Behind the Wheel: Exploring 5 Women Who Changed the Automotive Landscape

Woman mechanic working on a car engine

In the history of automobiles, the contributions that women have made are lesser known than the contributions of men. In this post, we’ll highlight five women who played pivotal roles in automotive history. From inventors to barrier-breakers, these women navigated challenges, defied stereotypes, and accelerated change. 

Margaret Wilcox

Invented the car heater

Born in Chicago in 1838, Margaret Wilcox was an American mechanical engineer and inventor. She patented several ideas but she is best known for her invention of the car heater (which started out as a heater for railcars). 

Wilcox figured that, since engines create heat, she could run a channel of air through the engine and then send it back into the car. The idea was great in theory – and it was certainly innovative – but the lack of a means to regulate temperature meant that riders were subjected to hot engine air (that would steadily get hotter the longer they rode).

Still, Wilcox’s idea is the basis for car heaters today. In fact, it was the idea that engineers turned to when they were trying to regulate temperature in the automobile. Rudimentary heaters were installed in cars as early as 1917, but it wasn’t until Ford started using Wilcox’s hot engine air design in 1929 that car cabins actually reached a noticeably warm temperature.

During cold winters, we all have Wilcox to thank for a nice, warm car.


Bertha Benz

Completed the first cross-country trip in a car

Born in 1849, Bertha was a German automotive pioneer and was both the wife and business partner of engineer Karl Benz. While her husband is known for his automotive success, Bertha played an instrumental role in the early development of the automobile. 

In 1886, Karl Benz was granted a patent for his three-wheeled automobile, which he called the Motorwagen.

In 1888, Bertha stirred up publicity for Motorwagen and ultimately ensured the success of the automobile. She did this by completing the first cross-country trip in a car.

This trip was groundbreaking for several reasons:

  • This was the first trip of its kind, making Bertha Benz a pioneer in the automobile industry.
  •  There were only a handful of paved roads at this time, meaning Bertha frequently had to steer the car over uneven dirt roads
  • There were no road signs! Bertha had to navigate using railroad tracks to help with orientation

All of this makes Bertha Benz a true leading figure and pioneer in the automotive industry.


June McCarroll

Originated the center-stripe idea for roads and highways

June McCarroll was born in 1867, and though she spent much of her adult life as a successful doctor, her medical achievements are not what she’s best known for. 

Instead, she’s known by many as the person who came up with the idea of painting a line down the center of the road to help prevent automobile accidents.

In the fall of 1917, McCarroll was driving to her office when she was run off the road by a truck. After her accident, McCarroll had an idea that a lot of similar accidents might be prevented if there was a line down the center of the road.

McCarroll took her idea to the local chamber of commerce and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. When neither seemed to listen much to her idea, she took it upon herself to hand-paint a white, 4-inch stripe for about a mile down the middle of Highway 99 (later renamed Highway 86).

In November 1924, after vigorous campaigning, the idea was finally adopted by the California Highway Commission, and 3,5000 miles of lines were painted throughout California. 

Though McCarroll wasn’t technically the first person to come up with the idea of painting a line down the center of the road, McCarroll differed from others in her repeated attempts to get government jurisdictions to adopt the idea. As such, the California Department of Transportation credits her with originating the center-stripe idea.

Thanks to McCarroll’s persistence, our streets became a little bit safer.


Dorothee Pullinger

Manufactured a car for women in a factory staffed by women

Dorothee Pullinger was born in France in 1894. Born the daughter of car designer Thomas Pullinger, Dorothee developed an interest in the field quickly (though it wasn’t initially encouraged). 

After being rejected in 1914 from the Institution of Automobile Engineers for being a woman, WWI gave her an opportunity. She was put in charge of female munitions workers and was eventually responsible for an estimated 7,000 workers. After the conflict, she was finally accepted into the automobile institution as its first female member.

By the 1920s, Pullinger became manager of Galloway Motors at its factory near Tongland. The factory was originally built during the war, but Pullinger persuaded her father to keep it open as a car factory and provide employment to many local women. 

Pullinger managed production of the Galloway car, a car that was described as “a car built for ladies, for those of their own sex”. 

Cars of the 20th century were predominantly designed for men, but Galloway’s were lighter and smaller to account for the average women’s height (5’4). On some models, gears were placed in the middle so as not to get in the way of women’s skirts, the seat was raised, and the steering wheel was smaller (among other modifications). 

Though the cars are no longer produced today, Pullinger’s impact on the automotive industry cannot be overlooked.


Brehanna Daniels

First African American woman in a NASCAR Cup Series pit crew

Brehanna Daniels was born in 1994 in Virginia, and in 2019 she became the first African American woman in a NASCAR Cup Series pit crew.

Daniels was recruited out of college into NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program in 2016, a program designed to attract minority and female individuals to the sport and to attract a more diverse audience. She was one of ten selected from around the country to join.

Since Daniel’s start in 2017, she has been the first African American to go over the wall in a national racing series, she became the first black woman to work in a pit crew in a national NASCAR race at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 annual car race and later the NASCAR Cup Series – where she and Breanna O’Leary made history as the first female dup to work a pit crew.

In 2019, Daniels pitted with O’Leary for Cody Ware in the Daytona 500 qualifying the race itself.

Daniels is still in the field today, and we can’t wait to see what else she’ll accomplish. 

  1. “The Women of Automotive History.” 2023. Petersen Automotive Museum. March 15, 2023.
  2. Hopkins, Sarah. 2023. “Women in Automotive History.” Your AAA Network. March 10, 2023.
  3. “Pioneering Spirit: 11 Women Who Truly Shaped the Automotive World |” n.d.
  4. RoadRandallstown, Exclusive Motorcars10100 Liberty, and Md 21133367-0011. n.d. “25 Women Pioneers and Trailblazers: A Spotlight on Successful Women in Automotive.” Exclusive Motorcars. Accessed March 15, 2024.
  5. BBC News. 2016. “Dorothée Pullinger: The Pioneer Who Built a Car for Women, by Women,” January 28, 2016, sec. Scotland.
  6. Blackstock, Elizabeth. 2021. “Meet Margaret Wilcox, the Woman Who Invented the Car Heater.” Jalopnik. April 10, 2021.
  7. “June McCarroll.” 2021. Wikipedia. December 27, 2021.
  8. Niemann, Greg. 2021. “CV History: Dr. June Robertson McCarroll Was the Valley’s First Woman Doctor—but She’s Best Known for a Transportation Innovation.” Coachella Valley Independent. September 10, 2021.
  9. “Brehanna Daniels.” 2023. Wikipedia. November 27, 2023.