Kay Petre - a tribute

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The advertisement for my History of Brooklands says it is about “the days when men were men, which reflected their will to win”. Maybe: but it is also about many women drivers, most of whom also did pretty well. I loved ’em all, metaphorically speaking, none more so than Mrs Kay Petre, who died recently.

This petite, very attractive, dark-haired girl had her first taste of racing at Brooklands in 1932, with a black low-chassis 4 1/2-litre Invicta, which she afterwards lent to Dudley Froy.

She became hooked on the sport and sought something more handleable, so her husband, the pioneer Brooklands aviator who flew a Deperdussin monoplane, bought Kay a red Daytona Wolseley Hornet Special. It wasn’t long before she took a third place in this new car.

But this keen lady driver decided an even quicker car was needed for the 1933 season, so she obtained a 2-litre GP Bugatti, kept in tune for her by Papworth, the well-known London expert on these cars. Mrs Petre was always immaculately turned out, clad in tailored light blue silk overalls to match her racing cars, and she expected these to be in keeping and was apt to “exert her authority” if she spotted any dirt or blemish when collecting her Bugatti. With it she was second to Rita Don’s Riley in a Womens’ Mountain Handicap at the Track and, when the Opening Meeting of the 1935 Brooklands’ season was confined to halfmile sprints, won hers. Later she won an outer-circuit race by an excitingly narrow margin from the experienced Chris Staniland (Bugatti). In the 1934 LCC Relay Race Kay ran a Singer all-girls team with Mrs Tolhurst and Eileen Ellison. They finished fifth, at 71.53 mph. sash-changes included, and were awarded the Wakefield and Houghton Cups. An MG she had intended to race proved a non-starter but Kay, always looking for speedier cars, borrowed Dick Shuttleworth’s 2.3 Bugatti and got it round at 117.74 mph in spite of a plug cutting out, sufficient for her to come home second to Whitney Straight’s 4-litre Duesenberg. By now there was interest in the ladies laprecord. Kay had this up to 114.14 mph with Fotheringham’s 2.3 Bugatti until Mrs Elsie Wisdom in a Dixon Riley raised it to 126.73 mph nine days later. However, before the 1934 season was over Kay had clocked 129.58 mph in Oliver Bertram’s giant 10 1/2-litre V12 Delage. Neither lady was daunted by tyre trouble, the 2-litre Riley, which Mrs Wisdom had not driven previously, shedding its o/s front one in practice, and Kay, likewise driving in a gusty wind, had the breaker-strips showing on both front tyres after a mere three laps.

In 1935 Kay Petre drove this aged ex-LSR Delage, by then owned by the JRDC, fairly regularly, a very brave performance remembering that she was of slight, slim build, so had to have a special seat installed and the pedals extended, even if she did not think about things like metal-fatigue! She opened the Brooklands season by starting from scratch in this difficult car with Bertram’s more modern 8-litre Barnato-Hassan and lapping at 127.38 mph. After which Kay transferred to Shuttleworth’s Bugatti and won, again from scratch, another outercircuit race, with a lap at 125.48 mph. And at Whitsun she managed a third place in the big Delage, although baulked by small cars travelling high on the bankings, overtaking two of them below, in the best tradition of past track-masters like JG Parry Thomas and a few others.

By August the Ladies’ lap-record was in the news again, as Mrs Gwenda Stewart was bringing over from Paris her 1.6-litre Derby-Miller, which eventually lapped the Montlhery banked track at nearly 149 mph, to challenge Mrs Petre in the old Delage. In practice Kay did 134.75 mph, after Gwenda had scored the first 130 mph lap by a lady. Before the public, on Bank Holiday Monday, the Delage, with a slipping clutch, lapped at 134.24 mph. Mrs Stewart was clocked at 133.67 mph before the Brooklands’ silencer exploded and fumes brought her in. First round to Kay! But on the Tuesday Gwenda went out again and did a 135.95 mph lap, the all-time womens’ record. It is a sign of how hazardous this was that the BARC officals would not let the cars race together, timing them on separate runs, and that they then decreed that this sort of thing must never happen again. . .

Piston trouble then prevented Kay from having a go in Dr Benjafield’s Alfa Romeo, but she used the supercharged White Riley Six to good effect, to take third place in a 1935 Mountain race, giving her the Class-F lap-record for this course at 77.97 mph, until robbed of it by Fane’s Frazer Nash. In 1936 she drove an ERA in the JCC International Trophy Race but spun at the Fork turn in this long-distance simulated road event and, unable to restart the engine, had to run to the pits and solicit the help of two mechanics. In the BRDC outer-circuit “500” her Riley was delayed by valve-gear problems but at the closing BARC Meeting Kay won a “mixed” Mountain race with the Riley, at 71.63 mph, sliding the corners in great style, the first woman to beat those men “and their will to win on this course”!

Kay Petre may not have driven in the wild Targa Florio as had Madam Junek, and she competed only three times at Le Mans, her best performance 13th place, with Miss Champney, in a Riley 9 in 1934 (in 1935 the 1 1/2-litre Riley she shared with Mrs Wisdom retired, as did her Austin 7 in 1937). In 1936 Mrs Petre had taken a works 1 1/2-litre Riley out to Africa for the Grand Prix but, deprived of the special fuel it needed, could only struggle on to 11th place. But she was allowed to try out one of the ultra-powerful rear-engined Auto-Unions, the only woman to do so other than Rosemeyer’s wife, Elly Beinhorn.

By this time Lord Austin had given Kay Petre a place in his works Austin racing team, appointing her to drive the blown side-valve car while the men raced the Jamieson twin-cam Austins which Stirling Moss once described, after sampling one, as a miniature Grand Prix kind of car. As an official Austin driver Kay chalked-up notable successes for the Birmingham manufacturer. She drove at the Crystal Palace circuit and at sprint venues, being notably fast at the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb. Here she took the MAC Ladies’ Cup in 1935 with the twin rear-wheeled White Riley in 43.8s, won the Shelsley Ladies’ Challenge Trophy in 1936 again in the Riley in 47.17s, and with the works Austin won this again in 1937 (she got £25 as well!) with a record ascent in 43.78s. Kay then netted this trophy yet again at the opening 1938 climb, with the time of 46.08s, but only got £15. This did not deter her from again being fastest woman driver at the second 1938 event.

Space precludes a full record of all Kay’s successes, but she had taken a Riley to Donington Park in 1936, retired there in the Austin in 1937 when the carburettor needle broke during the BE Trophy Race, and again in the Nuffield Trophy race, soaked in oil when the A7 became incontinent. But she was sixth in the 100-mile handicap on Coronation Day. She was also not averse to competing in those arduous pre-war Monte Carlo Rallies and Alpine Trials, the latter with Miss Jackie Astbury in a Singer, for instance, and the “Monte” from John O’Groats in a Railton, from Stavanger in a Riley and with SCH Davis and wild-man Brackenbury in an open Railton from Umea, and in another Railton from John O’Groats etc.

It all came to an unhappy end when Kay was practising for the 1937 BRDC 500 km race at Brooklands. Reg Parnell’s MG Magnette slid down the banking and hit Kay’s s v Austin 7, which overturned. She was picked up unconscious and badly injured. Kay eventually recovered sufficiently to become Austin’s colour-consultant and the Daily Graphic’s motoring correspondent, and she was well enough to drive at Shelsley for Austin in 1938. In later years she lived alone in a London flat and modestly refused to say much about her racing career. I regard her 130 mph laps in the Delage as one of the most courageous performances by a woman driver — she and Gwenda Stewart were the only ladies to gain 130 mph BARC badges in company with 15 men, in the years from 1928 to 1939. W.B.

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