You never forget your first kiss…or your first car

Naeem Kahn Pontiac Flame Dresses. Photo credit: Production Plus - The Talent Shop

Naeem Kahn Pontiac Flame Dresses.
Photo credit: Production Plus – The Talent Shop

“Just like you never forget your first kiss,” says Margery Krevsky, “you will never forget your first car. Ask people about their first cars and watch their faces light up. There is such a psychological connection between cars and people. They just go together, enhancing our lives and representing our lifestyles.”

As for Margery, she has changed the face of how cars are presented at industry shows and events in a dramatic way, when she began the transformation of car models – those women who appeared next to vehicles at car shows to capture the attention of prospective customers – into product specialists who could also intelligently discuss the cars in question.

How it all got started

Detroit auto show in 1910 Photo credit: Production Plus - The Talent Shop

Detroit auto show in 1910 Photo credit: Production Plus – The Talent Shop

Let’s take a step back to the beginning of car shows which, not surprisingly, started up shortly after people could buy cars. “The earliest documented show,” Margery says, “was the Automobile Club of America’s show held in 1900 in Madison Square Garden in New York City. They had a doctor pose by a Stanhope along with his wife and little boy, sharing how much easier it was to have a car versus a horse and buggy. So, since the beginning of car shows, companies have had credible people endorsing the vehicles.”

It made sense to use a doctor in early advertising for a couple of reasons. First, doctors were “early adopters” of cars because they needed to make house calls. Plus, they could afford to buy a vehicle.

Over time, manufacturers began using attractive women in eye-catching costumes to draw the attention of car show attendees. Typically, these women simply stood by a vehicle. If they spoke at all, it was from a carefully memorized script. Why? “The answer,” Margery writes in her book, Sirens of Chrome: The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models, “is obvious. Sex sells. Just ask any model who’s stood before a sea of bedazzled onlookers and fielded the hackneyed question: ‘Do you come with the car?’”

Toyota dresses. Photo credit: Production Plus - The Talent Shop

Toyota dresses.
Photo credit: Production Plus – The Talent Shop

A closer look at car show models

Margery’s book is fascinating, as she provides succinct information about the people who historically stood or performed next to cars at shows, and as she shares anecdotes and highlights about them on a year-by-year basis. Each topic is accompanied by an excellent photo.

Because her book provides glimpses of information about intriguing historical women (both individual women and groups of them), we took the liberty of reading more about some of them. Here’s what we found out, partly from Margery’s book and partly from additional sources:

Sirens

In early car advertising, mythological creatures – such as Sirens – often appeared in print, promoting car events. In Greek mythology, Sirens were sleekly seductive water-winged creatures, ones that could sing so sweetly that they could also lure sailors to follow them wherever they went. In these myths, the sailors became so distracted by the shimmering beauty of the Sirens and their songs that they crashed their ships into rocks and died. Then, the Sirens benefited from the bounty found on the ships.

In car advertising, of course, the crashes and the resultant pirating were never mentioned. A photo of an attractive Siren in print advertising was used simply to lure men to car shows. As an FYI, the first Siren appearing in a car-advertising poster promoted the Importers’ Automobile Salon, held at Madison Square Garden in December 1907.

Miss Hazel Jewell

In addition to print advertising, car manufacturers hired people to stand by cars at shows to garner attention. Until 1909, though, only men had been used for this purpose. That changed in 1909 when Miss Hazel Jewell joined 150 men at the Grand Central Palace in New York to show off vehicles from Ford Motor Company. As a real life Siren, Hazel’s job was basically to look so beautiful that potential shoppers were tempted into approaching the vehicles available for sale.

Print advertisements in this era showed women driving and enjoying new freedom while wearing big hats tied with scarves; still the reality was that most women were being chauffeured by men, if they rode in cars at all.

Eleanor Velasco Thornton

By this time, a symbol of status was the hood ornament – and its creation is closely tied to that of a beautiful woman with a tragic story. By 1910, Rolls Royce was being pressured to create an official hood ornament to prevent owners from putting their own, often less than stellar, pieces on their Rolls. So, Claude Johnson, managing director of Rolls Royce, asked sculptor Charles Sykes to create an ornament that captured “the spirit of the Rolls-Royce, namely, speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy and a beautiful living organism of superb grace…”

Sykes submitted a modified version of one that he had already created for Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s Silver Ghost. Most sources say that the model for this emblem was Eleanor Velasco Thornton, who happened to be Lord Montagu’s lover. Montague had hired Eleanor in 1902 as his secretary and they fell in love. Because Lord Montagu was already married, and because Eleanor was so far below him in social status, marriage between the two of them was not a credible option. However, they purportedly had a child and they did continue to work together.

1920s flapper dress. Photo credit: Production Plus - The Talent Shop

1920s flapper dress. Photo credit: Production Plus -
The Talent Shop

Back to the Rolls Royce story: it is said that Eleanor modeled for sculptor Sykes and, from that, he created an ornament of a woman in loosely flowing robes and a finger to her lips, symbolizing the secrecy of her relationship with Lord Montagu.

This story, though, does not have a happy ending. In Agony and the Ecstasy: The Great Rolls Royce Love Story, you can read about how a grief-stricken Lord Montagu wrote, “I should have got a stronger grip on her.” But he didn’t. Because, when the SS Persia, on which both the lord and Eleanor were traveling, was hit by a German Torpedo in 1916, his grasp on his beloved was not strong enough to prevent her from being washed away in the waves. According to Lord Montagu’s son, “Theirs was a great love affair. Although when he came back home he was badly injured, he spent days looking for Thorn.”

Their story is captured, even today, in the emblem of the Rolls Royce, which became a standard fitting in the early 1920s.

Alice Snitzer Burke

Alice Snitzer was born around 1876 and, at the age of 18, she married Charles Armstrong, a college graduate who enlisted to fight in the Spanish-American War alongside Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Charles fought in key battles, but contracted typhoid fever; on August 25, 1898, he died.

After his death, Alice married a man identified as Dr. Burke. On April 6, 1916, she began traveling the country in a donated Saxon Roadster to promote the suffragist (voting for women) movement, motoring along with fellow suffragist Nell Richardson and a kitten. They traveled from New York to San Francisco, arriving in June.

Alice was photographed changing tires, repairing engines and replacing spark plugs. Her hemlines even rose to make it easier to operate the floor pedals on her car. She and Nell were also featured in a magazine advertisement titled “Two Noted Suffragists Travel 10,000 Miles in a Saxon Roadster.”

Silent and Sultry

Although Alice Snitzer Burke and Nell Richardson became well known for their beliefs and accomplishments, most women in this era who were associated with cars were not much more than mere window dressing. In 1919, for example, women were hired as “motor girls,” which meant that they stood by new cars and handed out literature about headlights, horns, windshields and other amenities. In 1927, a member of the Morgan Dancers literally posed as a hood ornament in a photo of a 1927 Packard 343 Series Eight.

Celebrities and Performances

In 1934, Hazel Forbes posed by a new Packard Super Eight Convertible Victoria wearing a swim suit. Although not well known today, Hazel was an American dancer and actress who served as Miss United States at the Paris International Beauty Pageant of 1926; danced with the famous Ziegfeld Follies; and acted in two Hollywood films: Bachelor Bait and Down to Their Last Yacht, both in 1934.

In 1936, Sonja Henie, world famous ice skater, Winter Olympics gold medalist and Hollywood star, posed by a Cord 810. That same year, nearly $1 million in furs were worn by the women posing by cars at the Chicago Auto Show.

In 1938, a car show featured a comedy skit that explored whether or not women could teach people about the Chevy engine. In 1953, Dinah Shore sang “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” on her talk show.

Margery’s book continues to provide information, year by year, about the state of the car modelling industry. But now, we’re going to fast forward to 1981.

Change is in the air

Naeem Kahn 1990s Pontiac Flame Dress. Photo credit: Len Katz

Naeem Kahn 1990s Pontiac Flame Dress. Photo credit: Len Katz

Yes, women still stand by cars at auto shows, even in 2014. But, their role has changed significantly and one woman owns the lion’s share of the credit: Margery Krevsky. Here is how all of the pieces came together.

Margery had earned a fashion degree from Tobe Coburn in New York City (now a part of the Fashion Institute of Technology) and had experience working as a Glamour magazine assistant editor and as a buyer for New York retail stores, including Macy’s and JL Hudson. She sometimes interacted with models and through that connection learned about how some of them posed by vehicles at auto shows.

“In 1981,” Margery says, giving context, “the women’s movement was really big. And, what I saw was that many women who were working at car shows were very smart. They had a fine education and credentials – and they were bored just standing by a car, eight hours a day. So, I brought up the radical idea that these people can talk. They can talk car, they can share their deep knowledge of a brand, they are a fine source to sell vehicles.”

Car manufacturers did not instantly warm up to Margery’s idea, but then Nissan let her try out her theory – that these women standing by cars were more than models; that they were, instead, product specialists – at an auto show. Soon, it became standard practice for the entire industry to have the people who were standing by cars at a show be experts on their topics. As Margery writes in her book, this change allowed the industry to “evolve out of T & A to a place of professional respect.”

“People come to auto shows to see the exhibits,” Margery says. “The cars clearly are the stars. But, product specialists play an important second banana role now that they’ve become a mouthpiece. These professionals can talk horsepower, how a particular car handles and performs and so forth.”

What about the clothing?

“They were a familiar sight at auto shows not that long ago, models clad in tight miniskirts or uncomfortable heels and gowns, smiling and posing fetchingly. They recited from scripts, if they spoke at all. Beginning with the earliest shows, the models were eye candy, there to accentuate the cars and trucks on display. Not much else was required.” (New York Times, “Car-Show Models Have Come a Long Way, Baby”)

Margery scrapped the stereotypical clothing and formulated a new approach. “Each car manufacturer,” she says, “has its own brand identity. And, when I look at someone to hire, I look at his or her lifestyle and persona to see if there is a good match for a Lexus – or a Jeep. As just one example, if someone is going to be a product specialist for a Lexus or a Cadillac, people in that demographic want the person standing next to a car to look how they see themselves. So I’d think glamor, upscale, sleek.”

Because Margery works with more than 15 brands, each with a different look, she calls choosing the right wardrobes an “interesting and challenging element. With Scion, for example, you need a hip vibe, something edgy. So I’d hire someone with visible body piercing and tattoos. I’d want that person to appeal to a younger age group – and I might dress that person in black jeans, a shirt with silk screened sayings, an asymmetrical jacket and cool body piercings.”

Before any of these decisions are made, though, Margery and her team sit in a room with auto executive and ask for words that describe a particular brand. Then these adjectives are written and hung on a wall. Beside each word, Margery and her team paste pictures from a magazine that fit each adjective. From that process, they begin envisioning the appropriate wardrobe for a particular brand.

Margery hires both men and women as product specialists. “Diversity is also important,” she says, “so I look for bilingual and even trilingual people. At least ten percent of my product specialists can speak both English and Spanish. Others can also speak Japanese. Or Chinese.”

A Few More Questions

We’d seen that a documentary was being made, based on Margery’s book, and asked her for an update. She told us that the book was well

received and stands alone as an historical piece. “The documentary,” she says, “also includes interviews with people in the automotive industry and so forth, in the style of Ken Burns.” The documentary is being created by filmmaker John Laurie and is still in progress.

And, what about famous people who were once product specialists for car shows? The list includes actor and comedian Tim Allen; Marilyn Barnett, who is now the CEO of Mars Advertising; Kathleen DuRoss, who went on to marry the chairman of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford II; actor Pam Dauber; Brian “Kato” Kaelin, who once lived on the O.J. Simpson estate; and news anchor Rhonda Walker.

As a final question: what would the Margery of, say, 35 years ago think about where life has taken her? “In college,” she says with a laugh, “I had a VW bug and, during the winter, I would always pray that it would start. Now cars are much more reliable. And, maps? Whatever would I do now without a GPS?”

Editor’s note: Margery’s car specialists will be working at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show (February 8-17), the country’s largest and longest-running car show, with more than one million square feet of exhibit space.