Eleanor’s golden opportunity was connected to the invention of a new mode of transportation: the motorcar. These were very early days in its history. For years to come, still experimental and still a rarity, a motorcar trying to navigate the cobbled streets of London would have qualified as an event, disturbing or exhilarating depending on your point of view. These shiny metallic boxes on wheels, noisy, difficult to manoeuvre and unpredictable, mixed in with the crowded flow of horse-drawn carts and hackney cabs, would have caused havoc. These contraptions panicked the horses, belched suffocating clouds of exhaust and backfired. Sometimes they conked out altogether. While the blocked traffic cursed them, their drivers, equipped with driving goggles and sturdy leather gloves would have worked to get them going again. I can imagine how newspaper boys and grinning street urchins would have clustered around a recalcitrant motorcar and its perplexed operator to watch in fascination. And when the machine roared to life they all would have jumped back with their fingers in their ears shrieking with delight.
Did Eleanor also observe these machines with interest? Did she stop and stand at a distance on the sidewalks of the wet London streets straining to see what was happening with a conked-out car over the heads of a crowd of boys? If her father was a telegraph engineer, a hands-on man with a mechanical bent, he may have been an admirer of these inventions. He might have understood something of the genius that lay behind all the noise and smoke. Did he transmit his enthusiasm to his intelligent daughter? Due to her father, Eleanor may have known much more about motorcars than most females.
That wouldn’t be so surprising. She wouldn’t have needed to know much. Motorcars, needless to say, were not thought to be the kind of thing a lady should show interest in. Motorcars were toys for boys then as much as they are now.
Men will be men - so competition was a key ingredient of the motorcar craze right from the beginning. Navigating cars through the traffic of the city, where Eleanor would have had the chance to see them, was never the real goal; speed was the goal. Racing cars daredevil over private tracks in the country was how winning was measured. New ideas were tried, adapted and improved forcing advances in technology as men strove to outrace each other. Since everything about fiddling around with motorcars was very, very expensive they were playthings only for the very rich. Eleanor may have heard about these car races on private estates but she would never have seen one. They were out of her league.
Then, in 1897, when Eleanor was seventeen, a club was formed to bring motoring enthusiasts together. This organization needed secretaries. Somehow or other Eleanor got wind of this - and she was hired to be one of them.
(To be continued…)