The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce has long been a heroine of mine. She won the Coupe des Dames in the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally, in the days when simply manhandling a car around snowy hairpins and barely marked roads was a major achievement. She raced at Brooklands, broke records at Montlhéry and then took off to set records in the air.
In 1974, at the age of 78, she roared around Thruxton circuit in a 3-litre Capri Ghia at 110mph, and she lived to the grand age of 95.
I thoroughly enjoyed her autobiography Nine Live Plus, written in 1977, but I didn’t know until last week that she had also published a book in 1928 called The Woman Owner-Driver: The complete guide for lady motorists which has just been reprinted by the British Library.
Encouragement for lady drivers
Like road racer Dorothy Levitt, who wrote The Woman and the Car in 1909, Mrs Victor Bruce wanted to encourage more women to share the fun of motoring, and the book is full of advice and notes about things that shouldn’t get in your way – including other drivers.
However, where Dorothy Levitt's book is full of good sense, with rather a teacherly tone, Mrs V-B comes over as endearingly bonkers.
She writes that the best drivers need the imagination and deductive powers of a detective to observe the scene ahead and guess what dangers they will need to avoid. So far, so good, but her advice in most circumstances, rather than brake, is to accelerate. If you suspect someone coming the other way is going to pull out into your path, put your foot down and show him you mean to claim that bit of Tarmac by getting there first. If you see two dogs on opposite sides of the road, and you think one may run across to greet the other – accelerate and get in between the dogs so they can’t see one another. Hmm.
In the 1920s, as in the early days of driving, those who got behind the wheel themselves rather than leave it to the chauffeur needed get to know their engines far better than today’s drivers. Dorothy Levitt donned an overall and gave instructions for stripping down your De Dion's single cylinder. Likewise, Mrs Victor Bruce has lots to say about getting the fuel/air mix right, taking care with the starter motor and avoiding backfires.
Both ladies also talk at length about suitable clothing. In Dorothy’s day, a hood or windscreen cost extra, so the right headgear was essential. She advised: “There is no question the round cap or close-fitting turban of fur are the most comfortable and suitable, though with the glass screen up, it is possible to wear an ordinary hat with a veil round it.”
Close to twenty years later, Mrs Victor Bruce advises thin-soled walking shoes to save wear on the backs of heels (fine advice even now). As for headgear, she writes “ Most of the tight-fitting hats of today are quite suitable for motoring, but there is one point to guard against, and that is too tight a fitting. It is bad for the hair, makes it greasy and quickly removes the cherished wave, and if worn for long hours at the wheel causes bad headaches.”
Who is more liberated?
Perhaps the most striking emotion I felt while reading Mrs V-B’s book was envy at the freedom ladies with her income enjoyed back then. Don’t fill up your car with luggage, she says, sent your trunk ahead on the train. Driving on the Continent is fun, and ‘the varied driving experience gained in three weeks or a month abroad is as good as a course of concentrated instruction”. A month? No snatched weekends for her.
Visiting France and Belgium is pleasant, but she writes: consider…the glorious North African coast as a touring ground. The roads of Morocco, and the unspoilt mediaevalism of Fez and Marrakesh are worth the extra trouble of reaching them, while Tunisia and Algeria have their individual attractions.” It’s sad that it would take a piece longer than this review to list all the reasons why the lady motorist shouldn’t try it these days.
A great gift
This is a most enjoyable book, illustrated with some lovely Blandings-style line drawings. It would make a great gift for any female friend who loves her car, or who is about to take her test.
My only complaint is that there the publisher hasn’t added a chapter to introduce Mrs Victor Bruce (her name was Mildred, by the way, I’m not surprised she rarely used it, friends called her by her second name, Mary). All we get is a four-line sentence saying she was a pioneering motorist who smashed world records, and the first woman driver to be prosecuted for speeding.
I hope people who read this book will look her up, and learn about her incredible life and family background (her grandmother fought off Indians on the American frontier, her mother was a Shakespearean actress who played the ukulele).
My favorite piece of advice from these pages, again as applicable now as it was then, is: “In the case of an accident, or any kind of clash with the police, silence was never more golden.”
The Women Owner-Driver: The complete Guide for Lady Motorists
First published 1928, this edition published by the British Library 2014
ISBN 978 0 7123 5730 2
This blog is by a woman driver, for everyone to read