I had no idea that the young girls of the post-World War II era dreamed of becoming race car drivers. Certainly a pony might appear in their hopeful plans for the future, and many of them took part very successfully in show jumping and cross-country events—Pat Moss included. But driving ambitions came as naturally to many of them, as they did for the guys.
Throughout Europe there were a lot of ladies taking part in motorsport during the fifties and sixties, and no one thought it odd to see a girl at the wheel. Outright success maybe was not something we thought they would achieve, but then the British teams were hardly entering cars that would take the top trophies anyway. While the obvious reason to choose a woman to drive in competition was the instant publicity this would bring, we soon found that they could drive as well as the men.
The principal teammate while I was at BMC was Pat Moss. Pat had owned a Triumph TR2 when she was in the Harrow Car Club, and approached Ken Richardson for some financial help to rally Internationally. Ken turned her down but Marcus Chambers, our wily boss at the Abingdon BMC team, immediately signed her. Although being Sir Stirling Moss’ sister was probably the reason she was picked in the first place, Abingdon management and the other drivers in the team soon found that Pat was not only faster than most of us, but also that her stamina outshone her male counterparts. After a succession of brilliant performances in some of Europe’s toughest events, her first overall victory was on that incredible 1960 Liège-Sofia-Liège Marathon. She and co-driver Ann Wisdom handled their Austin Healey 3000 for four days and nights of virtually non-stop motoring over some of the roughest and highest roads to lead the weary convoy back to Liège in first place overall. After that success, I imagine many young girls traded their pony dreams for thoughts of even beating the guys in Formula One.
Pat followed this win with several more in International Rallies, winning outright the Ladies Championship on several occasions. Both her parents were competition drivers, as were Annie’s, so to them successful lady drivers were nothing unusual. She did have one flaw though in this perfection, Pat often left her handbag behind at restaurants and hotels while on reconnaissance trips in preparation for rallies, which meant an inevitable delay while one of the mechanics was forced to retrace our steps in order to retrieve passports and other vital items.
I have probably missed out a few of Britain’s lady drivers, but there were also some terrific talents on the Continent. Claudine Vanson drove for the Citroën team for many years, again with excellent results and many Coupes des Dames awarded for the fastest lady on each event. Another brilliant French driver was Annie Soisbault, first discovered by Triumph team manager Ken Richardson, and even at just over twenty years old she immediately made an impression with successes including a very high placing on the Liège event. Annie even drove those magnificent Ferrari GTOs on the Tour de France, and won the touring car category of this ten-day racing event with Bernard Consten in a Jaguar Sedan. Ms. Soisbault was also a seven-time French tennis champion, which gives a glimpse of her competiveness.
Ewy Rosqvist, a very glamorous Swedish blond, drove factory Volvos for a while before being signed up by the mighty Mercedes-Benz competition team, and drove for them with success for a number of years before marrying a Baron and leaving the competition arena.
In the slightly more modern era, Michelle Mouton, another French driver, was the first to win a World Rally Championship event as a team member of the awesome four-wheel drive Audi Quattro team, an outfit that contained some of Europe’s fastest and best drivers in cars that dominated the sport. Nowadays she is a very active member of the International Rally organization, where her experience brings a great deal of sensible knowledge to the governance of the sport.
There is no doubt that those of us who raced and rallied in the fifties and sixties had a lot of respect for the Lady drivers who were part of all the factory teams in this Golden era of Motor sport. Their legacy deserves to be retold and will be repeated by female racers of today and tomorrow.
Learn more about women in racing at speedqueens.blogspot.com
WOMEN OF INFLUENCE
An Abingdon driver from the early HRG racing and MGA rallying days with splendid results including a European Ladies Championship and a Coupes des Alpes—BMC was no stranger to successful ladies. Nancy was in the team for many years, even managing to achieve success with the bigger Austin-Healeys. She in fact was a mentor to me. Nancy’s MG Magnette was a car near my Austin A35 on my first venture to the European Continent, and she certainly helped me to understand some of the intricacies of competition regulations.
Nancy’s co-driver on the 1957 Sestrière Italian Rally was another of Britain’s great Lady Competitors, who had most of her successes with the UK Ford team. Whenever reference to Anne was made in any newspaper, she always seemed to be described as the “Huddersfield Housewife,” and with her pronounced North Country accent, this was a title that seemed to stick. The last event I remember being on with her was the Pirelli Classic Marathon in the mid-nineties, and on that occasion she drove the Sunbeam Tiger, handling the big V8-engined sportscar with ease.
A driver of MGs in race and rally, who was a finisher of the first post-war Marathon from London to Sydney with an MGB, and who later became a minister in the government and ended up with the honor of being named a “Dame” by the Queen.
Christabel—now Lady Watson through marriage—was a very successful racer of Minis. On one of her earlier efforts, some wag suggested that all the corners at a particular racetrack were nearly flat. Christabel took this advice and promptly broke the class lap record. She was always at the head of the field, and on one classic occasion, the Minis of Vic Elford, Christabel and Steve MacQueen cavorted around Brands Hatch track three abreast for the entire race crossing the finish line in close Mini-trio. She
drove her first rally with me in my Sebring Sprite in 1962 and the following year, BMC put her alongside Timo Makinen in a Healey 3000. Timo told me she was urging him to go faster on one of the iciest speed stages, so no one could ever doubt this heroine’s courage. I took Christabel with me as co-driver on the Monte Carlo Rally and I have never had so many news and cameramen around the car at the various controls— and it certainly wasn’t to put my face on their publications.
Sheila Van Damm
The “First Lady” of the Sunbeam team, not long after the end of World War II, who not only got a lot of publicity for her driving, but also as the director of her family’s Windmill Theater in London’s Soho district, a very popular revue with comics and nudes, which had the distinction of staying open every night of the war, even through all the Battle of Britain raids by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Another rather famous name in the Sunbeam team was Mary Handley Page, from the family who was responsible for building many of the UK’s aircraft in aviation’s earlier years.
One of the Rootes Groups most successful Ladies. Born in Dublin and initially keen to be a fashion designer, Rosemary started out as a navigator on club rallies, but soon proved that, while she wasn’t too good at map reading, she was an excellent driver. Well suited to the factory PR department’s love of a good looking blond at the wheel of their rally cars, her best successes seem to have come in Hillman Imps. One of the smallest cars on the rally scene, and like Pat Moss’ successes with the Mini, she too, won the Dutch ‘Tulip’ Rally. In Rosemary’s long career she raced a number of other cars, and finished best lady on the Marathon London to Sydney event, and tenth overall in an Austin Maxi on the second of that decade’s Marathons from London to Mexico.
By John Sprinzel