Dorothy Levitt and the right to drive
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This is the story of how a woman racing driver took one of the first major steps to create equality in the motoring profession.
Few hobbies have required engineering skills more than early motoring. Primitive engines on basic chassis, riding over roads designed for horses, made it necessary for drivers to take a ‘riding engineer’ to deal with inevitable breakdowns. The high speeds – sometimes cruising at around 20mph – and the need to know the ins and outs of a misbehaving engine meant one thing: motoring at the beginning of the 20th century was clearly a man’s preserve.
This was news to Dorothy Levitt. Coming from a wealthy London family, she had secured a job with motor manufacturer Napier as a secretary. However, working for one of the first British motor racing companies did bring her into contact with that most glamorous creature of all – the racing driver.
Selwyn Edge was an Australian driver and a director of Napier, and in Levitt he saw just what he needed. Racing a Napier in the 1902 Gordon Bennett Cup, he noticed there was only one thing better than a racing driver for bringing publicity to a car manufacturer. That was Camille du Gast – a female racing driver. Looking around for his own Camille, he found her typing at Napier’s.
Edge arranged for Levitt to take a six-month apprenticeship at a French car maker. The apprenticeship involved not just driving, but chauffeuring and engineering. A driver in 1903 didn’t need simply to know how to drive their car – they needed to know how it worked.
Levitt likened motoring on the cart-rutted roads of Europe to steeplechasing, and when she returned to England she made her living teaching the aristocracy, including Queen Alexandra, to drive.
Edge persuaded her to become a works driver for Napier. In April 1903 Levitt became the first English woman to compete in a race. It was not a victory, but she was hooked and wrote in her diary: “will do better next time.”
She did. Over the next five years she competed in speed trials, hill climbs and endurance events. In the Hereford 1,000-mile endurance race, she completed the course in five days without any ‘riding mechanic’ and was only prevented from winning when a needle valve came loose on the last day. She fixed it herself, but it took more than the 20 minutes allowed and she was disqualified. In March 1905, she recorded the ‘longest drive achieved by a lady driver’ when she drove her single-cylinder De Dion Bouton from London to Liverpool and back again in two days, making her own repairs.
Speed records soon followed, and in 1906 she took the women’s world speed record with a flying run averaging 91mph in Blackpool. The newspapers dubbed her ‘The Fastest Girl on Earth’. She was also probably the coolest, noting casually that, when the bonnet catch came loose during the run, “had I not pulled up in time, might have blown back and beheaded me”.
Levitt became the darling of British motor racing, christened the ‘Champion Lady Motorist of the World’. Napier also made marine engines and at the inaugural British International Harmsworth trophy for motor-boats in 1903, Levitt took the helm, won the event and set the world’s first water speed record: 19.3mph. Typically for the day, however, as the boat was owned and entered by Edge, the trophy reads ‘S.F. Edge’.
Yet her story ended sadly. After 1910 she simply disappeared from the record, apparently giving up racing altogether. She died in 1922, alone in her Marylebone flat, aged just 40. Her records were soon beaten, but Levitt did have one major legacy.
Outside of racing she had become a journalist and her greatest topic was a woman’s right to motor. She produced a book called ‘The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Who Want to Motor’. This proved a powerful, early call for women to be accepted in motoring and engineering. Filled with practical advice and photographs of her repairing mechanical faults, it included, among other innovations, the first suggestion of using a rear-view mirror.
Most importantly, it asserted the right of women to be treated equally in this engineering-based profession. Despite claims from male manufacturers that women were unsuited to driving, let alone racing, she proved this was simply nonsense. As she put it: “If a woman wants to learn how to drive and to understand a motor-car, she can and will learn as quickly as a man. There are many women whose keen eyes can detect and whose deft fingers can remedy, a loose nut or a faulty electrical connection in half the time that a professional chauffeur would spend upon the work.”