Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Dorothy Levitt - "the fastest girl on Earth"

The term 'pioneer' is all too often used, particularly within the steampunk genre, as a generic term to describe people we admire. However, in the case of Dorothy Levitt, the term is wholly appropriate. Described throughout the aethernet as a 'secretary', Ms Levitt was a leviathan of early motor racing, and a trail-blazer where women stepped after her fiery path.

Her life outside of her amazing achievements is strangely undocumented, but it is suspected that she began her working life as a secretary for the engine and car manufacturers Napier & Son. Not content with motor racing, she raced speedboats, and seems to have been addicted to speed.

She burst onto the motor scene in 1903, winning her class at the Southport Speed Trials driving a 12 Hp Gladiator. In 1904 she raced an officially entered De Dion car in the Hereford 1,000-mile, but mechanical problems on the final day (which she repaired herself) prevented her winning a gold medal. In 1905, she won the inaugural British International Harmworth Trophy for speedboats at Cork, Ireland, achieving 19.3 mph.

In the same year, Ms Levitt established a new record for the 'longest drive achieved by a lady driver' - 205 miles - by driving from the De Dion showroom in Great Marlborough Street, London, to the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool in 11 hours, and completing the round trip in 2 days. She travelled without the aid of a mechanic , but with an official observer, her pet dog Dodo, and her trusty revolver. This was without the aid of a road map, road signs or petrol stations, none of which had not yet been invented - petrol was obtained from hardware stores and chemists. She rounded the year off by winning both her class and the Autocar Challenge Trophy at the annual speed trials in Brighton.

The following year of 1906 saw Ms Levitt break the women's world speed record by reaching a speed of 96 mph, followed by 91 miles per hour in a speed trial in Blackpool. She also set the Ladies' Record at the Shelshey Walsh Speed Hill Climb in a 50hp Napier (7790 cc), making the climb in 92.4 seconds, 12 seconds faster than the male winner and three minutes faster than the previous women's record. Her record stood until 1913. She was now the 'fastest girl on Earth'.

Forbidden from the new Brooklands circuit in Weybridge, (which rejected women drivers until 1908), in 1907 Ms Levitt won her class in the Gaillon Hillclimb in France, driving a 40HP 6 cyl Napier. In 1908, she won a silver plaque in the Prinz Heinrich Trophy at the Herkomer Trophy Trial in Germany, was second fastest of over 50 competitors at the Aston Clinton Hill Climb in Buckinghamshire, and completed the La Cote du Calvaire hill climb at Trouville in France.

Not content with her achievements as a racing driver, she enrolled to qualify as a pilot at the Hubert Latham School of Aviation in France.

An author and journalist as well, her book The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Hand Book for Women Who Motor or Want to Motor was published in 1909 to great acclaim, and she published upon motoring for the Graphic illustrated newspaper. In true pioneering style, she recommended that women use a hand-mirror to see traffic behind her - the rear-view mirror was not invented until 1914!

Women followed in her wheels, including her close friend Barbara Cartland. She deserves to be remembered, not just as a pioneering female driver, but as one of the greatest early racing drivers regardless.

For those with access, the BBC produced a remarkable film, Penelope Keith and the Fast Lady, with Penelope Keith (a stallwart of British television) retracing Ms Levitt's journey from London to Liverpool. Access via the BBC iplayer is available here.