Fast Women

24th March 2018

Modern motor racing is woefully male-dominated, but a century ago, women played a prominent role in the fledgling sport. Connie Ann Kirk looks back at the trailblazing female drivers of the era, affectionately known as “scorchers” and “motorinas”

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Doreen Evans takes the sash during the Relay Race at Brooklands in 1931. Evans first raced at the circuit aged only 17 and went on to drive for the MG Works team

At a time when female horse-riders, golf pros and athletes are common, the world of motor racing lags a long way behind. As recently as two years ago, Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone dismissed talk of female drivers in F1, saying that they would “not be taken seriously” and that they are “not physically” able to drive a car fast. Just try telling that to some of the first women in history who took to the roads and racetrack. For as long as there have been men dismissing the idea of women at the wheel, there have been strong, ambitious females fighting to get in the driver’s seat.

Ecclestone went on to say that he believed an increasing number of women would take F1 chief executive positions in the future, but he was missing the point. The number of women in management, engineering and crew positions within professional motor racing has increased over time and it will continue to do so. It’s female drivers that are sorely lacking.

Doreen Evans

It’s not 20th-century feminism or political correctness that brought women into competition with men on a racetrack either. They have been there quite a while – in much larger numbers at one time than some of us might know or remember today.

The early female drivers in Europe, and racers of the Brooklands prewar era in particular, bear witness to a time when the novelty might have been, well, a bit less novel, even if, ironically, some of the women sound rather like fearless adventurers from epic tales spun by Greek poets. Many of the earliest female auto racers, for example, were also trained and licensed aviators and motor boat racers; some were intelligence de-coders or ambulance drivers in the war; some were even reported to be spies.

Canadian-born racing driver Kay Petre at Brooklands in 1937. Despite her diminutive stature (4' 10") she was one of the circuit's biggest stars

Women’s interest in driving goes all the way back to the first female driver on record – German Bertha Benz, wife of Karl Benz, inventor of the motor car as we know it today. One August morning in 1888, Bertha decided that she was going to drive her two children 111 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim to visit their grandmother. They left without her husband’s knowledge; in fact, he was still asleep at the time. The (then) long journey was a race against darkness and vehicle reliability. Maintenance and quick repairs on the road included use of a hatpin, a garter, having a cobbler fix a leather drive-belt, and stopping at pharmacies along the way to refuel with petroleum ether. When the family finally reached its destination, they cabled the distraught inventor to let him know where they were and that they had arrived safely. Bertha’s adventure was certainly not the last time a wife overruled her husband’s wishes to just get on with it in terms of where she wanted to go in a motor car.

If passing one’s driving test and acquiring a licence can represent freedom for young people, what could it have meant to the first woman on record to do so – Anne de Mortemart of France, Duchess of Uzès, age 51? One sign of the duchess’s exuberance after passing her test on April 23, 1888, was that on June 9, driving her car with her son on board in and among horse-drawn carriages, she cranked the machine up above the 7.5mph posted speed limit. A policeman whistled at her to stop, and she was issued the maximum penalty of five francs for speeding – reportedly the first person ever to be issued a ticket. Mortemart may have been one of the first “scorchers,” later described in popular jargon of the era as women who enjoyed driving fast, beyond limits. Another popular term was “motorinas” (presumed from “ballerinas”) – women whose cars appeared to glide as they drove them.

Gwenda Stewart-Hawkes poses with her Derby racing car at Brooklands in 1935. The circuit's fastest female driver, she took the Brooklands Ladies Outer Circuit lap record at 135.95mph

For as long as there have been men dismissing the idea of women at the wheel, there have been strong, ambitious females fighting to get in the driver’s seat

Of course, just like with men, it wasn’t long before women found that the elixir of speed could temporarily calm many ills, and that racing boosted the effects even more. The first female racing driver said to compete on a regular basis internationally was Camille du Gast of France. Though she started from the back, du Gast came in 33rd out of 122 competitors in the 1901 Paris-Berlin race. In 1903, while racing toward the front of a field of over 200 competitors on the dusty and dangerous roads of the Paris-Madrid race, she came upon a fellow driver who was trapped beneath his overturned car, and halted her own race to administer first aid, helping to save his life. When she was not allowed to compete the following year because she was a woman, du Gast turned instead to racing motor boats, which took on lots of water on choppy seas. She won.

Britain’s first woman racing-driver climbed into a Napier as a publicity stunt at the request of her boss, Selwyn Edge. As director of the car company, Edge taught one of the secretaries, Dorothy Levitt, to drive, thinking that her good looks would draw attention and help sell cars. Levitt’s efforts, however, were more than cosmetic. In 1906, she broke the woman’s speed record, surpassing 96mph. She also excelled driving a large 80hp vehicle at the Brighton seashore. Levitt became a celebrity. She wrote a 1909 book for women motorists called The Woman and the Car, which offers encouragement and practical advice to motorinas. Levitt included a favourite photograph of herself in which, wearing a heavy fur coat and veil, she smiles conspiratorially from behind a large steering wheel.

Certainly, one of the more concentrated locations where numbers of women raced regularly in the early days was the Brooklands motor circuit, near Weybridge in Surrey. Brooklands holds the distinction of being the first purpose-built automobile racetrack in the world and was active from 1907 to 1939. Suffering severe damage from bombing in World War II, the circuit never returned to its former glory. Unlike the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a testing and commercial enterprise that was built in the midwestern United States soon after Brooklands opened, the British circuit was a private track established by Hugh and Ethel Locke King, where they and their friends could hold social events as well as help support the growing British automobile industry. Hugh Locke King ran out of money when the construction went over budget, so Ethel bankrolled the job’s completion and is credited with saving the track. Ethel was also the first person to ceremoniously drive it, breaking in the new circuit at its inauguration in June 1907 with her husband seated beside her in the car.

Called by the press the “motoring Ascot”, Brooklands continued the horse-racing metaphor by calling its car stalls “paddocks” and having drivers wear “silks” to identify themselves, like jockeys. Using the excuse that no jockeys were women at that time, Brooklands’ genteel male enthusiasts, the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club (BARC), did not at first allow women to race on its 2.75-mile oval, highly banked and bumpy cement surface. In 1908, women could race each other in a “Ladies’ Bracelet Handicap”, tying down their skirts at the ankles to avoid “scandal” and wearing coloured silk scarves that teammates could quickly swap over to each other. Finally, in 1932, BARC allowed women to race against men in the same contests.

Drivers Eveline Gordon-Simpson (left) and Joan Richmond take a break in 1934
Jill Scott behind the wheel of a 7.2-litre Leyland-Thomas No 1 at Brooklands in 1929
Margaret Allan driving her 6.5-litre Bentley engined special at Brooklands in 1936

One sports scholar has identified 80 women who raced at Brooklands at least once in their careers, while a number of others are known to have worked on cars as mechanics. That number pales in comparison with the 1,000 male racers at Brooklands, but it still resonates when one considers that this was on a track where cars raced for only 32 years and competition ended in 1939. Some of the women of Brooklands may have raced as a “lark”, as part of the high-profile, social elite scene of the day – a playful race, a dressy lunch, then a long chit-chat with friends while the men did the same or continued racing. 

However, speed clearly ignited an unquenchable fire in the hearts of several of these female drivers, especially given their quickness on track and the fact that many competed at other venues and types of racing, such as rallies, hill-climbs, and endurance events. Their efforts demonstrated an aptitude for racing and a competitive spirit. While most may not have raced for money, they clearly did not drive dangerously fast, putting their lives on the line, just to impress the men or to have something to do before lunch. A mere handful of the many names in the fabulous Brooklands group who earned respect from men and women alike for their speed and car control include Kay Petre, Gwenda Stewart-Hawkes, Margaret Allan, Elsie “Bill” Wisdom, Jill Scott and Doreen Evans. Space allows only a few highlights about each of these marvellous drivers here.

Kay Petre and Gwenda Stewart-Hawkes raced frequently and set speed records. Remembered partly for her small stature in contrast to the mammoth Delage that she frequently drove with an adapted seat and foot pedals, Canadian-born Petre was a regular and popular racer at Brooklands. She competed in at least 48 events there in addition to racing elsewhere, including three times at the Le Mans 24 Hours (placing 13th in 1934). She and Stewart-Hawkes passed each other back and forth in setting the final women’s speed record at Brooklands. The matter was finally settled in 1935 when Petre reached a speed of 134.24mph, but Stewart-Hawkes, a thrice-married former motorcycle racer who had honed her skills as an ambulance driver, deftly dodging shell craters during World War I, bettered Petre’s speed at 135.95mph.

Margaret Allan’s adventures in life only seemed to begin at Brooklands. Born into a wealthy shipping family, the Scot learned to drive because her mother wanted her to be able to transport guests. At Brooklands she competed in 28 events, was awarded the 120mph badge, and went on to race for the MG Works team at Le Mans. During the war, Allan worked in the intelligence de-coding centre at Bletchley Park, then afterwards as a motoring journalist for Vogue magazine.

Above (left to right): racing legends Gwenda Stewart-Hawkes, Doreen Evens, Kay Petre and Elsie "Bill" Wisdom photographed in 1935

One sports scholar has identified 80 women who raced at Brooklands at least once in their careers, while a number of others are known to have worked on cars as mechanics

Elsie “Bill” Wisdom was the only girl in a family of eight children. Her brothers nicknamed her “Bill”, and the name stuck. Among her achievements at Brooklands was being one of the first women to win a men’s and women’s combined race and setting a new lap record in 1932 in a 7.2-litre Leyland-Thomas single-seater, a car that men thought too unpredictable and dangerous for any woman to drive. She also earned the 120mph badge, one of only four women to do so at Brooklands.

Jill Scott and Doreen Evans, like most of the Brooklands women, came to the track through men in their families. The Scotts bought property nearby, so both husband and wife got in plenty of track time. Jill earned the 120mph women’s badge, driving a speed of 120.88mph in September 1928, in the couple’s 2-litre Grand Prix Sunbeam. Evans had two brothers who raced at Brooklands, and she first did so herself aged just 17, shortly thereafter becoming a member of the MG Works team. She survived a fire in her MG at Brooklands in 1936, when she jumped clear just in time, suffering only bruising and minor burns to her legs.

While the Brooklands era pre-dates Goodwood’s 1948-66 active period by nearly a decade, Goodwood saw further accomplishments by women at the wheel with wins and fastest laps from drivers such as Pat Moss, Hazel Dunham, Jean Bloxam, and Kathleen Howard.

What these motorinas proved is that the women making inroads into motorsport today should not be treated as novelties. Ever since the early decades of the automobile, women have excelled in competitive driving – 2001’s Paris-Dakar winner Jutta Kleinschmidt is just one example, not to mention Danica Patrick and Susie Wolff, who both went on to achieve great feats outside F1. Yet so far the only woman to secure points (or, to be precise, half a point) in an F1 World Championship was Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi, who finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. Perhaps now, with a growing number of female team leaders making decisions for professional racing organisations, we will finally see more female drivers once more on the track. A female victory is long overdue.

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Spring 2018 issue

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