Following his excellent series The Great Motor Men, AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham has produced this series on the great motoring women. In the first part, he the discusses turn-of-the-20th Century adventurer, Dorothy Levitt.
It’s easy to forget that, at the dawn of the motor car, women were unable to vote and were considered ‘second-class’ citizens – in marriage, business and society. Thankfully, we have now seen changes that a few decades ago would have been considered incredible. Dorothy Levitt is an example from an earlier era, but let’s look at a few other outstanding women in our beloved industry.
Coming right up to date for a moment, the Lead Development Engineer for Battery Powered Vehicles at General Motors is Trista Schieffer and, in 2017, Jessica Strafford was named Senior Vice-President and General Manager at Auto Trader.
Laura Schwab was the President of Aston Martin in the Americas from October 2015 until November 2020 and is now EV start-up Rivian’s Vice-President of Sales and Marketing and AROnline’s always-informed readership will recall that Mary Barra is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Motors whilst Elena Ford is the Chief Customer Experience Officer at Ford. Barbara Samardzich was the Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer at Ford Europe from November 2013 to October 2016 at which date she retired.
Going back just a little, Mimi Vandermolen was a Designer for Ford in the 1980s and ’90s and Suzanne Vanderbilt was with GM for 23 years – and made it to Chief Designer for Chevrolet. We could list a string of female competition drivers in all fields of motor sport: women like Melissa Harville-Lebron who is the first African-American lady to own a NASCAR-licensed team! Many other women have demonstrated superiority on two wheels and four.
Industry barriers to women
Rightly, a lot of women have held – and are holding – very senior positions. However, we must not forget that, without women on the factory floor over the years, we’d have struggled to make cars anyway. Some years ago a nonagenarian lady stopped the author in his 1934 Wolseley to tell him that she worked on its leather seats before the war. Interestingly, she said there was another line in the same factory that produced Morris seats – but we didn’t talk to them!
There is an argument that women still find it tough in industry and the author can’t help thinking that if it’s tough now – goodness knows how strong a character they had to be to fight their way to the top in years gone by. In his former years the author was in the retail trade. In the 1970s, his organisation had 50 or so male managers – and one woman! He well remembers the derogatory tones in management meetings if ever that lady suggested anything new!
Moving away from ‘power’ or sporting accomplishments; in the exclusively male dominated world of 1893, Margaret Wilcox designed the first car heater which she patented that same year. Charlotte Bridgewater further developed Mary Anderson’s manual windscreen wiper and made it work electrically – and patented it in 1917. We owe a debt of gratitude to both these pioneering women.
Many of us are familiar with the name Bertha Benz; the wife of Carl Benz and founder of Mercedes. It was her ‘drive’ and finances that made her husband’s car one of the most successful (though not the first!) of the period. Her innovation in publicity was inspired; successfully completing an early publicity tour for the car. Today, you can still drive the same roads she used – on a 120 mile trip – by following the Bertha Benz Memorial Route.
Just before we move on to Dorothy Levitt, we mustn’t overlook amazing women like Joan Newton Cuneo who finished the 1908 Glidden Tour with maximum points. She also just missed winning the 1909 Mardi Gras Races coming a very close second to the legendary Ralph de Palmer. Apparently, no one else was in sight! Joan raced monstrous Edwardian racers that appear terrifying when we see them at a classic car show – let alone thundering around a race track!
In the US, the American Automobile Association banned women drivers from their competitions because of ladies like Joan – clearly not our gender’s finest hour! All this, of course, took place in an environment, (depending where one was in the social scale), where women were supposed to look glamorous, sit side saddle on a horse and meet friends for lunch – or scrub floors, lay grates and be at the beck and call of a wealthy family.
On to Dorothy Levitt…
Of all the motor women I could have started this series with, I’ve chosen Dorothy Levitt because she was one of our earliest female racing drivers and probably one of the earliest to become a celebrity. Becoming a writer in later years she championed the woman driver and in 1909 published a book called ‘The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook For Women Who Want To Motor’ (copies are still advertised on the Web at the time of writing).
The publication covered choosing, buying, maintaining and driving the car. One of the ideas promulgated was to carry a handy little mirror for seeing what was behind! The author has read that Dorothy also advocated carrying a firearm in the door pocket. Thankfully, designers and society have adapted the former and discouraged the latter. Dorothy raced boats from the early 1900s and, later, Napier motor cars. She was very much attracted to the Southport and Blackpool Speed Trials and was a regular competitor at these events. Driving a Napier, she won her class at the beachfront trials in 1904.
At Shelsley Walsh in 1906 she smashed the ladies’ record – again driving a 50hp Napier. Dorothy enjoyed hill-climbs but in 1905 she won the Daily Mail Sweepstake Speed Trial; beating many accomplished male drivers. In this same year she reached 92mph, thus setting a record for a female driver. Two years earlier she had set the Water Speed Record at just under 20mph.
Dorothy Levitt: a real character
Dorothy was what we call ‘a real character’ and was often accompanied by her faithful Pomeranian dog called ‘Dodo’ who apparently sat on her lap. The ‘men in blue’ were more tolerant of this than they were of her constant habit of breaking the speed limit! The setting of various speed records on public roads understandably sets oneself against the ‘long arm of the law’.
The ‘celebrity’ aspect of dear Dorothy was interesting as (ably assisted by the press of the day) she managed to conjure up the persona of a wealthy lady. There were ‘stories’ of her mixing with the nobility – stories about her teaching Queen Alexandra and her daughters to drive. However, history tells us that the good queen was already driving several years earlier.
Dorothy actually came from a large and long-established Jewish family from Portsmouth. Her grandfather, Leman Levi, was a jeweller and the family lived in two houses in Colvestone Crescent, Hackney. Her mother, Julia Raphael, was originally from Liverpool and her family later lived in Manchester.
In newspaper interviews of the time, Dorothy was depicted as an upper-class country lady who ‘happened’ into motoring, although she had trained as a mechanic in France but worked as a driving instructor. Of course, only the wealthy could possibly afford a car so this led to her meeting celebrities and the landed gentry – and she thus became part of ‘that scene’. Selwyn Edge, a Napier Director, had taken Dorothy on as a typist but she was soon promoted to a secretary. Edge supplied Napier cars for most of Dorothy’s exploits and there is some suggestion they were ‘seeing each other’. It is not recorded quite what Mrs. Edge had to say on this subject…
Making a name for herself at Napier
Napier discontinued their motor sport interests in 1909 but a lot of work had been done at Brooklands concerning speed records. Unfortunately, not even the wonderful Brooklands were sufficiently enlightened or progressive enough to let a woman race a car on their circuit. Thankfully, though, this rule was relaxed in 1920.
Getting a pilot’s licence appears to have been on Dorothy’s ‘bucket list’ but it’s unclear whether she ever succeeded in doing this. She certainly continued to write for motoring publications until about 1912.
Dorothy was certainly a courageous woman who was not frightened by a huge Napier engine thundering under her feet whilst sitting perched high in the air at circa 90mph. Neither was she put off by the predominately male world she successfully infiltrated. The number of women ‘playing around’ with cars and putting up good performances in competition was very few indeed.
Poor Dorothy never made it to old age and died when just 39 years old. Morphine poisoning, heart disease and measles were given as the cause of death. She is buried in the Jewish Cemetery at Meadow View in Brighton.