The French Sportswomen
SOME weeks ago the Editor asked me to write him an amusing screed on women in the Sport. I promised to do so, and sat down to think it over. More mature deliberation brought me to the conclusion that this is, surely, rather a formidable undertaking, and I strongly suspect the presence of pitfalls and thin ice. Amusing, he says, it has got to be, so I cannot fall back on any of those nice, well-worn themes, such as “Do I consider that men make better drivers than women ? ” (They do, so what ?) No, to be amusing one must be personal. This should be easy. On this tack one could surely write a most hilarious article, full of colour and detail. There always seem to be so many interesting technical points which lend themselves to discussion among women drivers. For instance, there are several most involved theories as to why Mrs. Whatsern.ame was, at the last moment, a non-starter in the 1938 Rally (and, my dear, they say that her car was all ready and the works had been preparing it for weeks I) Then, another keen controversial point one might raise is how Miss Soanso manages to run that magnificent 4i-litre. (Oh, haven’t you heard that one ?)
There is no doubt that women in the Sport provide a wide field for discussion, but this method of approach would, perhaps, in the long run land one amid the aforesaid pitfalls and thin ice. Therefore I suppose I must seek to avoid the more diverting forms of controversy and try to skate over the thin ice.
I am, perhaps, better qualified to write about the French drivers than the British. I have driven in France a great deal and hope to do so again some day. A French motor trial or rally is a most vital and lively affair ; they do understand the art of “giving a girl a good time” and, incidentally, organising rallies with incredibly high average speeds. It is very difficult to draw any sort of comparison between British and French women drivers. Any generalisation is apt to be misleading when applied to such widely different types as one meets in a
Miss Betty Haig, the well-known British rally driver, recalls some of her fellow competitors in continental rallies. long-distance rally. I should say that, in the case of what one might call the
full-time competition driver,” the British woman knows rather more about the inside workings of her car than does her French counterpart. On the other hand, the French are tremendously thorough. They study minutely every detail of the speed tests and formula, and will sometimes spend weeks practising for one event.
This question of practising brings us to another difference between British and French drivers, one of circumstances ; it is one where the French works ” drivers have a big advantage over us.
In France there are really three groups of drivers, and I think these are, perhaps, more clearly defined than in England. The top flight (and those who are best known to us over here) are the few who drive regularly, in every event, for a certain firm. They make it, as a rule, a full-time job. Sometimes they drive their own car, sometimes not ; in any case their factory takes charge of the whole affair. They can practise by the hour, assisted by other works drivers and mechanics, on cars (and transmission !) which have not got, at the end of it all, to face the ardours of the trial itself. All this used to be a trifle tantalising for us British drivers, who had to strike out alone in the world, after a visit to Coventry or Abingdon, with our one ewe car, hoping hysterically that it would not lose its elusive tune, or develop some terrifying noise before it reached even the starting control across the Channel ! As for any intensified practising, on our only set of transmission, one simply did not dare ! These drivers used to start the trial with the handicap formula of every other entrant completely worked out on paper
so that they knew to a fraction who were their most formidable opponents. However, although these top-flight drivers were so thorough and professional, I always found them most sporting opponents, and generally very kind and helpful.
I suppose one of the best known is Madame Rouault, the Delahaye driver. (I believe she came over to this country to race a few years ago.) She is an old and experienced hand at the job ; there is very little she does not know about rally driving. I am told that Monsieur Rouault lives in Strasbourg, but Madame Rouault seems to live in a Delahaye. In 1939 she was absolutely at the top of her form and many people will remember the terrific times that she put up on La Turbie hill climb after the Paris-Nice with her very fast, scarlet, streamlined saloon.
Then there is Madame Largeot, who used to drive the little blue Gordini and Balilla Fiats ; she is a very sound and careful driver and always finishes high up in the final results.
Madame Simon, very chic and blonde, drives a Hotchkiss, and charming Madame Descollas, who comes from Marseilles, is a most successful Lancia driver. She did very well in the French Alpine and, with her husband, won the small-car class in the Monte Carlo.
Mdlle. Lamberjack practises as a doctor when she is not driving large cars. However, she must have been bred to the Sport, for her father was a tough racing driver of the old school. In 1938 she drove Rene le I3egue’s racing 2-seater Talbot in the Paris-St. Raphael ; it was rather temperamental, but went extremely fast.
Another well-known driver was Mdlle. des Forest, winner of the Ladies* Cup in the Monte Carlo Rally. Though she has not been driving so much recently, she used to be a familiar landmark, as she sped past, looking very small and dark, sitting very straight at the wheel and going like the devil ! There was also Madame Siko in her Bugatti, and poor Madame Schell and her
husband with their Delahayes. So the category merges into the next group, of the keen part-time drivers with their own cars, including a few private owners of small sports car.
The final group consists, of course, of those cheerful souls who tour through a tally in blissful ignorance of all mechanics and formulas, simply for the sake of a social outing, often with a family party on board (mother, sisters and a dog, and, almost, the traditional French bicycle strapped to the carrier), in some seasoned Renault or Licorne saloon. The whole outfit is generally heavily penalised in the speed trials. However, the driver may become bitten by the rally bug and graduate into the next group the following year, by blossoming forth with a large and dashing new coupe I So rally drivers evolve !
Most of the small sports cars driven by French girls were of British make, France having, unfortunately, practically ceased to build this type of car nowadays. So we usually had a sprinkling of Singers and M.G.s with French number-plates.
A most cheerful driver of a smart green P-type M.G. was Daisy Clot, from Marseilles (where her husband ran a night club). I remember one year her klaxon broke down. As an electric horn was a most vital part of Daisy’s motoring equipment, she hastily supplemented her loss with a powerful police whistle, which she kept in her mouth and blew pretty consistently. On hearing this angry and legal sound approaching my tail on the first occasion, I naturally applied more throttle, and as the whistling increased so did my speed, until we were fairly rocketing down the twisting roads to Clermont Ferrand ! Poor Daisy never succeeded in passing me, but she was overjoyed when she found that she had been chasing me before her, panic-stricken, most of the afternoon ! About the only exceptions to the M.G.Singer entries were the Georges hat cars, I don’t think I ever saw one in this country. The small 2-seater in the 1,100-e,.e. class was low and wide tracked, the acceleration was quite good and they
cornered rapidly. Latterly one could also buy a 2-litre sports 2-seater. This seemed to me a rather surprising machine. It was fitted with the Citroen engine, but the front suspension was quite unlike any ” springing ” that I have ever seen, the whole car just seemed to be slung on a few massive rubber bands! I drove ” Mouche ” d’Oncieu’s blue 2seater several times in 1939. The big Citroen engine propelled the light car very rapidly, but I must admit that, to put it mildly, the general impression was one of “floating power” I
The 6-ft.-tall” Mouche “and Jacqueline Carsignol were two regular drivers of Georges hat cars. Jacqueline’s car was one of the smaller editions ; it had done a big mileage and decomposition was setting in rapidly. However, she handled it well, and always made fast times. Jacqueline, in addition to driving ears, is quite a well-known aircraft pilot. She was one of the “flying women ambassadors” chosen by the French Government to fly round France and the colonies in Africa before the war. The last news I had of her was a letter which came via Toulon soon after the fall of France. She was at that time piloting an ambulance plane attached to a nursing unit in which ” Mouche ” was also serving. I wonder what happened to them after that ; Perhaps we shall have news again soon.
Another ” owner-driver ” was Mdlle. Renondeau. Her father was French Military Attaché in Berlin. She owned a big 2-seater and used to proceed at a very considerable rate of knots (not always without, incident !) from Berlin to Paris, to compete in the rallies. I met Madame .MireilJe Maroger in 1926. She was not a regular competitor, but was driving that year a big new Renault. She looked very trim and smart with her fair hair, dressed in a white skiing jacket, white stockings and dark trousers. Madame Maroger was a barrister. She had married recently and she and her husband elected to spend their honeymoon on Devil’s Island. On their return she wrote a series of scathing
articles, entitled ” In the Land of the Living Dead.” In these she told me she had said, more or less, that the warders in the penal settlement were, in every way, far worse than the convicts ! The result was that the . French Government started an action against her.
Madame Maroger conducted her own case. A terrific legal battle ensued. I never heard what the final outcome was, for Madame Maroger was killed, tragically, in an aeroplane crash in Morocco very shortly afterwards.
France and Britain provide the main quota of Women competition drivers. There are, however, a few others whom I have met. Switzerland has quite an active women’s motoring club, with its headquarters in Geneva. The president, Madame. Nesserli, used to drive in French rallies. She had a very narrow escape from disaster when, in 1935, her car skidded over the edge of a deep ravine, it turned over several times, coming to rest on its side at the bottom. Horrified officials rushed to the scene expecting to find nothing more than mangled remains. However, Madame Nesserli strolled calmly to meet them, remarking : “I have taken a wonderful photograph.” She had, and it won the photographic competition of the rally ; it could scarcely do otherwise ! Czechoslovakia produced Madame, Kronbauerova, who was very attractive, and a film star in her own country. She and her good-looking husband used to come from Prague in strange ears like Javas and Aeros. The only understandable language they spoke was a few words of German. The Aero used to give a good deal of trouble, throwing out fountains of oil from its front wheels (from the front wheel drive differential). However, when all our more orthodox, cars were gasping for life in the frozen dawn of a bleak pare fertne, struggling to turn the solidified oil in their sumps, the ridiculous Aero, with its petroil engine and no sump at all, would cough once, spring to life and calmly purr away out of sight !. They were driving in a rally in March, 1939. I was with them at the Grenoble control when we got the news that Hitler had marched into Prague. I shall never forget their expressions of horror. He said : ” This is the end. There is nothing for us to go back to.” They returned to Prague. Since then he has, presumably, been conscripted into one of the German armies. One can only hope that they have come through it safely and will turn up with all the other widely-scattered members of the driving world when it is all over and France gets her motor rallies into running order again. No doubt this will be done as soon as is humanly possible ; they are certainly a keen motoring race (witness Rene le Begue’s effort in managing to take Talbot cars to America to race in 1941 !)
In this country is it too optimistic to hope that we may be driving again by next spring ? It seems a good idea to organise a few small competitions to get drivers “into circulation.”
I, also, have always thought that the Junior Racing Drivers’ Club was an extremely good idea, and that there should, at any time, be scope for a club of this sort. I was one of its early members, and it gave me the necessary “impetus “to begin trials driving myself.