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When I came across a book with this title, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect: a novel (“motoring” novels were very popular at this time), a manual for women drivers, or maybe a book advocating the view that women should not drive?

In fact, the title-page indicates (slightly patronisingly) that it is a “chatty little handbook for all women who motor or want to motor.”  It was written by Dorothy Levitt, who was the first female motorist in England to drive a car in a public competiton and who went on to win numerous cups and medals for her driving. She was obviously an enterprising and sporting person, as she was a good cyclist and horse rider, an excellent shot and good with a fishing rod, as well as being able to drive a car and a motor-boat. She was also pretty and stylish, and lived the life of a “bachelor girl” in a flat in West London, with a housekeeper, a maid, and a Pomeranian called Dodo. All in all, she sounds like a most unusual woman for her time.

Dorothy Levitt’s advice on motoring for women is at all times practical, although the photographs that illustrate her explanations must strike the modern reader as amusing, since I very much doubt that anyone these days would attempt to repair a car wearing such a hat! The overall (of Dorothy Levitt’s own design) was indispensable as it ensured that no smudges of oil or dirt should stain the driver’s clothes if roadside repairs had to be completed.  The author most helpfully lists all the costs likely to accrue from the moment of purchasing a car and also gives a handy list of items that should be kept in the equivalent of the glove compartment, which was, at that time. a little drawer under the driving seat. 

“This little drawer is the secret of the dainty motoriste. What you put in it depends upon your tastes, but the following articles are what I advise you to have in its recesses. A pair of clean gloves, an extra handkerchief, clean veil, powder puff (unless you despise them), hair-pins and ordinary pins, a hand mirror – and some chocolates are very soothing sometimes!”

She continues her list with soap, and makes sure that the aspiring motorist realises that the handmirror afore mentioned is “not strictly for personal use, but to occasionally hold up to see what is behind you.” This was, of course, in the days before wing or rear-view mirrors became standard. Then, rather startlingly, given that the list was supposed to be for the “dainty motoriste” she continues: “If you are going to drive alone in the highways and byways it might be advisable to carry a small revolver.” The list is then, most fittingly for the sporting person Dorothy Levitt obviously was, rounded off with that absolute necessity to enliven all excursions: a dog!

Although much of her advice seems simplistic, it was designed for complete novice drivers, who had previously only been driven by chauffeurs, or whose families had never owned a car before. It takes the novice through all the necessary pre-drive checks of fuel, oil, brakes, gears and battery for a single-cylinder car, describes how best to drive, gives advice on routine maintenance and repair and explains the rules of the road (as far as they existed at that point).

I don’t know much (anything)  about old timers but the advice that the author gives appears to be clear, concise and logical, and she is obviously interested in promoting driving for women, although she realises that with all the costs relating to the car, the number of women willing and able to take on such an expense must be relatively few in number.

Given Dorothy Levitt’s “dainty” and positively glamorous appearance, it seems hard to believe that she can really have achieved all the sporting success that she could justly claim as her own. I very much doubt whether, in her place, I would have had the strength or the nerve to drive an old timer of this vintage, without power-assisted stearing, what I would consider adequate brakes, or any of the safety features of the modern car – and I certainly couldn’t have done it with Dorothy Levitt’s inimitable style and panache!

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