Top gear

Fast Women: the drivers who changed the face of motor racing

John Bullock <em>Robson Books, 187pp,

I am a truly awful driver. I pull away from friends' houses in the dead of night, my headlights dim; I peer determinedly ahead, my face pressed up against the windscreen, and yet still I manage to hit things (bollards, kerbs, parked cars, people); and I am unable to reverse into a parking space unless it is at least two trucks wide. Worst of all, I am terrified of travelling at speed. Once, on a quiet Derbyshire lane, I noticed the needle nudge the 55mph mark. Oh, how my heart raced. Usually, I like to pootle along at a steady 25mph. I have never driven on a motorway. I have only to catch the merest glimpse of a signpost to the M1 and I come out in hives.

But, oddly, I rather enjoyed this book. John Bullock's dreadful, lumpen prose is about as exciting as a Mini Metro owner's manual, but still, what fabulous creatures his fast women sound. I loved their Biggles-style hats, crimped hair and mania for high-velocity japes. I couldn't get enough of their turbocharged exploits. Reading about them has done wonders for my fragile feminism of the road, because I am now convinced that my motoring skills have nothing whatsoever to do with my chromosomes. My sex, gentlemen, is irrelevant: I am merely an aberration when it comes to hand-eye co-ordination and, strange as it may sound, I can just about live with that.

The heyday of women's motor racing revved up around 1900, and lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War. In this country, its pioneer was Dorothy Levitt, a secretary who raced in a dust coat with matching hat and veil. Circuit races did not take place in Britain until 1907, when the Brooklands track opened in Weybridge, so Levitt's early successes were limited to speed trials and long-distance events. In 1905, she caused a sensation when she was chosen to drive a fast, 80hp Napier at the annual speed trials in Brighton. Those who thought she would not have the strength to control the car were proved wrong when she won the coveted Challenge Trophy.

Levitt paved the way for more famous successors - women whose names two-step straight out of the pages of Dorothy L Sayers: Gwenda Hawkes, the Hon Mrs Victor Bruce and Kay Petre. Their idea of heaven was Brooklands, which was built on the Surrey estate of Hugh Locke King, landowner and racing fanatic, and consisted of a huge, concrete amphitheatre with a circular three-mile track, its banked curves 30 feet high. The authorities, however, did not allow women to race there until 1908, and then only with the strict proviso that they wear silk scarves to identify themselves to spectators, rather than the bibs favoured by the men.

The early drivers also wore long skirts, and some, because the cars had no proper bodywork, resorted to tying their hems to their ankles with rope to stop them blowing up above their knees as they whizzed by. Later on, however, they wore overalls. Kay Petre, the darling of Brooklands, made sure hers were the same colour as her pale blue Bugatti, and Helle Nice, a French driver, sewed black bows on to hers. (These girls, however spirited, disliked being thought of as women's libbers; Christabel Ellis, who was so petite she could not see over her steering wheel, used to attach a bouquet of sweet peas and cornflowers to the bonnet of her car.)

Betrousered at last, there was no stopping them. Mildred Bruce, who raced in pearls, went on to break several records. (She could fly, too, and later celebrated her 81st birthday by looping the loop in a two-seater Chipmunk. After landing, she turned to an instructor and said: "What a lark! That's knocked 50 years off my life.") But the most successful woman of all was Kay Petre, who lapped Brooklands at 134mph; in 1937, she was invited to join the Austin team and thus drove alongside men. Even when, after she was injured, her career came to an end, she kept her cool. "Race fast cars, and one of the risks is that you might cop it," she said with a shrug.

If, like me, you know next to nothing about motor racing, what strikes you most forcefully about all this is how much things have changed - for the worse. Although drivers in cloche hats were still few and far between even in the roaring Thirties (finally, I understand the true provenance of this phrase), at least they existed. Think of fast cars today, and you picture Formula One, an avaricious world whose sole female inhabitants are pneumatic groupies in Chloe lunettes and Juicy jeans. Meanwhile, the rest of us get carved up by men in white vans and spend our holidays map-reading.

Bullock's mystifyingly unenergetic little book is a wasted opportunity (it is, sad to say, a lead-free volume that is likely to do well only in the shop at the Brooklands Museum). But I do hope it will bring these charmingly cheery petrolheads to a wider audience. They should be modern icons, up there with Amy Johnson and Gertrude Ederle, not forgotten by virtually everyone except poor old Stirling Moss (who wrote the foreword to Fast Women). I, for one, would love to watch a film about Gwenda or a play about Kay. Apart from anything else, I think they're a hoot.