Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt, (born Elizabeth Levi; 5 January 1882, died 17 May 1922) was the first British woman racing driver and a women’s world land speed record holder. In 1905 she also established the record for the longest drive by a lady driver – then known as a motorista – by driving a De Dion-Bouton from London to Liverpool and back over two days. In press reports of her achievements she was dubbed the Fastest Girl on Earth, and the Champion Lady Motorist of the World.
From 1903 until 1908 Levitt wrote a motoring column for the illustrated weekly newspaper The Graphic, a series that formed the basis of her book The Woman and the CarThe Woman and the Car (1909) is a handbook written by Doroth Levitt targeted at women motorists.. She covered a wide variety of topics ranging from how to choose your first car, what to wear while driving, and self defence. One of her recommendations was that a woman travelling alone should consider carrying a small revolver. Her preference was for the automatic Colt, which she felt to be particularly suitable for women because of its relative lack of recoil.
Despite achieving so much in the man’s world of motoring and her love of speed both on and off the track,[a]In the vernacular of the day Levitt was a scorcher, a motorist who delighted in exceeding the speed limit. Levitt was no Amazon. She was described by one contemporary as “slight in nature, shy and shrinking, almost timid … the most girlish of womanly women”.
Levitt was born Elizabeth Levi, in Hackney on 5 January 1882. Her father, Jacob Levi, was a prosperous jeweller, tea dealer, and Commission Agent of Colvestone Crescent, Hackney. Dorothy’s mother was born Julia Raphael in Aldgate in either 1856 or 1858, and married Jacob in March 1877. The couple, who were of Sephardi Jewish descent, had three children: Lilly, Dorothy and Elsie Ruby. Levitt or Levit had been adopted as the anglicised family surname by 1901. Scant information is available about Levitt’s life, but she must have been an experienced horse rider, as she described remaining astride a galloping horse while it negotiated jumps in a steeplechase as being easier than retaining a seat in a car being driven at speed.
In 1902 Levitt was employed as a secretary at the Napier & Son works in Vine Street, Lambeth, initially on a temporary basis. S. F. Edge Ltd, owned by Selwyn Edge, was at that time a sales agent for Gladiator and Napier cars. Edge drove a Napier to victory in the 1902 Gordon Bennett Cup, a race from Paris to Austria., during which competition he noticed the influence that the female French driver Camille du Gast’s participation had in drawing media attention to French racing cars.[b]As women motorists were very unusual at the start of the 20th century, newspapers were generally guaranteed to include any news stories about them. On his return home Edge began looking for an English woman to undertake the same role for British cars, and in particular for the Napiers his company sold, when he encountered Levitt working in the Napier office.[c]Levitt was described by the author Jean Francois Bouzanquet as a “beautiful secretary with long legs and eyes like pools”, She seemed to possess the qualities he was looking for, being “strikingly attractive … [with] a good personality and … keen to become a racing driver”, so he decided to offer her a job as his personal secretary, which she accepted.
An immediate problem was that Levitt could not drive, so she had to be taught as a matter of priority. Edge assigned the task to one of his salesmen, Leslie Callingham, who was not overly thrilled to be told that he had to give the lessons on Sundays, his only day off. Luckily for him Levitt proved to be a quick learner, impressing him with the confident way she could handle a car. With the first hurdle cleared, Edge then set about promoting his protege as a successful racing driver.
In April 1903 Levitt became the first English woman to compete in a motor race. She did not feature among the prize winners, but determined that she would improve. Her employer, Selwyn Edge, was the British agent for the French automobile manufacturer Clément-Gladiator, and that was the marque driven by Levitt during the first year of her career. In May she drove a 16 hp Gladiator in the 400-mile (644 km) Glasgow to London non-stop run, losing only six points out of a possible maximum of 1000 because she had to stop and address a problem with her car’s tyres. Levitt made her debut in speed competitions at the Southport Speed Trials in October, where she won the class for cars priced between £400 and £550 in her four-seater Gladiator.
By 1904 the De Dion motor company was struggling, and badly needed some good publicity, which they hoped to get by signing Levitt to drive one of their two works cars in the Hereford 1,000-mile trial. As the only woman in the event she would have attracted press attention anyway, but she went the extra mile by posing for photographs the day before the event in a specially made “eye-catching motoring outfit”. She was accompanied by her black Pomerian dog Dodo, who yapped and snarled at every other driver who came close.[d]Dodo had been smuggled into England by being drugged and then hidden in the repair box of an automobile. On the day of the race the other competitors appeared at the start line with toy dogs strapped to their bonnets in protest at Levitt having hogged all the limelight.
Levitt went on to prove her worth as a driver though, and was in line to win a gold medal until her De Dion suffered a mechanical breakdown towards the end of the race. The delay in repairing her car meant that she had to settle for a silver medal. At the prize-giving concert held at the end of the event Levitt showed her sense of humour by sending dog biscuits to all her fellow drivers.
In July 1905 Levitt entered the inaugural Brighton Speed Trials, driving an 80 hp Napier. The car was “a great brute of a machine” capable of 100 mph (161 km/h), which some commentators believed she would not have the strength to control. Undaunted, she went ahead and crossed the finishing line at 78.7 mph (126.6 km/h), beating many of the professional male drivers.
Levitt bettered her time the following year at the same event in a 90 hp Napier, recording a speed of 90.88 mph (146.25 km/h) over a flying kilometre to create a new world speed record for women. Her diary entry for that day reveals that she had a near miss when the bonnet of her car worked loose, and could have decapitated her had she not pulled up promptly.
There was no circuit racing in Britain until the opening of Brooklands in 1907, but women were not allowed to compete there until the following year. So Levitt turned her attention to Europe, and competed with some success in France and Germany. In June she won a Gold Medal at the Herkomer Trophy Race in Germany, finishing fourth out of 172 competitors. An article in The Times of 20 July 1907 bemoaned the generally poor performance of British competitors in the event, stating that “the single exception was the Napier car driven with skill, courage, and cool judgement by Miss Dorothy Levitt”.
Levitt seems to have entered her last competitive motor event in 1908, and switched her attention to aviation. She attended flying school at Camp de Châlons in northeastern France in 1910, but there is no record of her obtaining a pilot’s licence. An interview with Levitt published in the Daily Chronicle in March 1910 about her experiences of learning to fly and her ambitions in aviation is almost the last recorded information about her life.
As an aviator, Levitt would have had to experience all over again the same prejudices against women that she had when she took up motoring: women were too emotional, they lacked discipline, judgement, and were unable to tolerate the intense nervous strain of piloting an aircraft according to many men of the period.[e]Other men, including the airplane manufacturers Anthony Fokker and Henry Farman recognised that women’s generally lighter build and manual dexterity made them ideal pilots for the fragile planes of the period. Added to which they drank less, and so were safer. Whether any of that was a factor in Levitt’s disappearance from the public eye is unknown.
Levitt’s book and her column in The Graphic reveal something of her atypical lifestyle for the Edwardian era as an independent, privileged, bachelor girl, living with friends in the West End of London and waited on by two servants.
Her love of speed sometimes brought Levitt to the attention of the police. She was for instance summonsed to appear at Marlborough Street Assizes on 6 November 1903 for speeding in Hyde Park. According to the police report she had been driving at a “terrific pace”, and when stopped said that “[she] … would like to drive over every policeman and wished she had run over the sergeant and killed him.” She was found guilty and fined £5 plus costs of two shillings (10p in modern currency). The other six motoring defendants that day were fined only £2 plus costs.
Levitt’s life after 1910 is undocumented. She was found dead in her bed at 50 Upper Baker Street in Marylebone on 17 May 1922 . The death certificate named her as Dorothy Elizabeth Levi, unmarried and of independent means, and stated that “the cause of death was morphine poisoning while suffering from heart disease and an attack of measles. The inquest recorded a verdict of misadventure.” The beneficiary of her estate, valued at £224 2s 5d (equivalent to £42,200 in 2017[f]Comparing average earnings of £224 2s 5d in 1922 with 2017) was her younger sister Elsie Ruby.
|^a||In the vernacular of the day Levitt was a scorcher, a motorist who delighted in exceeding the speed limit.|
|^b||As women motorists were very unusual at the start of the 20th century, newspapers were generally guaranteed to include any news stories about them.|
|^c||Levitt was described by the author Jean Francois Bouzanquet as a “beautiful secretary with long legs and eyes like pools”,|
|^d||Dodo had been smuggled into England by being drugged and then hidden in the repair box of an automobile.|
|^e||Other men, including the airplane manufacturers Anthony Fokker and Henry Farman recognised that women’s generally lighter build and manual dexterity made them ideal pilots for the fragile planes of the period. Added to which they drank less, and so were safer.|
|^f||Comparing average earnings of £224 2s 5d in 1922 with 2017|