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Here are the 5 most influential woman in motoring

2017-08-09 07:00

Lance Branquinho

Bertha Benz, the first person to take a drive in a motor vehicle.Image: Youtube

Cape Town - Cars, racing and even engineering are hardly the kind of things that women are associated to. Did you know the very first drive was taken by a woman?

From design to engineering and the first drive... These woman show that girls can be gearheads too. 

1. Oona Scheepers

The consensus is that Audi’s cabin design, as artform and an environment facilitating ambience, is unrivalled. The shapes, colours, textures – since the early 2000s they’ve just been that bit better than anything else. 

It’s a reality delivered by the imagination of a Karoo lady, Oona Scheepers – one of our own, born and raised on a Prieska farm and educated at CPUT in Cape Town. A graphic designer by training, Oona never anticipated she would work in the automotive sector, it was a happening very much by accident. She sketched a few of her son’s friends, after moving to Germany with her husband, and those portraits were eventually seen by the right person.

READ: 10 women who made an impact in the automotive industry

Today, Scheepers is the boss of all interior design at the VW Group, which includes Audi and Porsche. Some of her most celebrated work is the Carrera GT supercar’s cabin and the Cayenne SUV. 

2. Leena Gade

Audi’s dominance of the Le Mans 24-hour race – totalling 13 overall wins – had much to do with the methodical analysis of a brilliant British engineer. 

Leena Gade, the daughter of Indian immigrant parents, qualified as an aerospace engineer and starter her working career at Jaguar, specialising in refinement analysis. Part-time, Gade consulted to racing teams and eventually found her way to Le Mans. As a teenager she became obsessed with Formula One racing, glued to the television on race weekends – absorbing all the glamour and technical nuances. 

As chief race engineer at the world’s most strategic race, where a mere second of misjudgement can undo nearly 24 hours of team effort, Gade made all the correct decisions in 2011, becoming the first woman to triumph as a lead engineering at Le Mans. She would follow this with wins in 2012 and 2014. 

Her sister Teena is also an accomplished racing engineer, having worked on Mini’s WRC cars before finding her way into F1, as a vehicle science specialist for Force India. 


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Bertha Benz

In engineering and inventing we’re terribly gender biased, assuming that all the great advances were made by men. But in the history of the car, that invention which has altered our world so much more than any other, the first drive was taken by Bertha Benz. 

The surname is an easy clue, she was the wife of inventor Karl Benz, but unlike her husband, Bertha wasn’t given to depression or anxiety of failure. She believed that Karl’s petrol-powered car worked before he did and to prove her point, she took it on a drive to go visit her mother in Pforzheim, 106km from the Benz residence in Mannheim. 

It was an extraordinary event, one requiring careful planning to buy fuel from general stores, in the form of the cleaning agent ligroin, as there were exactly zero petrol filling stations around in 1888. Bertha’s family had financed much of the R&D for Karl’s Patent Motorwagen and she knew that herjourney would serve as the ultimate proof of concept. 

Courageous and resourceful, Bertha’s first drive of the Benz generated an immense interest in the vehicle – a momentum which birthed the current automotive industry worth nearly 90m units last year. Along her journey Bertha showed her mechanical aptitude too: fixing a failed chain with the help of a local blacksmith and improving the Benz’s brake design by adding leather brake blocks. 
The world’s most storied car brand, Mercedes-Benz, would never have happened if it was not for the daring ability of this extraordinary woman. 

Mary Barra

General Motors is not a small company. Totalling 215 000 employees it produces nearly ten million cars a year – and in charge of this rather substantial operation is a woman: Mary Barra.

An electrical engineer by training, Barra is uniquely skilled to understand the challenges for GM as it embraces a future of personal mobility which will certainly be powered more by batteries than fossil fuels. She is the first female automotive company boss and a lead figure in the global industry. 

Born in Michigan, with a father who worked for nearly four decades at Pontiac, Barra’s is as authentically automotive as they come. Her position as CEO was not gender friendly recruitment for the benefit of public images, Mary started at GM aged 18 and worked her way up. 

Elizabeth Krear

Is there possibly a bakkie that is more macho than Chrysler’s Dodge Ram? The huge chrome bumpers, those thundering 5.7-litre Hemi V8 engines and ridiculous 5t towing capacity – Dodge’s Ram is the bakkie South Africans can only dream of. 

And the person who ensures that the Ram is designed and built properly, is Elizabeth Krear. A lifelong career at Chrysler has seen Elizabeth rise to the top in her position as chief engineer of Dodge Ram bakkies. 

Although she never envisioned a career in automotive engineers, Krear wished to be in business. Her father’s advice was that an engineering degree would be the best way to learn proper analytical skills. He was right. 


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