When thinking about car racing, it’s easy to picture it as being a male dominated sport. But there has been no shortage of of female car enthusiasts over the years. Recently, the number of women classic car buyers has increased. Some are even making documentaries, such as Australian born Tracey Walker, who is making Old Girls On The Road, a program that will feature women and their cars.
Women Racers is a series that looks at famous female drivers. They are the women who’ve trail blazed their way through history by getting behind the wheel. Helle Nice is one of them, having made a reputation as one of the greatest women racers of all time.
Born on the 15th December 1900, Mariette Helene Delangle, grew up in France. She moved to Paris after World War I, where she found work as a model. She was drawn by the artist Rene Carrere, who advised she take up ballet. Delangle danced for the Casino de Paris and she used the stage name Hellé Nice.
In 1929, Nice entered the world of car racing by driving an Omega-Six in the Grand Prix race, held at Autodrome de Montlehery. She was later introduced to Ettore Buggati, as he believed she was a worthy choice for driving one of his racing cars. Nice drove a Bugatti Type 35c and became the fastest woman in the world by breaking the land speed record at Montlehery. She moved at 120mph, increasing her fame even more.
From that point on, Nice was known as ‘The Bugatti Queen’ and participated in many races. However, tragedy would strike in 1936 during the Sao Paulo Grand Prix. Nice was driving an Alfa Romeo that crashed into the grandstand and killed four racing fans. Nice was thrown out of the car and narrowly survived. She woke up from a coma three days later, but her career was never the same after.
Nice tried to mount a racing comeback in 1937, but it was overshadowed by accusations after WW2. A racer called Louis Chiron falsely accused her of being a Gestapo agent at the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally. Nice was unable to do anything about it because the only one she could appeal to was the organiser of the rally, who was a close friend of Chiron. This led to her being abandoned by her fans and disowned by her family. Nice was taken in by a charity called La Roue Tourne, but her prospects didn’t improve.
The last twenty years of Nice’s life was spent in a rat-infested apartment. She used an alias to hide her shame. She died in 1984 without any money and her ashes were sent to her sister in the village of Sainte-Mesme.
This is an ignoble end for a pioneering woman racer. Hellé Nice’s contribution to the automotive world is important because she stood out at a time when only men could be successful. Her story shouldn’t be forgotten and she remains a shining example of what women are capable of as racers.