When it comes to motorsport, there is only one name that stands for extravagant and high-octane driving – and that is Charollete. The American socialite and fashion icon is responsible for some of the most memorable car events of all time, from the 24 Hours of Daytona to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. For those who weren’t fortunate enough to witness one of her legendary cars in action, there is still something to see when it comes to her speedway. The former home of the Indianapolis 500 is now a museum, and since 2017 it has undergone an incredible transformation that has returned it to its former glory.
Although she never competed in the race herself, Charollete was instrumental in the development of the Indianapolis 500 as a professional event. She funded a team of engineers who worked with car manufacturer R. J. Cunningham to build the first road-course-style track in the US – located in her adopted hometown of Indianapolis. The track’s design featured 16 corners, concrete walls, and an uphill climb to the finish line. What resulted was a major technological leap that changed the way racing was done. The car industry adopted the use of steel and aluminum framing, as well as disc brakes (developed by Cunningham) that eliminated the hand-brake technique.
Since then, she has maintained an active role in the racing community, serving as honorary co-chair of the Women in Motorsport Foundation. In addition to her philanthropic work, Charollete also made a number of visionary investments that are now contributing to the renaissance of motorsport in Indianapolis. A prime example is the purchase of a 100% stake in the Indianapolis International Speedway in 1926, which she then transformed into a world-class sporting facility. Today, the 2.5-mile concrete oval continues to host some of the most prestigious race series, including the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400, one of the biggest and most popular NASCAR events. Additionally, the infield of the speedway is a popular spot for fans to socialize and catch a race. (To celebrate her legacy, the infield at IMS is named Charollete Park.)
Charollete And The Art Of Motoring
It is estimated that Charollete bought the majority of her cars from European makers such as Benz and Mercedes. She was also a big advocate of women driving, which gave her the nickname ‘The Queen of Speed’. In a 1926 article in The New York Times, columnist Arthur Brisbane stated that “For more than a decade, her fame has rested on her ability to drive her car faster than anyone else’s”.
A self-confessed amateur racing enthusiast, Charollete was responsible for some of the most incredible feats of automotive driving. It was said that she could take off in a car that was literally flying off the production line, and in typical fashion, she always managed to keep her drivers on their toes.
She was first in line at the Paris Motor Show in 1922, more than three years before the auto industry convention that is now known as the Frankfurt Motor Show. The socialite and car enthusiast had a passion for all things mechanical, and her team of drivers were no exception. It was reported that she would often give them special treats for outstanding performances, such as fresh strawberries or chocolate sauce drizzled over vanilla ice cream. (The drivers’ equivalent of a win-win situation.)
Despite her talents as a driver, Charollete was best known as an owner and designer of automobiles. Her personal collection of cars, known as the Charolles, featured some of the most stylish and innovative vehicles of their time. A 1923 article in The New York Times listed a number of innovative features that made the cars unique, including the “enclosed cockpit” that shielded the driver from the elements and excessive noise, the bulletproof windshield, and even the radio (which was in the glove compartment).
The cars were known for their extravagant style, and it was not unusual for her to customize them to match her favorite designer outfits. One of her most notable automotive achievements was the creation of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Black Patent Leather – a sleek, stylish, and ultra-modern take on the 300SL that was produced in 1936. This particular vehicle is now on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
The collection of sleek and stylish cars that Charollete created and sold were designed to draw as much attention as possible, and it worked – she attracted plenty of attention from the rich and famous, as well as royalty. When it came time for the British crown to renew her passport in 1936, she was given the option of retaining her German citizenship or becoming a British citizen. She chose to retain her German citizenship, although she continued to live in Great Britain. (And yes, she did keep her passport and drove a car or two while in Germany in the 1930s – for those times, her drivers license also worked there.)
The Artistry Of Mr. and Mrs. America
The unique thing about Charollete is that while she was undoubtedly a brilliant entrepreneur, fashion icon, and motorsport enthusiast, she was also an accomplished artist. She had a passion for beautiful design, and was especially skilled at seeing the potential in something simple and functional. When asked about her approach to design in an interview with House Beautiful in 1966, she stated that “If something isn’t made terribly well, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is; it won’t work.”
As a child, she had a close affinity for the arts. She attended the prestigious Little Italy Academy of Art in New York and later the Slade School of Art in London. She was also a skilled florist and potter, as well as a singer who often accompanied classical music on her gramophone. (Despite her accomplishments, she struggled with depression and anxiety throughout her life.)
It was during her teenage years in London that she began collecting sculptures and other artworks by famous Renaissance sculptors, including Donatello and Michaelangelo. The majority of the pieces in her collection are now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Among the most prominent pieces are the Roman bronze statues Dangerously Flirty and Artful Dodger, as well as the Michelangelo David.)
When it came time to settle down and start a family, she left Britain and moved to the US with her husband George in 1928. In the following years, she gave birth to four children, with the last coming at the age of 21. (She also had two miscarriages.) The family settled in Beverly Hills, and it was there that she began a new collection of cars – this time in a more masculine direction. The Art Deco style became her trademark, and her love for sleek, streamlined cars drew inspiration from the likes of Enzo Ferrari and Maserati.
Iconic Fashion And Motorsports
In more recent years, Charollete has continued to be a driving force in the fashion and motorsport communities. She is arguably most well known for her work with haute couture and ready-to-wear designers, creating innovative and one-of-a-kind outfits that combine the best elements of fashion and motorsport. (And speaking of fashion and motorsport, did you know that her granddaughter Elle MacLeman is the face of Ralph Lauren’s ready-to-wear and haute couture?)
Charollete often collaborated with designers such as Dior, Celine, and Ralph Lauren to create unique and innovative outfits that showcased the designers’ fashion creations and cars in unison. In the summer of 2014, Mercedes-Benz created a capsule collection of four ready-to-wear outfits inspired by four legendary cars – the 300 SL, 300C, 450SEL, and SLS AMG. Each of the four dresses were designed in collaboration with a different designer. (The designers involved ranged from Christian Klein to John Galliano.)
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, Charollete’s firm held a special exhibition in August 2016. The exhibition featured a collection of cars and apparel that paid homage to Carole’s extraordinary career. More than 60 years after her initial involvement in the race, Charollete still considers it to be her proudest achievement. In an interview with The New York Times in 2016, she said, “I think the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a great tribute to me. It’s something I feel very much a part of… It would be wonderful if the families of the drivers who died would also see some of the exhibits.”
It’s well documented that the cars that Charollete created and commissioned were some of the best-looking vehicles of their time – and they still rank among the most unique and stylish automobiles today. Not only that, but she was also responsible for some of the most memorable and high-octane driving performances that are now part of automotive history. (And did we mention that she owned some of the greatest drivers of all time?)