Thick fog for fifty miles around Carlisle, mist on the Yorkshire Moors, heavy snow falling from London onwards… and that is before arriving in Monte Carlo after 70 hours of non-stop driving from John O’ Groats, a total of seventeen hundred miles for the Monte Carlo Rally in 1927. Mrs Bruce took it upon herself after repeated requests to Selwyn Edge to take one of his AC cars and compete in the Rally. Mildred arrived (almost asleep at the wheel), along with co-pilot husband Victor and the motoring editor of the Daily Sketch, Robert Bare.
The Monte Carlo Rally began in 1911, but during the twenties with such interest from manufacturers and keen driving enthusiasts wanting to expose the quality and durability of their cars, the rules allowed competitors to select their own departures far and wide across Europe. Cities such as Warsaw, Gibraltar, Constantinople and John O’ Groats were all part of the new trend and by the 1920’s and 30’s the whole of Europe wanted to enter the Monte Carlo Rally, including a host of lady drivers.
Mrs Versigny drove a Talbot in 1928 came 1st in Coupe de Dam and 3rd overall. Mrs Dinsdale in her 3litre Vauxhall started at London Victoria to drive up to John O Groats before the departure point down towards Monte, she finished 48th overall in 1930, Joan Richmond in 1932 finishing 17th overall – where Mrs Vaughan and Mrs Walsh won the coupe de Dam in their Triumph. In ‘33 Mrs Gripper and Mrs Marshal drove their Hillman to a satisfying 27th and Mrs Maruese and Miss Lumberjack came first of the ladies in their Art Deco Peugeot 301. In ‘34 Simone des Forest and Miss Hustinx, came 17th and first of the ladies, had to dig their car out of the snow, many a time before arriving at Monte.
As the 17th edition of The Monte Carlo Rally begins, a celebration of the 1964 victory by Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon in their Mini Cooper S provides the theme for this year’s entries. Co-pilots Delphine Rossi and Isabelle Brack will be navigating their driving partners (Laurent Sylvestre and Arnold Ostle) in Coopers, whilst Monte regulars Steffi Edelhoff and Birgit Binder in their Ford Escort RS2000 and Quirina Louwman drives with navigator Erich Schulte in their Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT, hoping to improve on their previous results.
With a brief look at 1949 where The Countess Van Limburg- Stirrum and Van Vredenburgh drive their Ford V8 coming first of the ladies and 12th overall, we move forward to the 1950’s, where Louisette Texier and Annie Soisbault in 1956 started their first Monte with a modest result of 119th thoroughly enjoying it and celebrated that they made it to the end, Regine Gordine, part of the Parisian high society in 1954 coming 36th.
More familiar names such as Sheila Van Dam and co-pilot Anne Hall, won the coupe de dams in 1953, in 54 they were members of the sunbeam winning team and she started well in 1955, coming 11th overall, the best result that a British woman had achieved since 1932. In 1956 at the request of Sir William Rootes, she helped to achieve the manufacturer’s trophy, Van Dam had a small regular column in ‘Motor Racing’ magazine entitled ‘Strictly Feminine’ describing many of her pursuits. Within her six years of rallying, she became to be one of Britain’s top female rally drivers being able to compete with the men on equal terms.
Another name to be reckoned with was Pat Moss, partnering up with Annie Wisdom, (daughter to Elsie); the pair had such strong motoring pedigree they certainly had to earn their own reputation. Mossie and Wizz as they soon were known drove the Monte in 1959 and 1960 in their Austin A40. Driving over twenty rallies from 58-62 the pair achieved eleven victories. Pat continued taking part in rallies right up until 1975 and won many trophies for the Alpine marque.
Perhaps not known to many in the United Kingdom is Ewy Rosquist from Sweden, a Volvo works driver, winning many rallies in the late 50’s. Indeed she was very quick and Mercedes took her to their team. She won the ‘Gran Premio de Argentina’ in a works Mercedes, later marrying the Mercedes competition manager Baron von Korff. Ewy may be more widely known as Baroness Von Korf.
Along with Von Korf and Moss, a third lady, Claudine Bouchet (Trautmann) who coming from a skiing background felt at home behind the wheel too. Entering (and winning) many rallies in the late 50’s, although she took part in the Monte in ‘59 and ‘60, it was in 1964 when she went to work for Lancia with her husband René that her racing improved.
Following the 1962, another notable lady driver Rosemary Smith, was offered a works contract with Rootes, after a strong performance in a private Sunbeam Rapier with experienced navigator Rosemary Seers. The two Rosemarys’ first Monte together in the works Rapier was an ordeal. They crashed and had to be rushed to hospital. Rosemary Smith raced many more times and in 1971 with 18th place in a Lancia Fulvia.
Perhaps skipping past Michelle Mouton (which might to some be a crime) who I think is probably the most famous French Rally driver of all time, winning in the Audi Quattro in 1982, and claiming the world champion title, her racing achievements noted in many an article, I move to Louise Cooke, who in 2012 is the first female driver to be awarded the FIA Championship title for the FIA WRC Production Cup and the 2011 Female Ladies British champion. Competing in the Monte Carlo Rally in an Mk6 Fiesta ST she became the first ever female podium-finisher on a round of the Production World Rally Championship when she took second place in the Monte Carlo.
On her debut, she made it her goal to simply finish. “I was running behind on road time so didn’t have a chance to change to a snow tyre for the 5km of sheet ice in the stage” she said, “I was on a medium RS7 slick which is basically used on a warm track in the UK, definitely not for ice!” However, last year and indeed this year Louise is looking for sponsorship to compete at this now extremely competitive level.
Looking at all these lady drivers I needed a view from an experienced Monte Carlo Rally Driver. I asked Rauno Aaltonen (one of the Flying Finns of rallying) who he thought were the lady rally drivers of note,
“The British ladies were more active in the 50’s, and there are many of them. However the real speed rallying started in Finland in the mid 50’s and in UK and Central Europe only 1961, when the trend went from navigational and average speed calculation events to real speed events like the Rallye Monte Carlo and the RAC in England. Earlier were just using maps and watches but called Rallies” he tells me, “So In my opinion Pat, Ewy and Claudine are the crème de la crème”.
For me, I return to Mrs Victor Bruce who we find driving on the outskirts of London after driving non-stop from Glasgow, having just overtaken fellow competitors in an open topped Doncaster, we are in 1927 remember, both en route to Folkstone where a good sleep would be on the menu during the channel crossing. However, with all the excitement of news that Mildred would drive all the way to Monte, little sleep was had and the long journey on the icy roads through the centre of France was to begin. Their third check point was at Paris and luckily the mechanic G. Pitt was now able to come on board and tap Mrs Bruce’s head to keep her awake!
After Paris and with 600 miles to reach Monte, her passenger, the Editor of the Sketch, reported back to London the news that, “Mildred is still at the wheel” when in those days a woman driving this distance was almost unthinkable, Bruce decided that it would make for super publicity for the trusty AC if she would reach Monte as the sole driver. The drive through the Esterel Mountains, Bruce writes, “The only way I could stay awake was by driving fast over the passes”. Reaching Monte, this extremely tired party could breathe in the Mediterranean Sea. They were now ready to start the ‘regulations’, the Alpine test over the Col de Bras with many hairpin bends and frozen roads. “More of a road race”, she writes in her book Nine Lives Plus, “there are secret checks and to have any hope of a place in the final marking you have to be dead on time to the split second”. Mrs Victor Bruce came 1st in the Coupe de Dame and 6th overall. Mildred, her husband (who had won the rally the year before) and her passenger were tremendously happy especially as Mr Edge on hearing the results insisted they continued to carry out an official distance trial over about eight thousand miles in his AC to ‘prove’ the reliability.
Today’s historic rally continues once the participants reach the portside of Monte Carlo, after driving over 1000km from across Europe, they are to reckon with 4 further days of trials, stages and regulations: La cime du Mas – Col de l’Echarasson – Col de Gaudissart. After Valence Le Moulinon – Antraigues and Burzet – Saint-Martial over to Saint-Agrève. The amazing list of roads continues with drives on to the hills of Turini, Col de Perty and a final night time ‘daredevil’ drive into the hills of La Turbie after driving it during the day. Most stages with snow, ice and certainly a good deal amount of outstanding beauty, the route is unforgettable.
I know this route very well, when I drove it in 2010 and 2011 as a part of the Scuderia Portello reconnaissance team, examining the road surface to relay back to our 5 drivers, complete with snow tyres, we drove at pace, reported concise instructions at different check points. The cars have changed since Mrs Victor Bruce drove the rally in 1927, but those roads have the same snow and ice on them.
Car manufacturers still rely on drivers putting their cars through the paces and along with the tremendous scenery that the Haute Provence provides, Monte Carlo not only has the World Rally Championship passing above its roads, but also the Historic, rekindled in 1997 for cars that took part between the years of 1955 and 1980. I personally cannot wait, it is one of the best road races of the year and I salute Mrs Victor Bruce who not only personified liberated women of the twenties, she introduced me to the Monte Carlo Rally.