I started reading about women racing drivers years ago when I was bought a book called The Woman and the Car by Dorothy Levitt, originally published in 1909 and designed to help women maintain their cars. I was fascinated by the fact that in the early part of 20th century a woman had been a successful works team driver for the Napier team. Dorothy Levitt has been one of my role models since reading her book. The picture at the top of this article is of her.
Then, last year, a friend bought a pre-war MG and asked me to research it and the history of the previous owners, trying to find a racing pedigree for the car. We haven’t quite managed to do that yet but my research has led me to find out about other women racing drivers of the early 20th century, many of whom are in this book.
The book is an odd mish-mash of fact and chatty reminiscences. It doesn’t cover the lives of all, or even most, of the women drivers I have come across. It doesn’t give all the drivers equal space. And, I think, the author has his favourites amongst the drivers; possibly those he knew. In a lot of ways this reflects my experience of trying to find out about the women who raced MGs; they have disappeared into the mists of time, written out of history by the disappearance of the marques they drove for and the increasing, post-WWII of sexism in motor sport.
Anyway, soap-box moment over!
The book is an interesting read. It starts with Camille du Gast, the French adrenaline-junkie who was the first woman to complete a parachute jump (in 1895) as well as racing cars and boats.
Much to my delight there is a chapter on Dorothy Levitt, giving me more information about her away from the race track. I didn’t know she got into racing because she was a temporary secretary at Napier when Selwyn Edge was looking for a British woman to rival Camille du Gast!
I was also pleased to find part of a chapter covering the life of Margaret Allan; she was a member of the all-women MG Le Mans team of 1935. She also worked at Bletchley Park during WWII, which provides a nice link to something else I’m interested in.
Another gripe about the book is that although it is supposed to a book about women racing drivers there are far too many diversions into what their menfolk were doing in the racing world. If I was being charitable I would say these parts were to fill gaps where there is little or no information about the women. I could also say that it is indicative of the chauvinist world of motor racing!
To summarise, you will probably have guessed that I like this book because it gives me more information about a subject I am really interested in. I dislike it because it shows how little the racing world cares about a group of drivers who were remarkable for their achievements regardless of their gender. As a work of literature it is poor, yet it kept me interested and engaged throughout.