In the early twentieth century, Dorothy Levitt, née Elizabeth Levi (1882-1922) was “the premier woman motorist and botorist [motorboat driver] of the world”. The first Englishwoman to drive in a public competition, she triumphed during races in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, defeated all challengers at the Championship of the Seas in Trouville, and set the women’s world record in the Brighton Speed Trials: a whopping 79.75 miles per hour — lightspeed, circa 1905.
Like many larger-than-life figures, her origin story is modest, accidental, and layered with hearsay. As a child, she enjoyed cycling, horse-riding, and had a natural talent for riflery. One day, a friend of her parents came to visit their family home in the West Country, leaving his automobile idle for the long weekend. When it was time for the visitor to leave, Levitt had already mastered the physics of petrol combustion.
At least, that’s the story we get from C. Byng-Hall, in his prefatory remarks to Levitt’s The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor (1909). Other biographical tidbits suggest that Levitt worked as secretary for Selwyn Edge, a racing enthusiast and businessman who first popularized the six-cylinder engine, and who, in a bid for publicity, may have handed Levitt the keys. As Jean Williams argues in her contemporary history of women’s sport, Levitt’s West Country heritage has remained “unsubstantiated so far”, a possible autobiographical stunt to obscure her Jewish descent. Before long, however, Levitt was known for burning rubber around the world, often accompanied by her Pomeranian, whom she called Dodo. (Other racers poked fun at her eccentricities by pinning plush canine emblems to their racing caps.)
The Woman and the Car is a practical, how-to guide for those who wanted to take to the roads, but did not quite know how. Many of the extensive recommendations regarding mechanics, etiquette, and the temptations of car culture hold true today. There have always been lemons, it seems, for Levitt remains skeptical of purchasing second-hand cars advertised “as good as new”. And like many enthusiasts, Levitt refused to share her wheels with others. “I have made it a rule never to allow any one to drive my own little car—and this is a rule that every one will find useful.”
In Levitt’s “little handbook”, we find a similar hunger for the fraught freedom of the road that would eventually preoccupy the mid-century American imagination — exploited in novels like On the Road and Lolita, and in films such as Easy Rider — and which continues to provide a mesh of mechanist escapism in the British television program Top Gear:
Long before motoring became the dull labor of suburban commuting, it held the mystique of an emergent individualism — aimed here, with the reference to chauffeurs and countryside friends, at a certain class of leisurous ladies. “If you stop the night at a friend’s house”, Levitt proffers somewhat cryptically, “you will find it spick and span in the morning with water in the tank and your petrol-tank also replenished”. Oh to have friends like Levitt’s. . .
Other advice in the “chatty little handbook” is wonderfully dated, providing an ossified image of a different motoring era. She recommends, for instance, a single-cylinder engine for women drivers. And her prose swells with delight while describing a proto-version of the glove compartment: “This little drawer is the secret of the dainty motoriste.” On the topic of dress, Levitt offers definitive advice. “As to head-gear, there is no question: the round cap or close-fitting turban of fur are the most comfortable and suitable”. Should you find yourself driving alone on the highways and byways, she thinks you ought to carry a small revolver and even suggests a specific make. “I have an automatic ‘Colt,’ and find it very easy to handle as there is practically no recoil.” Though, as she concedes, this only works if, like her, you “practice continually at a range”. There is a kind of merciless practicality throughout. While Levitt advises “to sound the hooter” when approaching pedestrians, she has no time for other creatures interfering on the road. “Dogs, chickens and other domestic animals at large on the highway are not pedestrians, and if one is driving at a regulation speed, or under, one is not responsible for their untimely end.”
You may be afraid, as I am, of driving in a hansom through the crowded streets of town—you may be afraid of a mouse, or so nervous that you are startled at the slightest of sudden sounds—yet you can be a skilful motorist, and enjoy to the full delights of this greatest of out-door pastimes, if you possess patience —the capacity for taking pains.
She ends her treatise with a reflection on recent historical progress. “Twenty or thirty years ago, two of the essentials to a motorist—some acquaintance with mechanics and the ability to understand local topography—were supposed to be beyond the capacity of a woman’s brain.” Levitt was not only instrumental in advancing equality behind the steering wheel, she also forever altered the automobile form. Decades before rearview mirrors became standard issue, she recommended that ladies carry a hand mirror, for holding up to the landscape receding in their dusty tracks.
May 20, 2021