Women At The Wheel

Posted on 8th Mar 2020 by CarTakeBack Posted in: Latest News

International Women’s Day – Women in Motoring History

The motoring industry could be seen as a very male-dominated business. With International Women’s Day on the 8th March, we wanted to take some time to celebrate some of the most prominent women in the history of motoring.

Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz

Bertha carried out the world’s first long-distance journey with her Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. She brought the Benz Patent Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales.

Born in 1849, Bertha Ringer already became interested in technical matters at an early age. Whenever her father, a carpenter who had reached a position of considerable wealth, explained the workings of the locomotive to her, her eyes would light up.

She was the business partner and wife of automobile inventor Carl Benz, married on 20 July 1872. As he moved on to a new manufacturing venture, Benz & Cie, Carl used her dowry as financial support. He finished work on his first horseless carriage in December 1885. Although Bertha financed the development process, and would hold patent rights under modern law, as a married woman she was not allowed to apply for the patent. The patent was registered for the Motor Car on 29 January 1886, recording Carl Benz the inventor of the automobile.

Yet to the surprise of the Benz family, nobody was interested in buying. So Bertha said she would undertake a long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim, to show the world what the automobile could do!

In August 1888, together with her sons Richard and Eugen, and without the knowledge of her husband, Bertha Benz took to the road with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Some stretches of the roads, which were normally used only by horses and carriages, weren’t suitable for the automobile. Lack of fuel, clogged valves, and wiring chafed-through to breaking point, she used a garter, a hat-pin, and ligroin from pharmacies along the route. Even when the fuel ran out completely outside Wiesloch, and the Motor Car had to be pushed for several kilometres, she was not too proud to get down herself and help! Her plan succeeded, while some of the onlookers feared this “smoking monster” as an omen of the Last Judgement, others asked for a test ride.

Within the decade, 25 vehicles had been built. With cutting-edge bicycle constructions, the Model I was the original Patent Motor Car and the world’s first automobile.

In the 20th century the automobile was to become one of the most important cultural advances of the new era. Nobody would now dare to deny the great contribution to modern life made by the Benz family. And it was Bertha who helped make this possible! On her 95th birthday she was proclaimed an honorary senator by the Technical University of Karlsruhe, in honour of her contribution to the motoring world.

Florence Lawrence

Florence Lawrence

Although known for her acting as one of the first movie stars, Florence Larence, born in 1886, was a big influence in vehicles as we see them today.

She starred in around 300 films, so had enough wealth to buy an automobile, which was rare, and very extravagant, for women to do at the time! She enjoyed driving so much that she wanted to learn as much as she could about the way cars worked.

Loving her automobile, Florence wanted to make sure it could continue to be used practically, so she started to look into safety measures. in 1914 Florence designed the first “auto signalling arm”, where a flag raised and lowered from the vehicle at the push of a button, letting know drivers behind the car where it was going next. This invention was the predecessor to indicators, which all cars on the road have today.

Florence Lawrence also developed the first-ever mechanical brake signal, which although a simple idea of a sign saying “stop” appearing at the back of the vehicle when the brakes were pressed, made driving much safer, and lead to the invention of brake lights.

A few years later, in 1917, Florence Lawrence invented the first-ever electric windshield wiper, which sold very well. Unfortunately, Florence failed to patent any of her designs, and although her mother tried to patent the windscreen wiper for her retrospectively, other companies had already picked up the design and claim patents for ones similar to hers.

With such a keen interest and involvement in automobiles, doing all the mechanical work on the car herself, Florence was a pioneer of women in motoring.

Helene Rother

Helene Rother

One of the trailblazers of the vehicle manufacturing industry was Helene Rother from Germany. Born in 1908, a WWII refugee, Helene already had experience designing jewellery and hat pins for Parisian high class society, but it was in America where she fulfilled her true potential. She was the first woman to work as an automotive designer, joining General Motors in the US in 1943 and specialising in designing the interiors of cars.

After four years at General Motors, she opened up her own design studio, called Helene Rother Associates. She was later contracted by Nash Motors, styling the interiors of most of their cars from 1948 to 1956, including helping establish a new area of the market, compact cars, with the Nash Rambler.

She was the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers, and was recognised by the industry as a big influence.

Helene certainly had an interesting life. Not only was she the first woman to work as an automotive designer for General Motors, her first job was working as an illustrator for Marvel Comics!

Desiré Wilson

Desiré Wilson

Believe it or not only 5 women have ever competed in Formula 1. Desiré Wilson, born in 1953, is the only woman to have ever won an F1 race. She won at Brands Hatch in 1980 and as a result has a grandstand there named after her. Unfortunately, after 2 more podium finishes that year, her team ran out of money!

That didn’t stop her though. After Formula 1 Desiré took part in other motor racing disciplines, winning both the Monza 100km and the Silverstone 6 Hours World Championship for Makes races in 1980 too. That was a very successful year for her! She is the only woman to have ever been licensed to drive in a CART Indycars event.

Desiré continued to race in various international competitions, with her last big race being the North American Super Touring Car Championship in 1996, where she competed in a Mazda Xedos. She is recognised as the most accomplished female racing driver in the world.

If you’d like to see this incredible woman in action, Desiré occasionally races at Goodwood Revival.

Vicki Butler-Henderson

Vicki Butler-Henderson

Coming from a racing family, Vicki started racing 100cc carts at the age of 12. Her first race was with a young David Coulthard! She currently holds a Race International C licence as well as a power boat racing licence. Vicki is an Ambassador for Go Motorsport – an initiative set up by the UK’s motorsport governing body to give everyone greater access to all areas of motorsport. She has worked on motoring magazines that include Auto Express and What Car?. Vicki was also the assistant launch editor and mechanic in the publication Max Power.

Vicki competed in the Formula First Single Seater Championship at the tender age of 17, working as a racing instructor at Silverstone on the weekends to pay for it. Since then she’s raced yearly in various different cars, ranging from a Porsche 911 in the Carrera Cup, to a Peugeot 206 in rallies and a Citroen Saxo in an ice race! Vicki also became the first woman to win a Maserati race in the history of the marque, competing in the Maserati Trofeo Support Race at the British F1 GP in 2004.

Since the age of 12, Vicki always wanted to race a Ferrari, and in October 2009, she finally had her first opportunity. The F430 Challenge car has a 4.3-litre V8 engine that produces 495bhp, and in the two 25-minute races at Brands Hatch, Vicki finished 2nd and 3rd in Class and won two trophies!

In 1998 Vicki joined the famous BBC motoring show, Top Gear, working alongside Quentin Wilson and Tiff Needell. In 2002, she launched the program Fifth Gear alongside Tiff & Quentin, which she still presents today. She was the first TV journalist to be invited to drive the Pagani Zonda Roadster, and became the first woman behind the wheel of a Renault Laguna British Touring Car as part of a magazine track test in 1996. She has also worked as a presenter in radio, on various other TV motoring projects, and was even the voiceover in the racing video game Gran Turismo 4 Prologue. Impressive!

Claire Williams

Claire Williams

Claire Williams is someone you’ll recognise if you watch Formula One. She’s the deputy team principal of successful racing team, Williams F1.

Claire began her career in the motoring industry after she graduated in 1999, when she became a Press Officer for Silverstone Circuit. The Williams racing team was founded by her father, Frank Williams, and from an early age Claire was a regular behind the scenes at Williams before joining the team in 2002, when she became Communications Officer. Recognised for her hard work and talent within the team, she was promoted to Head of Communications in 2010.

After Williams floated on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in March 2011, Claire took on the position of Head of Investor Relations to supplement her role in the communications team. On the 1st April 2012 Claire was appointed Director of Marketing and Communications, and took a place on the company board.

In March 2013, she stepped up to the position of Deputy Team Principal for the Williams F1 Team. In this role Claire works alongside Founder and Team Principal Sir Frank Williams to play a vital role in the day to day running and long term development of the race team which is the role she still holds today!

In 2016, Claire was appointed Vice President of the Spinal Injuries Association. In her role as Vice President, Claire is an advocate for the spinal cord injured community, and assists the Spinal Injuries Association with their work in keeping their needs at the forefront of public affairs.

Also in 2016, Claire was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s 2016 Birthday Honours List. Claire was awarded the honour in recognition of her services to Formula One.

We’re crossing our fingers that Claire and the Williams team get pole position in the upcoming season!

Sabine Schmitz

Sabine Schmitz

Sabine Schmitz was a German professional racing driver and TV presenter. Having grown up near the famous Nürburgring race track, it’s no wonder that Sabine developed an interest in motor sports and a taste for racing.

Sabine became the first woman to win the prestigious Nürburgring 24 hours in 1996, and repeated the feat again a year later! Sabine competed in many race events, and her wins included the Circuit Racing Challenge and multiple titles for the 24 Hours Nürburgring, which were all won with her BMW M3. She came to public attention and was known as the ‘world’s fastest taxi driver’ by driving passengers “Ring Taxi” in a BMW M5, around the 20.8km race track, which she circuited more than 30,000 times throughout her life!

You might recognise Sabine from one of her numerous television appearances. Our favourite is when she took a Ford Transit Van for a whirl around Nürburgring, beating many racers in their sporty cars, narrowly missing beating her own time in a Jaguar S-Type by only 54 seconds! She also hosted motoring shows in her home country of Germany.


Photo credit: Claire Williams – LookingSpiffy. Sabine Schmitz – wikimedia. Vicki Butler-Henderson – Liton Ali, Bertha Benz – mercedes-benz.com, Florence Lawrence – The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

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