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GP Week : Issue 125
Back in the good old days, when cars were new, corsets were history, and dentists prescribed cocaine for toothache, the concept of automobile racing was still in its infancy, and no one had thought to tell women they couldn’t take part. Moneyed men and women, pumped up with the spirit of adventure, took it upon themselves to test these new machines to the limit, driving them for speed, for endurance, and for distance. Three of these women – Mildred Bruce, Kay Petre, and Violet Cordery – made the most of the opportunities given to them. They stared danger in the face, they showed determination to achieve whatever they put their minds to, and they lived their lives to the full. They may be linked by a shared passion for motorsport, but each and every one is an individual worth celebrating in her own right. Born in 1895, Mildred Bruce began racing motorbikes at the age of 15, and is believed to have been the first British woman ever arrested for speeding, appearing before Bow court in 1911 under charge of operating a motorbike at 60mph. That may not sound like much now, but roads and engines have changed a quite bit in the past century. Bruce was known for haring around the country lanes near Chelmsford on her motorbike, with an excitable Collie sitting in the sidecar. But it was in the world of automobile racing that The Hon. Mrs. Bruce made her first big impression. She competed in road races across Europe, and secured her place in the record books when she placed sixth overall in the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally, and won the Coupe des Dames. In the same year, she and husband Victor set an endurance record in an AC Six at Montlhery, driving for 10 days. The two made a good adventuring team until their divorce in 1941. Once the Montlhery endurance efforts were out of the way, the couple drove further north than anyone in human history, taking a 1920s car 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The Top Gear crew has since beaten the Bruces’ record, but their car was somewhat better equipped to deal with the treacherous conditions. Perhaps the most impressive of Bruce’s driving achievements, however, was her work for the Bentley Le Mans team in 1929. She broke in a 4.5 litre beast for the team by driving it around Montlhery for 24 hours prior to the key endurance event, and took the world record for single-handed driving by a woman, posting an average speed of 89mph that has yet to be outdone. In her lifetime, Mildred Bruce held 17 world records in cars, boats, and planes. She set and broke records for solo flight, for Channel crossings, and speed on track and road alike. In business she was a great success, helping to pioneer mid- air refuelling in the UK, and running air freight and charter companies that later made her millions. The Hon. Mrs. Bruce died in 1990, but not before test-driving a Ford Ghia Capri Mildred Bruce was into planes and cars (above); while Violet Cordery’s name is inextricably linked to the Invicta brand (left and above left). 34