Mimi Vandermolen: Women Drivers Have A Friend At Ford

When it comes to designing cars, Mimi Vandermolen knows how to get the men at Ford Motor Co. to take her seriously. To sensitize her mostly male design staff to the needs of women drivers, she had them work in fake fingernails. The result: a hot-selling 1993 Ford Probe with less bulky radio knobs and door handles. The Probe also has a lightweight trunk door and a lowered front end, to give shorter women a better view of the road. Says Vandermolen: "I've threatened to make our men designers wear skirts while getting in and out of a car."

Vandermolen, 46, is trying to take some of the macho out of Motown. As the highest-ranking woman designer in the auto industry, she's using her position to draw attention to the many frustrations female drivers face--from seat buttons that entangle skirts and rip panty hose to bulky gas and brake pedals that defy women in high heels. Traditionally, cars have been designed with men in mind. But with women making up 49% of new-car purchases, many auto makers are reevaluating their market.

Born in Toronto, the daughter of an amateur motorcycle racer, Vandermolen's maverick instincts run deep. As a product-design student at Ontario College of Art, she eschewed drawing toasters and vacuums for the racier chalks of cars. She joined Ford in 1969, and after a restless stint designing home appliances for a Ford subsidiary, she landed a spot on the already successful Mustang design team. Her big break came in 1980, when she headed up the interior-design team for the blockbuster Ford Taurus. The Probe, considered a big success, marked Vandermolen's first shot at overseeing the design of an entire car. Now, she's tackling the redesign of Ford's Festiva. Mimi Vandermolen isn't the only designing woman in the car industry. But as she climbs the ladder, she has got the clout to put gender-sensitive design in the front seat.

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