in these situations because I find it so uncomfortable but when I have the opportunity, I will politely explain that the car is mine or that I know what I’m doing. I try not to take it to heart, especially if it’s unconscious and not malicious. Whenever someone approaches Greg about the Scirocco, the first thing he will tell them is that it’s my car and not his. Unfortunately, this is rarely enough of a reason for the conversation to turn to me, as much as Greg will try to get me involved. 

I used to work as a parts fitter in Halfords and I really enjoyed my time there; I was that worker in a fetching orange hi-vis coat fitting lightbulbs, wipers and batteries in the rain. I experienced a tonne of unconscious bias there; mostly from men that worried for the safety of their car in the hands of a 20-year-old girl. I had a lot of colleagues and customers who stood up for me during these times and made me feel confident in my knowledge, which has stuck with me. 

If you feel patronised or uncomfortable, please just remember, it all boils down to you and your car. Don’t focus on other peoples’ opinions or comments, because they really don’t matter like you may think they do. 

Greg and I try to do as much as we can within the community together as we both love our classics. He has a 1992 Mercedes S124 and a VW Mk1 Caddy, both of which he has spent so much time restoring and tinkering with. We spend time going to shows together and enjoy meeting and talking with new people. I feel comfortable with Greg being there, because he will hype me up and support me in conversations. He also helps me with bits I want to do on my cars, because some things I am physically not strong enough to achieve or because I am not comfortable doing it myself, and he has more experience. Even in these times, he has never made me feel or seem weak or dumb. 

Greg says, probably rightly, that social media has played a part in helping women gain acceptance within the car scene as it’s given them a platform to showcase their knowledge and passion.” 

Follow Amy on Instagram

Janet Ives: Mum and MGA co-driver

Photo: Charlotte Vowden

“My father was never one to shun change and I think he would be delighted to know his car, his legacy, is being used to promote equality and fair treatment of women in the classic car field. It’s still rare for a female to be in the driving seat of a classic car, the statistics show that, so you can understand why people might assume it doesn’t belong to them, and that’s why it’s important to address this kind of unconscious bias. The costs involved with purchasing and running a classic car can be prohibitively expensive to a younger person (male or female) so there is probably a degree of ageism involved here too. So on both counts it is good to know the correct ownership is always made clear. 

My dad knew in his heart of hearts that his granddaughter would be passionate about Frisky the MGA, and perhaps had a premonition that Frisky would lead to a better change in career for her too. In some respects, he was a traditionalist, which could be mistaken for old fashioned, but he was not sexist nor biased when it came to gender – perhaps this is because he fought in the Second World War and saw how women broke free from stereotypes during this time – but for him, personality and willing came into it too. Women today are more ‘let’s have a go’ than the generation of their grandparents and in some cases even their parents. They’re not afraid to enter a world long dominated by men in many walks of life and long may it last.

Photo: Charlotte Vowden

As his only child I was both his daughter and son and he would never have assumed I was not interested in driving his MGA because of my gender, it was just timing. When he was enjoying the car to its full potential I was at a stage in my life where I had little time for such pleasures but Charlotte and I have shared some incredible journeys together around the country – he would be thrilled to know we have the ability and confidence to travel as a female duo.

A classic car drive becomes very personal as you have to handle the vehicle in a very different way to a modern car, you feel its energy. It’s not easy and can be quite physical and tiring (you almost become part of the car) but women are just as capable. It is often emotional if there is a family attachment as well. I look forward to driving her more and wonder, will there ever come a time when more women than men get behind the wheel of a classic car now they know what a buzz it can be?”

Lauren Elwin: Classic car lover, budding motocross rider and model

Lauren Elwin: Classic car lover, budding motocross rider and model
Photo: Dan Knight @danknightportraits

“I like the feeling of surprising people and love to talk cars and carbs, however, politeness plays a part; I am less inclined to chat about my builds with someone who comes across as rude or insensitive. Manners don’t cost anything. 

I currently own a 1982 classic Mini Mayfair I built with my dad when I was 15. I’ve named him ‘Sonny’ and we are very well known amongst the classic Mini community. I also have an ongoing Mk1 Golf build and joint teardrop caravan project. Over the years I’ve had drift cars, a mini stock car and multiple other project.  

I love to get hands on with the tools and although building the Mini with my dad was a special experience, I have gained the confidence to begin building and working on my cars on my own. I’m an internationally published model and often feature my cars and the garage environment in my location shoots. I find it an appropriate nod to my beloved hobby and like to portray an alternative genre and location to others, because let’s face it, not everyone has a bright yellow Mini to pose with. There’s nothing like challenging a stereotype and proving that passions are not gender specific. 

Lauren Elwin: Classic car lover, budding motocross rider and model
Lauren’s Mini during its restoration.

I documented the Mini’s build on Instagram but when it comes to ‘real life’ people are a little less open to taking my word for it that I was the one that had done the work alongside my dad. It’s a male-dominated hobby and it’s a shame we women have to justify ourselves in order to gain recognition. 

In regards to experiencing unconscious bias as a female classic car owner, one example is when I popped out to the shop in Sonny. Just as I had parked up and began crossing the road, a white van pulled in front of me, a man jumped out and shouted: ‘Is this your car?.’ I advised him that it was and that I had just finished building it. He seemed completely shocked and told me that I don’t look like the type that would know how. I was slightly annoyed at this comment, because what exactly was I supposed to look like? His reason as to why he didn’t believe I had built this project was the fact that I was a girl.  

The best way to respond to such encounters is to ‘kill them with kindness’ or have a little bit of light-hearted banter. I personally, have not experienced much unconscious bias in the car scene and I think this is mainly due to the way I present myself; not overly serious and always up for a laugh.  

I am the first to admit I don’t know everything and I am more than happy to ask if I don’t know the answer; I think that helps diffuse negativity from people because they can see I am trying and having fun with it along the way. I have received the odd negative or harsh comment over the years on social media, for example when my article was featured in Mike Brewer’s ‘Me and My Car’ series such as ‘there’s no way she built that, she just models with it,’ ‘yeah yeah, nice try,’ ‘her dad definitely did the work.’ However, fellow car enthusiasts, countered those with something upbeat.  

I find online followers, which are mainly male, are quick to back me up should there ever be a comment projecting something negative which is a really nice feeling. I’m also willing to stand up for anyone if I feel it appropriate but remember the block button exists if we ever come across an unsavoury person. Most of the female friends or followers I have gained within the car scene have a ‘stick together’ mentality. I find it a really fun, supporting, encouraging and unique environment to be in.  

I think the main cause for unconscious bias is people either not being properly educated or they’re stuck in their historic ways. I know ‘back in the day’ men did the grafting jobs and women were expected to provide within the home, but times have changed and just because a woman does modelling or likes to get her nails done, doesn’t mean she can’t get her hands dirty under the bonnet or love a male-dominated hobby. I for one love the juxtaposition between the two, it really is the best of both worlds and that should be viewed as a good thing, that people don’t stick to stereotypes anymore. They are free to enjoy their passions how they wish. 

Photo: Fazian @wheresfazian

I believe another cause is that it is not often seen. Adverts and social media rarely portray a woman as a mechanic or a car sales person, race car driver, motocrosser; the list goes on.

The best way to tackle this is to show the community that women are capable of doing these things. I would never have viewed myself as a role model. However, if showing that building cars, riding motorbikes and not being afraid to try something new in a challenging environment makes me a role model, then so be it. I think we can drive change by encouraging women to be confident in their passions and be true to themselves.

At the end of the day, if a car is cool, it’s cool. It shouldn’t matter who owns it, drives it or built it.

Follow Lauren on Instagram

Read more

Our Classics: 1960 MGA Roadster
The One That Got Away: Georgia Peck’s search for her grandfather’s cars
Tiny treasures in Amsterdam: meet the maker creating wearable classic cars

You may also like

60 Years of Controversy: European Car of the Year
60 Years of Controversy: European Car of the Year
Bruce-McLaren portrait
McLaren at 60: Bruce McLaren and his legacy
Will modern cars, and modern materials, age gracefully?
Will modern cars, and modern materials, age gracefully?
A story about

Your biweekly dose of car news from Hagerty in your inbox


  • Anthony Halls says:

    My wife Elizabeth, Created a very special project in her 1936 Singer Le Mans ( Insured with Hagerty ) When she drove her car some 7,500 miles in the U.K. researching the 60 Airfields that her father landed on as a Beaufighter Night Fighter pilot during WW2. The Singer does not have wet weather protection, so often she would be driving in heavy rain with a big grin on her face. Her aim is to write a sequel to her first book, ‘Flying Blind’ by Elizabeth Halls and Bryan Wild, with Joe Bamford. For the obvious reasons of Covid and my un for seen illness, her getting Breast Cancer, which is now in remission. Her next book will involve visiting those Airfields which still exist and also telling the sad story of those WW2 Airfields that no longer exist. Elizabeth had a big following on Facebook during her intrepid journey in 2015 ( ‘Where they Served’ ) and now that my health is improving – I still have to have a heart valve stent fitted- We are looking at her doing the long haul again in 2024, coinciding the finish to arrive in style at the National Singer Club event in June 2024. After which, she will write her next book. Elizabeth will be 65 next January and is a great enthusiast on sports cars, she loves going to classic car auctions and meeting all the ‘petrol heads’ engaging them in talking about their cars, often in the company of our adopted specialist Crispin Thetford, who is an expert on all matters concerning old cars and who brought the Singer Le Mans ‘Chattie’ up to a high – reliable – standard.

  • Barbara Wood says:

    I recently started a motoring group within u3a. I had expected the membership to be mostly men, how wrong can you be! The split is 70/30 with the 70% being female. I wonder if they felt more comfortable joining a group run by a woman? We have fab days out (thank you Gaydon for the VIP treatment) and have a truly mixed bag of interests. We have visited the Catesby Tunnel project, and enjoyed a ride through the tunnel. Off to the Triumph factory for our two wheel fans, and enjoy a monthly meet up for coffee and cakes, and often stay for lunch. Yes there are plenty of female fans for motoring/bikes. Try not to blank us when we visit!!

  • Anthony Halls says:

    Surely, the most astonishing story of all time about female drivers is the gold medal victory in the 1938 Olympic Games, won by two women driving a Singer Le Mans. ( The car still exists in France ) It was offered for display at the 2012 Games, but the Olympics Committee turned it down. I would love to know why. I think it was a political issue at the time of the games held in Germany, as major producers like Mercedes etc were beaten

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More on this topic
Hagerty Newsletter
Get your weekly dose of car news from Hagerty UK in your inbox

Thanks for signing up!

Your request will be handled as soon as possible