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April 24th 2013

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'Motorcycling for Women'
by Nancy and Betty Debenham

What was life like for female riders in the 1920s? Mrs Elk recommends a recent reprint of an inter-war classic book...

'Motorcycling for Women' was originally published in 1928 and reflects a golden period when there were more motorcycles on the road than cars, and anyone could ride a motorcycle at 14 without passing a test or wearing a helmet. The authors Nancy and Betty Debenham were attractive, adventurous and happy young ladies who thoroughly enjoyed their motorcycling. The sisters became poster girls for BSA motorcycles in 1927. However, they were also hardy, tough, brave, knowledgeable and resilient motorcyclists in their own right and were not just selected for their looks. Indeed, Nancy won a Gold Medal at Brooklands Racetrack in 1926. They were often accompanied on their journeys by their little dog Poncho who would sometimes stow away in the sidecars and cars of strangers.

Perhaps some of the more enlightened manufacturers saw the growing female emancipation movement as a chance open up a new market at a time when motorcycle sales had dipped due to the introduction of cheap cars. This book seems to be part of a concerted campaign by British motorcycle manufacturers to promote motorcycling for women. Although some manufacturers produced ladies models and promoted women riders on official factory brochures, this did not result in large scale sales. Indeed women only occupied 4% of the market in the UK.

As might be guessed from the introduction, where Major HR Watling waxes lyrical about fair daughters of Eve, this is not a technical tome but a fascinating insight into the social history of transport in the 1920s and the joys of motorcycling in the golden inter-war period. The sisters write of their experiences, such as running out of petrol, the perils of buying fuel from wayside cottages and tales of sidecars coming adrift whilst descending Plynlimmon Hill, the highest point in Mid-Wales.

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Much of the book concerns touring, with advice about camping, boating and avoiding modern arterial roads in favour of lanes and by-ways. Clothing tips for 'road girls' include the choice of headgear and the advantages of the woolly hat or beret over a leather helmet in the interests of one's hair. Despite the quaint language of the period, many of the tips are still relevant today, from the advice to start motorcycling with a smaller machine to keeping one's fingernails clean by digging into a bar of soap prior to any dirty work via the unarguable statement that 'road sense is a mixture of imagination and concentration.'

As a facsimile copy this modern reprint includes the original advertisements and it's interesting to note that most are specifically aimed at women. Manufacturers saw women as a target market, but for whatever reason failed to make inroads, a state of affairs that continued for many years.

Dating from the first year that women attained equal voting rights with men, this is an utterly charming book, and one that I am very pleased to find as I have been on the look-out for an original copy for more years than I care to mention!

RC Reviewer: Mrs Elk

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'Motorcycling for Women' by Nancy and Betty Debenham has been republished in 2013 as a quality hardback book of 116 pages, available at 14.99 from classic motorcyclemanuals.com

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