Even today, the automotive sector is regarded as a male-dominated industry. But since the earliest days of motoring, there have been women determined to compete with men at the highest levels. Here are the fascinating stories of 10 early women pioneers who all left their mark on the automotive industry.
In 1901, a wealthy French widow named Camille du Gast took the automotive world by storm when she entered the Paris to Berlin motor race. The sport was still in its infancy, and the appearance of 33-year-old du Gast, driving her own Panhard Levassor, attracted a huge amount of interest from the press. The Tatler described her achievement in finishing the race as “remarkable proof of what a woman can accomplish.” Du Gast was known as female daredevil who, in 1895, had attracted publicity after making a parachute jump at a height of 2000 feet from the gondola of a hot-air balloon.
Ahead of the 1903 Paris to Madrid race, du Gast’s motorsport career received a boost when she was offered a drive in a works car by French manufacturer De Dietrich. She was apprehensive, and as it turns out, her fears proved to be well-founded.
After several fatalities to both drivers and spectators, the race was prematurely halted at Bordeaux. Du Gast herself was going exceptionally well, having climbed to 7th place, when, just outside Bordeaux, she stopped to help her teammate, Phil Stead. He had been involved in a serious collision and was trapped under his car. She stayed with him until an ambulance arrived and only restarted her race after a delay of several hours. She finished much lower down the field, in 78th place.
The next year, the prestigious German manufacturer, Benz, offered her a drive for the 1904 Gordon Bennett Cup. But Du Gast was unable to compete in the event: The Automobile Club de France had suddenly announced a decision to ban women from motorsport, blaming it on an inherent nervousness in female drivers.
Du Gast protested the decision in her typically spirited fashion, penning an indignant letter to L’Auto, but to no avail. Instead, one of the earliest women stars of motor racing turned to a new thrill-seeking activity. She took to the water and began to race motorboats, surviving, on one occasion, a near-fatal accident.
In later life, du Gast became an ardent supporter of the women’s rights movement in France, as well as animal welfare causes. Despite an assassination attempt in 1910—allegedly instigated by one of her own children—she lived to the age of 73 and died in Paris in April 1942.
London-born Dorothy Levitt’s driving abilities may well have gone undiscovered if she hadn’t taken a secretarial job at the Napier Motor Company. As Jean François Bouzanquet writes in Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers 1888-1970, the glamorous Levitt soon caught the eye of Napier boss Selwyn Edge, who came up with the idea of having her drive a racing car as a publicity stunt.
Levitt was just 21 years old when she entered the Glasgow to London Motor Trial in May 1903. Later that same summer, she triumphed in the Southport Speed Trials in front of an estimated crowd of 50,000 people, with a local newspaper reporting that “Miss Dorothy Levitt, on a 12hp Gladiator, carried off the honours in the class for cars costing over £400 but not more than £550.”
Two years later, Levitt set a new women’s world speed record while competing at the Brighton Speed Trials, reaching a top speed of 79.75 mph. The following year, at Blackpool, she smashed her own record, registering a speed of nearly 91 mph. Her diary entry for the day in question is quite startling: “Had near escape as front part of bonnet worked loose and, had I not pulled up in time, might have blown back and beheaded me.”
Levitt undoubtedly displayed a talent for self-promotion. A feature in the Penny Illustrated Paper revealed she was a driving instructor to female members of the British Royal Family. She was also, the feature said, an expert at roulette and had devised a system with which she was hoping “to break the bank at Monte Carlo.” These extravagant claims only added to Levitt’s growing celebrity status.
She later turned her own hand to journalism, penning a weekly newspaper column that became the basis for her 1909 book, The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women Who Motor or Want to Motor.
Levitt memorably advised women drivers traveling alone to carry a small revolver for protection, adding that, “I have an automatic ‘Colt’ and find it very easy to handle as there is practically no recoil.” In many ways, however, she was well ahead of her time. She encouraged owners of fuel-guzzling large cars to opt for smaller models. “Obviously it is gross extravagance to employ the voracious eater of petrol and rubber upon a service which can be accomplished at a quarter of the cost by a smaller car,” she declared.
Having so carefully nurtured her public image, Levitt’s time in the spotlight was surprisingly brief. From 1912 onward, she mysteriously disappeared from public view. Her death in London 10 years later, at the age of just 40, went largely unnoticed.
Born in Chicago in 1838, Margaret Wilcox was years ahead of her time—a woman mechanical engineer who, because of Illinois state law, was unable to file patents for her early inventions in her own name. The patent for her intriguing idea of a kitchen appliance that worked as a combined dishwasher and washing machine was originally filed under her husband’s name.
That idea proved short-lived, but Wilcox had more success in coming up with a way of heating railway cars by rerouting warm air from the engine to the rest of the train. There was one major flaw: Her design had no way of regulating the temperature, so the railway cars became uncomfortably hot on long journeys. Ford later adapted Wilcox’s basic design for its motor vehicles. It was the forerunner of today’s modern car heaters.
In November 1893, Wilcox was granted a patent for “certain new and useful improvements in car heaters.” By this time, she was able to file a patent under her own name, as otherwise her contribution to the automotive industry may never have been recognized.
In the early years of the 20th century, Mary Anderson came up with the first effective method for cleaning a car windshield from inside a vehicle.
While riding a streetcar on a snowy day in New York, she noted that the driver had to continually stop the vehicle and get out to clean the windshield. Upon returning home to Alabama, she decided to find a solution to this problem and came up with a design for an early version of windshield wipers. Anderson’s invention consisted of rubber blades that were attached to the outside of the windshield, but were operated from inside the vehicle via a lever close to the steering wheel.
In November 1903, Anderson was granted a 17-year patent by the U.S. Patent Office for her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice, or sleet from the window.” Surprisingly, her invention did not initially prove popular. The automotive industry was still in its infancy and, due to concerns that drivers would be distracted by the moving wipers, she failed to attract any major investment for the device.
Anderson’s patent had expired by the time Cadillac became the first major car manufacturer to install the windshield wiper as a standard piece of equipment in 1922. Despite designing the first effective example of a windshield wiper, she never profited from her invention.
Only in recent years has her contribution to the automotive industry been properly recognized. In 2011, nearly six decades after her death, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Indianapolis-born Elfrieda Mais (née Hellman) was 15 years old when, in 1909, construction began on the circuit that would become home to the world-famous Indy 500. But she never had a chance to compete in the celebrated race: That same year, the American Automobile Association banned women drivers from racing cars in officially sanctioned events. Still, the inveterate thrill-seeker still managed to carve out a career for herself in motorsport through her participation in speed trials and stunt driving exhibitions.
She became involved in motorsport following her marriage to the German-born automotive engineer and driver Johan “Johnny” Mais in 1911. She was from then onwards known as Elfrieda Mais—even after her divorce and subsequent three further marriages.
Appearing as a novelty act between races, Mais made headlines by setting a series of speed records, although these were never officially recognized. The self-styled “World Champion Woman Driver” was prepared to take on men and women rivals alike in exhibition races, even, on several occasions, racing her car against an opponent in an airplane.
In 1924, Mais took on Indy-500 veteran Louis Disbrow in a special “battle of the sexes” race held at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. She won, but was still subsequently refused entry to the Indy 500.
Mais also became famous throughout North America for her daredevil stunt driving, making regular appearances at events staged by promoter J. Alex Sloan. One particularly daring act proved to be her downfall. Sloan devised a new stunt that involved Mais driving her car at high speed through a blazing wall of fire. She performed the stunt without mishap on more than a dozen occasions, but, in September 1934, was killed while performing it at the Alabama State Fair in Birmingham.
Wealthy British landowners Hugh Fortescue and Ethel Locke King were both early motoring enthusiasts. In the summer of 1906, they decided to build the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit on their Surrey estate of Brooklands.
By Christmas, the project was in severe danger of failure. The track’s construction was much more complicated and costly than they had originally envisaged. Ethel asked members of her own family for money and, with her husband struggling to cope with the strain, she took over management of the track’s development.
The Brooklands Motor Circuit officially opened in June 1907; Ethel led the first procession of cars around the track in “Bambo,” her open-top Itala car. The following summer, she finished second in the circuit’s first ever women’s race, the Ladies’ Silver Bracelet Handicap. Soon afterwards—despite her massive input into the Brooklands project—the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club banned women from its races, a restriction that was lifted over two decades later.
With the outbreak of World War I, Brooklands closed and became a major center for military aircraft production. Meanwhile, the indomitable Ethel Locke King, as the Assistant Director for the Surrey branch of the Red Cross, played a vital role in setting up over a dozen military hospitals in the county, including one in her own home of Brooklands House.
Hugh Fortescue King died in 1926, the same year the first British Grand Prix was held at Brooklands. The circuit’s heyday came during the 1920s and 1930s, but it never reopened after World War II. Ethel Locke King continued to live on the Brooklands estate until her own death, aged 92, in August 1956.
When women were finally allowed to compete on equal terms with men at the famous Brooklands circuit during the early 1930s, the “Belles of Brooklands,” as they became known, made quite an impression.
The Canadian Kay Petre (née Defries) was probably the most famous of this iconic group of women racers. She competed at Brooklands for the first time in 1932, having moved to England upon her marriage to aviator Major Henry Petre.
She was renowned for her petite stature, but had no difficulty handling the high-powered racing cars she favored. Petre drove an enormous V12 Delage when breaking the women’s land speed record at Brooklands in August 1935, clocking a speed of 134.75 mph and becoming the recipient of a much coveted—and rarely awarded—Brooklands’s 130 mph badge.
As well as being a regular competitor at the top level of British motorsport, the Canadian driver also took part in the famous Le Mans 24-hour race on three occasions during the 1930s and traveled to South Africa to race in the 1937 Grand Prix.
In September 1937, Petre was involved in a horrific collision with fellow driver Reg Parnell during practice at Brooklands. She was crushed underneath her car and suffered life-threatening head injuries, remaining in a coma for several days. The crash put an end to her days of competitive racing, but she did become a highly respected motoring journalist. Petre died in London in August 1994 at the age of 91.
German driver Clärenore Stinnes had already enjoyed considerable success in races across Europe, when, at 26, she decided to try and become the first person to navigate the globe in a car. She set off on her epic journey in May 1927, accompanied by Swedish cinematographer Carl-Axel Söderström, who filmed many of their adventures for posterity.
Driving an Adler Standard 6, Stinnes set out from Frankfurt and headed east, arriving in Moscow in mid-September. Time Magazine reported, “With her black setter Lord for company and guard, a Swedish cameraman and two chauffeurs to drive her baggage truck, she had already last week driven her car 7300 miles in 42 traveling days—from Constantinople, through Syria, Armenia and Persia, to Moscow.”
Stinnes and her party traveled onward to Siberia, where they were delayed for a while because of the severity of the Russian weather, then on to Mongolia and Beijing. From there they traveled by ferry to Japan and then onward to San Francisco, where they arrived in late May 1928. Stinnes already had plenty of stories to tell about their adventures, including one incident when they had been pursued across the Gobi Desert for more than 100 miles by a Mongolian bandit band of several hundred horsemen.
This did not stop the intrepid German from continuing her journey to Central and South America, where she drove across the continent from Peru to Argentina and then crossed the Andes to Chile. On returning to the U.S. the following spring, Stinnes and Söderström were greeted in Washington by President Herbert Hoover. They arrived back in the German capital of Berlin on June 24, 1929, after two years of traveling.
Stinnes and Söderström married the following year and settled in Sweden. She died in September 1990, aged 89.
In 1910, Dorothée Pullinger began work as a 16-year-old at the Paisley works of Scottish car manufacturer Arrol-Johnston, where her father was a senior manager.
Four years later, she applied to join the Institution of Automobile Engineers, but was rejected on the grounds that “the word ‘person’ means a man and not a woman.” She did, however, finally become the Institution’s first woman member following World War I. It would have been difficult to turn down a person who had successfully managed a munitions factory, staffed by some 7000 women, throughout the war.
In 1921, Arrol-Johnston established the Galloway Motor Car Company, whose objective was to focus on the production of a light two-seater, designed with women drivers in mind. Pullinger was put in charge of production of the new model, which was marketed as “a car built by ladies, for those of their own sex.” As the advertising campaign suggests, nearly all of Galloway’s employees were women. Pullinger also ran special engineering courses for local women wishing to join the industry.
Production of the Galloway model was relatively short-lived, and eventually Pullinger moved south to England with her husband, Edward Martin, where the couple established a successful laundry business. They later relocated to Guernsey; Pullinger died there in 1986 at the age of 92.
Born in March 1909, Beatrice Shilling first made headlines for her exploits on a motorcycle at Brooklands during the 1930s. She began to race as an amateur in early adulthood, earning a prestigious Gold Star award for lapping the Brooklands circuit on her beloved Norton at over 100 mph. Shilling also enjoyed some impressive results against professional racers. One local British newspaper, the Portsmouth Evening News, wrote in June 1935 that, “Miss Beatrice Shilling, a 25-year-old Master of Science, won a motor-cycle race at Brooklands at 97 mph from famous men riders.”
Shilling is best known today for her work as an aeronautical engineer for Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) during World War II, when she came up with an ingenious temporary solution to a serious mechanical problem. She devised a deceptively simple device, based round a small metal washer with a hole in the middle, which was designed to correct a problem with fuel distribution to the engine.
Under her personal supervision, the device, nicknamed “Miss Shilling’s Orifice,” was swiftly fitted to all British fighter planes, thereby eliminating the need for them to be grounded. Shilling’s biographer, Matthew Freudenberg, relates how her arrival at airfields on the back of her Norton motorcycle, equipped with “a bag of tools and a brisk manner,” became the stuff of legends.
Following the war, Shilling continued to work at the RAE and returned to her favorite hobby of motorsport. She raced cars for many years at Goodwood with her husband George Naylor. Shilling died in 1990 at the age of 81.