There really was an American car that left the factory with a purse as standard equipment -- the 1955-1956 Dodge La Femme. Many people of car-buying age in the mid-1950s never heard of it, so perhaps it's not surprising that more than a generation has gone by with hardly any mention of it.
Yet it was significant because it mirrored the patronizing mid-1950s phenomenon of offering women's versions of just about anything, in this case a production car designed specifically for "Her Royal Highness The American Woman."
The gestation period of the Dodge La Femme can be traced back to the early 1950s. By then, pent-up demand for new cars had been filled, turning the postwar seller's market into a highly competitive buyer's market. An exciting era was thus born, as auto companies unleashed a flood of new cars loaded with new ideas to attract the attention of car buyers.
In the process, designers were given more power and freedom to experiment than ever before. The stylists were fascinated with flashy lines, chrome, tailfins, swivel seats, and wraparound windshields -- and apparently so was the American public. Exotic show cars appeared with great regularity from the major companies, almost always sporting new (and often highly impractical) styling and all sorts of doodads.
But the car-buying public had an insatiable appetite for those "dream cars," which served as shiny bait to lure people into purchasing the more mundane (and practical) production-line cars.
In most cases, of course, the public never got to buy such snazzy features as turbine engines, power-assisted hoods, and rain-sensing convertible tops. However, there were a few examples of show cars that became production cars, such as the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham and Chevrolet Corvette.
Those cars are well known and coveted by collectors today, but they were among the very few show cars that made good, selling in small numbers and, more importantly, increasing their makers' prestige. More common is the tale of the show car that hit the marketplace and sank without a trace. Among the failed experiments is the Dodge La Femme: a woman's car that women didn't seem to want.
To get a feel for the cars that were being designed specifically for women during this era, continue to the next page.
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1950s Show Cars Designed for Women
Actually, 1950s show cars designed for women were fairly common in that era. General Motors fielded quite a few of them, including such cars as Pontiac's pink Parisienne, Chevrolet's Impala Martinique, and Cadillac's Eldorado Seville Baroness, among others.
But it was Chrysler Corporation that got the ball rolling in 1954 when it took the La Comtesse and Le Comte around the auto show circuit. The former was pink and pale gray, to appeal to the feminine sensibility, while the latter sported bronze and black, very macho indeed. A Chrysler press release of the day described the lady's version thusly:
"LA COMTESSE, Chrysler's exotic new plastic top car, presents a gorgeous two-tone exterior of dusty rose with a pigeon gray top. The interior is luxuriously finished in cream and dusty rose leather with seat back inserts of platinum brocatelle fabric. Interior appointments are set off by specially-designed chrome hardware.
"A long, low note is provided by heavy chrome molding running along the lower body of the car from the front wheel openings to the rear bumper. A continental tire mount and chrome wire wheels add to the car's smart appearance.
"La Comtesse is built on a New Yorker Deluxe Newport chassis and is powered by a 235-horsepower Chrysler FirePower V-8 engine and features fully-automatic PowerFlite transmission, power steering, and power brakes plus Chrysler's high-roll front suspension for easier handling and improved roadability."
Very little is known about Le Comte. It was said to be identical to La Comtesse in almost every way except for the color scheme. Rumor has it that five La Comtesse show cars were built in Chrysler's Los Angeles plant and that at least one still exists in the Monterey, California, area.
Millions of people saw the two cars at Chicago, New York, and various other auto shows throughout the U.S. Public response seems to have encouraged Chrysler Corporation -- and Dodge division in particular -- to come out with more show and production cars with a similar feminine theme.
To learn about Dodge's contribution to the female-appeal craze, the 1955 Dodge La Femme, continue on to the next page.
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1955 Dodge La Femme
The long, clean, sleek styling of the all-new 1955 Dodge La Femme was part of what Chrysler Corporation called "The Forward Look," a design theme that began to wrest styling leadership from industry leader General Motors. In fact, Dodge was so vastly altered for 1955 that it didn't seem at all related to its shorter and taller predecessors, which suddenly seemed antique.
Dodge touted its styling as "Flair Fashioned." The front of the car was marked by two large horizontal bars that wrapped around from the front fenders into a divided grille cavity. A dummy scoop appeared at the front of the hood and flared outward back to the rear fenders as an upper body molding with a "dip" in the rear quarters.
Cheaper models were two-toned at the belt line and looked chunkier. Upper-priced models carried slim, chrome-plated tailfins, the embryonic expression of an idea of stylist Virgil Exner that would grow in 1956 and explode for 1957.
The dashboard was asymmetrical and very stylish, with instruments and controls grouped on the left. Cars equipped with PowerFlite were shifted via a novel "Flite Control" lever that stuck out of the dash to the right of the steering column. And like most everyone else in the industry, Dodge featured tubeless tires and a larger windshield, the latter a "New Horizon sweep-around" unit.
All Dodges rode a longer, 120-inch wheelbase for 1955. The model lineup was simplified: Coronet sixes and V-8s, Royal and Custom Royal V-8s. Two-door hardtops were subtitled Lancer along with the Custom Royal convertible, which topped the line at $2,748.
Dodge upped V-8 displacement to 270 cubic inches. The base 175-horsepower Royal and Coronet V-8 employed poly-head construction, while the Custom Royal unit retained hemi heads and offered 193 horses in "Super-Powered" form.
Most of the 1955 Dodge lineup was introduced to the public on November 17, 1954. The top-of-the-line two-door hardtop and convertible Custom Royal Lancer were unveiled exactly one month later, but the special trim models had to wait several months more.
Dodge advertisements, owner's manuals, and press releases that year made extensive use of female models, portraying them in Paris-designed finery, fur coats, and stoles. Gloved hands were also frequently seen pushing buttons, twisting knobs, shifting dash levers, and inserting keys.
This was obviously to demonstrate the ease with which the "weaker sex" could operate heavy machinery. Men were depicted in the owner's manual as shadowy figures, usually wielding gas nozzles or garden hoses.
Was Dodge, so obviously targeting its sales approach to women, hinting indirectly that the La Femme was coming? The advertising line, "Expect the unexpected in Dodge for 1955," suggested as much.
See the next page to learn about the introduction of the 1955 La Femme to the public.
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1955 Dodge La Femme Debut
Dodge moved cautiously by staging the introduction of the 1955 Dodge La Femme -- and testing public reaction to the idea -- at the International Salon in the Chrysler Building in New York City.
Held from January 17-29, 1955, the Salon provided the setting for Chrysler's exhibit, "The Forward Look," which debuted the Chrysler 300. Also featured was "Dimensions in Color," a display of colors and fabrics as used in Chrysler's automobiles.
Old Timers News reported that, "Another attraction at the exhibit was the premier showing of Dodge's 'La Femme' -- a Custom Royal Lancer hardtop, appointed in the most feminine of pinks -- which drew throngs of women visitors to the International Salon. The company's interior styling experts have gone all out in efforts to woo today's women. They have designed a car interior specifically intended to 'please and flatter the modern woman' -- who no longer is relegated to kitchen and household tasks from dawn to dusk. It's a woman's world inside the Heather Rose-Sapphire White 'La Femme.' "
The La Femme finally arrived in the spring of 1955 as a $145.30 trim and accessory option for the $2,543 Custom Royal Lancer two-door hardtop. Dodge dealers had been officially notified earlier, on February 7, via the following letter:
"TO ALL DODGE DIRECT DEALERS AND DEALERS:
"The enclosed folder will introduce you to the La Femme, by Dodge, the first car ever exclusively designed for the woman motorist.
"At the Chicago Auto Show, the La Femme received exceptionally enthusiastic response and it is enjoying similar response at special shows and exhibits in other parts of the country.
"Exterior color scheme of the car is Heather Rose over Sapphire White, and there is a gold La Femme name plate on each front fender, replacing the Royal Lancer name plate. The interior consists of specially designed Heather Rose Cordagrain bolster and trim. The materials used, of course, possess the usual qualities of durability, beauty, economy, and ease of cleaning.
"The crowning touches which personalize the La Femme are its special feminine accessories. Two compartments located on the backs of the front seats are upholstered in Heather Rose Cordagrain. The compartment on the driver's side contains a stylish rain cape, fisherman's style rain hat and umbrella which carry out the Jacquard motif. The other compartment holds a stunning shoulder bag in soft rose leather. It is fitted with compact, lighter, lipstick and cigarette case.
"Available only in the Custom Royal Lancer model, the La Femme can now be ordered for March delivery. Naturally, a model of this type will initially be built in limited quantities and will be handled on first come, first served basis. To order, specify Trim Code #443 and color code #571-1 . . .
"I hope you will endeavor to see the La Femme at your earliest opportunity. I believe you will agree that this unusual car has great appeal to women, and that it gives Dodge dealers a 'drawing card' enjoyed by no other dealer group."
Very truly yours,
General Sales Manager
See the next page to learn more about the 1955 La Femme's interior.
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1955 Dodge La Femme Interior
The 1955 Dodge La Femme interior followed the feminine theme. To set the La Femme apart from other Dodges, designers spared no effort in creating an exclusive -- and feminine -- interior for "Milady."
La Femmes for 1955 came with tapestry-style cloth upholstery, in a pattern of pink rosebuds woven into a pale silvery-pink background. The material was also used on the door panels surrounding the door handles.
The rosebud pattern was repeated -- on the vinyl material used to make the umbrella, its zippered sleeve, the rain hat, raincoat, rain boots, as well as portions of the interior. The cloth upholstery was the weak point of the interior, however, deteriorating at a rapid rate over the years.
The headliner fabric was either pink or white, the carpeting a dark burgundy loop pile, and the steering wheel was black and white with a totally pink steering column. Even the rubber molding on the steering column was painted pink. The inner rubber surrounding the rear window was either black or painted white with the same type of special flexible paint used on other Dodges that year.
The 1955 La Femme sales brochure described the interior trim as leather, but all La Femme owners agree that the seats and doors of all 1955 La Femmes were trimmed with pale pink vinyl, which was not the Heather Rose color mentioned in the brochure, which also neglected to mention the rain hat, umbrella sleeve, and purse accessories.
The brochure further showed an all-pink dashboard, which in production was black on top, pink on the bottom; likewise, the white taillight area turned to pink as production got underway. All in all, a typical sales brochure -- long on rhetoric, short on accuracy.
The rhetoric from the 1955 brochure included lines such as: "La Femme by Dodge . . . in mood and manner a distinctive car for the discriminating, modern woman." And, "now for the first time anywhere, a car glamorously, Personally Yours."
The mood-setting prose continued: "Never a car more distinctively feminine than La Femme . . . first fine car created exclusively for women! In this superbly designed car, Dodge brings together luxurious, delicately-toned interiors and ultra-fashionable appointments . . . every sophisticated touch your heart could desire! Here is, truly, the ultimate in fine motoring."
And just to make sure no one misunderstood, the key line on the front of the brochure read, "By Appointment to Her Majesty . . . the American Woman."
La Femme's special appointments for "Her Majesty" were housed in two containers made of heavy cardboard and vinyl. On the seat back behind the driver, the container wore pale pink vinyl on the outside, with the pink rosebud design printed on the vinyl used inside.
The container on the passenger side looked the same, except that it had a large, keystone-shaped opening to accommodate the purse. Both containers consisted of three compartments, a large one in the center, and a tall narrow one on each side. When suitably folded, the umbrella and hat fit into the narrow compartments.
The fact that Dodge offered a three-tone color scheme -- pink, white, and black -- on the Custom Royal Lancer sometimes causes confusion in identifying the La Femme. No 1955 La Femmes used black as a third exterior color, although the wheels were painted black on some cars (pink on others).
Also, some interior and exterior details on La Femmes vary slightly from car to car. In any case, the gold script on the front fenders identifies the model. If it says Royal Lancer, it's not a La Femme.
Continue to the next page to follow La Femme into its second and final year, 1956.
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1956 Dodge La Femme
The 1956 Dodge lineup bowed -- without the Dodge La Femme -- on Friday October 7, 1955, sporting dash-mounted pushbutton transmission controls; Dodge advertised them as "The Magic Touch of Tomorrow."
Also featured were increased power, 12-volt electrical system, reshuffled chrome trim, and a face-lift that centered on "high-sweep" fins sprouting from the rear fenders. The model lineup was strengthened with the addition of three four-door Lancer hard-tops, but the 1956 Dodge La Femme option was not listed.
Nonetheless, a news release dated October 4, 1955, indicated Dodge's intentions: "The enthusiastic reception of the 1955 Dodge La Femme by women motorists everywhere has led to a successor model for 1956. This glamorous Custom Royal Lancer, soon to be named, will be specially appointed with colors, interiors, and accessories styled for the woman of today."
The public's first glimpse of the 1956 La Femme came on January 27, 1956, at a special car show -- "The Forward Look 1956" -- at the Chrysler Building. There, the crowds could come in from the cold to feast their eyes upon the most stylish collection of production cars ever shown by Chrysler Corporation, among them the Plymouth Fury, DeSoto PaceSetter (Adventurer) convertible, Chrysler 300B, and -- of course -- the La Femme. They could also glimpse into the future via a station wagon show car, the Plainsman.
Although Dodge apparently toyed with the idea of renaming the La Femme, the final decision fell in La Femme's favor. In preparation for the 1956 model, Dodge Division sent out the following letter to its dealers:
"TO ALL DODGE DEALERS:
"The success experienced by Dodge Dealers in merchandising the La Femme of last year and the splendid publicity benefits that it created has inspired a sparkling new crown jewel -- the distinctive and fashion-styled 1956 La Femme.
"Designed exclusively for Her Royal Highness -- the American Woman, this majestic beauty is rapidly approaching public announcement. Built around the Custom Royal Lancer two-door hardtop and finished in a queenly cloak of Regal and Misty Orchid, this newest member of the royal family will be available in production in early January.
"The jewel-toned interior styling is enhanced by skillful selection of beautiful fabrics. An undertone of golden threads lends depth to the Orchid Jacquard, which was specially developed for this model. Bolsters in gold cordahyde and an orchid head-lining flecked with gold dots add an extra touch of regal elegance.
"Convenient pockets are provided on the front seat backs and contain a set of lovely rainwear created especially for Milady. This consists of raincoat and hat made of fine quality nylon in color matching the interior of the car and flecked with gold to richly enhance its chic appearance. A folding umbrella is also provided and is covered with the matching nylon material.
"Designed in fine taste to please the most discriminating buyer, it follows that the La Femme models sold in your area will attract favorable attention towards your dealership as well as to Dodge products.
"We ask that you place your orders now for the units you will require and start a program in your sales area to select the prospects to whom it would be most desirable to sell a car of this type."
Vice-President in charge of Sales
For more on the 1956 La Femme's styling, continue to the next page.
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1956 Dodge La Femme Styling
The 1956 Dodge La Femme styling had only minor changes from the previous year. The two-tone lavender exterior of the 1956 La Femme was in the same pattern as the 1955 with the lighter color on the bottom, but the taillight area was now the lighter shade as on other 1956 Dodges. Regal Orchid was the darker shade, Misty Orchid the lighter, both synthetic enamel.
Inside, the Orchid Jacquard upholstery came in a random cross-hatching pattern, basically a heavy white cloth with lavender loops. The interior was trimmed with a gold-fleck Cordagrain vinyl headliner, as were the insides of the two containers on the backs of the front seats. The latter were identical to each other since a purse was not supplied in 1956, and they were slightly smaller than the ones in the 1955 model.
Although the La Femme package yielded fewer accessories than in 1955, the umbrella and sleeve, raincoat, and rain cap (redesigned to look more like a cap with a small bill) were still featured. All of these, colored and patterned to complement the upholstery, were done on a white background randomly dotted in metallic gold.
The dash sported two-tone orchid, with the steering wheel taking on the lighter hue. Not even the carpet, lavender with purple loops, escaped the designers' attention.
The buyer was expected to further tart up the La Femme from a wide choice of power and luxury options. A "hot-rod" La Femme could be specified by ordering the D-500 power package, which consisted of a 315-cubic-inch hemi-head V-8 with 260 horsepower and lowered suspension. And practically every comfort option was also available: power steering, brakes, seats, and windows; air conditioning; Wonderbar radio.
Also offered was the ultimate 1950s accessory, the Highway Hi-Fi, an under-dash record player that spun special seven-inch records at 16 2/3 rpm through the radio speaker, for 45 minutes to one hour of music from each side. "The addition of Hi-Fi is a significant forward step in the development of the automobile as a home-on-wheels," Dodge noted.
There was no shortage of appearance or "attitude" items in 1956, either. Among them were wire wheels or Lancer "spinner" full wheel covers, Continental kit, fender skirts, dual antennas, exhaust extensions, curb feelers, and dual outside mirrors.
Dodge prepared a brochure for the 1956 La Femme, which was hyped as "America's most glamorous Car -- Designed with the ladies in mind!" In a typically condescending 1950s tone, it read: "Here is a car distinctively feminine -- distinctively yours. Everywhere you look -- you'll discover those tasteful refinements that you might select if you had been the designer . . . yes, everything in a mode of sophistication and loveliness -- and all yours."
And that advertising theme carried down to even the smallest detail: "With the magic of push-button driving the effortless, the lady-like way -- the only way to enjoy driving in this modern age."
Because the La Femme was an option package, even the Chrysler Historical Collection is unable to provide information on how many La Femmes were built; all Custom Royal Lancer two-door hardtop figures were combined into one total for each year.
Of the 506,972 Dodges built for 1955 and 1956, about 56,500 were Custom Royal Lancer hardtops. Estimates from various sources suggest that as few as 300 or as many as 1,100 -- and certainly under
1,500 -- La Femmes were produced over
the two years they were offered.
A look at the figures, even though they are estimates, explains why there was no La Femme for 1957 -- women simply had not responded to the concept of a woman's car.
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