MG's tiny dancer

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An all-female driving crew dubbed the ‘Dancing Daughters’ raced a trio of MGs at Le Mans in 1935. New BRDC club secretary Gillian Carr took a turn in one of them
Writer Gordon Cruickshank
Photographer Howard Simmons

The label was dismissive – Eyston’s Dancing Daughters. That’s what the press quickly dubbed the all-female team that MG sent to Le Mans in 1935, as though dancing was what girls were good for, and wasn’t it a jape to put them in a racing car. The facts said otherwise. All six of the women selected to crew three semi-works cars had solid competition history behind them, and they would all finish the arduous race.

That’s why we asked an established female racer to try the only one of the three cars that survives in original form, a woman who not only has much experience of pre-war cars but has also raced historic cars at Le Mans. Gillian Carr is well known in historic circles: with a vintage Bentley-owning father her first visit to a race was to VSCC Cadwell Park aged seven, and she’s never stopped going, first assisting her father, then racing and hillclimbing M-type and NA MGs – and, very suitably, an ex-Doreen Evans K3 – plus many other historics including her Frazer Nash TT Rep. “That’s not a ladylike car,” she laughs.

She has been press officer for the VSCC and publicity manager for the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association and has just taken on the role of BRDC secretary, the first woman in this position. And she is part of Bentley Belles – an all-female team of historic racers contesting events at Le Mans [see page 104]. All of which made Gillian the perfect candidate, and Silverstone the ideal venue – even though it was right after the British Grand Prix, the place was busy with the tear-down, and Gillian was unwinding after handling the secretary’s myriad duties including overseeing a BRDC lunch for 1000 people. “I saw the GP start but missed most of the rest,” she says as we assemble outside the glass-fronted three-storey BRDC suite overlooking the Brooklands/Luffield complex. “I was just too busy. But I’m aiming to watch the rest tonight!”

MG’s publicity idea came shortly after the 1934 launch of the P-type Midget – low-powered but sprightly, compact but sporting, a car that was simple to maintain and light to handle. Whether or not there was, lurking at the back of the PR department’s mind, the prevailing measure of simplicity of the times – the patronising ‘so simple even a woman can manage it’ idea – we can’t tell. But as we like MGs let’s be charitable and assume that it was merely the scarcity of lady racing drivers that made the idea an attention-getter. Either way, from the company’s point of view it worked. Fleet Street as well as the motor sporting press made public mileage out of six ‘gels’ against the male heavyweights of the racing world. And the Dancing Daughters tag? Not a complete tabloid invention – there was at the time a popular revue troupe called ‘Rosalind Wade and the BBC Dancing Daughters’. Thus not so much a case of branding as borrowing.

A female driver in the arduous day and night French classic was no longer novel – there had been 10 previous lady entrants, one finishing fourth overall – but this was a quasi-works team upholding the honour of an ambitious company, thus requiring selection by ability rather than merely a budget big enough for a private entry. With such a piddling engine, the aim could only be entry into the Rudge-Whitworth Biennial Cup with its abstruse performance calculations, or the team prize, which called for a dependable crew of reasonably matched drivers. For an MG enterprise Doreen Evans was an obvious choice; along with brothers Kenneth and Dennis, she regularly and successfully campaigned MGs prepared by Wilkie Wilkinson at their Bellevue Garage off Wandsworth Common. Her partner was Barbara Skinner, daughter of the family who put the ‘S’ in SU carburetters, who drove alarming Hudson-engined Morris specials in hillclimbs, winning the Ladies’ Cup at Shelsley Walsh in 1932. She would later marry fellow hillclimber John Bolster. Their MG would race as no55 – all three were registered consecutively but slightly out of sync with their race numbers, being JB 6156, 57 and 58 – and though the intention was to prove that a ‘standard’ car could perform well in this tough test, it would be an inefficient firm that didn’t take immense care over preparation.

Revealed in 1934, the P-type advanced the Midget line. “A marked improvement in all respects,” said The Autocar of the sporty machine with its higher-revving 847cc OHC engine, underslung rear axle and four-speed gearbox. Everyone praised its handling and performance (at least per £, at a tempting £220 for the two-seater) and Motor Sport reckoned it could make 72mph with screen flat. Nothing like enough for Le Mans, though, so the three cars were stripped and the larger 939cc engine of the newest PB variant slotted in, blueprinted and fitted with racing valves and polished head. In went twin fuel pumps and a lightened clutch, while longer ratios from the J-type MG replaced the standard cogs. On went alloy cycle wings and slotted bonnet, an aero screen, quick filler caps, lamp guards, stronger wheels, and bigger brakes from the Q-type racer. Nearly everything came from the MG range so it wasn’t stretching ‘standard’ too far…

Every team needs a manager, and burly George Eyston was by then a respected racer, often with supercharged MGs using the Powerplus blower he designed. A multiple endurance record holder, he had driven twice at La Sarthe and also had his eye on the Land Speed Record, which would fall to his monstrous Thunderbolt two years later. Known for his organisational skills, he had another appropriate feather in his cap: his unexpected giant-killing Mille Miglia class win in a K3 Magnette two years before. Come the race he would run the operation from the pits.

Captain of the crew of car 57 was wealthy Scotswoman Margaret Allen. For her the pocket-sized MG must have seemed a toy – she was used to hurling Lagondas and the 4½-litre Marker Bentley around Brooklands and was one of the few women to boast a 120mph badge. An enthusiast all her life, she raced Mother Gun, the 6½ litre Bentley special, and took a Riley on the Monte Carlo. After helping break codes at Bletchley Park she became a road tester for Motor, whose editor she married. Her co-driver, Colleen Eaton, had less of a record but was immersed in motoring; her husband Hugh drove a Lagonda to third at Le Mans in 1930, with the Hon Brian Lewis. For her attempt on the great race she and Allen drove down in her big Alfa Romeo saloon, which they used as sleeping quarters.

Completing the gang in car 56 was Joan Richmond, who three years earlier had won the JCC 1000-mile event so had experience in endurance racing, and Mrs Simpson – no, not that one but Eveline, Richmond’s regular racing partner who also contested Alpine trials and the Monte Carlo Rally. So despite the light way the press treated it, this was a team of serious drivers, as the results would show. Slow as they were compared to the Alfa Romeos, Lagondas and Aston Martins up at the front, the three cars circulated steadily and on schedule, with nothing but a blown light bulb on Evans’ car to disturb their routine pitstops. While Hindmarsh and Fontes wrested a victory from Heide and Stoffel’s 8C 2.3 Alfa, the female trio cruised to quiet, but satisfactory 24th (Richmond/Simpson), 25th (Evans/Skinner) and 26th (Allan/Eaton) places. Yes, they achieved only 153 laps compared to the Lagonda’s 222 and only a couple of Austins finished lower, but it showed reliability and it qualified for an entry to the Rudge-Whitworth Biennial Cup the following year – which wouldn’t happen. Not only was the race cancelled due to strikes, but after Cecil Kimber sold MG to Morris, the racing department was promptly closed.

The Evans car was sold to a privateer and reportedly written off, but the other two had new lives on the hills, fitted at the factory with Marshall superchargers to become trials cars. Margaret Allen’s mount then went to the States where Miles Collier Sr raced it, later modifying it with streamlined coachwork. It remains in the Collier collection. But the last, and first of the three across the 24 Hours finish line, remains in 1935 form just as Joan Richmond would have seen it at their Brooklands shakedown. Before it crossed the block at RM Sotheby’s Battersea sale, we had a chance to hijack it. And Gillian Carr is about to whang it through Brooklands corner for us.

She returns grinning. “The first impression was a sense of vulnerability – how small it is,” she reports. “But as you get to know it it gives you a lovely warm feeling. I’ve always felt that early MGs were more refined than their rivals.” She clicks the gear knob. “The gearbox is delightful, precise, positive and smooth, and it complements the power – which is astonishing given its capacity. I’ve driven larger-engined MGs of the era, but this has enlightened me to the capabilities of the lesser machines.”

After we’ve used up our stint on the track proper, Gillian is able to give the car a good workout around the perimeter roads. Praising the chassis, she says that once warmed up the car changes from mild-mannered to gutsy and purposeful. “She’s an agile beast, quick to respond to the slightest touch.” And those larger brakes? She shrugs. “Just period brakes!” She’s well used to those.

Another pleasing thing she points out are the elegant details – the company’s octagon motif on sidelights, instruments, the twin mixture knobs down by the transmission tunnel. Sold after the war to MG dealer Sir Frederick Royston and passed to the current owner in 1981, this car was comprehensively restored in 1995 and gleams from end to end.

As we’re considering this all-female undertaking, rare for the time, I have to ask Gillian the ‘women in motor sport’ question. Another shrug. “I’ve never noticed any discrimination of any sort. There are so many women in the VSCC and the HGPCA, many couples where it’s the woman who’s the keenest one. As a matter of fact,” she goes on, warming to a subject she wasn’t especially interested in to begin with, “many of the important historic race series in the UK are currently run by women.” Hard to imagine that happening in the 1930s – or a lady running the BRDC.

We return to the car, sparkling in the breezy sunshine. “This is the perfect antidote to a busy Grand Prix weekend,” says Gillian. “The car is a delight, though it lacks the brutality you would want to have at your disposal to tackle Le Mans in the pre-war period. I have huge admiration for the female pilots who were gunning this tiny machine against far faster and larger cars on a bumpy track with only dim lights to guide them. But I’m sure the ease of driving it would minimise their fatigue during the race and propel them to the finish.”

It’s an element we often forget – that the circuit was once not smooth, hard Tarmac, but an erratically surfaced public road, that dust was a problem, and that dynamo-powered headlamps were barely adequate. Yet had Morris not shut MG’s racing department, there seems little doubt that six eager women would have been back the following year – strikes permitting – to have a crack at that Biennial Cup.

*****

Band of sisters

The ladies’ collective who race under the label ‘Bentley Belles’

he name is not quite right – this ladies’ team races more than Bentleys, but it’s a convenient title for a band of enthusiasts who happen to be female and who bonded over a WO 4½. And it’s a nice twist on the old ‘Bentley Boys’ phrase.

“I’m more used to sharing cars with men,” says Gillian Carr, one of the four Belles, “but it’s great to find kindred spirits among the girls.” She knew only one of the other team-members when she was invited out to Portimão to share a 4½-litre Bentley in the Benjafield Racing Club’s 24-hour race there, “but we just gelled. And we finished 12th out of 24, despite overcoming mechanical issues 11 hours into the race in the dead of night.”

The Bentley belongs to Katarina Kyvalova, a Hamburg-based enthusiast who has been competing in historic rallies for some years but who recently discovered circuit racing. Challenged during the Flying Scotsman Rally to run her Bentley in the day and night Portuguese event, she accepted – and then had to find some female co-équipiers. Now Katarina and Gillian along with fellow racers Georgie Riley and Georgina Bradfield are a sort of collective who have variously shared the Bentley in the Mille Miglia and entered Katarina’s Austin-Healey 3000 in September’s Spa 6 Hours – “the first all-female crew in the event,” says Gillian – while individually contesting Goodwood’s 73rd Members’ Meeting (Katarina in her Cooper-Jaguar), Le Mans Legends (Gillian in Connaught ALSR, Katarina in the Healey), vintage trials and the Pomeroy Trophy in a selection of machinery.

“But it’s not about being women,” says Gillian, “it’s about racing with kindred spirits, fellow enthusiasts. We think the same way, have the same outlook on things. We have a lot of fun.”

The fact that all four have been racing in various fields regardless of gender and have come together only for social reasons, not because there’s any need nowadays to campaign or make a point, has to be a sign that, in historic racing at least, the gender battle was over long ago.