By the time the First World War ended, she had grown up, saved up enough to buy her first car and was determined to become a racing driver. A woman driver was no longer a novelty, but there were very few women in the cutting-edge world of motor racing, where Mary quickly became outstanding for her skill, daring and endurance.
In 1926 she married Victor Bruce, an excellent racing driver himself who in the same year became the first Briton to win the Monte Carlo Rally. Keeping to the nineteenth-century tradition of adopting the husband’s entire name, she became known as Mrs Victor Bruce, and this is the name she goes by in the record books - though very few people now have even heard of her. In 1927 she won the Coupe des Dames at the Monte Carlo Rally, and together the couple embarked on a series of racing and record-breaking adventures.
(If you’re about to flip over to Google to see if this is a true story or I’ve made it all up, let me save you the trouble: it’s all true.)
It was a time when many wealthy amateurs paid their own way in their chosen sports, but neither of the Bruces was rich. They were seriously good drivers, though, and they funded their driving careers by forming relationships with car and tyre manufacturers who sponsored them in order to test and improve new products. So that when they took a car up into the Arctic Circle, it wasn’t purely for fun, they were able to prove that the vehicle could function well in those conditions; though along the way Mary also found a wonderful hairdresser in northern Finland.
Perhaps their most astonishing achievement was a ten-days-and-ten-nights endurance drive round the Montlhéry circuit in France. They did this in December 1927, in an open AC sports car, covering more than 15,000 miles, at first driving for three hours each but later having to extend it to six hours each as the lack of sleep was too punishing; the six-hour stints, however, presented a serious risk of frostbite in the below-zero conditions. The few other women racing drivers of the day wore trousers or overalls for driving, but Mary Bruce always drove dressed in a jacket and skirt and, invariably, her pearls. For the Montlhéry drive she added a fur rug from her hotel bedroom. She said later that the ten-day record left her with a lasting dislike of sandwiches, as all they ate while driving were ham sandwiches, kept in the glove compartment and tasting of petrol.
Now backed by the AC company, Mary Bruce spent much of 1928 racing at the famous Brooklands circuit, and in June 1929 she returned to Montlhéry to attempt a 24-hour solo drive, in a borrowed 4.5 litre Bentley as AC didn’t have a suitable car . At least this time it was summer, but the weather was still terrible. (The photo shows the Bentley being refuelled at Montlhéry.) She covered 2,164 miles in 24 hours, at an average speed of 89.57 mph - a record which was unbeaten by any solo driver for over fifty years, and has never been surpassed by another woman.
And then, after a brief flirtation with speedboats, Mary Bruce discovered aeroplanes.
She saw a plane for sale in a shop in London. According to her own account: “I thought, ‘What are we coming to now, when we can buy aeroplanes out of shop windows? Soon I shall be so old-fashioned nobody will want to talk to me unless I learn to fly.’” It was a small light aircraft with wings which could be folded back, intended to be transported around and used for short pleasure flights. Mary Bruce decided to buy it and take it round the world.
And so she did, in 1930, having rapidly learned how to fly and navigate. She went on her own: the aircraft was a two-seater, but she couldn’t take a co-pilot as the spare seat had to accommodate a petrol tank. Planes tended to fall apart quite easily in those days, so such things as a spare propeller were essential, and the spares threatened to overload the little plane. She wanted to take a dictaphone to record her impressions of the flight, and refused to leave it behind when the mechanic said it was too heavy. Her husband said: ‘Don’t stop her taking the dictaphone, she’ll never be happy unless she’s talking,’ and in order to lighten the load she threw out the parachute.
She didn’t actually fly the plane all round the world, it couldn’t carry enough fuel to cross the oceans, so she put it on ships for the sea crossings and flew it across the land masses - it would be another two years before Amelia Earhart flew non-stop across the Atlantic. Going round the world with her little plane took Mary Bruce five months and numerous adventures, some frightening, some farcical, before she arrived safely back at Croydon Aerodrome. Her small son Anthony was clearly a chip off the old block, as all he said when his mother got back was, ‘ Mummy, you’re an hour late.’
She continued flying until the Second World War, taking part in early experiments in mid-air refuelling as well as stunt flying for public entertainment, and gradually becoming more of an entrepreneur (though she diversified by going back to riding horses and doing a little competitive show-jumping). She built up a small fleet of aircraft doing passenger and cargo runs out of Croydon, and during the war her company provided aircraft maintenance and repairs. The Bruces were divorced in 1941 and Mary continued on her own in the post-war years as a successful businesswoman in aviation. It was during this period that her fame died away, associated as it was with another and very different world.
This probably didn’t bother her - she doesn’t seem ever to have courted publicity. There’s no doubt she was thrilled each time she won a race or broke a record, but she was motivated by the love of speed and competition, rather than the desire to be famous.
During the 1970s, when she was 78, she had a go at test-driving the new Ford Ghia Capri and took it up to 110 mph, though she objected to wearing a crash helmet, having never worn one before, and initially put it on back to front. At 81, she went up in a Chipmunk and looped the loop for the last time. And although by this time she was pretty much a forgotten name, she did appear on the Russell Harty TV show (sharing the bill with Oliver Reed), before she died in 1990 at the age of 94.
She wrote: ”Speed has always fascinated me since my first pony bolted. Going slowly always made me tired.” Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, and other early women aviators achieved great things and had their own personal glamour and mystique, but none of them also broke records in racing cars and powerboats. And surely none matches Mildred Mary Bruce for sheer panache.
[more photos, and film clips, at http://pocketfulofpseuds