by Rachel Harris-Gardiner
Dorothy Levitt was an Edwardian motor racing star. She drove fast, died too early, and was also probably born at least a century too early.
Between 1903 and 1908, she competed in races, trials and hillclimbs in the UK and Europe, as well as publishing a popular motoring guide for women: The Woman and the Car: a chatty little handbook for women who want to motor.
She was not the first woman to race in the UK, but she was probably the first woman to drive for a manufacturer team when she entered the 1904 Hereford Trial in a Gladiator. This was a five-day test of car and driver and she won a silver medal – which would have been gold had the Gladiator not had problems with its carburettor.
Gladiator was one of the makes of car imported by Selwyn Edge of the Napier company. Edge, an Anglo-Australian businessman with a keen eye for publicity, provided a series of cars for Dorothy to race – usually either Napier racing models or production De Dions. Later, she also occasionally drove Minerva cars.
Napier cars helped Dorothy win her class in the Southport and Blackpool speed trials (run along the seafront) and also took her to a win in the 1905 Autocar Challenge Trophy against experienced male opposition. This was part of the Brighton Speed Trials, an event that still runs today. Her Brighton car had a hefty 80hp and many observers assumed that a woman would not be able to handle it. Dorothy proved them wrong and showed her mettle by winning her class in a 100hp Napier at the Blackpool trials.
In a much smaller De Dion, she undertook a 1905 speed trial between London and Liverpool and set the fastest time for a there-and-back journey. She was never above stunts such as this, or driving a taxi through London for the benefit of a newspaper, despite not having a cab license.
Her driving companion drew the attention of the press at that year’s Scottish Trial: Dodo the Pomeranian dog. This furry black pet rode on Dorothy’s lap and apparently snapped at an official RAC observer. His presence did not distract Dorothy; according to The Guardian, “Miss Levitt steered a three-seated De Dion car around the bends with perfect sureness and gained the summit without a suspicion of difficulty.”
Other reports claim that her competitors took to the road with stuffed toys or china dogs attached to their cars. Dorothy responded by offering them dog biscuits.
After entering most of the hill climbs and trials in England and Scotland, she began racing in Europe in 1907, where she took part in the long-distance Herkomer Trial and the Gaillon hill climb, winning her class in both events. She returned to the Herkomer in 1908 and won a silver plaque for a non-stop run through one part of the course with no penalties.
In its early days, many women in motorsport had to frame themselves as performers in order to gain access to cars, track time and media attention. The first women to race at all were a group of French vaudeville actresses who rode motor tricycles around the Longchamp horse racing track in 1897. Dorothy’s American contemporary Joan Newton Cuneo circumvented a ban on female racing drivers by making solo speed runs at fairground circuits. While Dorothy was beating the men in Brighton, French racer Madame Bob Walter was challenging motorcyclists to match races and capitalising on her previous career as a dancer.
Dorothy presented a very different picture. Her mastery of media management would put many modern social media influencers to shame; had she been born a century later, she would have been an expert at crafting her image with the help of Instagram and Facebook.
The first female professional driver for a works team may have distanced herself from the vaudeville performers on tricycles and sideshow daredevils, but she was playing her own part.
The image that Dorothy projected was that of a plucky playgirl, a country heiress who fell into motorsport almost by accident. The main source of this appealing picture was a 1906 article in the Penny Illustrated Paper, The Sensational Adventures of Dorothy Levitt. In it, she claims to be from “an old London family” and that her father retired to “his country house” with his family, where a marriage was arranged for her. She was effectively rescued from this situation by SF Edge, who taught her to drive and arranged for her to be trained in engineering in France. She later dropped the arranged marriage storyline in the introduction to The Woman and the Car, but still maintained that she had grown up in the country, hunting to hounds and fishing whenever she could. Alongside her racing, she demonstrated Napier cars to female customers and taught society ladies to drive – from Queen Alexandra and her daughters to “plain, everyday Americans”. This is the one of the easiest of Dorothy’s tall tales to unravel; Queen Alexandra was already driving herself around in a little electric car in 1901, before Dorothy came on the scene.
The truth was very different. The Levitts were indeed an old London family, but were far from the hinted landed-gentry of Dorothy’s own accounts. She was born Elisabeth Dorothy Levi in 1882 to Jacob and Julia Levi in Islington. Jacob later anglicised his own name to John Levitt and his wife and daughters followed suit. The Levis were an established Orthodox Jewish family in East London, relatively wealthy but “in trade”, although that trade was a lucrative jewellery business.
Dorothy’s father was the only one of his family who changed his name and this seems to suggest a degree of independence and perhaps religious difference. Dorothy never spoke of her actual upbringing and never mentioned religion at all, although she was eventually buried in a Jewish cemetery.
We do not know why she obscured her origins so consistently. A fear of anti-Semitism is a reasonable guess, although it was John Levi who initially changed Dorothy’s name, not her or Edge. It is likely that Edge did at least some stage-managing at the beginning, although Dorothy hung on to her imagined past once their relationship had probably ended.
Neither Edge nor Dorothy ever talked about their personal relationship but it was clearly an important part of the Dorothy story. They met when she took a temporary job as a typist at the Napier factory, in either 1902 or 1903. She must have impressed Edge as he kept her on and quickly gave her more responsibility. She first raced a Napier-engined motor boat for him in the 1903 Harmsworth Trophy, setting a water speed record, but her name was not widely acknowledged at the time as women were not supposed to skipper speedboats.
Census records show no trace of a governess resident at any of Dorothy’s childhood homes, so we can assume she attended school. The occupation of a 19-year-old Dorothy was listed as “typist”, so she probably had some tertiary education via a secretarial college. She is usually referred to as Edge’s secretary, which was then a role of some importance, possibly involving the supervision of a team of typists and clerks as well as personal assistance.
It is also highly likely that the Edge was in a romantic or sexual relationship with her. He was estranged from his wife Eleanor at the time and was a noted womaniser. He sometimes appeared alongside Dorothy at social occasions.
Edge certainly exercised some degree of control over Dorothy’s motorsport career. In 1905, she was offered a drive in the Tourist Trophy, a road race in Ireland, by the French Mors team. Officially, she pulled out of the race, but it was widely known that Edge vetoed her competing in a car not affiliated to Napier.
The idea of using a woman to promote Napier cars would have come from Edge himself, although he was not its inventor. It is highly likely that he was present for the first-ever women’s motor race in 1897; he was in Paris at the time and had connections with the Clement-Bayard factory which provided the winning tricycle. The “Course des Artistes” of which the ladies’ race was a part was mostly bicycle races and Edge’s background was competitive cycling.
His own take on her career was that he had plucked her from obscurity and sent her to France to learn engineering, in preparation for racing. A former Napier apprentice, Leslie Callingham, tells a different tale in SCH Davis’s book, Atalanta. Callingham was recruited by Edge to teach Dorothy to drive in around 1902, which he undertook reluctantly.
Another of Edge’s decisions may have caused the end of their relationship, personal and professional. The Brooklands motor racing circuit opened in Britain in 1907 and Edge quickly turned his attention to racing Napier cars there, and especially setting a series of speed records. However, Napier’s star driver never got to race at Brooklands. Dorothy attended the opening of the circuit and was photographed for the newspapers, and she did try to race a Napier at that year’s Easter meeting. She ended up in the programme as the car’s entrant only, as the main Brooklands organising club did not allow women to race.
It is often said that women were banned from the Brooklands track completely, but this was not the case. The Brooklands Auto Racing Club (BARC) did not recognise women as drivers, but other organising clubs did, which means that opportunities probably did exist.
A women-only race was put on by the BARC in 1908, but Dorothy was not among the seven entries. As a BARC member, Edge could have entered her, but for some reason he did not. The Napier racing team was disbanded at the end of 1908 and Edge retreated from the motor industry for some years. The following year, Dorothy published her book. It contained no direct references to Edge, or his role in her career, although it does mention Eleanor, his estranged wife, in a list of accomplished female motorists.
One of Dorothy’s most famous ideas is explained in The Woman and the Car. In it, she advises carrying a small hand mirror when motoring, in order to see the road behind. This is the first recorded use of a rear-view mirror. She also advises carrying a revolver for personal protection, a dog, a supply of chocolates and an overall for use during running repairs.
After 1908, she did no more racing and built a career as a journalist, normally writing about motoring for women – although she did author an opinion piece in 1910 on the wrongs of corset-wearing, which appeared in a paper called London, Mostly About People. Her byline continued to crop up in syndicated local papers until about 1912.
At the same time, Dorothy apparently tried to become a pilot. Stories suggest that she travelled to France at the beginning of 1910 to learn to fly Farman aircraft and to learn from “the intrepid Mr Latham”. In March that year, she was booked to give a talk to the Women’s Aerial League on flying “from a woman’s point of view”, although it is unclear whether she did speak to the League or even gain her pilot’s license.
This was the beginning of the end for Dorothy. Without the guidance and material support of Edge, she could not find a way back into motorsport. In May 1912, she did attempt a comeback, driving from John O’Groats to Land’s End, with Gladys de Havilland, in a Bedford car. Gladys ended up making the journey alone as Dorothy was “not well enough” to go with her.
Between 1913 and 1920, Dorothy simply vanishes from view. She does not appear in the 1911 Census, although the rest of her family is recorded as staying in a boarding house. It might be expected that she would volunteer as a driver for one of the various women’s services during the war, but there is no record of this happening. There is also no evidence that she was in prison or in an institution, although there is a small chance she was abroad.
She reappears in public records in 1920, living at the flat in Upper Baker Street where she would be found dead two years later. She had previously owned property at Portman Mansions in Marylebone, not far away. Among the other residents of 50a Upper Baker Street was the composer Rowland Revell. Interestingly, the building was previously owned by the Women’s Legion, the precursor to the Women’s Land Army.
Dorothy died on May 17th 1922. She was found dead in her bed and a post mortem concluded that she had died of heart disease, as a result of morphine poisoning. She had also been suffering from measles. Her death was barely reported in the papers.
She was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Brighton, close to where her sister Elsie had settled with her husband. Elsie was the sole beneficiary of her will and received a legacy of a substantial, if not huge, sum of money and a diamond ring. There is no mention of property or any of Dorothy’s cars.