Jennifer Birrell raced sports and saloon cars in the 1960s and 1970s, competing in the fore-runner of the BTCC and the Sebring 12 Hours.
As Jenny Nadin, she started motorsport through rally navigation, chiefly for Pat Moss. She sat beside Pat for a season with Ford, driving a Cortina GT, in 1963. Their best results together were a seventh place in the RAC Rally and sixth in the Acropolis. She and Pat had met in showjumping competitions, both of them having an equestrian background.
Not long after, she took the wheel in rallies herself, encouraged by Pat’s husband, Erik Carlsson. She started out with a Mini in the British championship, then branched out. Her international outings included a run in the RAC Rally in 1966, driving a Hillman Imp, and a trip to the 1967 Monte in a Ford.
Rallying brought her into contact with racer, journalist and event organiser Nick Brittan, who became her manager. In 1967, he persuaded her to enter the British Formula Vee championship, which was making its UK debut that year. She surprised everyone by putting her car on pole and then winning at Silverstone. Nick Brittan had overtaken her on the line and led for most of the race, but a late spin put her ahead.
There were accusations at the time that the Volkswagen team had orchestrated Jenny’s win for publicity. Formula Vee had launched a week after Formula Ford and a first win for a woman was a valuable talking point. Some claimed that Nick had planned to pull over and let Jenny through. Others claimed that both of the official Volkswagen cars had illegally-tuned engines. Jenny herself claims that she knew nothing at the time, but does describe herself as “naive” and accepts that some manipulation occurred.
Still, she was second in the 1967 Formula Vee Championship in her first season of racing, weathering a crash at Silverstone and scoring more podium finishes. She continued to race in the series in 1968, but she did not do as well and had two rather serious crashes, at Mallory and Thruxton.
By 1970, she had married Scottish driver Graham Birrell and was racing a Ford Escort as Jenny Birrell. She won at least one race at a club meeting at Croft and made her British Saloon Car Championship (the precursor to the BTCC) debut. Her first race was in the wet at Silverstone in 1971 and she finished tenth, despite a puncture at the start.
Later, she drove in America for the first time. She was part of the all-female Ring Free Oil Team for the 1971 Sebring 12 Hours, with Rosemary Smith and Janet Guthrie, driving a Chevron B16. Jenny practiced in the car but did not actually race. Rosemary and Janet did not finish.
For 1973, she was competing in the Castrol Production Saloon championship, driving a Simca Rallye. It was in this car that she made her next BSCC appearance in 1974, finishing eighth at Mallory. Later in the season, she did several more races in a Chrysler Avenger, earning a ninth place at Ingliston.
In 1975, she joined another all-female team and finished the Spa 24 Hours in a Triumph Dolomite, with Christine Beckers and Marianne Hoepfner. They were 24th, eighth in class. The car was sponsored by “Butch Tailor”, a Belgian menswear fashion brand. Back in the UK, she was team-mate to Bernard Unett for the BSCC, driving an Avenger. The pair often battled for class honours. Jenny’s best overall finish was fifth, at Oulton Park. The Halesfield Motors team also ran Jenny in that year’s Avon Tour of Britain, with another Avenger.
Rallies then became the focus of her career. She had been competing in British and Irish events on and off alongside her circuit-based activities, but she rallied more intensively later.
She was still entered British rallies between 1973 and 1974, using a Simca. In 1977, she was sponsored by Century Oils and drove a Triumph TR7 in the British championship. Her best finish was a 28th place in the Burmah Rally.
After a lengthy break from the stages, she reappeared for the 1983 Ulster Rally in a Talbot Sunbeam, co-driven by Gabriel Konig. She was 47th. Another Talbot, a Samba, was her preferred car for a season in Ireland in 1984, taking in events in both Eire and Northern Ireland, as well as the Manx Rally. Later, she switched to a Peugeot 205 and scored her best result of the season, a thirteenth place in the Killarney Rally of the Lakes.
The 205 took her through another season in the UK in 1985, and also her first trip to Turkey. She was third in the Rothmans Bravo Rally. This in turn led to a part-season in the 1986 Turkish championship, which yielded a fifth place in that year’s Bravo event.
For the next two seasons, she took part in the Maestro Challenge in the UK, driving an MG Maestro. After that, her career begins to wind down; she drove a 205 on the 1990 Ardennes Rally and then had a final run in the Manx Rally in 1992, driving a Lancia Delta Integrale.
The later part of her competition career coincided with a successful period in motorsport administration, working for the British Touring Car Championship and the National Formula Ford series, among others.
(Image from racingteamvee.com)