(first posted 1/15/2017) Over the years, many automakers have invested large sums of money to identify and cater to niche markets with special editions. Subaru hooked up with LL Bean, Ford with Eddie Bauer, Lincoln with Gucci, Bill Blass and Givenchy; in fact, there was even a dog-friendly Honda Element that didn’t limit its target audience to the two-legged.
You really don’t see as much of this anymore, for several reasons: first, manufacturers no longer have the kind of mad money it takes to design, produce and market vehicles that disrespect the economies of scale. Also, the once-vaunted “halo effect” is increasingly irrelevant to consumers–after all, is the average Altima or Civic buyer the least bit influenced by the existence of the GT-R or NSX? And then there’s the matter of political correctness; seriously, if a car maker offered a model geared toward a specific gender or other personal demographic today, howls of protest would reverberate, boycotts would form, and the offender would be made to attend automotive sensitivity training conducted by a newly formed Federal Department of Indignation Resolution.
During the Eisenhower years, no concept of political correctness existed. Women took their cues from television, film and magazines. Their role models were more Elizabeth Taylor than Elizabeth Warren. And although relatively few women worked outside the home, Chrysler’s marketing department had noticed that those who were part of the workforce had buying power, and that those who were not were nonetheless increasingly influential in major purchase decisions.
Chrysler decided to test the waters with two concept cars, the Le Comte and La Comtesse. Although both cars were based on the New Yorker Deluxe Newport and featured a huge, clear-plastic roof panel,the bronze-and-black Le Comte put forth a distinctly masculine look, while the La Comtesse was dressed in demure pink and ivory tones.
Heartened by the positive reaction to the La Comtesse concept, Chrysler assigned development of a production version to their Dodge Division. Taking a rib from a Royal Lancer hardtop coupe, Dodge created a special edition, saw that it was good, and christened it La Femme.
The La Femme option package debuted on the 1955 Royal Lancer two-door hardtop. Exterior distinctions included Sapphire White/Heather Rose two-tone paint and gold-tone “La Femme” script on the front fenders.
Substantially more effort went into the interior appointments. Seats were upholstered in pink-and-silver rosebud pattern cloth with pink vinyl trim. On the passenger-side seat back was a trapezoidal compartment designed to store the pink calfskin purse that came with every La Femme, and whose brushed-gold medallion was large enough to accommodate an engraved, owner-commissioned monogram.
The purse contained a coordinated set of accessories, including a compact, lipstick case, cigarette case, comb, cigarette lighter and change purse—a veritable festival of faux-tortoise shell plastic, gold-tone metal and pink calfskin, all sourced from Evans, a Chicago-based manufacturer of women’s accessories. According to DodgeWiki, “Guards were eventually posted on the Dodge assembly-line at the time when Dodge La Femme spring special models were being assembled, because the stacks of fine-quality cardboard boxes containing the La Femme accessories were prime objects of theft.”
But wait…there’s more! A compartment on the back of the driver’s seat held a complete rainwear ensemble, including a vinyl raincoat, rain bonnet and umbrella patterned to match the rosebud interior fabric.
For 1956, the La Femme package returned, this time done up in a Misty Orchid/Regal Orchid two-tone exterior treatment and La Femme-specific seat patterns, headliner, interior paint and carpeting. Seat upholstery featured white cloth with a lavender-and-purple looped pattern, headliner cloth of white fabric with random tiny sprinkles of gold paint, and loop-pile carpeting in shades of lavender and purple.
The boxes behind the seats were now gold-toned, and held only a rain coat, rain cap and umbrella; the rose-leather purse was not available for 1956. Perhaps to compensate, a higher-output D-500 engine was now available.
There would be no La Femme option for 1957. Since La Femme was an option package, the models so equipped were rolled into the total Royal Lancer production numbers; however, it’s reasonable to assume a total of fewer than 300 La Femme models produced over a two-year period, far less than Chrysler’s projections.
So why the disappointing sales? Other than the dubious viability of the whole gender-specific concept, Dodge didn’t exactly go out of its way to promote the car once it was produced. While special-edition Chryslers and DeSotos were enthusiastically promoted, there wasn’t much buzz about La Femme other than a few print ads and the 1956-57 brochures. What’s more, it was difficult for potential buyers to find one; since Dodge had allocated precious few of them to dealerships nationwide, most Dodge dealers could only hand prospects a single-page sales sheet or perhaps a color brochure.
Of course, the real problem may have been that the La Femme was the answer to a question no one was asking. Indeed, mighty General Motors had flirted with the same idea with their 1953 Pontiac Parisienne and 1958 Chevrolet Impala Martinique concepts and took a pass on producing either one. In fact, I can think of only one manufacturer that has managed, albeit off the record, to market to women with any success. (It’s true that the Mazda MX-5 Miata, VW New Beetle, and Mini have somehow acquired the reputation of being “chick cars”, but almost certainly not by manufacturer intent.)
Even some dubious ideas just won’t die; in September 2016, at the Cosmopolitan FashFest event in London, SEAT and Cosmpolitan magazine jointly introduced the the Mii concept, complete with “eyeliner” headlamps, handbag hook and “jewel-effect” rims. It was not received enthusiastically.
It’s a safe bet that the era of automotive micromarketing is over, as manufacturers focus on improving cost effectiveness, efficiency, and (so they claim) build quality. Perhaps they finally realize that virtually everyone, regardless of gender, race, creed or political persuasion, wants to drive something that’s reliable, efficient, well-built, fun to drive, and easy on the eyes. In other words, they’ve come a long way, baby.