Featured: Legendary Ladies Of Motorsport: Hellé Nice

Legendary Ladies Of Motorsport: Hellé Nice

By Florence Walker
November 8, 2016
5 comments

Editor’s Note: We are excited to bring this new series to our pages. Too often the collective nostalgia of motorsport errs on the hyper masculine side. So many champions of the early days of the sport were male, yes, but right along side of them were some of the most incredible women we’d ever heard of. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed working on it.

If you were standing at the finish line at the 1930 all-Bugatti Grand Prix in Le Mans, you would have seen 3rd place scream cross the finishing line—backwards. In the driving seat was the only female competitor that day, the holder of the Women’s Land Speed Record and Formula 1 racing driver Mariette Hélène Detangle, AKA Hellé Nice. The deafening cheers from spectators had caused her to hit the brakes which, rather stylishly, made the Bugatti spin across the line in reverse.

The youngest of five children, and daughter to a white postman and a black housewife, Hellé excelled at everything she turned her hand to. Charming, quick-witted and enthusiastic, she grew out of the small village of Aunay-sous-Auneau near Chartres when she was 16, leaving for Paris shortly after the end of the First World War. The roaring twenties were a perfect backdrop for her exuberance and youth. Her beauty and grace quickly had her making a sizeable income from modelling and cabaret shows, where she wowed Parisian nightclubs with her acrobatics. Her winning smile would garner the attention of the most eligible men throughout the world, including Jean Bugatti who became a close ally and lover.

Her joie de vivre extended to speed. Fortunately for the world of motor-racing, a tumble on the slopes ended her dancing career. The track beckoned. By 1929 she had set the World Land Speed Record for women, driving at 120 mph during an all-female Grand Prix at Montlhéry in a Bugatti 35C.

A tour of every American East-Coast race track sponsored by the talent agency William Morris followed. The Bugatti Queen drew hordes to tracks, everywhere, in her bright blue racing car. Over her racing career, Nice drove in 78 Grand Prix and numerous hillclimbs, rallies and endurance trials to boot. Her spirit in a male-dominated sport was resilient and competitive. As she told L’Intransigeant in 1930 “It’s all I ever ask for, just to show what I can do, without a handicap, against men”.

But Nice, for all her romance and success, didn’t have a happy ending. The racer had her fair share of staring death in the face. Skidding on black ice at the Monte Carlo Rally landed her in a canal. In 1933, despite seeing three fellow racers die, she clung onto ninth place at the Italian Grand Prix. But her closest shave came in 1936. At the Brazilian Grand Prix, twenty yards from the finishing line, swerving to avoid a man removing a hale bale from the middle of the track, her Alfa Romeo flipped, somersaulted through the air and crashed into the grandstand killing and injuring many spectators.

She awoke from a coma after three days. The strength she showed in her recovery made her a Brazilian national hero—even now, Hellenice and Ellenice are not uncommon girls’ names there. Despite a strong recovery, Nice never regained the success she had enjoyed before.

She attempted a comeback to racing the following year, but sponsorships deals and racing opportunities for a driver that had suffered serious head injuries were hard to come by. Then, within the space of a month, Jean Bugatti died while test driving and the Second World War began.

The end of the war didn’t bring a change in luck. At a party in Monte Carlo to celebrate the armistice and the return of racing, Louis Chiron told the party that Nice had acted as a gestapo agent, with the accusation to instantly shatter her reputation. For the rest of her life, she relied on the kindness of charity. She died on a public ward in a hospital in 1984.

Until recently, the memory of Hellé Nice was all but lost. But thanks to Miranda Seymour’s 2004 biography, The Bugatti Queen, Hellé Nice’s name was cleared. Chrion’s slur was without foundation. Today, Hellé Nice’s spirit is remembered by a foundation in her name.

Hellé Nice entered into a world predominated by life-threatening danger, hard work and skill, governed by the opposite sex. She did so without the support of inherited or spousal wealth, a claim that couldn’t be made by her peers. Her courage and determination makes her the perfect role model for any racer today, male or female.

She was, ahem, a hell of a woman.

Image sources: wikipedia.orgyahoo.comdpccars.comedublogs.org

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JamesT
JamesT
1 year ago

Although a little late to the discussion, might I just observe that, besides the erroneous Formula 1 reference, there are actually quite a lot of errors and misconceptions in this piece, several of which are in the first paragraph?
Hellé Nice’s real family name was spelled “Delangle”
There is, as far as I am aware, no contemporary source for the claim that she crossed the line backwards at the 1930 Bugatti Grand Prix. On a very dark and wet afternoon, she finished third of the three finishers, 30km or more behind the other two, and was “flagged off” so that everyone could go home. It was such an uneventful race (only 8 cars took part) that something as exciting as crossing the line backwards would certainly have been reported.
Hellé Nice did not set a “Women’s Land Speed Record” because no such thing existed (nor exists) officially, and in any case her speed was lower than that achieved almost 18 months earlier by another woman driver, Janine Jennky, at the Arpajon speed trials.
There is no actual evidence that she and Jean Bugatti were ever lovers.
The 1929 “speed record” was a women’s lap record at the Montlhéry circuit, not a “world record” of any kind, and was set during a single car time trial in December, and was not set during the “Women’s Grand Prix” held six months earlier on the same track (which she won). Although described as a “grand prix” – which is simply French for “grand prize” and did not carry the same meaning for motor racing as it does today – that event had been a short handicap race for only 5 cars, at the end of the all-women’s day at Montlhéry, in the main event of which (a longer handicap) HN had started on scratch and finished 15th (and last).
She drove in only 31 Grands Prix (still an impressive number) – the figure of 78 includes all the rallies and hill-climbs, etc. she also took part in.
Her achievement in finishing the 1933 Monza Grand Prix – NOT the Italian Grand Prix – can hardly be described as “clinging on” to 9th place, as it was also last place which, for whatever reason, she was quite familiar with, as she came last in two-thirds of the races she finished, and only once ever finished in the top half (ironically, that was the event that almost killed her, that she barely “finished” at all). There is no evidence of anyone on the track removing a bale – no-one is really sure why she swerved so violently, and it seems just as likely to have been a driver error in attempting an overtake.
No-one actually knows exactly what Chiron’s accusation was, or why he made it – while Miranda Seymour has established that there is no record of HN having been a paid-up agent on the Gestapo’s books, there is a huge range of activities that might have been (and, in the immediate aftermath of war, were) regarded as “collaboration”, so this is not necessarily evidence that she was entirely innocent. For Chiron to make the claim almost 4 years after the war ended suggests it must have been something he thought – whether mistakenly or otherwise – to have been quite serious, but since we don’t know what he actually said, we cannot be sure.
Finally, the picture of 3 small cars with women crews has no connection with Hellé Nice – the picture was taken at Brooklands (which HN almost certainly never visited) and depicts the “Dancing Daughters”, a team of 6 women drivers assembled by George Eyston to compete in three 1.1-litre MG cars at the 1935 Le Mans 24 hours race.
Hellé Nice’s story is pretty remarkable, but some aspects have become hugely exaggerated in the re-telling since the publication of “The Bugatti Queen” – itself a name she was never given at the time.

JamesT
JamesT
1 year ago
Reply to  JamesT

*correction” – HN finished in last place in 57% of her GP finishes (12/21), not two-thirds (or 55% (11/20) if Bugatti “Grand Prix” is excluded)

Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr
5 years ago

There were rumours of a film about her life on one of the classic car series last year. Any updates?

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
5 years ago

OK … its a great story and most definitely the ladies are deserving a whole lot more coverage than they’ve ever gotten despite their multiple accomplishments .

But … and I repeat .. but … if you’re gonna do a historical segment /series .. make damn sure your facts are straight … For instance

1) Formula One racing did not exist until 1950 . Previous to that its called Grand Prix racing

2) It would of been impossible for Helle to of spun on Black Ice at the Monte Carlo GRAND PRIX ! The Monte Carlo Rally ? [ which has existed since 1911 ] .. no problem . But the Grand Prix event ? Errr … nope !

3) Helle’s accomplishments .. if you can call them that … were pure publicity .. not on track success . And with all the women over the decades that have won major races in and amongst the men why would you focus on her especially when the woman’s reputation is at best … tainted by the distinct possibility she was a Nazi collaborator ?

But more importantly than #3 . Get your facts straight . You’re presenting to a group of … for the most part genuine bonafide GearHeads .. many of which are of a certain age and well educated in the world of auto racing .. not a bunch of rubes and hipster dilettantes steeped in revisionist history at the expense of the facts … cause maybe it makes for a better story .

Ted Gushue
Ted Gushue
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

Check your facts on the Nazi Collaborator part, categorically proven that she wasn’t. You’re confusing her with the Gestapo member who cut off her breasts to race.

The Monte Carlo Rally error was an editing mistake – it’s been corrected.