Whatever Happened to the Girl on the Motorbike? British Women and Motorcycling, 1919 to 1939
One persistent myth about the motorcycle has been the widespread and long-standing belief that it is a “man’s machine” and therefore unsuitable for women. This was certainly the case in Britain where, from nearly the beginning, only a small proportion of women were active motorcyclists. While women, more so in Continental Europe than Britain, have taken to scooters and mopeds in some numbers, especially since the 1950s, until fairly recently a woman riding a larger size motorcycle was a rare sight (Hebdige 84-85).
However, during the 1920s, British motorcycle manufacturers launched a concerted campaign designed to increase sales by trying to attract more women and so expand their market. This article describes the campaign and shows how it was subverted by widespread social pre-conceptions, both in and outside the industry, about gender. Those pre-conceptions actively worked against the aim of winning over greater numbers of female motorcycle customers and would play a significant role in the ultimate collapse of the British motorcycle industry during the early 1970s.
In fact, British motorcycle manufacturers had already shown interest in women years earlier when so-called “Ladies Motor Bicycles” had appeared before the First World War, albeit in very limited numbers. However, a more aggressive marketing campaign only really developed after 1918. This was because, by the mid-1920s, overall sales had started to falter. After a brief boom in the immediate aftermath of the war, both sales and road registrations (the index of motorcycles actually on the road) had continued to climb but at a far slower pace than expected.
Manufacturers were especially worried about the rapidly deteriorating position of motorcycles relative to their automotive competitors. In 1920, there were 100,000 more motorcycles registered on British roads than automobiles. As late as 1924 there were still more two-wheeled than four-wheeled vehicles in use, but soon afterwards automobiles had pulled ahead. By 1927, the year the Austin Motor Co. had introduced its best selling model “Seven” economy car, automobiles were clearly dominant as Britain's choice for personal motor transport and have remained so ever since.
This crisis forced the British motorcycle industry to explore other ways of reviving sales. One was to open up new overseas markets and increase exports, particularly within the Empire but also throughout Europe and Asia. Another was to create new motorcycle designs, especially in the “lightweight” category (the up-to-250cc engine displacement class), which were smaller and cheaper than the larger machines (mostly in the 350cc and 500cc classes) that were the industry’s mainstay.
The second strategy implied an effort to attract women, a relatively small segment of Britain's motorcycling public, but one the manufacturers hoped might grow if presented with a range of appealing new products. However, as they would discover, it was also an inherently dangerous strategy, one that brought out internal divisions within the industry and also antagonized much of its established male customer base.
One of the earlier attempts to try to bring women into the market was taken by several aviation firms, who had no previous experience in motorcycle production, but wanted to use their excess plant capacity created at the end of the war. These companies produced unusual products that fell half way between the traditional motorcycle and an automobile. One of them, the “Ner-a-Car,” was created to appeal to would-be car buyers by incorporating many features that its manufacturer, Sheffield-Simplex, believed were missing from standard motorcycle models.
Consequently, this vehicle had a small engine with an automobile-like chassis combined with bodywork that would provide protection against inclement weather and road dirt. The Sheffield-Simplex company hoped the “Ner-a-Car” would attract those who did not want a full- sized motorcar but were reluctant to buy a motorcycle. The company especially hoped to find a market among women and this was reflected in how they were depicted in the advertising it used (Vanderveen 33).
However, it was the scooter that had been built with women specifically in mind. Scooter advertising portrayed women using them not only for leisure purposes but also to help in various activities such as shopping. By and large, because of the purchase cost and running expenses of these vehicles, most of the women who bought them were fairly affluent. Adventurous working class women would likely have had to make do with a bicycle or to enjoy motorcycling vicariously as spectators at sports and competition events.
Soon afterwards many of the more traditional motorcycle manufacturers began to produce a new type of machine that, albeit unlike either the scooters or “Ner-a Car,” still followed more orthodox design. A reporter from The Daily Mirror, who had attended the 1921 Motor Cycle Show at the Olympia exhibition hall, favourably commented on a new range of lightweight models built specifically for women. These were, he enthused, “the daintiest and prettiest little vehicles imaginable ... perfectly adapted for shopping excursions as for long runs in the country and to the sea” (Barron).
The motorcycle press also joined the campaign to encourage more women to take up two-wheeled motor transport. Both The Motor Cycle and the Motor Cyclist Review, two well known enthusiasts’ magazines, appointed women to write articles designed for a female readership. Mabel Lockwood-Tatham, for example, wrote a column entitled “Through Feminine Goggles” in the former publication, while the latter carried “Entirely for Eve,” authored by “Cylinda.” These articles were filled with practical advice about motorcycling apparel and suggestions about the model of motorcycle most suitable for aspiring women motorcyclists. Other columns and features contained information about motorcycle maintenance, touring and holiday destinations.
One such column was written by twin sisters Betty and Nancy Debenham, both ardent motorcycle enthusiasts who were also active in sporting activities such as trials events. They promoted the benefits of motorcycling as a suitable leisure activity for young women and one that was also consistent with prevailing social concepts of femininity:
Motor-cycling is an ideal hobby for the tired business girl. She can seek health and pleasure during her precious week-ends by exploring the countryside and the seaside. She can gather her violets and primroses from the woods instead of buying them in jaded twopenny bunches, and her whole week-end's holiday need only cost her the price of her return fare to Brighton. (Debenham, “Health”)
Not long afterwards, the Debenham sisters addressed the issue of physical strength, or rather the lack of it, which was thought to be one of the main reasons so few women bought and rode motorcycles. Remarking how difficult it was to kick-start a motor bike, they claimed that the new motorcycles were now designed to ensure that virtually any woman could easily use them. Earlier, they conceded,
… the motor cycle was something for young giants to urge into pulsating life, but that was many years ago. Today there are wonderful little machines which start with the very first kick and with most precocious appetites for roadfaring. (Debenham, “Beauty”)
Manufacturers also used other strategies designed to drum up greater sales among women. In 1923, for example, they planned a “rally for lady motor cyclists,” and at least two firms pointedly used women, instead of men, to publicize their machines. In once such instance, Dunelt, a smaller Birmingham-based company, arranged for a young German woman, Suzanne Koerner (no relation to the author), to ride one of its lightweight models from Berlin to its Midlands factory during the winter of 1927. In another, bicycle maker Raleigh, which was still manufacturing motorcycles during the 1920s, provided a lightweight machine to Marjorie Cottle, a leading motorcycle sports rider and then probably Britain's best known female motorcyclist, to use on a well-publicized 1,400 mile journey around the country.
One retailer’s journal, The Garage and Motor Agent, was particularly enthusiastic about Miss Cottle's promotional activities on behalf of the motorcycle industry. She was, it declared, “undoubtedly one of the trade's most useful propagandists.” Not only did she demonstrate that physical strength was not crucial for operating a motorcycle but this magazine was especially impressed with “the fact that Miss Cottle always manages to look nice when engaged in her exploits, and not the least like a professional motor cyclist.” In that way she “produces the best possible impression on the public” (Jones 532).
British motorcycle manufacturers also encouraged women to participate in various motorcycle sports activities. This had been a well-tried and successful method for promoting sales amongst men, and no doubt they believed such a strategy could succeed with women as well.
Indeed, in 1926, the industry's trade association went so far as to honour a number of popular female competitions riders at a special banquet it sponsored during the annual London motorcycle show. Press releases announcing the event were sent to The Nursing Times, Home Notes and Women's Weekly, magazines not normally associated with either motorcycles or motorcyclists. These publications were invited to send reporters to give the event the fullest possible exposure to a female audience.
Reaction of the banquet guests was positive about the future for women and motorcycling. One of them, for example, Miss Margaret Bedington, a district nurse and a prominent private rider on the trials and competitions circuit, was quoted by the Daily Sketch as saying that she hoped “to see the day when every girl—and especially every nurse—will be a motor cyclist” (“The Woman Rider”).
Yet, despite the publicity this and other such events received, the campaign to increase sales of motorcycles to women still ended in failure. By the end of the decade, an official of the manufacturers’ trade association had to admit that only a paltry 25,000 of Britain’s estimated 700,000 motorcyclists were female.
So why did so few women respond to the manufacturers’ marketing campaign? For the most part, it was likely the result of a general prejudice against the practice of women riding motorcycles because it was thought to be unfeminine, or simply outside of what was then considered the bounds of proper “ladylike behavior.” In fact, dedicated motorcyclists such as Marjorie Cottle were well aware of such attitudes and tried to counter them by advocating what they thought were the positive aspects of motorcycling for British women. For example, in an article which appeared in a 1928 edition of the Evening Standard, Cottle confided that:
Once, not so very long ago, the woman motor-cyclist was regarded as something of a crank or a freak. Times have changed, and motor-cycling as a sport is becoming more and more popular with women. It has been conclusively proved that motor-cycling is not harmful to women.
Cottle then went on to explain why motorcycle riding was good for women but used language more in tune with contemporary understandings of “femininity”:
Girls will find that motor-cycling brings health. It will give them honest, fresh-air complexions. It will make them hardy and strong, and although the powder puff is not a part of the girl motor-cyclist's make-up it can always be hidden away for use when occasion demands it. (Cottle)
But for others the situation was more complicated. In one case, a male columnist in a northern newspaper, responding to some irate members of the Yorkshire Ladies' Motor-Cycling Club, who had objected to his characterization of them as “Amazons,” was forced to admit he may have been at least partially wrong about these women:
While the motor cycle does give the Amazonian type of female in this modern age a healthy means of self-expression (as the psychologist would say), [it also saves] her from such abnormal means of self-expression as the Charleston and the cocktail. . . . (“Not All Amazons”)
Nonetheless, these prejudices created a defensive attitude among even some of the most die-hard female enthusiasts. As Mable Lockwood-Tatham explained in the pages of The Motor Cycle:
It seems that the fact of a girl being a rider of a motor cycle immediately labels her as being “mannish”—admittedly an unpleasant characteristic—uninterested in frocks and frills, careless of home life, and devoid of any desire for women friends. (Lockwood-Tatham 472-73)
Illustrative of this attitude was a feature that appeared in a 1921 issue of the London Evening News, which made an unflattering reference to a “flapper with the dentifrice smile, errant pigtail ... who perches precariously sideways on a jazz cushion [pillion seat]” (Brittain). These views likely provided at least a partial basis for the outright discrimination practiced against women motorcyclists and which prevented many of them from participating in various activities, especially motorcycle sports events.
For example, only a few months before being honoured for her many competition victories, Marjorie Cottle was banned from participating in a racing event for no other reason than her gender (“Wayfarer”). The ban was implemented even though many thought Cottle was an excellent rider. At a race at the Scott Trial, for example, The Motor Cycle noted that she had successfully finished the grueling course “while burly men had given up from sheer exhaustion” (“My Lady”).
Cottle's exclusion from these sports events was not an isolated instance as the careers of other successful female British motorcyclists such as Theresa Wallach, Florence Blenkiron, Faye Taylour and Jessie Innis suggest. Consequently, judging at least from coverage in the motorcycle press, women seemed to have largely dropped out of most competition events by the early 1930s.
Indeed, open discrimination against women being associated with motorcycles extended far beyond British roads and race-tracks. In the late 1930s, for example, a leading manufacturer, Norton Motors, publicly declared that it would not employ women in its Birmingham factory because to do so would, the company believed, compromise existing standards of craftsmanship. Whatever the validity of such claims, it is also true that when a group of senior executives of the British motorcycle industry held a special meeting in 1935 to discuss the general decline in sales and usage, they expressed puzzlement and dismay about the low numbers of women riding motorcycles either in sporting events or anywhere else. Yet no one present had any suggestion about what to do about it.
So how to explain the hostility expressed by so many men towards female motorcyclists? As Sean O'Connell has written with respect to women and the automobile, the motorcycle had appeared in Britain at roughly the same time as the controversy about the role of women in society, particularly over issues like suffrage and access to higher education, had intensified (43-46). The image of a woman riding a motorcycle, in much the same way or perhaps even more than one driving an automobile, became a highly visible symbol of potential equality and therefore a threat to existing gender relations.
Such attitudes made it nearly impossible for the British motorcycle industry to construct a sales campaign based on the premise of attracting more female customers. At the heart of the problem was the fact that the industry itself suffered from deep internal divisions over the prospect of a market containing more women. Owing to the long-standing emphasis on racing and the glorification of power and speed, so well exemplified by the Isle of Man TT races, the industry had created an aura of masculinity around the motorcycle, especially of risk and danger, one acknowledged, if not always admired, by enthusiast and non-enthusiast alike.
In the end, the divisions arose because the campaign to increase the numbers of female motorcyclists also had the potential to undermine that very same aura of masculinity so important in maintaining existing sales amongst traditional male motorcyclists. The result was to put one part of the industry working at cross-purposes with the other. This prevented any sort of coherent sales campaign from emerging.
Despite these widespread attitudes, women have remained active in the motorcycle scene right up to the present day, although in far fewer, albeit increasing, numbers than men. During the Second World War, many women worked as dispatch riders in, among other places, Britain, Canada and the USA. Moreover, during the war years, numerous female workers were employed on factory assembly lines, including those at Norton Motors, without any evident deterioration of quality control.
As for the British motorcycle industry, the failure of its campaign to increase the number of female motorcyclists during the 1920s was to have long-term and highly detrimental implications. It meant that the manufacturers became increasingly committed to a policy of building comparatively limited numbers of mostly large displacement motorcycles for a market composed nearly exclusively of male enthusiasts. This strategy worked well on the short term but also meant British motorcycle makers would be caught flat-footed by their Italian and German rivals during the scooter and moped sales boom of the 1950s. Far worse it put them at a serious disadvantage during the 1960s when they encountered devastating competition from Japanese manufacturers. Unlike the British, these foreign competitors had built up huge economies of scale by selling smaller mopeds, scooters and light-weight motorcycles to markets that contained significant numbers of women.
Consequently, failure to come to terms with the concept of the female motorcyclist in the 1920s or, more to the point, the enduring myth of the incompatibility of women and motorcycles, would become a significant factor in the collapse of the British industry over forty years later.
This article excerpted from Chapter One of an upcoming book, The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry. Thanks to Crucible Press for allowing it to appear here. The main points raised by this article originally appeared in a paper presented by the author to a seminar organized by the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Saitama University, Urawa City, Japan in June 1999, held during the course of a Post-Doctoral Fellowship sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. Subsequently, further versions were presented at the annual meeting of the Economic History Society held in Bristol England in April 2000 and at the SW/TX Popular Culture Association (PCA) annual meeting held in Albuquerque New Mexico, February 2002. My thanks for the many helpful comments I received from participants at these events. I would also like to thank Kim Brittenham, Sean O’Connell, Jill Greenfield and Margaret Walsh, as well as Steven Alford, Susan Buck and Gary Kieffner for their many helpful suggestions. However, as always, any errors or omissions are entirely the author’s responsibility.
1 Since the 1960s scooter and moped use throughout Asia has exploded and a good proportion of riders have been women.
2 See examples of these models contained in the “Buyers’ Guide” which was included in the 20 November 1913 edition of the enthusiasts’ journal The Motor Cycle.
3 In 1920 there were 287,739 motorcycles registered for the road, compared to 186,801 automobiles; by 1924 the figures were 495,579 motorcycles and 482,356 automobiles; by 1927 the figures were 681,410 motorcycles and 800,112 automobiles. Figures are drawn from the British Motor Cycle and Cycle Manufacturers and Traders’ Union, Review of the British Cycle and Motor Cycle Industry (Coventry, 1935), and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, The Motor Industry of Great Britain, 1939.
4 For background on the state of the industry at this time, see Koerner.
5 British motor cycle exports to North America, which would become a key market after 1945, were negligible during the 1920s and 1930s.
6 The final sentence of the quote probably alludes to the widespread belief at the time that certain types of strenuous physical activities might damage a woman’s reproductive organs. The author would like to thank Barbara Joans and Jeanne Zasadil, who raised this point during the 16 February 2002 “Motorcycle Culture and Myth” session of the 2002 SW/TX PCA conference.
7 Similar exclusionary practices were evidently also employed against female motorcyclists in North America then and later on as well. See, for example, Ferrar and Joans, particularly pp. 63-65 as well as Chapters Six and Seven.
8 See meeting minutes for the Motor Cycle Manufacturers’ Section of the British Cycle and Motor Cycle Manufacturers and Traders’ Union, held on 9 July 1935, contained in MRC MSS 204/1/1/12.
9 For the situation in the USA, see Scharff, especially p. 26.
10 It is also true, however, that during the time in question the larger German and Japanese motorcycles, unlike the mopeds and scooters, were used almost entirely by male riders.
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---. “Motor Cycling for Health and Beauty.” The Star 16 November 1927. Press Clippings, Volume 2, British Cycle and Motor Cycle Manufacturers and Traders' Union, Modern Records Centre (MRC), University of Warwick, MSS 204/10/1/2.
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“Wayfarer.” “Random Jottings.” Motor Cyclist Review July 1927:12.
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“The Woman Rider.” Sunderland Echo 5 October 1926. Press Clippings, Volume 2, British Cycle and Motor Cycle Manufacturers and Traders' Union, Modern Records Centre (MRC), University of Warwick, MSS 204/10/1/2.
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