Thursday, 29 July 2010

Dorothy Levitt

What little is known about this very early speedqueen - few pictures of her seem to exist - shows her to be a fascinating personality. 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, who was her boss at the Napier motor company. Women were never excluded from speed eventing and Dorothy excelled in it, winning her class at the Southport Speed Trial in a Gladiator. 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. There are also reports of her winning a motor race on the Isle of Wight.

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.

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.

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. The record stood until 1913. As well as the Shelsley record, she set another in a speed trial in Blackpool 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. Reports also exist of her being the runner-up in a speed trial at Bexhill on Sea.

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.

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.

Recently, Dorothy was the subject of a BBC TV programme starring Penelope Keith, which recreated part of a record-breaking promotional journey that Dorothy made from London to Liverpool and back again, driving a De Dion-Bouton. Following this 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. It is also possible that her birth name was Elizabeth Levi. You can access Radnorian's latest Dorothy-related post here.

It is not known why Dorothy died so young, although her long period of reclusiveness before her untimely demise could suggest a debilitating illness of some kind.

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:
    Ann Kramer