Thursday, 29 July 2010

Dorothy Levitt



When this post was first written, about four years ago, very little was known about this very early speedqueen. Few pictures of her seemed to exist. What glimpses there were of her life showed her to be a larger-than-life personality, straight from a novel or a TV drama.
In recent years, Dorothy has been the subject of a television programme starring Penelope Keith, which recreated part of a record-breaking promotional journey that Dorothy made from London to Liverpool and back again, in 1905, driving a De Dion-Bouton. This rekindled interest in her and her career, and it is now known that she was born Dorothy Elizabeth Levi in London, in 1882. Her Jewish family anglicised their name to Levitt.
Dorothy first came into contact with motorsport through her work; she was employed as a secretary at the Napier motor company. She became acquainted with Francis Selwyn-Edge, a senior figure at the company, and through him, motor racing. It is unclear how their relationship developed, or its precise nature, or why Selwyn-Edge took such an interest in her. It was apparently he who arranged for her to learn to drive and maintain a car, possibly sending her to Paris for training. The truth has probably disappeared; both Selwyn-Edge and, in her way, Dorothy, were keen and effective self-promoters, who seemed to have a good relationship with thecontemporary press. For a long time, Dorothy’s true origins were obscured. She is sometimes described as a skilled horsewoman, and it is implied that she was from country stock, but her urban upbringing, and her family’s commercial background,  do not support this idea of Dorothy as a country lady.
At the very beginning of the 20th century, women were often barred from taking part in motorsports, so Dorothy began her high-speed career in motor boat racing. She was quick and competitive. In the first running of the Harmsworth Trophy in 1903, she is widely accepted as the victor, even though Francis Selwyn-Edge took the credit for the win! He is reputed to have hired Dorothy to skipper the boat for him. That year she also set the first Water Speed Record, managing 19 miles per hour in a Napier-engined speedboat.

By 1903 she was also racing cars, under the tutelage of Selwyn-Edge. Women were never excluded from speed eventing and Dorothy excelled in it, winning her class at the Southport Speed Trial in a Gladiator. Using a similar car, she competed around Britain in reliability trials. According to her diary, she won one such event in September that year, over 1000 miles. She was also thirteenth in a London to Edinburgh trial. Her first hillclimb was to be the Rising Sun climb, at Edgehill in Warwickshire, but her car, the Gladiator, was out of order, so she acted as Selwyn-Edge’s passenger instead. Napier were the importers for Gladiator in the UK, as well as selling De Dion-Bouton cars, another marque associated with Dorothy.
The accounts of her racing are not detailed, but in 1904 she became the first female "works" driver to get to compete. She drove a De Dion in the Hereford 1000 Mile Trial and would have won a gold medal, had it not been for a mechanical problem. This particular trial was five days long, and she completed it without any assistance. There are also reports of her winning a motor race on the Isle of Wight. She won her class in the Southport trial again, in a Napier, and also in a Blackpool trial.

The former secretary continued to enter speed events for Napier the following season, driving a formidable 80hp car. Her most high-profile appearance that year was at the inaugural Brighton Speed Trials, where she impressed doubtful onlookers with a competent display of driving. She won her class and also the Autocar Challenge Trophy. For the Blackpool trials, she drove an even more powerful Napier, with 100hp, but her result is not forthcoming.

Following her Brighton exploits, Dorothy was offered a drive in the Tourist Trophy race, for the French Mors team. This was a full race, on a road course, and she was desperate to give it a try. However, Selwyn-Edge vetoed the idea, wanting to protect the Napier company's interest. Dorothy, by now, was a Napier works driver.

In 1906 she set the Ladies' Record at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb in a 50hp Napier. She made the climb in 92.4 seconds, around 12 seconds off the winning time and knocking around three minutes of the previous record set by Miss Larkins. She was sixth overall. The record stood until 1913. As well as the Shelsley record, she set another in the Blackpool speed trial, was third in a hillclimb at Aston Clinton, and broke the world Women’s Land Speed record, all in Napier machinery. This must have made up somewhat for the disappointments she suffered that season and the last: narrowly missing out on a win in a famous challenge run against Freddie Coleman's steam car and not being able to take part in her first proper race.

Having proved herself a worthy opponent on British trials and hillclimbs, Dorothy made her appearance on the continental scene in 1907. She won her class at the Gaillon hillclimb in France. This time she also had the prestige of being part of the winning Napier team. Apparently, she was thirteenth or fourteenth in the Herkomer Trial, and first lady driver. Reports also exist of her being the runner-up in a speed trial at Bexhill on Sea, or in some sort of Concours event associated with it. This was in her own De Dion-Bouton, rather than a works Napier.

The Brooklands racing circuit opened its gates that year, and again Dorothy tried to enter a full race. Although she had the backing of Selwyn-Edge and Napier this time, the Brooklands authorities would not allow it.

In 1908, she managed a penalty-free run in the taxing Herkomer Trial in Germany and won an award, a silver plaque. She was second in the Aston-Clinton hillclimb and also drove in another climb at Trouville in France. It is almost certain that she drove Selwyn-Edge’s Napier in the Prinz Heinrich Trial, winning a silver plaque for completing the event without stopping. However, only the car owner’s name appears on the entry list. According to her own writings, she was second in the Aston Clinton hillclimb she had entered the year previously.

Dorothy Levitt's motorsport career petered out here, but her interest in motoring remained. She published several books on driving, the most famous being 1909’s "The Woman And The Car". In it she recommends keeping a hand mirror in the tool drawer under the driving seat, to enable the motorist to see behind her when necessary. The idea caught on; this is the first known use of the rear-view mirror.
After her motoring adventures, Dorothy aimed to become an aviatrix, and took flying lessons in France. It is unclear whether she ever qualified as a pilot. After 1911 or so, she disappears almost completely from public life, as a personality and a writer. Her co-operation with Selwyn-Edge was seemingly over.
During her heyday, Dorothy was often described as being very feminine and modest in her demeanour, as well as physically small and dainty. Although her actual size would be hard to exaggerate, this idea of her as a shrinking violet seems at odds with her actual behaviour, and may well have been down to the Selwyn-Edge publicity machine, again. A shy and demure lady would hardly wish she had run down a police officer who had arrested her for speeding (in 1903), in a public newspaper, or deliberately outshine another female competitor at a post-hillclimb reception, in an extravagant dress, as Dorothy is said to have done at Herkomer in 1907. The dress was green, a favourite colour of hers, which often appeared in the paint jobs of her cars.
Among the other  stories attributed to her, was a claim that she made a small living as a celebrity driving instructor of sorts, and that she had taught Queen Alexandra and her daughters to drive. This has never been confirmed or denied. The rumours of her carrying a revolver with her on long drives, for self defence, were apparently true. This has been put down to her “hunting background”, which was probably fictitious. Separating fact from colourful story is made harder by the way that Dorothy herself sometimes wrote ambiguously in her diaries and publications, describing “motor events” without separating races, trials and even concours d’elegance. She also made allusions to competing against other female drivers, such as Camille du Gast, although she may only have been comparing the performances of individual cars they drove.
Following the BBC film, various new snippets of information have surfaced about her. The Radnorian blog has uncovered various other pieces of biographical information, including a date of death in 1922, when Dorothy was still only 39. You can access Radnorian's last Dorothy-related post here.

It is not completely clear why Dorothy died so young, although her long period of reclusiveness before her untimely demise could suggest a debilitating illness of some kind. The official cause of death was morphine poisoning, and some reports state that she had been suffering from measles.


1 comment:

  1. My name is Ann Kramer; I've written a short biographical piece on Dorothy Levitt and also had a mini-spot on Penelope Keith's programme about her. I'm currently doing more research into this wonderful pioneer motorist and wondered if you could help.
    Dorothy Levitt kept a diary of her motoring events (extracts are in The Woman and the Car) - do you have any idea whether it still exists and how I might begin to track it down?
    Like everyone else, I'm also keen to find out more about her early life and would welcome any ideas you might have.
    Thank you for reading and for your help.
    My email address is: annkramer@me.com
    Ann Kramer

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