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Automotive Hall of Fame to induct trendsetting female designer

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The Automotive Hall of Fame said Thursday it will induct four new members this year, including one of the first women in automotive design for General Motors Co.

The Dearborn-based organization has honored nearly 800 individuals who have shaped the automotive and mobility industries. In July, it will add four more, including Hyundai Motor Co.'s chairman and CEO, talk-show host John Leno and Helene Rother, a former interior stylist at the Detroit automaker hired in 1942 who emphasized the use of color and appealing to female buyers.

Helene Rother

"She was one of the very early female designers who had a long and successful career that made big contributions into the interior styling of cars," said Sarah Cook, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame. "She really elevated the elegance and quality."

The German-born trailblazer, who died in 1999, used her experience in the Paris and New York fashion industries to bring beauty to gray vehicle interiors through materials and fabrics, explaining how they were an emotional choice to attract buyers, said Francesca Steele, a volunteer at America's Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, who researches women in the auto industry. Rother used research, particularly feedback from women, to emphasize the need for features in vehicles such as air conditioning, outlets to heat baby bottles, umbrella holders and safety belts.

"It's the gadgets that will sell the car of tomorrow," she said before the Society of Automobile Engineers in 1948.

She opened her own design studio in 1947, working for a number of automobiles but especially Nash-Kelvinator Corp., the predecessor of Jeep's American Motors Corp. that was eventually acquired by Chrysler Corp. From 1948-1956, she contributed to the Nash Rambler, which launched the compact market in the United States.

"The Nash Rambler was really noteworthy because it was one of the early designs where its interior was noted as appealing to the customer directly," Cook said.

Because of those contributions, she will be honored alongside Mong-Koo Chung, Hyundai chairman; Thomas Gallagher, former CEO of Genuine Parts Co. and Leno for his "Jay Leno's Garage" series on CNBC. Harold Goddijn, CEO of navigation system developer TomTom NV, also will receive the new Mobility Innovator Award.

Twitter; @BreanaCNoble