Talking to members of The Traditional Car Club of Doncaster the other week, some of whom I’ve known for years, made me think about the people who have influenced me when it comes to cars.
One of the biggest influences – in life as well as in cars – has been Dorothy Levitt. I suspect not many people will have heard of her; she isn’t especially famous or well-known. I only found out about her by chance because my then boyfriend brought me a book back from Beaulieu Autojumble called The Woman and the Car by Dorothy Levitt.
Her book, as described on the cover, is “a chatty little handbook for all women who want to motor”. Essentially, a car maintenance book for women. What interested me more though was the biography of the author who was described as racing for the Napier Motor Company…in 1902!
Who was this woman? How did she become a racing driver? How successful was she? And how come I’d never heard of her or any other female racing driver before?
I assumed – always a mistake – that she must have come from a very affluent background to be the sort of person who could afford a car and afford to race during the early days of motor racing. In fact, although she didn’t come from a poor background she became a racing driver through her need to work. She went to Napier Motor Company as a temporary secretary and caught the eye of Selwyn Edge, the Managing Director, whilst she was there. Edge was looking for a woman to rival the French racer Madame Camille du Gast and so promote Napier cars. Fortunately for him once taught Dorothy could race as well as look the part!
Because of British attitudes towards women drivers Dorothy mainly competed in speed events and distance races in the UK. In Europe, however, she competed in all types of races. During her time racing she was the holder of the women’s land speed record, set the first water speed record and won various distance races in Europe.
In her book Levitt encourages women to take up motoring and to be self-reliant, an early feminist. She also has some really practical tips, one of which introduced a feature we now take for granted on cars; a rear view mirror. She suggested that women should carry a hand mirror so they can see what is happening on the road behind them.
One of her other suggestions would be frowned upon nowadays; to always carry a handgun in the lockbox under the seat. Her recommendation is a Colt because the lack of recoil makes it easier to handle!
Regrettable, Dorothy Levitt died young at the age of 40. It seems such a shame that she didn’t live long enough to become a Grande-Dame of British motoring and motoring journalism. But we should celebrate the fact that she lived and took up the challenges offered to her. Women’s place in motor racing history needs pulling out of the corner it’s hidden in, dusting down and sharing with the world.
If you’re interested in motoring history we’d be delighted to welcome you to The Waterwheel to see our collection of automobilia and to enjoy a meal or snack.
Click here to find out more about The Waterwheel Tearoom & Bistro
Click here to find out more about Dorothy Levitt