A Social History of Women in Motorsport

Motor Sports Women Chat
Women racing drivers chat before a run at Prescott Speed Hill Climb in 2012

On Sunday 26th March 2017 (coincidentally also the date for Mothering Sunday in the UK), Mum and I accompanied Dad to the Spring Seminar of the Society of Automotive Historians in Britain(SAHB), held at the British Motor Museum in Gaydon, Warwickshire. Of the six speakers, there was one in particular that I was looking forward to: Sarah Crofts discussing Women in Motorsport & Social History. And she didn’t disappoint…

Sarah is a Museum Attendant at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu in Hampshire; she offers daily museum tours themed around Women in Motorsport and makes regular blog posts about female racing drivers on the Museum’s website. Sarah introduced her talk by showing a presentation comprising of clips from news items, documentaries, and adverts showing how women have been portrayed in relation to their cars over the past 80+ years. One example I’ve also been able to find online was Enid’s Cortina, an advert from 1969 explaining how an elderly female motorist was unbothered by her car’s racing heritage.

Victorian Cycling Costumes
Outfits for Victorian Lady Cyclists in the Motor Museum Coventry

Having treated us to some tantalising snippets about racing luminaries such as Pat Moss, Maria Teresa de Filippis, and Michèle Mouton, Sarah began her talk proper by taking us back to the vehicle that was key to the beginnings of female emancipation: the bicycle. Prior to the adaptation of clothing and bicycles to accommodate each other, the tricycle was the only respectable vehicle for a lady (elsewhere, however, I may have found evidence for Queen Victoria having used a quadricycle in her later years). With the advent of innovations such as more accommodating saddles, skirt-guards, and (my favourite) the combined efforts of Amelia Bloomer and the Rational Dress Movement, increasing numbers of women were able to travel far from home, often unchaperoned.

Salvo Quadricycle
Salvo Quadricycle as supposedly used by Queen Victoria: Motor Museum Coventry

This newfound freedom in the late nineteenth century was perhaps exemplified by the pioneer motorist Berta Benz. Berta married Karl Benz in 1872 and brought a great deal of wealth, and enthusiasm for Karl’s inventions, to the marriage. Although Karl’s early test drives of his ‘Motorwagen’ were not entirely successful, on 5th August 1888 the 39 year old Berta took the vehicle without her husband’s permission and drove it, accompanied by their two sons, the 65 miles to her mother’s house. The journey took the better part of a day, and required great ingenuity from Berta to make repairs along the way using such feminine items as a hatpin and a garter. The escapade gave Karl’s invention much needed publicity and so a legend was born.

In the years following Berta’s adventure up until WWI, women were commonly featured alongside cars in advertisements, but were generally not expected to drive, and motoring was regarded as a hobby for the wealthy. While the De Dion Bouton recommended by my heroine Dorothy Levitt might cost £200, a set of lady’s motoring clothes could easily cost £300 or more. Undeterred, women such as Levitt, Camille du Gast, and later Helle Nice, The Bugatti Queen, set records in a wide range of racing cars up until the Second World War.

A Trio of Bugattis
A Trio of Classic Bugattis, Prescott Speed Hillclimb

These pioneers were followed in the second half of the twentieth century by those women I mentioned earlier: Pat Moss, Maria Teresa de Filippis and Michèle Mouton, amongst others. To date, however, Formula One successes elude women with Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi still holding the record as the only female driver to score points in the F1 Championship and have a top six finish in a World Championship race. I cheekily asked if Bernie Ecclestone’s replacement as head of the F1 industry offers new opportunities for women to compete at the top level. Although the answer was to wait and see, I have since been reading up on Jamie Chadwick, the youngest (and only female) British GT4 Champion, who this year has made the switch to single-seaters, and become the only woman competing in this year’s British Formula 3 Championship (full story here). I shall be following her career with interest.

The next event the SAHB are running is a joint conference with their German counterparts the AHG. Sadly, I won’t be able to attend this year, but the plans announced so far look impressive. I definitely recommend you read Sarah’s blog too.

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6 thoughts on “A Social History of Women in Motorsport

  1. Thoroughly enjoyable – and I must admit I wish I’d been there to hear this talk. I haven’t been to Beaulieu in years. I really must make up for the oversight some time soon.

    Like

  2. Thanks!

    I nearly missed out on the talk: I’d booked for a different transport history conference that was held on the previous day, before this one was announced, and had to make a snap decision which to attend.

    Like

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