One woman racing in the early 1900s was strange. Two women racing side-by-side — two sisters — was even more mind-boggling. Such was the story of Violette Cordery, a multi-time long-distance record breaker who often brought her younger sister Evelyn along on her exploits.
Welcome to Women in Motorsport Monday, where we share the stories of the badass women who have conquered the racing scene throughout the years.
As with many of the female racers at the turn of the century, we know little about Violette Cordery. Her father, Henry, was a tobacconist in London, and Violette was the product of his second marriage. It’s likely that she found her interest in racing through the husband of her older half-sister; Noel Macklin who was a car manufacturer. He hired Cordery as his driver in 1915 after he was injured in World War I. Five years later, at the tender age of 18, Cordery was hitting the track at Brooklands.
That was her first year of competition. She piloted a Silver Hawk — the car built by her brother-in-law — in the South Harting hill climb. She drove an Eric-Campbell motorcycle — also manufactured by Macklin — in two British Motor Cycle Racing Club handicap events. She won several races at Brooklands between 1920 and 1921, making her the first woman to hold any official records at the track.
Spurred on by her success in short races, Cordery decided to try her hand at breaking a time-trial record — again, likely spurred on by her brother-in-law. In 1921, cars were still a fairly new phenomenon, and automakers used endurance racing and speed trials as benchmarks for progress. The goal was to go faster, travel farther, and run longer than any of the competition, which was no mean feat.
For that January 1921 attempt, Cordery was part of the two-person team that broke a handful of records for the 1,500cc class, including: the 200-mile record, the four-hour record, and the 250-mile record. She and her co-driver achieved 200 miles in three hours and 10 minutes and 250 miles in four hours and five minutes. In four hours, they traveled 244 miles.
Record-keeping at the time wasn’t what we know today, so while Cordery was recorded as the first woman to ever successfully complete a record attempt, it’s difficult to know if that was actually true. But Cordery certainly made the headlines in ways that no other woman had before.
It’s hard to tell what Cordery did afterward; there are records of her continuing to race, but there aren’t many. We know she competed in a six-day rally in 1922, where she was the only woman to finish after hitting all her marks, but that’s about it.
She really found her stride in 1925 when Macklin decided Cordery would be the face — and driver — of his Invicta launch in 1925. She won a half-mile sprint race behind the wheel of the Invicta at Brooklands that year, but it was in 1926 that she truly shone.
As part of a six-driver team, Cordery helped set a series of extremely stunning records behind the wheel of a fairly stock six-cylinder, 19.6 horsepower Invicta. They were the first team to drive 10,000 miles in 10,000 minutes, with a mere 2.5-minute break in between three-hour stints. Here, Cordery showed her skills as an endurance driver; the only woman on the team, she drove twice as long as her male teammates.
Their other records included setting the fastest speed for 10,000 miles, 15,000 kilometers, and 25,000 kilometers.
From March through July of that year, Cordery hit various race tracks — but Macklin wanted her setting more records. This time, she spent four days crushing six long-distance records at the Montlhery circuit in France. Among her achievements, she averaged 70.7 mph for 5,000 consecutive miles. Her successes earned her the Dewar Trophy for “the most meritorious observed performance,” courtesy of the Royal Automobile Club (RAC).
What was next? Well, it was time for even grander adventures. In 1927, she drove around the world in five months, crossing 10,266 miles at an average speed of 24.6 mph. Her only company on the trip was a nurse, a mechanic, and an RAC observer who was there to ensure Cordery was the only person behind the wheel. That made her the first woman to travel around the world — in part to prove the reliability of the Invicta but mostly to illustrate that women were just as capable adventurers as men.
What made the whole thing more impressive was that Cordery started out the trip with her arm in a sling as a result of paratyphoid fever. Her six-cylinder Invicta had been modified for the journey with a stronger chassis, fold-down seats for Cordery and her nurse to use as beds, and a folding tent on the side for the men. And yes, Cordery did in fact pack several evening dresses — just in case.
After five months abroad, Cordery took some time to recover at home, where she lived with her mother and two younger sisters. But by 1929, Cordery was itching to get back behind the wheel, and this time, she decided to bring her 18-year-old sister Evelyn into the mix.
The Cordery sisters didn’t choose a particularly simple task: They intended to drive 30,000 miles in 30,000 minutes. And at Brooklands, they did just that. Both women split the driving for 12 hours each day from late June to mid-August. It was a feat worthy of another RAC Dewar Trophy, making her the only person to have ever been awarded it twice.
Soon after, though, Violette Cordery settled down. While taking flying lessons, she met a man named John Stuart Hindmarsh, who was a pilot and Lieutenant in the Royal Tank Corps. He was a racing enthusiast himself and was likely attracted to Cordery’s spirit.
Unfortunately, during the engagement, Cordery announced that she would quit racing once she was married, and after the wedding on September 15, 1931, Cordery is only recorded as contesting a handful of races. Instead, she gave birth to two daughters — Susan in 1932 and Sally in 1935. Susan went on to marry Ray Salvadori, himself a racing driver.
Hindmarsh took up the racing mantle. She was part of the team that won the 1935 24 Hours of Le Mans, and he was also involved in a team that traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah to attempt to break 20 automotive world records.
And then, just days before the couple’s seventh anniversary, Hindmarsh was killed in a plane crash. He had been testing the Hawker Hurricane aircraft when something went wrong. The plane nose-dived straight into a house at 400 mph and crashed into a house in a ball of fire.
After that, Cordery disappears from the public eye, likely taking care of her family and finding a quieter meaning until her death on December 30, 1983, when she was 83 years old.
Cordery’s life shows the interesting duality of women at the time. One of the most accomplished racers of all genders in the 1920s, she was still expected to give up her mantle to her husband after the two were wed, instead taking on the equally challenging roles of wife and mother while her husband got behind the wheel. Her quiet retirement meant that her accomplishments have unfortunately faded with time — but she deserves credit for her illustrious career.