The Woman and The Car

Book Cover While browsing the book and photograph stalls at a recent conference on motoring history, I came across the 1970 reprint of a book first published in 1909: Dorothy Levitt‘s The Woman and The Car (subtitled A chatty little handbook for all women who motor or who want to motor). Because of its wonderful photographs, I initially thought it would come in useful for a presentation I’m planning on how cycling and motoring influenced women’s fashions between 1881 (the foundation of the Society for Rational Dress) and 1914 (when the Great War began to influence everything in other ways). However, reading the book taught me so much more, and inspired new areas for research.

Nattily dressed couple in 1902 Panhard et Levassor
Nattily dressed couple in 1902 Panhard et Levassor

Levitt learned to drive in the early 1900s, having previously been a keen cyclist and horserider, and took part in her first race in April 1903, writing in her diary, First Englishwoman to take part in public motor-car competition. Did not win. Will do better next time. Glamorous and not afraid to publicise herself, Levitt had no lack of offers to drive for motor manufacturers and started writing a column for the weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic. Some of those columns later formed the backbone of her book.

Single-cylinder De Dion Bouton (1902 model)
Single-cylinder De Dion Bouton (1902 model)

The Woman and The Car provides instruction on purchase, driving, maintenance, road manners, and how much to tip the man who cares for your vehicle when staying at a hotel, or with friends in the country. The ideal woman’s car, according to Levitt, is a single-cylinder De Dion Bouton, and she was strongly of the opinion that the lady motoriste should be able to carry out all necessary repairs herself, using the tools and spares she carried with her, while wearing a ‘useful overall’ to cover her long dress. Should she not have the exact tool for the job, a lot could be done with a hairpin, a pocket knife, or a piece of emery paper!

Sheffield Simplex engine -- more complex than the De Dion
1920 Sheffield Simplex engine — more complex than the De Dion

Levitt also advised women to carry a small revolver for protection, and to use a hand mirror to check what was happening behind them as they drove — pre-dating the introduction of rear-view mirrors by at least five years. In her book, she also talks about other female motoring pioneers such as Isabel Savory ‘who drives and maintains her own cars’ (and was the author of a number of adventurous travel memoirs), Mrs George Thrupp of Cadogan Square who had been driving since 1896 (and was possibly connected to coachbuilders Thrupp and Maberly — I need to investigate), and the Duchess of Sutherland (pen-name, Erskine Gower) who was president of the Ladies’ Automobile Club.

Automobile Association transport and post from a later age than Levitt's
Automobile Association transport and box from a later age than Levitt’s

The Ladies Automobile Club was one of two organisations Levitt advised her readers to join — because of its facilities for motoristes visiting London and for its connection to the Royal Automobile Club and local affiliates, ensuring that members would be welcomed wherever they travelled. Women were also advised to join the Automobile Association, whose scouts (at that time kitted out on bicycles) would flag down cars carrying the AA badge to warn them of dangers ahead, including speed traps. The membership fee apparently paid for itself quickly in terms of speeding fines avoided.

Little is known of Dorothy Levitt’s life after 1910, and she died in 1922. However, she paved the way for many other motoristes, such as Elizabeth Junek (Eliška Junková) whose image I bought in a sale of motoring photographs and art at the Bugatti Owners Club, Pat Moss — sister of Sir Sterling and an accomplished rally driver in her own right, and Susie Wolff who announced her retirement from competitive motorsport this month.



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