Tales from Brooklands: Dorothy Levitt
08 October 2021
Our next Tales from Brooklands is by guest author Rachel Harris-Gardiner, motorsport journalist and editor of Speedqueens women's motorsport blog. She's sharing the story of pioneering female motorist Dorothy Levitt.
Dorothy goes to Brooklands
The most celebrated personalities of Brooklands are the serial winners, but for every winner there were several losers. There were also those who never even got to take part, and sometimes their stories need to be told.
Dorothy Levitt was far from being a loser when Brooklands opened in 1907. At the time, she was Britain’s most celebrated female motorist, with wins in the 1905 Brighton Speed Trials and trophies in respected European events like the Herkomer Trial. From 1903 onwards, she was the relatable face of Napier, Minerva, Gladiator and De Dion cars in the UK, beating the men in hillclimbs and beachfront speed trials and always ready with a newsworthy comment for the press.
Given her racing pedigree, you would think that Levitt would have figured in the early history of the circuit, like other Edwardian motoring pioneers. However, her contribution to Brooklands history amounts to a single thwarted entry.
The 1908 Easter Meeting was meant to be the triumphant debut of Dorothy Levitt at Brooklands. She was entered by the Napier motor company to drive one of their racing specials, but her participation was reduced to that of “entrant” by the BARC, which, modelling itself on the Jockey Club, did not admit women members. The car was driven by JF Browning and finished second in the Standard Class race.
A disappointed Dorothy was photographed watching “her” car at the circuit in her habitual duster coat and motoring hat. The BARC’s decision was final and it is often said that women were banned outright from the hallowed banking until 1920, but this is not entirely true. BARC was the chief organising club at Brooklands, but it was not the only one. Others were much more welcoming to female drivers. Dorothy could have joined one of them and entered their events.
The press of the time presented Dorothy as an independent modern woman in control of her own career, but she was not acting alone. As a nominal works driver for Napier, she was under the tutelage of Selwyn Edge.
The two probably met in 1901 or 1902, when Dorothy, a young Jewish woman from a comfortably-off London family, was employed as a typist at the Napier works. She caught the eye of its director, SF Edge and was promoted to his private secretary. According to SCH Davis in Atalanta, his own history of female drivers, a Napier apprentice called Leslie Callingham was charged with teaching her to drive, a task he did not particularly enjoy. Dorothy herself supplied a few different stories of how she learned to drive, claiming that she was taught by “a family friend” in the West Country or that a passing automotive executive was impressed by her skills at a country fair. At other times she also told of an apprenticeship in a French car factory, sometimes named as Clement-Bayard.
From her first Hillclimb in 1903, the newspapers loved Dorothy and couldn’t get enough of her exploits, including a class win in the Southport Speed trials and setting a speed record for a two way run from London to Liverpool, driving a Gladiator. She was a valuable promotional figurehead for Napier (which imported Gladiator, Minerva and De Dion cars to the UK) and Edge was a master of promotion. Edge was perhaps inspired to take on a female driver by the motor tricycle races for actresses organised in Paris between 1897 and 1899; he worked for Clement-Bayard which supplied tricycles and was certainly in France at the time. The celebrity race meetings involved cycling, which was another of Edge’s chief interests. Shortly after this, in 1900, he drove a Napier for Edward Kennard in the RAC 1000 Miles Trial; Kennard’s wife Mary would become one of Britain’s first female competition drivers a few months later, driving a De Dion at the Ranelagh Club Gymkhana. Mary was an author and Edge appeared in her 1903 novel “The Motor Maniac” as “Pellin Sedge”.
There could be a downside to Dorothy’s close relationship with her employer, which was widely considered to be romantic as well as commercial. When she was approached by the Mors team for a drive in the 1905 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, she was prevented from taking it up, as it was not a Napier-affiliated marque. Officially, she pulled out due to illness.
Naturally, Edge gravitated towards Brooklands as a venue for Napier’s motorsport programme. The biggest events for the firm were a series of record attempts by Edge himself and a team of support drivers. Initially, he tried to include Dorothy, but BARC policies made this impossible and she became sidelined. Napier’s competition department itself was wound up at the end of 1908. After that, Dorothy did not race again. The Napier team’s actions were not inevitable. They could have allied themselves with a different club, which allowed women to race. Edge could have entered Dorothy into the 1908 Ladies’ Bracelet Handicap and she would probably have won easily, but he apparently chose not to. Dorothy tended to avoid women-only events which goes some way to explaining, but it is hard to imagine her passing up such an opportunity had it been available. One possibility is that Dorothy’s impact would have been diluted in a field of other female drivers. Much of her notoriety derived from her being the first, fastest or only woman to be doing anything.
There was obviously some breakdown in the Levitt-Edge relationship in 1908. With the focus on Brooklands and then the closure of Napier’s competition department, she was becoming surplus to the SF Edge publicity machine’s requirements. This in turn may have soured their personal relationship. When Dorothy’s famous book, The Woman and the Car, was published in 1909, Edge warrants no mention at all, although his estranged wife Eleanor gets a mention as a “distinguished motorist”.
Dorothy Levitt continued as a motoring writer until about 1912. She had announced that she was switching to aviation in 1909 and apparently undertook some training in 1910, but does not appear to have qualified. Her later writing was a series of variations on her earlier motoring advice for women, although she also tackled other subjects from time to time, including a diatribe against the wearing of corsets in 1910, which appeared in a publication called “London: Mostly About People”.
Selwyn Edge sold his own company to Napier itself in 1912. As a condition of the sale, he was barred from working in the motor industry for seven years. He would return to Brooklands in 1922, setting more speed records in a Spyker. In 1927, he even recruited a new female figurehead for AC, now run by him, in the shape of Mildred Bruce, who was sixth in that year’s Monte Carlo Rally and set a number of records for endurance. Her relationship with Edge and AC was short-lived, although she carried on as a racing driver and then a transcontinental pilot.
Dorothy was not able to restart her career so easily. She disappears from the public eye in 1913 and does not even appear on electoral registers again until 1920. No-one is really sure where she was or what she did during the First World War.
She was found dead in her London flat in 1922, not long before her 40th birthday. An inquest found that she had died of heart disease, complicated by morphine poisoning and an earlier bout of measles.
Rachel Harris-Gardiner, guest author. Read more of her work on Speedqueens
Daily Express press cutting from 1907, featuring Dorothy Levitt visiting the newly opened Brooklands track.
The description reads ' Miss Dorothy Levitt, the intrepid lady motorist, inspecting the new motor-racing track at Weybridge. The photography shows on of the bend in the course banked on the principle of a cycle track, which will enable a racing car to negotiate the bend while travelling at ninety miles per hour'.
Selwyn Francis Edge in the 6 cylinder Napier at Brooklands, 1907
Start of SF Edge's 24-hour endurance record run at Brooklands, June 1907. SF Edge in the centre in the 60hp six-cylinder Napier.