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In a world dominated by Top Gear-obsessed men, I want to remind everyone that the early years of motoring did not just belong to the boys.
Women have been racing and driving fast since the invention of the combustion engine. Intrepid ladies such as Camille de Gast who, in 1903, became the first woman racing driver, and before her Bertha Benz, the wife of Karl Benz, who in 1888, was the first woman to drive a motor vehicle solo. And what about the Englishwoman Dorothy Levitt who broke the women’s speed record in 1906, reaching 91mph in her ninety horsepower six cylinder Napier? My absolute favourite is Mrs Victor Bruce, the first women to be prosecuted for speeding and who, in 1927, drove non-stop from John O’Groats to Monte Carlo, for the Monte Carlo Rally, where she finished sixth. They personified a new type of liberated women: ‘scorchers’, as they were called, who lived for speed:
'There is a feeling of flying through space. I never think of the danger. That sort of thing won't do. But I know it is omnipresent. The slightest touch of the hand and the car swerves, and swerves are usually fatal.' – Dorothy Levitt, November, 1906
These women were practical too. Miss Levitt advised her fellow girl racers to 'carry a little hand-mirror in a convenient place when driving' so one could 'not only put one’s lipstick' but to 'hold it aloft from time to time in order to see behind while driving in traffic.' Thus the rear-view mirror was born (though not introduced as standard for another five years).
When I was driving at Silverstone for my racing license, all I could think of was the empowering example of these fabulous fast ladies. I sometimes wonder if I was born in a different era, because their inspiration is behind everything I do.
What am I planning?
I want to make a book that celebrates these women in words and pictures. Supplemented by interviews with modern women drivers on the racing circuit and retired ladies who may have put down their racing gloves, it will tell their stories – and some of my own adventures in search of them. It will contain photos of old and new, many of which have never been seen before – hidden in archives and private collections.
With your support, Girl Racers will blow the dust off those old albums and bring these women alive for a new generation of potential 'scorchers'.
I am fascinated by a generation of women who simply didn’t know they couldn’t – who all knew they could! In that tiny gap of time, when the men had not come back from the 1st World War and the woman had become used to working machinery and manual labour, they learned to drive fast cars and fly planes. It wasn’t considered odd or exotic, it was just part of life, a time for speed, rallies, time trials and good solid racing around a circuit.
I come from a family who produced theatrical costumes and trained first as a photographer and then a journalist. I now specialise in documenting areas of culture that are often considered to be eccentric or endangered. My first book, Art Workers Guild 125 Years: Craftspeople at Work Today (Unicorn Press 2009), is a collection of portraits of 130 craftsmen in their working environments. My second book, Harris Tweed: From Land to Street (Frances Lincoln 2011) offered insights into a traditional lifestyle whose continued existence may surprise many.
My photographs can be found in the collections of the Australian National Library and Victoria and Albert Museum. A brother of the Art Workers Guild and a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, I write a regular column for the Huffington Post and Girl Racer magazine and contribute to BBC News in Pictures. I recently obtained my motor racing license. I am very privileged to see the world through a camera; I mean really see it, not just glimpse at it.
By Lara Platman
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