The 1955 Dodge La Femme was the first saleable automobile designed specifically for the ladies. The model was a hit…except for one thing.
Photos by Bill Erdman
Back in the spring of 1958, Margaret Barnhart walked into the local Dodge dealership located next door to the bank where she worked in Hammond, IN. What caught her eye was a 2-tone Heather Rose and Sapphire White Custom Royal Lancer hardtop—a used car that had been taken in on a trade. A special “La Femme” badge graced the front fenders, but that was of no interest to Margaret. Also of no concern was the Hemi V8 under the hood that boasted increased cubes (270 of the little buggers, to be exact) for 1955.
In addition to all the regular available options, the La Femme came with special seatback pockets that contained all manner of female-oriented accessories including a leather shoulder bag that held a compact, lipstick, cigarette case, folding umbrella and rain bonnet. Margaret thought that all that was nice, but the dealmaker was her enchantment by the exterior colors, and the feminine-oriented pale pink interior, with its pink rosebud pattern upholstery. If, as the saying goes, “Real men drive Mopars,” it’s doubtful that one of those “real men” would be caught dead behind the wheel of this Mopar.
Margaret was so taken by this “woman’s car” that she asked the dealer if he would hold the Dodge until she got her driver’s license. No problem, as Margaret’s bank had written many a car loan to the dealer’s customers. She returned about six weeks later, with the ink barely dry on her license, to drive away in her first automobile.
Interestingly, the ’55 Dodge La Femme, wasn’t the first car to target a female audience, but it was the first of its kind that you could actually buy. It all began back in the early ‘50s, as American industry rushed to meet the war-created, pent-up consumer demand for just about everything. Gender-specific products were common across the board.
Detroit was big into creating special concept cars for the big auto shows of the day. Just as today, the public couldn’t buy any of those models, but they did generate a draw to the more pedestrian automobiles in dealers’ showrooms. Huge crowds flocked to see the latest whiz-bang features that Detroit had cooked up, and several of these factory show cars were designed to captivate women drivers.
General Motors, for one, featured the Pontiac Parisienne, dressed appropriately in pink. Chevy and Caddy offered their own female-oriented models: Impala Martinique and the Eldorado Seville Baroness, respectively.
Not to be outdone, Chrysler created La Comtesse in 1954. This pink and pale gray show car was built on a New Yorker Deluxe Newport chassis, and was powered by the 235 HP FirePower V8. A companion car, the Le Comte, was virtually identical to LaComtesse, except for the color scheme—a more macho black and bronze. The cars—La Comtesse especially—were very favorably received by the show public, and they were eager to see more, both on the show circuit and in showrooms.
The La Femme special accessories that still remained with the car. Missing are the raincape, folding umbrella (although the sleeve is present), and compact. Special seatback compartments contained all this stuff (photos: Christa DePorto).
The public got an eyeful when the 1955 ”The Forward Look” models debuted. Totally restyled, the models introduced Virgil Exner-inspired tailfins, here in their budding stage. They would mature for ’56 and bloom in their full glory in ’57. Dodge, for ’55, extended the wheelbase for all their models to 120 inches. V8 engine displacement was increased to 270 cubes, and horsepower ranged from a base poly head 175 HP in the low-line Coronet V8, to the Hemi’s 193 ponies (in “Super Powered” trim) in the upscale Custom Royal. Top of the model line was the Custom Royal Lancer hardtop, which priced in at $2543.
The La Femme was introduced to the public on January 17, 1955 at the International Salon in the Chrysler Building in New York City. This “Forward Look” exhibit also introduced the first of the Chrysler 300s. The Chrysler marketing folks gauged the public’s reaction to La Femme at the intro and at subsequent major auto shows and decided to put it into production. The car hit the showrooms in the spring of ’55, as a $145.30 trim and accessory option on the top-pop Custom Royal Lancer hardtop.
While the previously-mentioned GM concept cars never made it past the show circuit stage, La Femme became the first saleable car exclusively designed for the woman motorist. Produced as a limited edition, with availability on a first-come, first-served basis, the La Femme package was triggered by checking Trim Code #443 and Color Code #571-1.
The La Femme option was carried over in ’56 with a new color combo—Regal Orchid over Misty Orchid. Interior colors and patterns also were changed. Mechanically, the ‘56 La Femme could be had with the new D-500 315-cube Hemi boasting 260 ponies. The PowerFlite “Flite Control” dash-mounted shift lever was replaced by the “Magic Touch of Tomorrow” pushbuttons, and the 6-volt electrics were replaced by a 12-volt system. The shoulder bag was dropped from the list of special La Femme accessories.
Margaret drove her ‘55 La Femme into the 1970s, when she parked it with 48,000 miles showing on the clock. And that’s where it sat for 22 years. It was her first—and last—automobile.
Enter car guy, Dave DePorto. Dave’s dad had a cousin who knew that Dave was into cars. The cousin’s aunt—the one and the same Margaret, was thinking about selling her Dodge, but had not advertised it for sale. She agreed to have Dave look the car over. When Dave checked it out, he found a very solid car with no rust. The paint had faded and the stainless trim was dull and chrome pitted. The driver’s seat bun had been ripped and was repaired with a piece of plaid material.
Dave had no idea what a La Femme was, but when he popped the hood and saw the Hemi, he said he would take it. Later on, a buddy, who did some research on the car told Dave what he had. Naturally, Dave was tickled pink!
It took Dave three days to get the car running. The gas in the tank had turned to glue, so it was a big job to clean the fuel system. He also replaced the dual points. Dave went through the car mechanically and contacted S&S Fabrics who was able to come up with perfect-matching upholstery material for the torn seat. Bodywork and paint were not his forte, so he sent the car out for a 17-month frame-off restoration. The resto shop found one ding in the pass side door that had been repaired years earlier with lead. They said that the repair was so nice that they left it alone.
These days, Dave’s La Femme leads a pampered life being displayed at car shows, with Dave driving it hither and trailering it yon. It still wows the ladies just as it did back in ’55, and most guys appreciate it too. ‘Course, you’ll always find an E-booger wise-guy type in every crowd, who will ask Dave where’s his matching dress.