Dorothy Levitt

5/1/1882 - 17/5/1922

Record updated 29-Jul-20

Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt was the first British woman racing driver, holder of the world's first water speed record, the women's world land speed record holder and an author. She was a pioneer of female independence and female motoring and taught Queen Alexandra and the Royal Princesses how to drive. 

Dorothy Levitt

Dorothy was born Elizabeth Levi, the daughter of a tea dealer, Jacob Levi, and his wife Julia. Jacob had 'anglicised' his name to John Levitt by time of the 1901 census.

In 1903 Dorothy Levitt won her class at the Southport Speed Trials driving a 12 Hp Gladiator, shocking British society as she was the first woman, a working secretary, to compete in a 'motor race'. She became noted for racing in a dust coat (a loose coverall coat reaching down to the ankles), matching hat and veil. On 25 July 1903 at the 'Sun-Rise Hill Climb' near Edgehill in Warwickshire she was the official passenger of S.F. Edge because her Gladiator was a non-starter. In 1903 she was reportedly the first Woman Driver to win an automobile race at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Later in 1903 Dorothy Levitt won the inaugural British International Harmsworth Trophy for speedboats at Cork Harbour in Ireland. She achieved 19.3 mph in a 40 foot steel-hulled, Napier speedboat fitted with a 3 blade propeller, owned by Selwyn Edge. As owner and entrant 'S.F.Edge' is engraved on the Trophy, although the third crew member Campbell Muir may also have taken the controls.

On Nov 6th that year she was among a number of motorists summonsed at Marlborough St for speeding in Hyde Park. Although she did not appear in court personally, she was said to have driven at a "terrific pace" and, when stopped, apparently "said she would like to drive over every policeman and wished she had run over the sergeant and killed him." The magistrate, Mr Denman, proceeded to fine her £5 with 2s costs. The other six defendants were only fined £2 plus costs. At another court hearing about the same time, Dorothy and her friend Hena Frankton claimed damages against a van driver who had hit their car, receiving compensation of £35.

In 1904 Dorothy Levitt raced an officially entered De Dion car in the Hereford 1,000 mile trial, and only mechanical problems on the final day, which she repaired herself, prevented her from winning a gold medal.

In 1905 Dorothy Levitt drove an 80hp Napier at the annual speed trials in Brighton, winning both her class and the Autocar Challenge Trophy. A ‘works drive’ in a French Mors in the inaugural Tourist Trophy Race on the Isle of Man had been prohibited by Selwyn Edge in order to protect the reputation of his Napier marquee. Ironically the 208 mile race was won by Mr. J. S. Napier in his Arrol Johnson car, ahead of 40 competitors.

In 1906 Dorothy Levitt broke the women's world speed record recording a speed of 96 mph and was described as "the fastest girl on Earth" when she drove a six-cylinder Napier motorcar at 91 miles per hour in a speed trial in Blackpool. She also set the Ladies' Record at the Shelsley Walsh Speed Hillclimb in a 50hp Napier (7790cc), making the climb in 92.4 seconds, 12 seconds faster than the male winner and around three minutes faster than the previous record set by Miss Larkins and sixth fastest overall. Her record stood until 1913.

In 1907 the newly opened Brooklands circuit would not accept her entry, even though she was vouchsafe by S.F.Edge, and continued to reject women drivers until 1908. Thus she set her sights on Europe. In October she won her class in the Gaillon Hillclimb in France, driving a 40HP 6 cyl Napier. Additionally she is reported to have finished second in the Bexhill on Sea Speed Trial along the sea front.

Her 1908 schedule was hectic and successful. In June she drove a 45 Hp Napier to win a silver plaque in the Prinz Heinrich Trophy at the Herkomer Trophy Trial in Germany. In July her 60 Hp Napier was second fastest of over 50 competitors at the Aston Clinton Hill Climb in Buckinghamshire. In August she competed at La Cote du Calvaire hill climb at Trouville in France.

She was effectively both a 'works driver' and publicist for Napier cars owned by Selwyn Edge, plus also being his mistress for a period.

She became the leading exponent of a woman's "right to motor" and in 1909 published The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Hand Book for Women Who Motor or Want to Motor, based on her newspaper column in The Graphic. She also gave many lectures to encourage women to take up motoring.

Her book contained may tips including carrying a 'ladies hand mirror' to "occasionally hold up to see what is behind you". Thus she can be said to have pioneered the rear view mirror seven years before it was adopted by manufacturers.

Around this time (circa 1909) she also attempted to qualify as a pilot at the Hubert Latham School of Aviation in Chalons near Reims France.