Another life story of a racing personality, that of the lady driver Hellé Nice (aka Hélène Delangle), dancer, stripper, sex symbol and rally and racing driver, is well described by the esteemed Miranda Seymour, the biographer of Robert Graves, Mary Shelley, etc.
Her new book The Bugatti Queen, In Search of a Motor Racing Legend (Simon & Schuster, ISBN 1 3579 0684 2, £15.99) is doubly welcome because so little was known about the girl driver — until now, because this book is completely detailed. Dick Ploge provides a somewhat vague table, showing Hellé Nice as having driven in minor GPs and other races, and in long-distance rallies with feminine co-drivers from 1928 to ’51, too numerous to list here.
She was seriously injured at Sao Paulo, and in the end she died alone and in poverty. Hellé Nice was accused of Gestapo connections by Louis Chiron after the war, but she was exonerated.
Hellé Nice began her racing career in an Omega Six, but her cars were usually lent to her by Ettore Bugatti, although she also had a Monza Alfa Romeo. She raced and gave demonstrations on dirt and board circuits in the USA and, in 1937, helped Yacco set long-distance marks at Montlhéry. It was at that same track, in ’39, where she completed 10km of lapping at
125.6mph in a works 35C Bugatti. After that doughty performance she was named as holder of the woman’s LSR — which may have made Mrs Gwenda Stewart smile.
Incidentally, the Yacco records by the girls in 1937 are said to have given a lift to France in the Depression, but surely they would have been regarded as merely good publicity for Yacco Oil and not known to the general population? Their 3.6-litre Mathis-Ford averaged 86.5mph for 10 days.
Hellé Nice knew most of the top racing drivers, aristocratic celebrities and playboys. The amount of research carried out by Seymour was clearly tremendous, but she admits to using novelistic imagination to fill in gaps. She provides the most interesting notes suggesting likely truths. For anyone who needs to know more about Hellé Nice, here is the book.
For me The Bugatti Queen may have solved a puzzle. DSJ and I never knew why R L Duller had Hellé on the Duesenberg he drove at Brooklands. He is said to have known the French driver very well, so perhaps he wished to recall her.
A good read — and not only for motor-racing folk.