Christabel Carlisle opened the eyes of the men in the ’60s thanks to her exploits in saloon and sportscars. She looks back with Gordon Cruickshank
It’s an exclusive club, Ecurie Cod Fillet: it has fewer members than the BRDC; you have to be invited to join, for your race or rally feats. And its leading lights were all there at the recent reunion — Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Mäkinen, Lady Watson… Oh, you might know her better as Christabel Carlisle, Mini racer with ’60s style.
Racing was not a great ambition. A few fun rallies in her Mini, a 21st birthday present, were the sum of it, until a trip to Kent. “I had no interest in motor racing, but I went with some friends to Brands Hatch,” she remembers. “Frankly I thought it was boring and noisy, and I said if I had to go to another race it would only be if I was on the track. So I entered for a race in my own Mini, which was completely standard. As the race day approached I began to get a bit nervous, so my uncle Christopher McLaren, who was already racing, took me to Silverstone for some practice. As luck would have it the only other car there was a Healey which Jack Sears was testing. Marcus Chambers [BMC competitions boss] watched me and he said he was impressed, not by my speed but by my consistency, so he put me in beside Jack and sent me round the track to see how Jack did it. I was scared, but I learned about the proper lines.”
It didn’t help that much — in her very first race, a one-off in 1960, Christabel recalls “I turned the wheel as I reached Copse and slid straight off— no-one had explained understeer to me. I hit a hay bale, so I didn’t even get my licence signed.” Even then gaining her national licence was her aim, and though she professes to a good deal of nervousness about racing, she didn’t let it dampen her ambitions for 1961. “I applied to do the saloon race at the Grand Prix meeting, but the BRDC wouldn’t accept me. They were worried about the negative publicity if I got hurt.”
But back in those hip days of the ’60s a pretty girl racing cars was too good a story to let slip, and the events Christabel entered in 1961 brought a lot of media attention — especially as she won the first, a Ladies’ Invitation race at Brands. Then in a three-hour saloon event at Snetterton she finished second in the 1-litre class to John Whitmore’s Mini, still in her birthday present. At Brands again, she chased Vic Elford to the flag, beating into third a little-known American called Steve McQueen. “He was staying with John Whitmore before they filmed The Great Escape, and John lent him his Mini for the race. He wasn’t a big star then, just a friendly, relaxed chap who was mad on cars.” The chic and petite piano teacher was proving to be good news for the Mini brand, and it brought an offer from BMC for the ’62 season. It wasn’t for the works Mini Cooper team, but it was a 997cc Cooper to replace her poor, abused road car. Don Moore, famed Lister tuner, would look after it, and naturally there was support from Shell, Castrol and Dunlop.
She began that year with a fastest 1-litre class lap at Silverstone, though she embarrassed herself in practice: “I just couldn’t get Copse right, and John Whitmore said I should take it flat. I tried that, went off and rolled the car. I spent the whole afternoon apologising to the team, but they rebuilt the parts into a new shell overnight and I was able to start the race.” She spent the season cheerfully wrangling with the Cooper team of John Whitmore, John Love, and Bill Blydenstein or Tony Maggs. “We got the same parts as the Cooper team eventually, but they always had them first,” she recalls. “But if we couldn’t always beat them at least we were their main rivals.” In fact Carlisle defeated all three works Coopers at Goodwood — thanks to the canny Don Moore. Blydenstein explains: “We all had special new Dunlop SP tyres, and in practice we found the treads came off when they were hot. All we could do was try to drive gently, but Don found a Mini in the car park with well-scrubbed tyres and borrowed those. The two Johns went off on lap three; I lasted two more laps before a tyre blew and I spun. Christabel went past and won on ordinary road tyres!”
Sometimes tailing, sometimes splitting the works cars, Christabel came near to toppling them in her own right at Crystal Palace. Setting a new 1-litre record, she passed Whitmore and Love and was set fair to take the class — when on the penultimate corner her clutch failed. “The works cars had an uprated clutch which we didn’t have yet,” she says.
The tight little London circuit couldn’t have been more different to her next challenge: the Nürburgring. “Ken Tyrrell took me over for the Six Hours with John Whitmore [again in a Mini]. We had two days to learn all 176 corners, but I knew them all by race day. I loved the long-distance element — everything I’d done in England was 10 or 20 laps. Sadly the car broke on lap 61.”
Tyrrell also took Carlisle across to Denmark for a pair of races at Roskilde: “That was a twisty circuit. There was one flying lap to qualify, and if you weren’t on the front row there wasn’t much chance of overtaking. I was baulked on my lap, but Ken complained and got me extra time — and I got pole and won both races.” That’s class wins, but she also beat the 1300s.
Bill Blydenstein remembers his female rival well: “Very quick and very determined. A natural driver with real aggression, but still very feminine — she had tailored racing overalls. The press were all over her; I have a photo of her getting out of the car at the Nürburgring and men are clustered all around her…” This element was more of a price than a reward to Carlisle: “I found all that attention a bit upsetting but, though it was never said aloud, I knew it was my duty to my sponsors.”
Typically, Christabel had also short-circuited the rally learning curve by going straight for the Monte Carlo Rally, accompanying John Sprinzel in one of his very modified MG Midgets. By now BMC had given her a Morris 1100 road car, and she closed her season with an invitation race for the rubber-sprung compacts at Snetterton. In a field including Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, John Surtees and Roy Salvadori she came fifth.
The 1963 season began with another trip to Monte Carlo, not in the intended Sprite, but co-driving BMC’s new signing Timo Mäkinen in a ‘Big’ Healey: “Stuart Turner [BMC’s new competitions director] wanted me to do more rallying, but it would have taken up too much time. I agreed to do the Monte with Timo, whom I’d never met, and I had to drive the Healey out to meet him in Geneva. He spoke no English and I didn’t speak Finnish — I took a dictionary along and we had to invent codes for my instructions.” That was an especially nasty winter — only 22 crews made Monte with a clean sheet. Christabel found herself signalling the future rally star to hurry up: “Well, I knew that Stuart would blame me, not Timo, if we weren’t clean…” They finished 13th.
Turner smiles as he recalls his female star: “I can’t believe she told Timo to go faster — on ice! She was delightful as a person and formidable as a driver. It’s easy to forget the social circumstances of the time: London was swinging, the Mini was cool and Christabel’s ‘English rose’ image fitted perfectly. We took her to Sebring and she really caught the American imagination.”
On a second trip to the ‘Ring, this time in a Sebring Sprite, she proved faster than co-driver Clive Baker and finished midfield behind a squadron of Ferraris but ahead of a stack of Porsche Carreras. “The young English miss drove splendidly,” reported Jenks in MotorSport.
At Crystal Palace for the Whitsun meet, tired of tailing the works Minis, she displaced John Rhodes on the last lap to snatch third behind her eternal rival Whitmore and new Cooper team driver Paddy Hopkirk — “whereupon,” said MotorSport, “the female element in the crowd went berserk”. Paddy remembers two sides to her: “She was a polite wee thing, very posh, not the usual gearbox girlie at all, but when the flag fell horns came out. We had a terrific ding-dong at Mallory once and she pushed me off!”
As well as another Nürburgring Six Hours (class win with Chris McLaren) and a quick go at Mont Ventoux hillclimb, she had a rare chance at a British enduro, the Motor Six-Hour Saloon event at Brands. She and American journalist Denise McLuggage took away the Ladies’ prize — and yes, there were other decent female pilots in the field.
She was back at Silverstone for the touring support race to the GP, but couldn’t head off Whitmore and Hopkirk, who again led her to third in class. She also had an A-H Sprite entered in the GT race. During a dice with two other drivers her car spun leaving Woodcote and hit the pitwall; unfortunately a race official was in front of the wall and received fatal injuries. It was nobody’s fault, but it marked the end. Christabel never raced again. With prize money saved from her racing she went off to tour South America, before returning to start a family. She has since climbed Kilimanjaro, walked from Lands End to John O’Groats for her 60th birthday, and has recently walked the Iberian peninsula and published a book about the trip. And she fitted in an MA in architectural history.
Might she have moved up to bigger things? “Colin Chapman was very keen to put me in a Cortina,” she says, “but I didn’t think I’d feel comfortable in the bigger car. And I knew there would be too much publicity” It was inevitable in those years that the press tried to fit an ‘Emma Peel’ image around her, which she wasn’t comfortable with. And she had seen a shift in the racing world which she didn’t like either.
“Towards the end the money began to matter more; wins were more important than fun, and I was not enjoying it as much.” In fact, she admits that she was not exactly the driven competitor. “I didn’t really look forward to a race; I got very nervous, but I just had to get on with it. It was afterwards that I’d always think, ‘How could I have done better?’ and want to go back and have another go.” It wasn’t passion then, just natural talent which made her ‘the girl in the Mini’.