“A beautiful secretary with long legs and eyes like pools…” No wonder the Australian entrepreneur Selwyn Edge of the Napier Car Company spotted the elegant Miss Levitt who was later described as ‘the fastest girl on earth’…
A REAL SCORCHER
Born on 5th January 1882, Dorothy Levitt was a record-breaking Edwardian Motoriste – a scorcher who delighted in exceeding the speed limit and the first British woman to receive international recognition. Holder of the world’s first water speed record and the first British woman racing driver, in her spare time she gave the Queen Consort and the Royal Princesses Louise, Victoria and Maud driving lessons as well as ‘those plain Americans’ – according to newspaper reports!
She wrote articles for the general and motoring press, aiming to dispel the myth that women were not strong enough to get behind the wheel and that it was possible to retain their femininity as well as learning to be technologically competent. Receiving rave reviews, this prompted her to write a book entitled The Woman and the Car (1909) which contained handy hints on driving and servicing your vehicle. This informative little handbook written with women in mind also included photographs of Dorothy taken in a variety of ‘hands on’ poses. This ‘forward thinking woman’ also advised women to carry a small hand mirror as this was ‘not only essential for repairing ones’ complexion after a drive,’ it also acted as a rear view mirror; an idea that was eventually patented in 1914.
FASHION & GAMBLING
Dorothy was a highly respected and attractive woman – alluring, petite, almost demure in her manner with an engaging personality. Her father, Joseph Levi (known as Jack) was a jeweller and prosperous tea importer and her mother was the former Julia Raphael, daughter of a retired hotelier and diamond merchant. When Dorothy was eighteen her father chose to anglicise the name of Levi to Levitt.
Dorothy lived a privileged life in the West End of London and was frequently in the gossip columns. She was an accomplished horsewoman, loved the solitude of fishing, and when interviewed by the Penny Illustrated Paper, claimed significant expertise at playing roulette and that it was her intention to ‘break the bank at Monte Carlo’! She was renowned for her luncheon parties and enjoyed the racing at Ascot. Her love of fashion and competitive spirit shone through and she was often seen wearing her own design of blue motoring dust coat.
A WOMAN BEHIND THE WHEEL!
In 1902 when Dorothy was employed as a secretary at Napier, Selwyn Edge soon became smitten and before long had promoted her to his personal assistant. Keen for her to promote his cars he arranged for one of the young salesmen, Leslie Callingham, to teach Dorothy to drive. Far from keen, he was heard to remark that Miss Levitt wears too much scent, jangly bracelets, unwieldy hats, silk stockings and innumerable petticoats! She did however have natural driving ability and on 4th July 1903 won her class at the Southport Speed Trials driving a 12hp Gladiator. British society were shocked beyond belief, “a woman behind the wheel” they cried, “and a working secretary too!..”
A PARISIAN ADVENTURE
Encouraged and understandably immensely proud of his young protegee who had also become his lover, Selwyn arranged for Dorothy to spend a six month apprenticeship in Paris, under the tutelage of his friend and car manufacturer Adolphe Clement-Bayard. On her return she brought with her Dodo, a rather excitable Pomerainian dog, a gift from her friend Madesmoiselle Marie Cornelle and who had the misfortune of being drugged and hidden in the repair box of the automobile during the journey. He survived! In fact he was Dorothy’s trusty companion; often to be found curled up on the passenger seat under her coat!
In July 1903 Dorothy won the British international Harmsworth Trophy for motorboats, defeating the French entry, TrefleA-Quatre at Cork, Ireland, where she set the world’s first Water Speed Record achieving 19.3mph in a 40ft steel-hulled 75hp Napier speedboat with a three-blade propeller. Later that same year Dorothy drove the Napier at Cowes and won the race.
SPEED & STUNTS
In February 1905 Dorothy was taken on by De Dion as part of a major publicity stunt to drive an 8hp single cylinder De Dion from London to Liverpool and back, a total distance of 411 miles and averaging 20mph. The following day she made the return journey, thus setting a new record for the longest drive achieved by a woman. Sensibly she stowed her automatic Colt in a little drawer under the seat of the car known as ‘the secret of the Dainty Motoriste’ and of course, Dodo travelled with her!
Again, in July Dorothy set her first Ladies World Speed Record at the Brighton Speed Trials driving an 80hp Napier at a speed of 79.75mph, winning her class. Her diary records: “Beat a great many professional drivers – drove at rate of 77.75mph in Daily Mail Cup.”
And now we come to 1906 with the highlight of this year being when Dorothy broke her previous year’s record at the Blackpool Speed Trials, recording a speed of 90.88mph over a flying kilometre in a 90hp Napier! Hail the ‘Champion Lady Motorist of the World.’ Again, an amusing diary entry reads thus – “Drove at rate of 91mph. Had near escape as front part of bonnet worked loose and, had I not pulled up in time, might have blown back and beheaded me…”
In 1907 as women were barred from racing from the newly opened Brooklands racing circuit, Dorothy set her sights on Europe driving for Napier and winning her class in the Gaillon Hillclimb in France driving a 40hp six cylinder Napier. The following year she entered the Herkomer Trophy Trial in Germany winning a silver plaque in the Prince Heinrich Trophy in a 45hp Napier.
After 1910 Dorothy disappeared from public life and it is likely she suffered from a period of reclusiveness perhaps due to a debilitating illness. Sadly she never married, in fact when she was just twenty her parents moved out of London to the country and set about finding a suitable husband for her. Horrified, Dorothy absconded…
Dorothy died on the 17th May 1922 with the official cause of death as morphine poisoning. Some reports state that she was suffering from measles. Although not particularly wealthy she was far from destitute which certainly makes her later years more mysterious. Truly a sad ending for someone who achieved so much throughout her life and surely an inspiration to other women.
So, ladies, please remember:
Whilst driving, always keep a cool head
Never for a second, allow your memory to lapse
Always regard pedestrians, whether males, females or infants as uncertain in their possible actions
Never take it for granted that the other driver will certainly do the right thing
Never allow yourself to get flurried in the face of danger and remember that your coolness may save the situation
Never do anything that will prompt you to say you did not dream that such a thing might happen
Always let your clutch in gently – thus you will keep your tyre bills down and
Never give the impression you are lolling behind the wheel
And of course, well over a hundred years on, these all still hold good!
Visit the National Motor Museum to see the 1903 Napier Gordon Bennett (one of Britain’s oldest racing cars) and the 1903 De Dion Bouton on show, together with a display cabinet showcasing Dorothy’s achievements.
Read more about Dorothy’s amazing achievements on the Speedqueens blog.
Next time: enter the world of Dorothee Pullinger MBE – strong advocate of womens’ equality and the woman who built cars.
Sarah Crofts has been sharing her passion for motorsport with Beaulieu’s visitors since she first joined as a volunteer in 2007. Now a Museum Attendant, she has grown to love her role more and more and can’t imagine doing anything else! Sarah’s popular Women in Motorsport tour is one of several daily tours on offer in the National Motor Museum.