Thursday 29 July 2010

Dorothy Levitt

When this post was first written, 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 probably 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. He claimed that it was he who arranged for her to learn to drive and maintain a car, possibly sending her to Paris for training. SCH Davis, in Atalanta, claims that Napier apprentice and future racer, Leslie Callingham was the one who taught her to drive. The truth has probably disappeared; both Edge and, in her way, Dorothy, were keen and effective self-promoters, who seemed to have a good relationship with the contemporary press. Dorothy's "authorised" version of this story, written by C Byng-Hall in the introduction to The Woman and the Car, states that she learned to drive at home, "in the West Country", in the car of a visiting friend. They went together to watch a local driving competition, with Dorothy at the wheel, and her motoring prowess so impressed a watching motor company manager, that he asked her to drive one of his company's cars in a competition. This manager could have been Edge, but this story is at best, a simplification.

For a long time, Dorothy’s true origins were obscured. She is sometimes described as a skilled horsewoman, an enthusiastic angler and markswoman, implying 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. She did not live in the West Country, but had grown up in London, and had familial links with the south coast. In her own writings, she never openly acknowledged her time as a typist and secretary.
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 Edge, as the owner of the craft, 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 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 also claimed to be the first woman to take part in "public motor car competition" in 1903, but omits to name the competition. (This is incorrect: Louise Bazalgette competed in the 1000 Mile Trial in 1900). According to SCH Davis, she finished "quite high in the results" in a 1000-mile trial, but does not mention which one. 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 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 carburation problem. This particular trial was five days long, and she completed it without any assistance. For this, she received a silver medal. There are also reports of her winning a motor race on the Isle of Wight, although there could some confusion here with a boat race she entered at Cowes. 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 De Dion and Napier the following season, driving a formidable 80hp car for the latter. 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 is said to have won a match race against the pioneer French driver, Camille du Gast, setting a women's speed record in the process, but the official reports from the event make no mention of this. If it happened at all, it was a private race. She also won one of the classes in which she was entered, and the Autocar Challenge Trophy. Contemporary sources mention an actual women's race, but Dorothy did not enter this. It was organised by the Ladies' Automobile Club, of which she was not a member.

In the main speed trial section, she was beaten to the Ladies Prize by Claudia Lasell, driving a Benz. At least five female drivers took part in the event that year. For the Blackpool trials, she drove an even more powerful Napier, with 100hp, but her result is not forthcoming. In a De Dion, she drove in the Scottish Trial, completing each day's section without stopping, and winning an award for the manufacturer.

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, Edge vetoed the idea, wanting to protect the Napier company's interest. Dorothy, by now, was a Napier "works" driver, representing the Napier sales department. Officially, she pulled out of the event due to ill-health, but no-one was fooled.

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 June 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. In the Herts County Club climb, she defeated her team-mate Cecil Edge, cousin to Selwyn. In a De Dion, she was sixth in the Coventry and Warwickshire hillclimb. This all 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, and in some sort of Concours event associated with it. This was in her own De Dion-Bouton, rather than a works Napier, which she used for the trial itself.

The Brooklands racing circuit opened its gates that year, and again Dorothy tried to enter a full race. Although she had the backing of Edge and Napier this time, the Brooklands authorities would not allow it. Her name appears in the race programme as the car's entrant, and it was driven by another Napier works driver. Intriguingly, the photograph above shows Dorothy seated in a racing car, with the Brooklands banking in the background. The occasion on which this picture was taken is unclear. However, Edge set a 24-hour speed record there in 1907, and was supported by two other Napier drivers. Dorothy may have been involved in this in some way, although it would have been somewhat unusual for Napier not to exploit the inherent publicity value of it. Edge's two teams of support drivers were all named in the programmes as regular, male Napier works drivers.

In 1908, she managed a penalty-free run in the taxing Herkomer Trial in Germany and won an award, a silver plaque, in the Prinz Heinrich Trial section. This was for completing the trial without stopping. She was second in the Aston-Clinton hillclimb, and also drove in another climb at Trouville in France. 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. It seems to have been this year that she took part in the South Harting hillclimb, using a Minerva for the first time. The Napier company also imported Minerva cars into the UK.

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 Edge was seemingly over; her 1909 book barely mentions his name, despite the huge influence he had on her motoring career. 
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 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 (a Frau Lehmann) 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.

One of her other recognisable quirks was that she was normally accompanied by her black Pomeranian dog, Dodo, even whilst racing. The dog was said to have bitten at least one official observer during a trial. Male competitors in the 1904 Hereford trial showed up one day with a variety of stuffed and porcelain dogs attached to their cars, to try to ridicule Dorothy. She was not offended, and retaliated by giving them all gifts of dog biscuits, at one of the receptions after the event.

As a nominal member of the Napier sales team, she gave various driving demonstrations of their latest models. She was not averse to the odd publicity stunt, such as driving a taxi in London for a Daily Express feature, despite having no cab license.
Among the other stories attributed to her, was a claim that she made a small living as a society driving instructor of sorts, and that she had taught Queen Alexandra and her daughters to drive. This has never been confirmed or denied, but reports state that the Queen was driving herself around in an electric Victoriette from at least 1901. This was before Dorothy learned to drive, in 1902 at the earliest, therefore I am inclined to disbelieve this story.

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. Her 1903 entry, where she describes herself as the first British female racing driver, is a case in point. 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. Her moderate legacy was left to her sister. Although she was not hugely wealthy at the time of her death, she was far from destitute, which makes her later years that bit more mysterious. It was a sad end for a great character.

(Image source unknown)

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