What makes a woman crazy about an automobile? I can only speak for myself. I grew up in the country surrounded by a dairy farm and five brothers. To me, cars were freedom. When I was fourteen years old, as an exchange student in Ecuador, I learned how to drive in a Toyota Land Cruiser high in the Andes Mountains, where they mark driver error with small white crosses. My fifteen-year-old Ecuadorian brother was my instructor. I never wanted to get out of that car again.
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Helle Nice lived a fast life both in and out of the car. She was born in 1900, daughter of a French postman, under the name Mariette Hélène Delangle. Her first career was as a dancer in the music halls of Paris. Then, in 1929, she entered and won the all-women’s Grand Prix at Montlhery, France, driving a French Omega Six racing car. That was only a prelude to several years of competition in mainstream racing against male competitors. She toured U.S. racetracks in a Miller in 1930 and raced a Bugatti Type 35C and an Alfa Romeo 8C Monza in Grands Prix all over Europe in the years before the outbreak of World War II. She set speed records and partied hard with some of Europe’s wealthiest personalities.
It all began to change for Helle in 1936. Driving an Alfa Romeo Monza in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix that July, she hit a hay bale, and her car became airborne and killed several spectators. Helle was thrown from the car and landed on a soldier, who died from the impact but broke her fall, saving her life.
After that, despite occasional amnesia, she continued to drive, notably in rallies. In the Chamonix Rally, she was co-driver to Baron Huschke von Hanstein. After World War II, on the eve of the Monte Carlo Rally, Grand Prix racing driver Louis Chiron publicly accused her of being a Gestapo collaborator. This accusation was never proved, but nevertheless she became persona non grata.
She died, alone and shunned, in Nice in 1984, but her colorful story has not been completely forgotten: a biography, Miranda Seymour’s Bugatti Queen: In Search of a French Racing Legend, was published in 2004.
Images in this series are reprinted courtesy of Revs Institute for Automotive Research, Naples, Florida, as well as Drivelikeawoman.com; Flaviogomes.warmup.com.br; Automobilemag.com; and Blogspot blogs Southsiders-mc and Zmblackhistorymonth2012.
Collect the whole set!
#1: Bertha Benz: history’s first recorded road trip
#2: Alice Ramsey: first cross-country drive by women
#3: Anita King: “speeding sweetheart of the silver screen”
#4: Bebe Daniels’s need for speed
#5: Movie Queens
#6: Mechanical Girls of the 1920s
#7: Gloria Swanson: movie royalty behind the wheel
#8: Pearl White: the original cliffhanger girl
#9: Clara Bow: Hollywood’s “It” girl
#10: Fay Wray: King Kong’s co-star
#11: Aloha Wanderwell, 1920s world traveler
#12: Jean Harlow: the original blond bombshell
#13: Marlene Dietrich and Sonja Henie: strong women, expensive cars
#14: Dorothy Paget: horsewoman and Bugatti backer
#15: Elizabeth Junek: grace, class, and speed
#16: Helle Nice: once the world’s fastest woman