(As previously seen on Heritage Motor Insurance website)
In this next instalment of women in motorsport, I would like to introduce you to Mrs Elsie Wisdom, known to her friends and family as ‘Bill,’ a nickname given by her brothers at an early age. Growing up with many of them, Elsie (then Elsie Gleed) wanted to drive fast, and started with a motorcycle as soon she could. Her brothers had no idea that allowing their sister to ride pillion on one of the motorbikes, would make Elsie want the life of a speed queen!
Her first car was a G.W.K (Grice Wood and Keiller), followed quite promptly by a Lea Francis which would provide her entrance into racing. Super-charged and a genuine race car, Elsie managed to get the Lea Francis to 70 mph.
The Lea Francis soon progressed to a Fraser-Nash, around the same time as Elsie married her husband, Tommy Wisdom. Together, they seemed the perfect racing couple. Tommy was a tall, good-looking journalist and amateur racing driver; Elsie, also tall and slim, had dark hair and bright green eyes – they were the glamour couple in the paddocks wherever they ventured. The pair married in 1930, and one week later Tommy announced that he had entered Elsie into the Ladies March Handicap at Brooklands.
Elsie was reportedly quite petrified and didn’t speak to her husband right up until after the first practice, when she realised that actually this was all jolly good fun. The race took Elsie up to a lapping speed of 95.05 mph and eventually to a win.
Elsie was the first woman to win a mixed race at Brooklands. A successful run up the Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb, setting the hill climb record, followed, and next the Double Twelve at Brooklands – a 24-hour race divided into two sections. Their Fraser Nash ran well initially, whilst Birkin’s super-charged Lagonda retired with engine trouble. The Talbot team also had trouble, and Elsie was still in the running until the drive chain on the Fraser Nash caused her race to finish prematurely with just one hour to go.
Following that almost-success, Tommy wanted her to try for the Ladies’ lap record on the outer circuit. This caused a flutter, as prejudice toward the idea of women racing was still very much a thing at this time. Elsie drove a large Leyland lapping at just over 108mph .
In 1932, the Autumn Brooklands meeting was a Ladies handicap on the outer circuit, during which Elsie got up to the exciting speed of 121.47mph in the big Leyland Thomas. This was the fastest that this circuit had ever been lapped by a woman to that date. The Double Twelve soon turned into the 1000 miles race, and for that Elsie joined the Riley works team with the Australian Joan Richmond. On the first day they ended up fourth against the larger Talbots, who ultimately had trouble, and the Riley team took the chequered flag being the first all-female race winning team in a mixed race at Brooklands.
Elsie’s racing career started now to overshadow Tommy’s. It was the Le Mans 24-hour race, which has just celebrated its 90th anniversary, that saw many of Elsie’s memorable race experiences.
Of all the drivers, men and women, who have formed parts of a racing team, none was ever less trouble or more dependable than Elsie Wisdom. Many of the top marques would let her drive their cars for them, including Aston Martin who in 1933 made a concerted effort to win the Rudge Cup at Le Mans. Aston Martin selected six of their works drivers and included Elsie within this mix, pairing her with the experienced ‘Mort’ Morris Goodall.
Preparations went according to plan, and Elsie wanted to be treated just as the men, knowing her entry was partly an experiment. Despite being able to handle the much heavier Leyland, the test here for her would be the endurance.
With ‘Mort’ doing the first stint after the run to the cars, Elsie spent her time looking after a small bird that had nested in the pits some time before the race went underway. The team names it ‘Fifi’ and it seemed oblivious to the motor racing extravaganza occurring alongside it. Elsie’s turn in the car came, and she drove as if she were a veteran, very relaxed. They say it was down to the calming nature of Fifi, the bird in the pit lane. All went well until a faulty cap in the crank bearings caused the car to retire. Although Elsie may not have finished the race, the fact that she entered at all must count for something. Other ladies in that race were Odette Siko and Marie Desprez.
The outer lap record at Brooklands was the talk of all motor racing women at that time. In 1934, Elsie persuaded Freddie Dixon to borrow his specially tuned Riley for the record attempt. He agreed to let her take the car out for three laps in the morning and three in the afternoon – and that would be all. After many bumps that made Elsie almost fly out of the cockpit, she had made a makeshift harness to keep her contained within the car itself, and this helped her to achieve a lap of 126.73mph creating a new woman’s lap record.
The following year, with three other all women teams racing, Elsie entered the Le Mans with Kay Petre in a Riley. The MG works team entered 3 all-female race teams: Joan Richmond and Eveline Gordon-Simpson, who finished 24th, Doreen Evans and Barbara Skinner, finishing 25th, and Margaret Allan with Colleen Eaton finishing 26th. It seems 1935 was a good year to be a female racing driver.
Rallying became very much a part of Tommy and Elsie’s life. With their Jaguar SS100, they entered the 1935 Monte Carlo Rally and won the International Alpine Trial the next year.
In 1937, Tommy and Elsie entered the Mille Miglia in a works MG, with crowds lined along the narrow roads. On this fateful occasion, Tommy swerved to miss a woman who had stepped in front of their car, resulting in the car spinning and Elsie being thrown through the windscreen. She suffered serious injuries and Tommy a broken leg – their 1000-mile trip was cut considerably short. Although friends tried to deter the pair from racing or rallying again, Elsie entered the 1938 Le Mans with Author Dobson in an MG, still not to finish, and continued to rally the Jaguar in the Monte Carlo.
Elsie partnered with Betty Haig for the Monte Carlo Rally in 1950,driving a Morris Minor and two years later partnered with Barbara Marshall in a Vangard. Elsie drove an Aston Martin on the French Alpine, and won the Coupe des Alps. She also competed with Sheila van Damm in the RAC and Monte Carlo rallies, in a Hillman Minx.
The motoring spirit was continued, as Elsie and Tommy’s daughter Anne was a navigator to Pat Moss and they rallied together for seven years before Pat married Swedish Rally driver Erik Carlsson.
Anne suffered from car sickness so I am always astonished at how well the pair did. Anne married rally driver Peter Riley, and eventually retired with second place on the Tulip Rally in 1962.
Elsie and Tommy retired after a major collision in their Bristol during a high-speed run around the Cortina Circuit on the Alpine Rally in 1951. Whilst the organisers took great care to close off the roads, a large American car had removed a safety barrier and driven straight into the circuit towards the duo. Whilst the American car toppled over the mountain pass, the Wisdoms ended up in a makeshift hospital. Tommy went on to race at Le Mans in 1953; however, due to a technical fault the car caught fire and his race was retired. He raced one final Le Mans in 1954 and the team placed well. The pair always looked after each other, and with crashes and race retirements, their passion for each other and the sport was paramount.
Elsie ‘Bill’ Wisdom died in 1972 at the age of 68. Out of all the pre-war racing ladies I have come to learn about, I think Elsie was the most unassuming, consistent in her races and raced significantly throughout each season.
Next time I am excited to tell you about high-flying Betty Skelton.