The 60’s were a time of change but they were nothing without those who pioneered in the decades prior so it would be a crime to not mention Helene Rother, a single mother, and refugee that made waves in the automotive design world.
Helene Rother, 1908-1999, was the first woman automotive designer. She was born in Germany and then moved to Paris after she had made a name for herself designing jewelry, furniture and many other things in between. She was a single mother, she and her daughter ended up in Casablanca after running from the Nazi’s who marched into Paris. She was stuck in North African refugee camp with her daughter for two to four months while waiting for their papers to finalize. She then made her way to New York and chased the American Dream. Landing in new york in 1941 she instantly started looking for work and she found it as an illustrator at Marvel Comics. She drew the character Jimmy Jupiter for a time before she moved west in 1942.
She landed in Detroit, interviewed for the job that she had seen in The New York Times, General Motors needed a new designer, and she got the job. Rother started working for their interior design staff which she had experience in due to her past. She was in charge of the upholstery, fabric, lighting and hardware that went into vehicles at that time. She worked there until 1947 making $600 a month which was almost unheard of even for a man but General Motors downplayed her role because a woman working for that much and in the automotive field was a radical idea at the time.
She moved onto Nash under an independent contract in 1947 and had her own design studio. She made key interior components and completely reinvigorated the interiors of the Nash brand. She wanted to make interiors for women that they didn’t feel funny getting in and out of them, something stylish, clean and comfortable. She worked from home to be with her daughter. Her daughter recalled that when she first started working at Nash, Helene bought a Nash and promptly totaled it. She was a very busy woman and always drove fast so she accumulated many speeding tickets. She opened the door for women to get into the automotive industry, she showed that they could succeed. In her time after Nash she worked for Miller-Meteor, helping to design ambulances and hearses. Later she designed stained glass windows for churches across the united states and her reputation as one of the best stained-glass artists remains to this day. She still did other automotive work from time to time. At the age of 91 she passed away, her number of speeding tickets were probably comparable to the impact she had on the industry.