Let me begin by saying that I am not a fan of motor racing. Watching cars driving around a circuit is not for me. I appreciate the skill, the daring, the precision timing of the driving and the incredible engineering that allows speeds of, I understand, up to around 230 mph.
However, I recently wrote a Maze Report based on the first woman in Britain to drive a car on the road. Her name was Minnie Palmer, an American actress living in London. Whilst I was researching Minnie, I came across the story of an amazing British woman, whose exploits were quite incredible back in the early 1900s. So, this is the last of my blogs on extraordinary women and I’ve saved this one for last. Her name is Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt, and she was not only the ‘the fastest girl on earth’, but was also a pioneer of women’s driving and racing, an aviator and held a world title for water and land speed records.
Dorothy was born in 1882 and learned to drive after she became a secretary at a car sales company, Napier, a leading manufacturer of motor cars from the late 1890s. Having been taught to drive, she took to it like the proverbial duck to water. As well as racing she taught Queen Alexandra and the Royal Princesses to drive.
Dorothy began her racing career in 1903, at the age of twenty one. When I say ‘racing’, it wasn’t then what it is now. There were no circuits and all drivers taking part in road and off road races had to be able to maintain their own cars, so Dorothy undertook a six-month crash course in car mechanics.
That race in 1903 made her the first British woman racing driver. She didn’t win, but the experience gave her the hunger and incentive to improve. Her first win was later in 1903, when she took the prize at the Southport Speed Trials, in the final covering the ‘flying kilometre’ in one minute forty five seconds. Needless to say, she scandalised society! A piece in a driving magazine was outraged, hoping that: ‘the controlling of motor cars will be wrested from the hands of … these would-be men’.
Despite the effort required to handle the racing cars, Dorothy was definitely not an Amazon, being described as ‘the most girlish of women … slight in stature, shy and shrinking, almost timid.’ She always wore her own, fashionable clothes covered by a ‘dust coat’, always had her dog with her (a Pomeranian called Dodo, smuggled into England in the repair box of an automobile) and advocated carrying a pistol in the glove box, ‘just in case’. Of what? She never said.
Dorothy’s triumphs continued for the next five years, setting records in speed trials, setting the world speed record in 1905, driving a 100hp Napier K5 car at 90.88 mph over a flying kilometre. This earned her not only the title of ‘the fastest girl on earth’, but also ‘The Lady Champion of the World.’
She was a great favourite with the press, who lapped up not only her successes, but also her adventures. These included many run-ins with the law for motoring offences for driving at high speed on public roads. Apparently, she: ‘steered … around the bends with perfect sureness.’ How she managed this in such an unwieldy vehicle, with a dog on her lap, I will never understand.
When Brooklands opened in 1907, women were allowed to race, but their contribution was barely recorded. In the 1908 Easter meeting, as the BARC (British Automobile Racing Club) did not allow women members, Dorothy, despite being probably the best known racing driver in the country, could only be described as an ‘entrant.’
Dorothy continued right up to 1913, when she suddenly disappeared from the public view, not re-emerging until 1920. She didn’t appear on an electoral register and no-one knows what she did during the whole of WW1.
Sadly, shortly after her re-appearance, she died, at the age of 39. She had heart disease and had had a bout of measles, which was complicated by morphine poisoning. The inquest verdict was ‘misadventure’.
Dorothy’s work and her thoughts on women motorists lives on in the books and articles she wrote during her years of fame.
I wonder what she would have thought of the men racing round today at over 200 mph, witnessed by thousands of screaming, cheering spectators. I suspect she would probably have loved it.