Friday, 29 January 2010

Christabel Carlisle

Christabel in her Mini, in 1961

For most people in the UK, the archetypal cool 1960s girl was Twiggy. For me, Christabel is the ultimate in cool 1960s ladies. From 1960 to 1963, she gave the boys a run for their money in sports and saloon car races. She is most famous for her exploits in a Mini, but also raced other iconic 1960s cars, such as the MGB and Austin-Healey Sprite, at home and abroad.

Bored by spectating, Christabel had her first race at Silverstone, in a Mini, in 1960. It was her only race of the year and unfortunately, she crashed out. However, the next year brought many more races with the Mini, including a Ladies' Invitation Race at Brands Hatch, which gave her her first win. She competed around the UK in what was to become the British Touring Car Championship, and soon proved that she had the speed and talent to challenge the established stars.

Christabel steadily improved. Her highlights of 1961 were a second in class at Snetterton (John Whitmore won), and an outright second place at Brands Hatch. Vic Elford was first.

In 1962, her Don Moore-prepared Mini Cooper was up there with works BMC drivers such as Whitmore, Tony Maggs and John Love. She collected top three places at the Snetterton and Aintree international meetings and would have won at Crystal Palace, had her clutch not failed while she was leading. She had better luck at Brands again, when she fought back to eighth after spinning and dropping back to last place. Class wins were hers at Goodwood, Brands, and the Roskildering in Denmark. More continental racing beckoned in the Nürburgring 6-Hour race, which earned Peter Galliford and Christabel a second in class. The pair came sixth at the Brands Hatch 6 Hours. On top of this, Christabel also came fifth as a guest in a Morris 1100 race for Grand Prix drivers, including Jim Clark and Graham Hill.

1963 saw her really picking up speed, with fastest laps at Oulton Park and the Nürburgring 6 Hours, in which she scored a class win with Chris McLaren. A lap record for her class was set at Snetterton. More top-three finishes came at Oulton, Goodwood, Crystal Palace and Silverstone, this time during the Grand Prix meeting. Further trips to the Nürburgring brought more success: a second in class with Clive Baker in the 1000km, driving an Austin-Healey Sprite, and a drive in a works BMC Mini at last with John Whitmore. Unfortunately, the pair failed to finish.

Brands Hatch was one of Christabel's favourite stamping grounds, and that year, she and American Denise McCluggage scored a third in class in the 6-Hour race. The partnership continued at the famous Sebring 12 Hours, but that resulted in a DNF.

In addition to her track activities, Christabel did some rally co-driving with Timo Makinen, for the works BMC team, even though neither she nor Makinen spoke one another's language. She also navigated for John Sprinzel in a Sprite in Monte Carlo. In 1963, she and her Mini were second in class in the prestigious Mont Ventoux hillclimb in France.

Sadly, this young woman's career came to an abrupt end in 1963, after a couple of nasty accidents. One was particularly spectacular, with her Mini landing upside-down on top of Peter Harper's Sunbeam. The second caused the death of a marshal and left Christabel with concussion; although no-one blamed her for the incident, she felt she could not carry on competing. After her retirement, she went back to her old job, teaching the piano, took up mountaineering and wrote a popular book: "Mini Racing", her guide to getting ahead in motorsport.

(Image source unknown)


  1. Hi, I'm trying to get hold of Christabel Carlisle to see if I can get a few words for a book being written in the UK. If you have her contact details and would kindly be able pass them on to me, could you update this with how I can get them off you. Kind Regards. Daniel

  2. Hi Daniel,
    I don't know her personally. She is now Lady Christabel Watson, and you may find some contact details in Debrett's. The British Women Racing Drivers' Club might be able to help, and an appeal on the Nostalgia Forum of would probably also reach someone who knows her.

  3. As a fourteen year old motor sport fan (back then) she was a Goddess in my eyes and achieved things that women just weren't supposed to do. Bless her cotton socks. xxx