When a woman gets behind the wheel of a car, she often faces a challenge. Where to put your bag? There just isn’t a good place. There’s the passenger seat, if it’s empty, or the feet well in front, or even in the back seat, if you don’t mind going all the way to the back.
While there are cup holders, keys, and even cell phones, there is rarely a good place to store a purse or handbag. Of course, it’s not just women who carry bags, and not just handbags. But purses contain items that need to be kept close at hand, like a wallet, house keys, and even the key to the vehicle itself. You don’t want to throw it anywhere in the car.
The placement of automobile handbags has not always been such a problem. It’s become a problem in recent decades as automakers have tried to balance competing needs for space, convenience and style.
At times, automakers have made special, and sometimes clumsy, efforts to accommodate the needs of female drivers. In the mid-1950s, for example, Chrysler introduced a new model specifically aimed at women. The Dodge La Femme, as it was called, had seats with an embroidered rosebud pattern and a brushed gold “La Femme” badge, rather than plain chrome. It came with color-coordinated rain gear that stored in a special pouch behind the front seat. The car also came with a pink leather handbag to match the interior of the car. There was another bag in the back of the front seat to hold this pink purse. Nice place, but not very convenient, because the driver would have to move awkwardly or even put on the bag before sitting in the driver’s seat.
But the Dodge La Femme, like most American cars of the 1950s, had a front bench seat. Bench seats have a single long seat cushion that stretches across the entire car. They allow three people to sit side by side in front.
With a bench seat, handbag placement was not an issue. If there was no one sitting in the center, which would have been the case most of the time, the purse could just stay on the seat.
Alas, the benches have disappeared. At first, the alternative, bucket seats, was mainly found in sports cars. Today we just call them “seats” because they’re in just about everything. They gave the cars a sportier feel and made it easier to change gears by using a floor shifter rather than on the steering column.
The space between the seats, however, generally has an annoying hump. A tunnel runs along the center of most vehicles to provide room for transmission, exhaust pipe and other things. To make this space more useful, car manufacturers invented the center console. It usually includes a storage bin, often with a lid, cup holders and sometimes a phone holder. In modern cars there are usually also a few USB ports. There are many competing needs to accommodate everything drivers carry in the car.
“You want to position these objects with relative ease, like, ‘Yeah, I’m throwing my wallet here, I’m throwing my keys here,'” said Stellantis designer Ryan Nagode, “and some of these things are constantly evolving.”
For example, the cup holders have increased in size to accommodate more generous takeaway cups. With larger vehicles, it’s less difficult to design space for a bag simply because there is so much space to work with. This is why the Ram 1500, for example, offers a huge central bin. It’s more difficult with smaller models.
General Motors designer Taryn Dyle pointed out that designing large storage areas also poses cost issues, beyond simply having the room.
“It’s usually more expensive because you have to add more structure in targeted locations to have a large open space,” she explained.
In recent years, a new technology, the electronic gear selector, has become common, making it easier to arrange spaces for bags. Previously, the gear selector, that lever with the letters PRNDL that drivers use to put the car in park, reverse or drive, had to be mechanically connected to the transmission. An electronic gear selector does the same thing, but with electronic signals sent to the transmission, opening up all kinds of possibilities.
Some SUVs, like the Nissan Rogue and Volkswagen Atlas, have open spaces below the shifter. This opening would not be possible if the shifter had to be connected to the transmission. In Lincoln SUVs, gears are selected using a row of buttons on the lower dashboard instead of a lever. This design also opens up space in the center console for bags.
Things are getting even better with electric cars. Electric vehicles don’t need a bulky multi-speed transmission at all, and they certainly don’t need an exhaust.
“In an electrified (vehicle), we get the benefits of a dead battery, which gives us this new space inside the cabin,” said Volvo designer Lisa Reeves.
Without a central tunnel, some electric vehicles like the Hyundai Ioniq 6 simply have a very large space under the center console. At Volvo, the designers were particularly creative. The EX30 EV features a center console with sections that slide, move and open to create spaces that can easily accommodate larger or smaller bags.
In the electric Cadillac Escalade IQ, designers took advantage of this space to create a large, elegantly decorated opening, perfect for a purse or bag. It sits under a portion of the center console that projects outward like a cliff ledge. This may seem trivial, but it was a priority.
“It was one of those projects that I fought for, and everyone on the project rallied around,” Dyle said.