The Remarkable Story of
Dorothy Levitt and the Napier L48
A Lucky Escape for the Fastest Woman in the World
In the pantheon of motoring greats, one woman stands above all else for her untiring spirit and determination. Her name was Dorothy Levitt and at the Blackpool Speed Trials of 1906, she drove the Napier L48 Samson to a world land speed record which was not officially bettered by another woman until 1963.
Already recognised as holding an outright water speed record in a Napier motor boat, she also previously set the World Land Speed Record for women during the Brighton Speed Trials of 1905 when she ran another Napier car at 79.75 mph. At the Blackpool Speed Trials in England, however, she smashed her own record with a timed run for the flying kilometre of 90.88 mph driving the Napier L48 on two runs along the Blackpool waterfront.
One newspaper reported: “Miss Levitt has had plenty of narrow escapes. At Blackpool… during the speed trials, two dogs, three children and finally three more dogs came onto the track and tried to cross over. Miss Levitt spoiled her trials but managed with splendid work to save the children. History does not tell what happened to the dogs.”
The story of her other lucky escape at Blackpool driving the Napier L48 also made headlines. She took off from a standing start, reaching 96 mph when the front part of the bonnet came away (it was reported that a strap broke) and the wind got under it and threw it back toward her. She brake slowly at first and then as hard a she could as it looked like the bonnet could decapitate her. She managed to stop just as the last screw came away.
When asked what she felt racing the Napier L48 at that speed she said: “Wonderful. One can hardly describe one’s sensations. 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. But I am a good gambler and always willing to take the chance. In going that pace the hardest thing is to keep in the car. Half the time the wheels do not touch the ground at all, and when they do you must be prepared to take the shocking lurch or else out you will go. It is far harder work to sit in a car than to ride a galloping horse in a steeplechase. When I made the records I was in the car alone. I prefer it.”
After Blackpool in 1906, she announced to the American press that she wished to race an American to cement the title: “I am willing to race here (in the United Kingdom) or at Ormond Beach, Fla., or elsewhere in the United States. I am wild to race an American woman for the world’s championship. I must look to America to race. There is no one left in Europe with whom to compete,” she said. Dorothy Levitt never made it to Florida but she remains one of the greats of the heroic era of motor racing.
The Napier L48 which Dorothy Levitt drove to become the fastest woman in the world was commissioned by SF Edge and Montagu Napier to break speed records and to create a new category of motor car using six cylinder engines. The world-beating 915 cubic inch (15 litres) motor was placed into a chassis with an overall weight of less than 1000kg (2,204lbs) to meet current European motor racing regulations
Dorothy Levitt was not lacking in confidence to beat all comers in the USA. If she had taken the Napier L48 to Florida it would have been the third time that the first car timed at more than 100 mph on American soil had raced on the Daytona and Ormond beaches. In 1905, Arthur Macdonald, set a new speed record of 91.371mph over five miles on the beaches, then over the course of the week set a world’s record of 104.651 mph over the mile as well as 5, 10 and 20 mile speed records, and a new American record for a flying kilometre at 97.258 mph.
In 1906, however, the Napier L48 with Clifford-Earp at the wheel the car set a world record time of 1:15:40-2/5sec or 79.288 mph for 100 miles.
The revolutionary six cylinder engine from this winning Napier was installed in a new chassis in the 1970s in Australia and the resulting car will be back on the sands of Ormond and Daytona beaches for the first time in February 2024 to remember some of the greatest races in the history of auto racing.
For more information, “Fast Lady The Extraordinary Adventures of Miss Dorothy Levitt” by Michael W Barton is a ‘must read’. Published by Butterfield Press.
The Napier will be offered for sale at the Bonhams Auction at Amelia Island, Florida on 29 February 2024. Link at https://cars.bonhams.com/auction/29261/preview-lot/5775130/1904-napier-samson-l48-15-litre-240-bhp/