In the second of our series for Women’s History Month 2023 in parallel with our current exhibition “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, we focus on the last of these: cars, and the women who drove them to spectacular successes.
The MG Car Company was famous not only for the successful cars it made, but also for its achievements in racing and rallying. MG’s first director Cecil Kimber encouraged the investment of time and money into racing because he thought that successes in that area would reflect on the company as a whole and help to promote the brand. In fact, MG had its first success before production had moved to Abingdon. In 1928 three MG Midgets entered speed trials at Brooklands and won gold. When the factory in Abingdon was established, it also included a workshop where the cars for racing and rallying were prepared. The cars entering races were based on the production model, but modified considerably. For example, the MG Midgets just mentioned had the basic Midget body, but were equipped with larger fuel tanks and stronger wheels, and the engines were carefully tuned to maximise power output. After the move to Abingdon the successes continued straightaway, with the Brooklands Double Twelve in 1930, an endurance race in which the cars drove for 12 hours on two successive days. MG won the team prize with three Midgets.
In the 1930s men and women often competed in the same races, and we have previously highlighted the career of one of the female drivers for Women’s History Month. Doreen Evans’ family had an MG dealership in Wandsworth which also supported a racing team, for which both she and her brother drove. Doreen competed in a number of races with different MG types. In 1935 she was part of a team of three MG Midgets in the Le Mans 24 hour race, and further successes followed in 1936. But Doreen Evans was not the only woman to drive MGs to victory. In the Le Mans race just mentioned she was partnered with Barbara Skinner, and the other 2 Midgets were driven by all-female teams as well: Joan Richmond and Eva Gordon-Simpson, and Margaret Allan and Corinne Eaton. The MG contingent was managed by George Eyston, himself a successful driver for MG, and got the nickname “George Eyston’s Dancing Daughters”. The race was made difficult by wet weather and a number of cars dropped out due to engine or suspension troubles, but all three MG Midgets finished the race after a problem-free run.
MG withdrew from racing in 1935 and closed the racing department. However, racing was resumed in the 1950s, when MG established the Competitions Department. MG had merged with Austin to form BMC, and that meant that other marques made by the umbrella company were racing, too, for example Minis. All BMC cars were prepared for their competitions at the Abingdon factory, though, regardless of where they were built.
Men and women now mostly competed separately in races, but they entered the same rallys. Sometimes they formed mixed teams, but often female drivers competed for separate ladies’ awards, although they were driving the same routes as the men. Again there were a number of successes for MG. One of the prominent female drivers was Pat Moss. Her brother Stirling Moss had set several speed records for MG in the EX181, but Pat’s specialty was rallying. She started her rallying career in her own Triumph, but failed to get a sponsorship deal from the company. In 1955 however BMC spotted her potential and offered her an MG TF 1500 to drive in the RAC Rally. Over the next seven years, Pat Moss achieved three first places, four second places and three third places in various international rallies for the BMC team, and was named European Ladies’ Rally Champion several times. Her partner in most of these successes was Ann Wisdom. Like Pat Moss, she had started out in horse riding, and that’s when the two first met as teenagers. When they both took up racing, they become one of the most successful BMC teams.
One of their triumphs was at the Tulip Rally, a 2,500 km race in the Netherlands. For this race they drove a Mini Cooper, which was also prepared and tuned at the Competitions Department in Abingdon. The same team – Pat Moss, Ann Wisdom and a Mini – also won the Coupe de Dames in the Monte Carlo Rally, and the two drivers got to third place in the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally, which took place over four days and four nights, in an Austin-Healey. Other cars they drove for BMC include the MGA and the Morris Minor 1000. Ann Wisdom retired from rallying in 1962 and turned to raising her family and farming horses and cattle. Pat Moss continued her driving career until 1974, but left the BMC Team in 1963.
This post can only highlight some of the names, but other female drivers competed in MG, BMC and later British Leyland cars in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Pauline Mayman competed in the 1964 Alpine Rally, and Rosemary Smith, Alice Watson and Ginette Derolland came 10th overall in the 1970 World Cup Rally, which took in every country competing in that year’s football world cup. This also won them the Ladies’ Prize.
The Competitions Department closed in 1970, but there was still the Special Tuning Department, which now prepared the cars for racing and rallying. However, the MG factory closed altogether in 1980, signalling the end of an era.
Looking at the decades of success MG and other cars prepared in Abingdon had, it is worth noting that women were part of that success right from the start, and with this post we wanted to highlight that fact.
Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer
Apart from “the internet”, an important source of information for this post was Brian Moylan’s book Works Rally Mechanic. Tales of the BMC/BL Works Rally Department 1955-1979 (Veloce Publishing 1998)
Featured Image: Pat Moss in 1963