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September 2018

2018 witnessed two landmark events in the field of women's rights. In Saudi Arabia, the ban on women drivers was finally lifted, while in the UK we celebrated the centenary of some (though not all) women, being given the vote.

Many manufacturers, such as Wolseley Motors, heavily featured women in their adverts to indicate that their products were what we might now call 'user-friendly'.

Thankfully, there has never been a gender based driving ban in the UK. When the British motor industry began in 1896, even though women were still considered too delicate to vote, it was fine for them to drive these new-fangled and potentially dangerous machines. An actress named Minnie Palmer led the way in 1897 as the first woman to drive, and own, her own motor car while motor manufacturers commonly featured 'lady' drivers in early promotional pictures.

Since the development of the motor car women have been giving men a run for their money in competitive driving too – whether it be speed trials, racing or rallying – though not without a certain amount of opposition from the male establishment. Here are just a few examples of racing heroines.

Dorothy Levitt was one of the first. Among her achievements, she gained the title for the 'longest drive achieved by a lady driver' in 1905 by completing a return trip from London to Liverpool in two days. In July she set the first Women's Speed Record at the Brighton Speed Trials, which she then broke the following year at the Blackpool Speed Trials. She went on to compete in many speed trials and hill climbs, not to mention events at Brooklands race circuit after they lifted their ban on female competitors.

Kay Petre drove an Austin Seven as a member of the Works team. The pit crew work on the car at Donington Park during the British Empire Trophy Race in 1937, while she stands nearby.

Kay Petre, hailing from Canada, won race after race in various vehicles and became one of only sixteen drivers to gain the distinction of breaking the 130 mph speed barrier at Brooklands. She started racing in 1932 and was good enough to earn herself a place on the Austin racing team. Sadly, it was an Austin Seven which ended Petre's distinguished career when fellow driver Reg Parnell collided with her during the 500 mile race at Brooklands in 1937. After her crash, Petre maintained her links with the motor industry and was engaged by the Austin Motor Company as a 'colour consultant'. Many of her ideas were used in the interiors of the 1950s range of Austin cars.

This picture, from our Wolseley Collection, is believed to show Margaret Allan with her brother and co-driver Hamish, their Wolseley Hornet, plus other members of the Wolseley racing team circa 1932.

Margaret Allan was a Scottish driver competing around the same time as Petre in the 1930s. She drove a Wolseley Hornet, with her brother Hamish as her co-driver. One of her earliest triumphs was at the seven-day Alpine Trial, among the toughest competitions of its day, where she was awarded the Glacier Cup for completing the trial without penalty. She also gained a joint victory in the Coupe des Dames, alongside her Wolseley team-mate, Mrs Martin. Allan drove many a lap round Brooklands and became one of only four women ever to earn a 120 mph badge. She also took part in the 24-hours Le Mans race of 1935 as part of a three car all-women’s team driving MG PAs provided by the MG car company. When World War Two broke out, she trained as an ambulance driver before joining the code-breaking section of Bletchley Park.

Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom collect the 'Coupe des Dames’'at the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally. The car came 26th overall and 7th in its class. Later in the year '737 ABL' would achieve the first outright victory for the Mini Cooper with Moss at the wheel.

Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom took up the gauntlet in the 1960s. They were among the first drivers taken on by the BMC Competitions Department and were consistently successful despite, like their predecessors, meeting with some initial scepticism. One of their first drives was with a Morris Minor in the four-day 'Marathon de la Route' of 1957, one of the season's most punishing events. Team Manager Marcus Chambers told Moss and Wisdom not to worry '…if we found it all too much we should stop and they would not think any the worse of us as we were young and inexperienced'. In response, not only did the duo finish, they came 23rd overall, 4th in their class and second to an MGA in the Ladies' Cup. The racing dominance of the Mini in the 1960s is today associated with male drivers such as Paddy Hopkirk and Timo Makinen. But its first success came in 1962 when Moss and Wisdom stormed to overall victory at the Tulip Rally in their Morris Mini Cooper '737 ABL'.

An advert from 1933 for the Austin Light Twelve-Four

Women in advertising fared less well and the assumption that the car market was predominantly 'male' soon set in. By the 1930s adverts were being aimed at the man in the household in the belief that he was the decision maker when it came to the purchase of personal transport. Things only got worse and by the 1970s women in adverts had become little more than props in short skirts. Even when portrayed as the potential driver, they were offered something easy to drive for the 'ditzy blonde', usually in pink and with a special compartment to hold their make-up. It appears that British Leyland were particularly bad for this type of sexism.

Typical adverts from the early 1970s for the Mini Automatic (left) and the MG Midget (right)

Unfortunately, some car companies still think it is acceptable to use women to sell cars in this way, but others have moved on to present a more aspirational lifestyle where women are once again seen as a significant part of the market. Who knows, maybe in 50 years they will be using men to sell cars to women. According to DVLA driver licence data, almost 18½ million of the nearly 40 million people who held licences in the UK in 2017 were women – that's 46%, so perhaps such a change is long overdue.

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