I was delighted to be invited to do the two lunchtime commentary stints with Nicholas Upton at the VSCC Prescott Hill Climb in August. Our subject would be the Trailblazing Ladies of the 1920’s and 30’s.
My passion for this period grows by the day and in the summer I was writing my radio drama about the Honourable Mrs Mildred Bruce. Mildred won the Coupe de Dames in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1927 then went on to do amazing things such as wing walk, drive 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, break record the endurance record in Wolf Barnarto’s Bentley, a week before he raced it at Le Mans, fly solo round the world in a fold up plane that she bought in Burlington Gardens… oh her achievements go on and on… however, my interest in these women really and truly started in Monaco with Julia Baldanza racing her pre-war Maserati and I realised I was hooked in to this research.
The Tete a Tete with Nicholas and I encounter over 20 women, from Chamille du Ghast and Bertha Benze to Violette Morris. It was like we were two mates chatting in a pub – and that is exactly what does happen with Nicholas and I, we are even going to do a double act on the Queen Mary cruise liner next year.
Bertha Benz the wife of Karl, put many of her onlookers into hysteria when she used her garter to ignite a spark on the electric ignition cable, she had already repaired the leather drive-belt at a cobblers, unblocked the carburettor pipe with a hatpin and refilled the petrol ether at a chemists.
I suppose our chat was not strict in its composition simply meanderings of women who led onto other women….
Dorothy Levitt and Chamille du Ghast already piping the way before her… Chamille with her fast road racing and Dorothy Levitt with her ingenious suggestions…. Driving licences to women before 1914 was barely 100, this soon changed especially with Levitt’s chatty little handbook… Chamille finished 33 out of 122 cars in the 1903 Paris- Madrid race… Levitt broke the ladies speed record at 96mph in 1906. The Ladies Automobile Club had their offices at Claridges, Brook Street, London from 1904 and Brooklands opens up a Ladies room.
With celebrations of Brooklands this year we spoke about the two fastest ladies: Kaye Petre and Gwenda Stewart and then Violette Morris associated to Gestapo, who taped her breasts down, certainly cut a masculine figure and along with Robert/ Roberta Cowell, the first of transgender drivers, if there were any more at this time, we are still searching.
Helle Nice, who everyone knows as the Bugatti Queen, from stardom to rags, sadly dies alone and penniless, although achieving such great race records….Met Philip Rothschild and got in with the racing set at Brooklands and Montlhery…. She raced the type 35c in the Grand Prix breaking Madam Junek’s track record in 1929. Junek, who was first person and a woman, to walk the track at the Targa Florio, raced a Bugatti 35b… we all know of Sir Stirling Moss with his toilet paper tulip roll, well, he got all road book idea from Junek.
Some of the conversation led onto unknowns such as Jill Scott who lived next to Brooklands wealthy and raced Bugatti’s. She broke the Brooklands 120mph record in a Leyland Eight however. I always forget about Jill Scott because to me she raced because she could, rather than her burning desire to race. It was a convenience for her. Victoria Worsley strikes me a as a character – although once again she came as they all did from a well-established well to do family. Joan Chetwind and others always brings me back to Mildred.
Fay Taylor after winning £50 in a tennis tournament bought her first car and always raced in a skirt and jacket, even on her motorbikes. Sadly she got caught up with a Nazi chap spent three years in the nick. Fay and Mildred both got the speed bug in their teens, I blame the brothers for leaving their motorbikes out all over the place!!
You see my lunchtime chat with Nicholas at the VSCC Prescott Hill climb was exactly just that, one day speaking over the biblical thunder lightening and rain, the next whilst the sun shone as if it had never rained at all. I have been invited back, the comments from the attendees at Prescott that weekend said “We sounded like to chums round at their mums for tea” another said “we had made them forget to get lunch as they needed to stand next to the loud speaker to hear the rest of the chat” another said “where else are we both performing”. I loved those comments. And I love chatting to Nicholas, he is such an encyclopaedia of historic racing and I just hope I can be such a sponge with my education of historic women racing drivers.
Catch Nicholas and I live on the Queen Mary cruise liner and at other VSCC events! The archive at the VSCC is extremely full of everything petrol fever with volunteers that are so very very helpful.