Amy Johnson's Works Team Drive

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by Betty Haig

Following Motor Sport‘s review of the new book about Amy Johnson’s life, readers may be interested in some first-hand memories of how she made out driving in one of the few major motoring events in which she competed.

I first met Amy soon after she took up motoring sport. At that time I was managing to get my first few jobs in motoring journalism in order to scrape up funds toward competition driving and I was delighted when the Editor of the Daily Sketch asked me to interview Amy Johnson on the question of her attitude to the sport. As the result of an interesting talk I had with her, I was able to condense the following facts on to paper. To quote:—

“In view of Miss Amy Johnson’s participation in motoring trials people are wondering whether she intends to give up flying, the answer is most definitely ‘No,’ from the lips of Amy herself. She prefers aeroplanes, but record-breaking flights must now be few and at between. They are not profitable any longer. She satisfies her engineering ability by driving cars, but she admitted to me that she found the mechanism of the modern sports car more complicated than that at her aeroplane.”

In fact, in this and subsequent talks she told me privately quite a lot about the current air-record situation as it affected herself and Jim Mollison.

She said: “It’s really finished now, but having got so far one can’t afford to drop back; in order to get good jobs one must keep going, because public memory is so very short.” Motoring sport was for her the answer to this situation in the late 1930s.

In February 1938 the French firm of (Lago) Talbot decided to enter a team of three cars for the Paris-St. Raphaël Rally. Talbot were at that time on the crest of the wave with their splendid 4-litre cars. They had won in the 1938 Monte Carlo Rally and were out to do the “hat-trick” by following this up with wins in the Paris-St. Raphaël and Paris-Nice, which were the three popular big international rallies in the late 1930s. Two of these cars they entered were fast saloons, both capable of winning the General Classification, one was assigned to Mrs. Betty Lace, who was fancied as a likely winner, and the other to Miss Amy Johnson who featured as their Ace for publicity purposes. Their third car was quite a projectile to enter for a tough road event; it was in fact the big stark sports-racing car which was raced on circuits by René le Begue, quite a handful for the mountains in the snow! For this Rallye Feminin the car was handed over to Mlle. Lamberjack who at that time had had many wins with big cars in international rallies; the object of this entry was of course to make fastest time of the day in all the speed tests. Mlle. (or Doctor) Lamberjack was, incidentally, the daughter of the well-known old racing driver of that name.

To assist Amy Johnston en route the Works sent René le Begue as passenger in her car, but as the Rally progressed this may have turned out a mixed blessing!

I was driving the little PB M.G. which was one of the cars that Motor Sport wrote about in the “Cars I have Owned” series, some time back. Being in the smallest capacity class I did not see the big Talbots leave the Paris Control at the start of the Rally, but I afterwards heard that Amy’s car was in trouble very early on, when the distributor broke down. Rumour reported that almost immediately a mechanic sprang like magic from behind a bush in Fontainebleau Forest with a brand new Delco in his hand which he fitted to her Talbot! As the strict rule in all rallies was that to accept any organised outside assistance meant instant disqualification, there were some rumblings among the drivers of other makes. However, as in this very sporting rally it was never the done thing to lodge a protest which would have involved another competitor, the team got away with this one. I don’t imagine that Amy had a clue about anything so complicated as rally regulations; she just drove as ordered! As the days and kilometres rolled by, Amy seemed to be having some problems other than mechanical ones. Several times I passed her sitting by the roadside in her car, alone and rather dejected, while young racing driver René le Begue worked on the open racing Talbot. For the elegant Mlle. Lamberjack to have opened its bonnet herself would have been a pointless procedure, for she was the first to gaily admit that she couldn’t tell a sparking plug from the magneto! Though several cheerfully malicious French friends assured me that there were also problems more personal than mechanical, I am sure I wouldn’t know anything about that!

Every time that Amy’s Talbot drew up at a Control, huge crowds pressed round the car all craning to see the famous “Madame Jon-ston” while endless Press cameras flashed and reporters gabbled questions at her.

In fact, I would have said that the poor woman was having a hell of a rally—but she continued to do her job perfectly, always smiling and polite to the public!

Amy was on her own at the overnight Controls and during the nine days which the Rally and festivities lasted—February 14th-23rd—I saw quite a bit of her and we had several meals together. In discussing various things, she told me something which has always stayed in my memory; she said “When Lord Wakefield gave me £1,000 after my first flight to Australia, as soon as I got the money I spent half of it at once, £500, on an outfit of good clothes. Many people thought this was extravagance, but what they did not understand was that I had to do it as an investment. A woman cannot succeed unless she is smartly dressed. Before this I had not a penny to spare for clothes, so this I had to do in order to go further.” I realised that this was a wise remark. Amy, as I remember her in Paris, 1938, had come a long way from the rather homely little figure in the early record-breaking photographs. She was very smartly turned out and while she was no beauty she had her unusual personality.

The Rally rolled on its way through France and back and forth through the snow and ice of the French Alps and Switzerland, before finally heading south for the finish at St. Raphaël, a huge self-contained army of cars—competitors, officials and Press cars—which with the usual crop of dramas, crises and hilarious incidents, added up to the splendid mixture which constituted the old international rallies! While the average speeds were slower, the cars were less reliable and the fuels, tyres and roads much worse in those days!

In this Rally the four speed events always counted in the “General Classification as well as carrying individual Cups. On these four events, each different from the other, it would be interesting to try to assess how Amy Johnson rated as a driver, as against her two team-mates with their greater experience and skill. The results of the tests were as follows:—

First Test—500 meters, standing start:

1st: Mlle. Lamberjack (F.T.D.) .. .. 18.8 sec.

2nd: Mrs. Lace .. .. 21.4 sec.

3rd: Miss Amy Johnson .. .. 22.2 sec.

Second Test—1,000 meters, flying start:

1st: Mlle. Lamberjack (F.T.D.) .. .. 20.0 sec.

2nd: Mrs. Lace .. .. 26.0 sec.

3rd: Miss Amy Johnson .. .. 27.2 sec.

3rd: Madame Rouault (Delahaye) .. .. 27.2 sec.

Third Test—St. Sebastien Hill-Climb:

1st: Mlle. Lamberjack (F.T.D.) .. .. 34.6 sec.

2nd: Mrs. Lace .. .. 38.0 sec.

3rd: Madame Rouault (Delahaye) .. .. 39.8 sec.

4th: Madame Roux (Amilcar) .. .. 41.0 sec.

5th: Miss Amy Johnson .. .. 42.2 sec.

Fourth Test—Epreuves de Manoevres (Driving Tests):

1st: Mrs. Lace (F.T.D.) .. .. 46.2 sec.

1st: Miss Haig (PB M.G.) (F.T.D.) .. .. 46.2 sec.

2nd: Mlle. Lamberjack .. .. 47.6 sec.

(Unplaced) Miss Amy Johnson.

Final Placings of Talbot Team in General Classification of the Rally:

2nd: Mrs. Lace.

6th: Miss Amy Johnson.

7th: Mlle. Lamberjack.

(Mlle. Lamberjack’s “sports/racer” carried a heavy handicap on Formula, so her final placing was good.)

To sum up: Amy was a very competent driver. Though not in the first flight as a competition driver, she would certainly have improved considerably with practice.

However, the war came unfortunately and several names from this Rally disappeared. These included Amy Johnson and René le Begue.