The age-old question of whether women drive as well as men is too puerile to warrant discussion, especially in the age of universal motoring. But it came up in the 1920s, when fewer of the female sex were to be seen behind the steering wheel and, although there had been notably skilled lady racing drivers around from the very early days, the Brooklands’ authorities, with a distant exception, were not yet ready to permit the gentler sex to pit itself against male racing drivers.
So around 1926 knee-length skirts (the mini came much later) began to rustle, if that is possible, and bobbed heads began to get together to see what could be done. One girl told proudly of how her sister, after only 2 1/2 hours driving tuition, had driven alone in a Citroen saloon from Hampshire to Edinburgh in a day — no fast dual-carriageways or M-ways, just the narrow “Great North Road” — and the famous tennis star Senorita de Alvarez had by 1927 taken delivery of an open 3-litre Bentley (YM 6466). Before that, in 1924 in fact, Sir (later Lord) Herbert Austin’s daughter, Mrs Arthur Waite, had made a winter run from Birmingham to Exeter and back, accompanied by a 71-year-old lady, in an Austin 7 Chummy, averaging some 20mph for the 310 miles over bad roads. But it was not so much that the less professional lady motorists wanted to prove their abilities as that they craved the fun of trials driving without having to compete against more experienced male counterparts.
They were given their chance when the Wood Green & District MC ran a trial for them in January 1927. It started from the Alexandra Palace, the drivers going down Colney Hatch Lane, then skirting Barnet by using Totteridge Lane and so via Elstree, Watford and King’s Langley to Tring, where, after these four miles a secret check was situated, the route having to be covered to a correct time schedule if marks were not to be lost. The girls had lined up such cars as a Clyno, a Renault, a Windsor, a Charron-Laycock, a Morris Cowley, and an Austin Twelve, while Miss Roper remained staunch to her favourite, the AC. Two more of these were competing, as was the inevitable Austin 7. One lady used an Oldsmobile, perhaps easier to drive than a light-car, and her sister seems to have had the same idea, as she came in an Overland.
Observed sections were included. Two miles from Tring, Waterworks Hill had to be climbed non-stop. The experienced Miss Roper was best here, the only failures Miss Corbett’s AC and the Clyno. Whiteleaf was a more difficult test, with a restart on the 1-in-6 section. Miss Walker’s Singer just managed this timed bit with furious wheelspin, but the furiously boiling Charron-Laycock failed and proved difficult to push up. Miss Weekes’s AC and the A7 were slow but sure, Miss Ingram very good in the Morris, “using her spark control intelligently” it was said, when her engine spat back. Most of the girls did well, before facing a downhill brake-test on Kop Hill. This gradient, scene of so much speed activity previously, is still a quiet road, but not one on which to stage such a test today! Especially as many cars, even those with FWB, failed to stop in the stipulated ten yards after a 40 yards coast in neutral. Even ACs (including Miss Roper’s), the Singer, Morris, the Charron-Laycock, another A7 and the Oldsmobile, ran on downwards…
The girls then had an hour for lunch at the Buckingham Arms in Princes Risborough, before tackling the course in the reverse direction. Kop now had to be climbed at a stipulated slow speed, with marks lost for going too slowly. The more thoughtful drivers crawled up the easier grades so as to open out for the steep bit. Miss Roper was good at this… The climb had to take 7 1/2 minutes for top marks. The Overland, Miss Milne’s Austin 12, and the A7s of the Misses Randall and Macintosh managed splendidly. Two girls were cigarette smoking (but Women’s Lib was in the future and this trial had little to do with it). One was the Clyno girl, who failed and baulked the Renault, causing Miss Gilbert to take to the bank to try to get past. She then restarted well, only to stop before the top of Kop. Another Clyno was among the successful here. During the rest of the trial the Renault and an A7 had punctures and secret checks caught out many. The results showed that the ladies, on their first all-female trial, had earned three bronze, three silver and four gold medals, the last named won by the Austin 12, the two A7s and the Oldsmobile.
Then the Women’s Automobile and Sports Association was formed — WASA — and for its first competitive event, decided in 1929 on a full 300-mile night-section Exeter trial on MCC lines, although using an earlier route, with only Peak hill, Salcombe and White Sheet as observed sections, and finishing at Basingstoke. There were 38 starters, nine cars having failed to turn out for the start from the bleak Slough Trading Estate, the October night fine and star-lit. There the girls assembled, in flying helmets, berets and cloche hats, mainly in open cars, including Miss Bancroft’s 2-litre Lagonda (PG 3033), the hoods of which remained down when rain later intruded. It was not an absolutely female event, because men navigated in some of the cars and a few took over for the dreary main road haul back to the finish. But 17 cars had all-girl crews. A few were pretty experienced, like racing drivers Miss McOstritch (Alvis) and Miss Naismith (Ballot), Mrs Montague-Johnson (Riley 9) had Monte Carlo rallies behind her, and the aristocracy was represented by the Lady Iris Capell (Alvis), while Kitty Brunell (Talbot), young daughter of the famous Photographer, who was to marry racing driver Kenneth Hutchison, had virtually grown-up with cars and competition work. Victoria Worsley, who also raced at the Track, was there, with her MG Midget.
Peak hill, with luck an easy climb for ordinary drivers, defeated the Renault, a Morris-Cowley and a big Daimler, the last baulking a Chrysler. One onlooker was a trifle lukewarm with praise, remarking that while no-one with a knowledge of driving could have told that this was a women’s event, that was not to imply that the standard set. In, say, an MCC run was necessarily a standard by which to judge. . . But Miss Gate’s Essex was fast, and Mrs C F Dobson, navigated by an experienced husband in her MG Midget, eventually gained a “gold”, after a protest, to set with Mr Dobson’s collection.
On Salcombe the MG Midgets all went up well, as did Miss Roper’s AC, a Morris Minor and an accelerative Austin 7. But again the Renault, the Daimler and the other Morris-Cowley failed, and Paddy Naismith’s Ballot almost blocked the hill. When it, too, stopped, but Mrs Muriel Stanton’s Sunbeam powered past it in spite of a mild mis-fire. Two dogs rode in Miss McOstrich’s Alvis. Came the re-start on White Sheet, which a few of the adventurous ladies decided to ignore. Higher Up three stopped. But good performances were made by Miss Roper’s AC, Miss Johnson in a Hillman, the Essex and a Talbot. Incidentally, daughters seem to have been persuaded to take part, like Miss Montague-Johnson and Miss Vaughan in a Standard. The aforesaid cynic observed that “… in general the standard of handling the cars was quite reasonably good.” But Sammy Davis was kinder, reporting it as “a really fine show”. That was about it, except that Mrs Dobson’s MG had developed a useless clutch and near Dorchester on the run back Mrs Dinsdale had to change a front wheel on her Singer. But all who started finished. Apart from 14 gold medals, 19 silver medals and a bronze fot the Ballot, Miss Vaughan (Standard) won the William Morris Trophy, Miss Brunell (Talbot) the Lord Ducie Cup and Mrs Clarke (Chrysler) both the WASA Cup and Novices’ Award.
So that was what WASA was. It grew in strength, and a Land’s End trial was held in 1930, also combined events at Montlhery track in France and at Brooklands. But it got a bit overambitious in wanting to have scouts on the road, like the AA and RAC, an idea which Sammy Davis dismissed as “just plain loupy”. It chose May for the “Land’s End”, and the girls had to tackle all the famous MCC hills, except Bluehills Mine. Twenty-five drivers proved game, and they set off from Slough through a dry night for a post-dawn breakfast at Taunton. The dreaded Porlock was rendered more difficult by including a re-start test, ten yards to be covered in not less than eight seconds, defeating only an Austin 7 with stalled engine and a too-pedestrian Morris-Cowley. So up they went, watched by a few enthusiasts, a sleepy AA man and a policeman, who saw the A7 and a Chrysler fail further up the mile-long grind. A Singer Junior, No 13, could not even get away due to clutch failure, but Mrs Wisdom coped well with her high-geared Frazer Nash, and a Wolseley Hornet in its first trial went nicely. Other sports-cars were Miss Schedler’s MG Midget (TM 5050) and Miss Witchman’s FWD Alvis (FR 9876) which, with six others, failed the optional climb of Beggars Roost. But all the girls had a stab at it, rather than forfeit a chance of a premier award. The Chrysler then overturned on a straight road towards Launceston, but no-one was hurt.
Ruses Mill saw, among other good ascents, Mrs Scudamore’s red Triumph with crisp exhaust note do very well, as did the Hornet, Miss Schedler’s MG Midget found the climb easy, and Kitty Brunell was untroubled, in a Bianchi. Elsie Wisdom had trouble with the ‘Nash, too high-geared and with too little lock, but Miss Watson managed wonderfully well in a 3-litre Sunbeam with its hampering long wheelbase. Aged 10/15 Fiat and Austin 12 completed the good showing, but a Standard Nine baulked its fellow. Tea at the “Indian Queen” after Bodmin Moor must have revived the girls, and 25 clocked in at the finish, Miss Roper (AC) very late, with engine trouble.
Suffice it to say that the Association became increasingly popular and respected. By 1935, for example, it continued to run the “Exeter” trial and also held speed-trials at Howards Park with other clubs, so male drivers were invited, in which the fastest lady was Miss McOstrich in a s/c Frazer Nash. Lady Guinness presented the awards. In the “Exeter”, which counted for the Wakefield Trophy, a new WASA competitor was Stirling Moss’s mother in her 1 1/2-litre Singer: she failed on the Grabhurst hairpin but made ft d in the re-start test on Porlock’s first corner. On the whole the drivers did very well, but the Wakefield Trophy holder, Miss Richardson, stopped at the top corner, and former holder Mrs Montagu Johnson in her new Fiat Balilla also did so in a rutted bottom corner. Miss Dobson (Rover) and Miss Walker (Riley Imp) were excellent up Tarn Steps, and Barbara Marshall was airing her old Anzani-GN.
A sign that the ladies were now supremely confident was the inviting of other clubs and therefore men rivals, to a tough Welsh trial in Wales that year, starting and finishing at Llandrindod Wells in which Miss Watson (MG Magnette) and Mrs Moss in the Singer went well. In the summer of 1935 a Jubilee Gala was held at the Hurlingham Club, in aid of King George’s Jubilee Trust. WASA had also formed teams for the Inter-Club Race Meetings at Brooklands: that for 1932, for example, consisting of Miss Hedges (Talbot), Miss Schwedler (Alvis), and Miss Allan (s/c Lagonda), with Miss Auterac (Standard) in reserve.
So the activities continued, but the WASA eventually faded out. More recently, since WW2, another Ladies’ MC was formed, but I have heard very little of it. WB