The Bugatti Queen: in search of a motor racing legend – Miranda Seymour

This is a book about Helene Delangle, aka Helle Nice, provincial child, exotic dancer in 1920s Paris and pre-WWII racing driver.

Helene Delangle was born at the end of the 19th century, the daughter of a rural French postmaster who died when she was young.

As a young woman she went to Paris to pursue a career as a dancer, changed her name to Helle Nice and seems to have existed on the seedier edges of the glamorous roaring 20s although she gradually rose through the ranks to become a headline dancer until she damaged her knee.

Her second career was as a racing driver, entering all the main races and competing against male drivers as well as in women’s races.  Although the book is entitled “The Bugatti Queen” she wasn’t exclusively a Bugatti driver and left to Ettore she may not have driven Bugattis at all.  Fortunately for her Jean Bugatti took an interest and she went onto set a speed record for them.

Helle had a talent for publicity, probably from the highly competitive dance world, and went on a tour of USA, successfully racing on dirt tracks as well as racing ovals until she had a serious accident in South America which stalled her career.

She remained in France during WWII and afterwards expected to take up racing again.  Unfortunately, Louis Chiron (the man the new Bugatti Chiron is named after) publically accused her of working for the Gestapo during the war and this finished her career although the author of this book notes that she could not find any documentary evidence to support Chiron’s claim.

Helle Nice lived until 1975, forgotten in the increasing male dominated world of motor racing and increasingly living in poverty.

I really enjoyed reading this book as it brought together several things I’m interested in: the jazz age, motor racing and the part played by women in motor sport during the 1920s and 30s.

Helle Nice is colourful character and, along with the other serious women drivers between the wars, does not deserve to languish in oblivion.

I think the author does a good job of pulling together the strands of a life shrouded in the mist of time and also subject to several revisions by the subject over her lifetime.

More and more I think it’s more than time that the motor sport fraternity gave due recognition to the women drivers who more than held their own during the inter-war years.  If you want more women in motor sport, start celebrating those who were successful at it in an era where gender roles were supposedly much more rigidly defined than they are today.

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