Their daughter was the famous one, but Tommy and Elsie Wisdom made their own mark in 25 years of racing together Bill Boddy chronicles the varied career of one of the sport’s most enduring partnerships
When the name Wisdom comes up in motoring conversation one thinks instantly of Ann Wisdom, who did so well in the top rallies with cars as hairy as the Austin Healey 100s, etc, often partnered by Pat Moss, both of these girls having taken to motorsport after successful spells of show-jumping. This is all very well, and right and proper. But I tend to think that Ann’s parents, Tommy and Elsie Wisdom, have never had the recognition they undoubtedly deserve for the versatile part they took in motor racing and other forms of the competition game.
TH Wisdom was born in 1907, in Brighton. He went to the Nottingham High School and the Hove and Sussex Grammar School. He took up journalism and at the young age of 22 had been appointed the motoring and aviation editor of those then-influential papers The Herald, The People and Sporting lift. I have an idea that Tommy Wisdom’s influence in the world of newspaper publishing may have extended further, with perhaps some ownership links as well. He has been described as a rather wild young man who was addicted to driving fast cars.
Be that as it may, Wisdom was soon a well-known figure in motor racing circles, a frequent presence from the reporting angle, before and while he took active participation. Tall, immaculately dressed, with a definite air of assurance, Tommy somehow had the stamp of a top newspaper man about him. He was to become a versatile racing driver, entry into this exciting world no doubt facilitated by his Press associations.
Elsie Gleed was of a similar disposition, intent on not being out-paced by six elder brothers, on whose motorcycles she willingly rode when invited. Disliking being the only girl, she chose early on to be known as ‘Bill’. This slim girl, tall, dark-haired and decidedly attractive, was riding motorcycles herself by the age of 16. Graduating to cars, her first was a friction-drive GWK, which she apparently used in trials, to the detriment of its friction discs. Tiring of this, she obtained a supercharged Lea-Francis. This was succeeded by a chain-drive Frazer Nash, in the best sporting tradition, with a s/c Anzani s v engine.
Elsie was already married when Tommy appeared, in dramatic circumstances. Out sailing near Elsie’s south-coast home, his dinghy overturned. One companion drowned; Tommy and his brother were brought ashore and laid on Elsie’s sofa. A romance sprang up, the two obviously having very similar interests, and in 1930 they married. Tommy, now well established in his Long Acre newspaper career, had joined the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club by 1930 but I do not think he had raced there, or not to any purpose, when, only a week after his wedding, he told his young wife that he had entered her, with the Frazer Nash, for a race at the March 1930 race meeting, probably because there was to be a Ladies-only handicap there that day.
It was Bill’s first taste of high speed on the Track, but she won easily. Enjoying what she had accomplished, she went next to Shelsley Walsh, where, with her Frazer Nash, she set a time of 53.0sec, to take home the MAC Ladies’ Cup.
With the bit now between her teeth, as we would say if this were a ‘horsey’ magazine, Mrs Wisdom repeated the performance at the September 1930 Shelsley Walsh event, and won the Ladies’ Cup there (always in a Frazer Nash) until the second 1932 hill-climb. Tommy also drove a ‘Nash and on one occasion Bill was faster than her husband, a fine excuse for some ‘ragging’.
Despite her limited experience the lady was ready for long-distance racing and she partnered Don Aldington in the 1931 JCC Double-Twelve in a Frazer Nash on behalf of AFN Ltd. While it was true that top makes might achieve excellent publicity if they won, others gained by just appearing. This was just as well, as the ‘Nash shed its chains and retired, to Bill’s annoyance.
Tommy Wisdom then went over to Ulster for the 1931 TT, probably to report it, but signed on as reserve driver to L Cushman’s 4 1/2-litre Invicta. It won its class, but had opposition from only one car, another 4 1/2-litre Invicta, which lost a wheel and retired. But before the 1931 season ended Elsie got hold of one of these impressive Invictas for the Ladies’ Handicap at the Brooklands’ Autumn Meeting. Ebby had got wise to her and put her on scratch but, lapping at 109.74mph, she came in second to Fay Taylour in a Talbot. This time eight girls took part. Mrs Wisdom, without any further racing experience, then accomplished one of the greatest achievements of her career, and one of the finest by a lady racing driver. She joined Joan Richmond (who came over from Australia to compete in the Monte Carlo Rally and who was even less experienced than Bill) in entering for the 1932 JCC 1000-mile race at Brooklands with a works Riley Nine. It was a two-day race, over a course with artificial corners and the two girls ousted everyone, winning at 84.41mph. I do not know what stints they took but they had been racing, one or the other, for a total time of 12hr 23min 53sec. It was magnificent and the daily papers loved it, picturing the two ‘Speed Queens’.
The Wisdoms had now decided to look for a fast car to run in BARC outer-circuit races. They bought from Dudley Froy the aged ex-Howey Leyland-Thomas. In the 1920s the two Parry Thomas cars had been the most successful at the Track but now the officials were dubious, especially when a lady proposed to race one. So Mrs Wisdom was observed by none other than John Cobb who had himself raced the other Leyland; she sensibly kept her lap speed down to just below 114mph and was passed as competent. By the Autumn 1932 Meeting they were ready to run the old car. Tommy retired from his race but his wife won the three-lap Ladies’ Handicap from the scratch mark, beating Fay Taylour’s Talbot by 2/5th sec. This was an excellent show, because the Leyland was a difficult car, tending to snake as it went on to the Members’ banking, a nasty wind was blowing, and Bill had to overtake eight other cars.
Her fastest lap was at 121.47mph, the fastest up to then by a woman driver. Even Parry Thomas had said that to hold his car round the Byfleet banking he had to wedge his right arm on the side of the cockpit and steer with his left hand, and that it was even then hard work to hold it. Yet Elsie took it in her stride, saying she found it relatively easy.
Before that Tommy had been over to Ireland again, to drive a Riley 9 in the TT with Newsome, but it crashed at Newtownards. The Wisdoms persevered with the old Leyland-Thomas in 1933 but the best was second in a Lightning Short Handicap and fourth place in the Gold Vase race.
Bill went to Le Mans, however, as co-driver to Mort Morris-Goodall in AC Bertelli’s Aston Martin team. She showed that she was as good as a male driver, lapping consistently and not letting Mort down; but their luck was out when an engine bearing failed. However, Mrs Wisdom continued to prove her long-distance capabilities in the 1933 JCC ‘handicap-by-chicane’ International Trophy race at Brooklands, when she drove an MG Magnette into third place. She was now accepted as a capable, calm driver who could rank with the men.
In his journalistic capacity Wisdom would go to various record bids, etc, and unlike many less fortunate reporters (were you about to say, like me?) would sometimes take part in such a run, as at Montlhery in 1932, when he was part of Eyston’s successful 24-hour record attempt with a J3 MG (70.61mph) during which Tommy had to push the car to its depot when the petrol pipe severed but he saw Eyston and others net every Class-H record from the Austins. He drove for Eyston again at Montlhery in 1933, on the MG.
By 1934, in spite of having a daughter to bring up, normal household chores to see to, and Tommy to look after, and as well as writing a regular womens’ feature for The Autocar, Bill began to think about regaining the Ladies’ lap-record, which Mrs Kay Petre had taken from her with a much smaller Bugatti. The Leyland was not quick enough, so Tommy asked Freddie Dixon for the loan of his very quick six-carburettor Riley Six. Dixon could be difficult and perhaps did not entirely approve of the fairer sex in difficult cars, and the light Riley at 130 could be as tricky as the Leyland at 120. In the end Freddie concurred, but for a few laps only, to see how Bill coped. She went out to impress, but a front tyre threw its tread, hitting Bill’s right elbow a nasty crack. The skill with which the lady kept things under control appeased Dixon’s doubts. A belt was rigged up to hold her more firmly in the car and she re-took the record that October at 126.73mph.
Before that, Tommy had gone to Le Mans to share an Autosports Singer 9 with Barnes; they finished in 18th place. The pair tried again in 1935 but retired. That year Bill also competed again in the famous 24-hour race, in a 1 1/2-litre Riley with Mrs Kay Petre, but they, too, retired. Sammy Davis used to tell the story of how husband and wife were booked into different hotels but Tommy, his stint over, decided to spend the night with Bill, thereby rather surprising the maid who brought in the early morning tea…
In 1936 TH went on the Alpine Trial, one of the most important events in those days, as a member of the Talbot 105 team which (with the Adlers) won the only Alpine Cups in their class. Wisdom, who shared BGH 21 with Bill, iced the cake by setting fastest time up the Stelvio.
Elsie had little hope of the Ladies’ lap-record at Weybridge after Kay Petre had borrowed the JRDC’s 10.5litre Delage, so she sought other speed pursuits. Husband and wife had jointly driven a Riley in the 1935 International Trophy to a very worthy fourth place, in a race from which 18 starters had retired. Then, going together to Ireland for the Craigantlet Hill-climb with their ‘Nash, the result was a domestically satisfactory tie.
The following year, 1936, found Bill at Le Mans again, this time with a Fiat Balilla which failed to finish, while Tommy had the rare distinction of appearing in the French GP. This was not quite as exclusive as it sounds, the car being a 13/90hp Marendaz Special, of which Earl Howe was the lead driver. How could this have come about? One has to comprehend that this GP was nothing more than a sportscar-type race and that Le Mans did not take place in 1936. Howe, who had driven mainly Italian, French and German makes may have felt that he should compete in a British car for once. This might explain how Capt DKM Marendaz persuaded His Lordship to race one of his cars. The Howe/Wisdom entry was the first to drop out, after 54 of the 80 laps. It seems that Howe found the steering heavy, crashed damaging a hub and walked away in disgust. Wisdom was there and took over, perhaps hoping to claim the starting-money, had the car run to the end.
The sporting couple had become really ambitious, taking part in the 1936 Mille Miglia; alas, their MG crashed as Tommy was avoiding a woman in the road and both went to hospital, Tommy with a broken leg, Elsie with facial scars.
This put them out of action for a time but did not diminish their enthusiasm. The next year they were both at Le Mans again, Bill in a PB MG with Arthur Dobson, Tommy in the Barnes’ Singer team. Neither finished, the MG having clutch slip and engine problems; privately-entered cars were ever at a disadvantage.
Tommy was also on the Continent for the long Paris-Nice rally, starting with a lap of Montlhery’s bankings, and taking in La Turbic. He drove an SS-Jaguar 100. With war clouds well on the horizon Wisdom was again in a Singer 9 in 1937 in the TT but again retired (con-rod). And all along the years Brooklands appearances had continued, Bill getting a third in the 1934 Womens’ Mountain Handicap in an Alpine Talbot, Tommy finishing in that year’s BRDC ‘500’, with WG Everett in his Zoller-MG Midget and his wife only missing the same race in 1935 because the Derby-Maserati to be shared with George Duller had stripped its timing gears.
At Brooklands in 1936 Wisdom and Geoffrey Daybell were in the successful Riley team in the BRDC “500”, and Tommy caused much interest by winning a handicap race with a 3 1/2-litre SS100 said to be in near-catalogue form. Bill was seen sprinting with a change-over sash in the LCC Relay race, for the Balilla Fiat team. She also became keen on small boat racing, about which MOTOR SPORT kept us informed, winning the Atlantic Trophy in a ChrisCraft. Another sphere of Wisdom versatility was rallying. They drove Standard, Triumph, Chrysler, Vauxhall and Talbot-Darracq cars in that great winter adventure, the Monte Carlo Rally, Humber and SS-Jaguars in the RAC Rallies, and were to be seen competing in the Welsh Rally in MG and Singer and on the Scottish event with Singer and Morris cars. In 1936 there had been a greater gamble when the Wisdoms and the Hon Brian Lewis had publicised the new 12/48hp Wolseley by driving one from London to Baghdad, 4600 desert-bound miles.
War ended these motoring achievements. TH joined the RAF, serving in far places, with the rank of Wing-Commander. He wrote a fine book about this but never one about his motoring, to my lasting regret. Sometimes Tommy had combined press reporting with racing and he was always willing to take over in an emergency, volunteering to do so even with the unknown quantity of the Napier Railton at Montlhery at night.
After the war had ended Bill resumed press reporting and racing, doing well again in the Monte Carlo Rally with a Morris Minor, and in the 1950 TT he drove a Jowett Jupiter; although he had no luck there was the satisfaction of having persuaded Sir William Lyons to let Stirling Moss have a Jaguar, with which he won handsomely. He was particularly active in the Le Mans 24 hour race. In 1949, when it was resumed, he and Hay were sixth with the latter’s 4 1/4-litre streamlined Bentley coupe and, with Wise in 1950 Tommy aided the cause of the new flat-four Jowett Jupiter by winning the 1 1/2-litre class at record speed. They retired in 1951 but in 1952, with Leslie Johnson, Wisdom finished a splendid third with a 4.1-litre Nash-Healey. Then with Jack Fairrnan he drove one of the aggressive-looking 2-litre Bristol coupes in 1953 but it caught fire and left the road, hospitalising TH. But they were back in 1954, when the Bristol team cleaned up the 2-litre class. The same pair were ninth for Bristol in the tragic 1955 Le Mans race.
In 1951 the Wisdoms had formed a husband and wife team in the Mille Miglia but their Bristol hit a trespassing non-competing car and both went to hospital. Before this Bill had reopened her competition work with success in hill-climbs in Jersey and Switzerland, and as soon as Montlhery reopened in 1948 TH Wisdom was there, with Norman Black and a Healey that succumbed to transmission failure. Later Tommy drove a Healey saloon for an officially observed hour run at the Paris track.
There is much more. For example, winning the touring-car class of the Mille Miglia in a Healey in 1949, ditto at Spa with a Jowett, repeating the previous success with an Aston Martin in 1951, in which year Tommy won another Coupe des Alpes for Aston Martin. He had been to Sebring as reserve driver to Lance Macklin in 1954 and had gone well in the 1950 TT at Dundrod in a Jupiter until its bearings had had enough.
I’m sure I have left some achievements out. However, I hope this will serve as a small tribute to one of the motoring writers, like Sammy Davis, who was a versatile competitor, and pays respect to debonair Tommy Wisdom and his quiet but accomplished wife Bill. When they finally retired to a seaside cottage in Ferring they were able to watch the equally successful career of their daughter Ann in international rallying.