All Hail the Woman Driver! Happy International Women’s Day 🩷

Dorothy Levitt’s book ‘The Woman and the Car’ must have caused quite a stir when it was published 115 years ago. In 1909, a decade before women could even vote, Ms. Levitt wrote the book for and about the woman driver.

Although only 27 at the time of publication, she was certainly qualified to write ‘The Woman and the Car’.

As the first British woman racing driver, she had been winning races and setting records since 1903, when she was 21. Known as the fastest girl on Earth, Dorothy Levitt held the world’s first water speed record and the women’s world land speed record.

 

Levitt’s book, ‘The Woman and The Car’, was published in 1909. It must have caused quite a stir – a book written for and about the woman driver – published a decade before women could even vote.

 

She tracked her accomplishments in her diary. “April 1903,” she wrote, “First Englishwoman to take part in a public motor-car competition. Did not win. Will do better next time.”

And so she did. A month later, she scored 994 out of a possible 1000 points driving a 16-horsepower Gladiator in a non-stop run from Glasgow to London.

 

Dorothy Levitt and her race-winning Gladiator.

 

 

The art of driving and managing the mechanism of the car

That same year, she earned 350 guineas for winning the Gaston Menier Cup in France. Then, she won a motor-boat race and held court with the King who wanted to see her put her boat through its paces.

 

Dorothy Levitt at the helm of the Napier yacht in 1903.
Photo: Author Unknown

 

Dorothy Levitt wrote her book in response to the attention garnered by a series of articles she had written, published in the Daily Graphic, on the art of driving and managing the mechanism of the car. The articles prompted a deluge of letters from woman all over the United Kingdom and abroad who wanted more.

 

The 1908 eight-horsepower Sizaire, an example of a small car recommended by Dorothy Levitt for its affordability and reliability.
Photo: H.W. Nicholls

 

The sub-title of the 164-page book reads ‘A Chatty Little Handbook for the Edwardian Motoriste’. In addition to being chatty, it’s informative and educational, with chapter titles like:

        • The Car – its Cost, Upkeep and Accessories

        • The Mechanism of the Car

        • How to Drive

        • Troubles – How to Avoid and to Mend Them

        • The Motor Woman’s Dictionary

If one intends to work on the car oneself, Levitt recommends purchasing “…a single-cylinder car – more cylinders mean more work.” Helpful advice, even in modern times, although you’d be hard-pressed to find a single-cylinder car at any dealership today.

The sepia images in the book depict Ms. Levitt, hands sheathed in black kid gloves, adjusting something on the De Dion vehicle she favoured with captions that read: “First advance the spark and give more air” or “The lubrication of the De Dion is extremely simple”.

 

Dorothy Levitt was a champion of managing the mechanism of the car on her own and wanted other women to feel confident enough to do as well.
Photo: H. W. Nicholls

 

“Keep within the legal limit of speed all the time except on a good and clear stretch of road…”

In the chapter on Motor Manners, she gives advice like: “If you have a syren fitted to your car, do not sound it in a town or village. A syren is really only necessary for Continental driving.” Those unruly French motoristes!

A speedometer was not standard equipment, but Levitt, the speed queen, suggests it as “… a very interesting accessory, for it tells you exactly the pace at which you are travelling.”

In Chapter Two, The All-Important Question of Dress, she recommends having a mirror stashed in the ‘little drawer under the front seat’, among other items for the ‘dainty motoriste’ like a pair of clean gloves, an extra handkerchief, clean veil, powder-puff, and hairpins.

 

Levitt would don her indispensable overall to conduct minor roadside repairs. As Levitt advises: “Remember it is better to get grease-spots on your washable overall than on your coat or other clothes.”
Photo: H.W. Nicholls

 

The mirror, she advises, should have a handle to “… occasionally hold up to see what is behind you in a flash…”. With this sentence, Levitt makes the very first reference in print to the rear-view mirror.

 

Dorothy Levitt recommends carrying a small mirror in your car. One with a handle to be used to look behind you when driving. The first rearview mirror?
Photo: Author Unknown

 

She also recommends carrying a small revolver if driving alone.

The racer in Levitt comes out in her advice on speeding: Keep within the legal limit of speed all the time except on a good and clear stretch of road… there is no real harm done to any one in trying to see what you can get out of your car for a short spurt.

 

Dorothy Levitt: A true champion for women behind the wheel of a motorcar

Ms. Levitt’s book provides a list of ‘Distinguished Women Motoristes’ who had taken to the motorcar for the freedom, independence and adventure it afforded.

The list includes a Baroness, a Countess, many Ladies and some female racers including Miss Muriel Hind, famous for racing motorcycles, Miss Isabel Savory who raced a 10-horsepower Cadillac and the daring Miss Daisy Hampson who won several races in her 120-horsepower Fiat!

 

Another speed queen from Dorothy Levitt’s era, Daisy Hampson with her 120-horsepower Fiat.
Photo: SpeedQueens.com

 

Levitt marvels that a mere twenty years prior to the writing of her book, two essential ingredients to owning and operating a motorcar, mechanics and map-reading, “… were supposed to be beyond the capacity of a woman’s brain”.

We’ve come a long way, baby!

 

1909 – The Coming of the Small Car

In the informative chapter ‘The Coming of the Small Car’, Levitt lists the affordable vehicles she feels have high quality, durability and reliability: the eight-horsepower De Dion is a favourite. The nine-horsepower Sizaire, twin-cylinder Phoenix, the Rover and the Vauxhall are also mentioned.

 

Dorothy Levitt driving a Napier at the inaugural Brighton Speed Trials in July 1905, setting a new Ladies World Land Speed record of 79.75 miles an hour, as well as winning her class and the Autocar Challenge Trophy
Photo: Hand-coloured Postcard, Author Unknown

 

The passion that Dorothy Levitt has for driving is apparent. Originally a ‘horse’ woman, she describes the ‘lightning strike’ of love at first sight: “… I took up motoring [and] I found the exhilaration, the delights of the gallop doubled. It fascinated me, and it will fascinate any woman who tries it.”

‘The Woman and The Car’ is practical, inspiring and worth the read, no matter its publication date or its intended audience.

 

“… the intense pleasure, the actual realisation of the pastime comes only when you drive your own car.”

~ Dorothy Levitt

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