Women in Motorsport

Talk by Sarah Crofts, Museum Guide – November 2016

Sarah’s passion for motor sport underlies her museum tours covering one hundred years of successful pioneering women who dared to ‘take on the men.’ Her special talk for the Friends explored some of these influential women.

Starting from the late 19th century, we first heard how the tricycle and then the bicycle, the only acceptable transport for respectable women in their ‘rational dress’, played a key role in their emancipation. The first iconic female featured was Berta Benz, the young wife of Karl Benz, who is still heralded annually when Germany celebrates her drive of over 60 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim in August 1888. Without telling her husband, Berta’s aim was to ‘test drive’ the Benz Motorwagen.

Sarah then talked about a number of pioneering women from the early 20th century. This included flamboyant French socialite, Camille du Gast (pictured) who was the first consistent international racer and the ‘fastest girl on earth’ Dorothy Levitt who shocked British society when, whilst working as a secretary at Napier, she drove a 12hp works Gladiator at the Southport Speed Trials, winning her class.

We then heard the fascinating story of ‘The Bugatti Queen’, Helle Nice, so-titled after exceeding 124mph at Montlehery in 1929. Ettore Bugatti had entrusted her with a type 35C Bugatti following her victory at the first all women Grand Prix six months earlier. In 1949, she was accused of being a Gestapo agent during WW2, which immediately bought about her downfall. Nice was cast out, abandoned by her sponsors and family and spent the final twenty years of her life living off charity in abject poverty.

For the post Second World War period, Sarah spoke about Maria Teresa de Filippis, an Italian Aristocrat and the first woman to compete in a Formula One World Championship Grand Prix. In 1954, after finishing second in her own Urania BMW in the Italian Sports Car Championship, Maserati took her in as a works driver, by far her greatest challenge, especially as she had previously turned down Enzo Ferrari!

Sarah highlighted Pat Moss, younger sister of Sir Stirling, an outstanding rally driver of the 1950s and 60s. Five times winner of the European Ladies Rally Championship, she won the Coupe des Dames on the Monte Carlo eight times and the gruelling 1960 Liege-Rome-Liege Rally in the fearsome Austin Healey 3000.

The talk ended with Michele Mouton, the first President of the FIA’s Women and Motorsport Commission. Moulton was the most successful woman in motorsport and a legend in rallying winning the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1984 with co-driver Fabrizia Pons and again, as a solo driver the following year. She was the first woman to win a round of the World Rally Championship, the Rallye San Remo in 1981.

Sarah’s talk included photographs and film clips from the Museum Collections and was followed by questions from the audience. During the evening we discovered much and the talk was enjoyed by al


If you would like a copy of any of our images, please visit our dedicated Motoring Picture Library website