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July 4, 1903 – The first female race car driver

On this day in 1903 Dorothy Levitt became the first British woman reported in the press to compete in an automobile motor race. Driving a 12 horsepower Gladiator, Levitt took first place in her class at the Southport Speed Trials, but there is more to her initiation to auto racing than meets the eye. Her entry into the race was billed as a publicity stunt arranged by her boss at Napier Car Company. He had taught his Levitt, who was his secretary, to drive an automobile just before entering her in the race, knowing her appearance would draw interest in his cars. Turns out his stunt led to her discovering a natural ability behind as a driver, as well as a speed boat racer and airplane pilot.

Levitt in a 12 HP Gladiator

Levitt set a number of early records, including the “longest drive achieved by a lady driver.” She drove an 8 hp De Dion-Bouton from London to Liverpool and back in less than two days. She traveled with an official observer, her pet Pomeranian dog, Dodo, and a revolver.  Levitt even taught Queen Alexandra and the Royal Princesses to drive. Levitt was also the first person in the world to set a water speed record. She’d also attain several flying records.

At the age of 40, in 1922, Levitt was found dead in her bed. Her death certificate listed her cause of death as “morphine poisoning while suffering from heart disease and an attack of measles.”

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