Ewy Rosqvist may have looked like a film star, but this Swede was a serious — and seriously talented — rally driver. She was tough, too. Her greatest victory is testament to that too. Hartmut Lehbrink speaks to her about it
The majestic row of six-storey houses made of Swedish marble need not fear comparison with their illustrious Italian Carrara equivalent. They were built towards the end of the 19th century, but were obviously meant to last for eternity, or at least a millennium.
From the windows of a lovingly furnished third-floor flat, one has a great view of the beautiful Djurgarden park island, with the yacht harbour meandering out of sight to the left. Close to the water, there is the statue of famous opera singer Jenny Lind, ‘The Swedish Nightingale’, amid the greenery.
But unlike her verdigris-coated compatriot, the owner of the flat is bristling with life. A sprightly 73-year-old, Ewy Rosqvist has been a celebrity and a household name in her own right since she was a works Mercedes driver from 1962 to ’65.
No, she doesn’t object to her age being mentioned. It can be looked up in the record books anyway, and there is something forever youthful about her — and her deep and spontaneous laugh is infectious.
A couple of unusual props immediately catch the visitor’s eye, indicating she is not just another upper-middle class pensioner. There are some cups of discreet ugliness — spoils of victory. One of them actually serves its purpose, a slender silver vase once given to her by Jacky Ickx, with a huge nosegay in it, courtesy of current Mercedes bigwigs Norbert Haug and Wolfgang Schattling on the occasion of her birthday.
There is also a tiny carriage perhaps best suited to holding cigarettes, its filigree wheels looking like Mercedes ‘stars’. This oddity requires some explanation.
“It was given to me by Eugen Böhringer as I had helped him when he was in need in the Tour de France.” There is still a little grudge in her voice. She certainly did not like being considered as back-up driver and troubleshooter for the Swabian team star.
There are three or four fat leather-bound tomes full of photos, too. Not given to nostalgia, Ewy does not waste much thought on her glorious past. But when she skims through these albums, it all comes back. And for good reason because, 40 years ago, she won the Gran Premio Internacional Standard Supermovil YPF, a no-holds-barred road-race up hill and down dale, across Argentina in six stages, adding up to a total of 2871 miles, with a break in hostilities every other day.
Ewy’s mere appearance, together with that of her co-driver, Ursula Wirth, in the small Mercedes army that was sent over the ocean in the October of that year, caused a sensation — two beautiful Swedish blondes competing against all the men. The two girls were given bodyguards to protect them from the physical advances of all those keen to touch these goddesses from a faraway land.
“Driving a car was a man’s domain in the Argentina of those days,” Ewy says. “They did not even know where Sweden was; they confused it with Switzerland. Whenever we stopped, men were all over our car, even attempting to worm their way into it to cut off locks of our hair as souvenirs.”
They besieged the ladies’ accommodation, and their hotel rooms were flooded with flowers: “In the morning, we threw the flowers out of the window at our most ardent fans who were waiting for us to appear.”
This Argentinian adventure reunited two former Mercedes Formula One stars: Karl Kling was the team manager of the Stuttgart squad, whereas Juan Manuel Fangio was instrumental in organising the monstrous event. Both men were anxious to encourage their attractive charges: “You are utterly reliable and will certainly finish, the way you always do,” said Kling.
He did not even think twice about his ward missing the last three rounds of the European rally championship in order to take part in this South American adventure, especially as Ewy, a three-times winner of the Ladies’ Cup, had already amassed maximum points.
“You will win,” added Fangio. “You must just drive the way you usually do. These maniacs think that the race is 100 kilometres. Let them eliminate themselves and one another. Whoever laughs last, laughs longest. Winning is not a matter of your muscles but all about using your head to think, and your bum to feel the movements of your car.”
What Ewy had to offer was different from the strengths of, say, her great rival, Pat Moss. She had worked as a veterinary assistant in southern Sweden for 15 years, familiarising herself with the unsurfaced, rough and often icy roads of the region, covering up to 200 miles a day. “My arms are very slender,” she says, “so it was much more difficult for me to drive on Tarmac at racing speeds without servo-assistance.”
To learn the enormous loop that was to be the Gran Premio’s circuit, and have the competent Wirth take as many notes as possible, Ewy did one 10-day practice lap — as it would be in the race itself.
Their preparation was thorough, and they were confident of doing well, but then the local food and bad luck intervened.
“All of a sudden, we were having stomach trouble and had to be treated in hospital for a day. Of course, that gave all our critics a welcome opportunity. These females, they said, should never have come here.”
A thunderstorm was forecast for the first day of the race, October 25, and it arrived in torrents. And Fangio was proved right; the others fell by the wayside, and Rosqvist and Wirth scored a resounding victory.
But this was not a case of the tortoise beating the hares: the ladies won every single stage, all at new record speeds, toppling the benchmarks set the year before by the Mercedes-Benz team of Walter Schock and Manfred Schiek in another 220SE. They had covered almost the same route at an average of 75.324mph, while Ewy achieved an unbelievable 78.788mph. Rumour had it that Fangio himself had been driving their 220SE!
At the start in Buenos Aires, there had been 286 cars; only 43 arrived back in the Argentinian capital 11 days later.
Ewy’s team members were less lucky. Böhringer and Peter Lang, son of Mercedes grand prix legend Hermann Lang, ended up in a deep hole with their 300SE on the very first day, water ingested by the engine breaking a conrod. The Argentinian pair, Carlos Menditeguy and Domingues, in a similar car, were disqualified for being 70sec late arriving in the Carlos Paz parc fermé after the first stage. And the event was overshadowed by tragedy: Mercedes stalwart Hermann Kühne, German rally champion in 1959 and ’61, was one of three drivers to succumb in accidents. (Kühne swerved to avoid goats on the road, and his car rolled over twice.)
In stark contrast to this tragedy, though, was Rosqvist and Wirth’s triumphant reception in Buenos Aires — and later in Stockholm.
And to prove her performance was no fluke, Ewy finished third in this same gruelling event in 1963 and ’64. Delicate flowers can be hardy perennials.