“Les Girls” at Le Mans
Although motor racing back in 1935 was L-Ihardly linked with sponsorship in the way it is today, opportunities for publicity were scarcely ignored. So it was that for that year’s Le Mans 24-Hour Race an ingenious idea was applied to the MG entry: the 847cc ohc PA MG Midget, introduced a year earlier, was the basis of the three-car team, and to attract attention the drivers were all girls. Le Mans might seem too tough a proposition for a woman. Yet in 1930 the French girls Mesdames Mareuse and Silo had brought their 11/2-litre Bugatti home seventh, and the following year the Hon Mrs Chetwynd joined them with an MG Midget (although this time they all retired).
The Abingdon MG team for 1935 comprised Doreen Evans paired with Barbara Skinner, Joan Richmond with Mrs Simpson, and Margaret Allan with Mrs Eaton. To train them and keep a fatherly eye on them, who better than gentlemanly Captain GET Eyston? Inevitably, the drivers were soon being referred to as “George’s young ladies” or “Eyston’s dancing daughters” . . .
The choices were good ones; although none of these girls had competed previously at Le Mans, all had considerable racing experience.
Slim, fragile-looking Doreen Evans drove as well as her brothers Kenneth and Dennis, always in MGs prepared at their efficient Bellevue Garages organisation in Wandsworth under Wilkie Wilkinson. In later times she was to marry MG enthusiast Alan Phipps and live in America, where she acquired her pilot’s licence and brought up a family.
Barbara Skinner became known as the determined driver of the fearsome Skinner Special, based on a Morris Minor chassis and fast enough to get her the Ladies’ Record at Shelsley Walsh the previous year. She married John Bolster, and was later killed in a road accident.
Although British, Joan Richmond came from Australia to try her hand at motoring sport, winning, among other accolades, the JCC 1000-Mile Race of 1932 in a Riley with Mrs Elsie Wisdom. Having returned “downunder”, she retains her interest in the sport, and in Rileys, Little Mrs Simpson, too, had plenty of experience, which included Alpine Trials.
Margaret Allan, a well-built Scot, had already shown her skill and bravery with the Marker 41/2-litre track Bentley with which she attained her 120 mph Brooklands badge in 1936, and a fierce Frazer Nash. She went to France to join Cecil Kimber’s first all-female works team in Colleen Eaton’s big Alfa Romeo, using it for sleeping quarters in preference to the tent provided. She married Christopher Jennings, editor of The Motor and a Riley man, and still lives in the family mansion in Wales. Mrs Eaton herself, an Australian, was less well-known than her team-mates, but was clearly thought capable of what was required.
Eyston had competed at Le Mans only twice, some time previously — in 1928 he shared an Aston Martin with AC Bertelli and in 1929 a big Stutz with Watney, failing to finish both races. However, George’s vast racing and particularly record-breaking experience made him thoroughly competent to run this team of rather lively ladies. He had raced MGs with notable success, gaining those Class H 100 mph and 120 mph records, and by 1938 he was to set the Land Speed Record to 357.50 mph; his organisational ability was later put to good use first by MG and then by John Cobb, for his (sadly fatal) attack on the Water Speed Record.
Three P-types were carefully built up, tested and reassembled in Abingdon months before the race. They were standard except for cycle-type mudguards, stoneguards for the headlamps, and having part of the dumb-irons apron cut away to help cool the oil. Duplicated tail lamps, with tell-tale lights on the fascia, and push-buttons on the steering wheel to cut out the panel-lighting were also incorporated.
Kimber was after the Biennial Cup, which was still considered more important than winning Le Mans outright, and to qualify for which a car had to finish two races — a contest which remained in force until replaced by the Index of Performance from 1957. The P-types were registered JB 6156, JB 6157 and JB 6158, the attractive Miss Evans having car No 55, Joan Richmond No 56 and Margaret Allan No 57.
This brief reminiscence has a happy ending, for although the Richmond/Simpson MG finished ahead of the Evans/Skinner one, contrary to the team order, they achieved 24th, 25th and 26th places, ahead of two A7s (one of which was a works entry). The leading “Les Girls” MG covered 1576 miles, in a race won by the Hindmarch/Fontes 41/2-litre Lagonda and from which there had been 29 retirements; the trio of MGs had needed no more than a single replacement tail-lamp bulb between them. But the good times did not last, because soon after their victorious return Lord Nuffield closed down the MG racing department, and strikes in France caused the 1936 Le Mans to be cancelled. The 1935 P-types became effective trials cars, but that is another story . . WB
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