Friday, 30 July 2010

Kay Petre

Kay at Brooklands

Born in Canada but living in England, Kay was an early motor racing star at the legendary Brooklands track. The exploits of this 4'10" speedqueen were big news at the time, although she is a relatively obscure figure in racing history now.

Born Kathleen Coad Defries in 1903, she moved to England in 1930, following her marriage to Englishman Henry Petre in 1928. Henry was a keen flier, who regularly took off from the Brooklands airfield, and it was here that Kay first became interested in motor racing. She had always been a skilled and competitive sportswoman back at home, especially in ice-skating. Henry bought Kay her first car for her birthday, a Wolseley Hornet Daytona Special in red. She had already learned to drive in an old Ford in about 1919, but Henry did not like the way she crashed up and down the gears in his Invicta, so he gave her a car of her own.

After some tuition from a family friend, her racing career began, with a third and a second in her first two races. One of these may well have been the Inter-Club Novices’ Handicap at Brooklands, in which she was indeed third in a Wolseley, in 1932. The same year, she drove in the Light Car Club’s International Relay, as part of a three-car Hornet team with C. Palmer and T.W. Storey. They were just classified, although down quite a few laps on the leaders.

She continued with the little Wolseley as her main car for the rest of the season, although she always took the opportunity to borrow other cars and experience the track in them, too. As Kay was pretty and lively and "had a way with men", she had no shortage of offers of drives, or expert coaching. Among these cars were an Austin, borrowed from another competitor, a Miss Paterson, who did not qualify for a Ladies' race, and an Invicta, in which she won her class at the Brighton Speed Trials.

In 1933, Kay purchased her first "proper" racing car, a 2-litre Bugatti. Her first outing in it seems to have been the Lewes Speed Trials in May, where she was third in class. She used it to good effect in the regular handicap races at Brooklands, quickly adjusting to the handling and the increased speed. It was in this car that she first tackled the Brooklands Mountain circuit, a newer track layout which was much trickier than the original banked oval. The first Ladies' Mountain race was tipped as a certain win for Kay, but Rita Don won on the day, driving a Riley. She had a slightly unfair advantage in that her partner, racer Freddie Dixon, was clandestinely controlling the car's throttle from the riding mechanic's seat, unknown to even Rita herself to begin with. Earlier, the Whitsun meeting had been a disappointment, with two non-finishes.

That year, Kay appears to have finished her first international rally. She navigated for Joan Richmond on the RAC Rally, in a Riley. They were thirteenth in Class Two.

In 1934, she achieved her first Brooklands win, in the Bugatti. She finished first in the Fourth Walton Scratch Sprint. Only a couple of months later, she won again in the Merrow Senior Short Handicap. In October, she bypassed the Ladies' Mountain Race at the BARC Autumn Meeting, and was second in the Second Kingston Senior Long Handicap. As well as circuit racing at Brooklands, she took part in speed trials and hillclimbs, winning the Ladies' class at Brighton.

Trickery and mild controversy never seemed to be far away when Kay was around, and the media loved her even more for it. It caught up with her again at the 1934 Light Car Club Relay at Brooklands, where the works Singer team she was driving for was involved in the sort of gamesmanship more associated with modern Formula One teams. The Singer squad's arch-rivals were the also all-female MG team of Irene Schwedler, Margaret Allan and Doreen Evans. Both were competing for the Ladies' Prize, which normally meant an invitation to the Le Mans 24 Hours. Preparations for the race were underway when one of the Singer crew came across a copy of the MG team's race strategy and pit notes. During the race, a spy kept an eye on the MG pits and successfully intercepted all of their pit signals, allowing the Singer team of Kay, Sheila Tolhurst and Eileen Ellison to keep right on their tail. When a couple of accidents dropped the team down the order, team boss Sammy Davis decided to exploit a loophole in the rules which meant that the Ladies' Prize could not be awarded to a team finishing in the top three. The Singer ladies backed off and finished fifth, securing the Ladies' Prize.

Kay did go to Le Mans that year, but in a Riley Ulster rather than a Singer. Her co-driver was Dorothy Champney, another British-based driver who specialised in rallies. The race was run at much higher speeds than before and a number of the larger cars ran into trouble, both mechanical and the accident-related type. Kay and Dorothy had an uneventful race, maintaining a steady 60mph, and ended the 24 hours in thirteenth, with a team prize for Riley for having all of their cars make it to the finish.

Later in the year, at the BARC Autumn meeting at Brooklands, Kay was second in the Second Kingston Senior Long Handicap. She was driving the Bugatti and finished ahead of John Cobb, in an Alfa Romeo.

Among her other activities that year were a set of record attempts. She managed to set some new class records at Brooklands in a Bugatti belonging to Dick Shuttleworth, and began her battle for the Ladies' Outer Circuit record with Gwenda Stewart. One of the most recognisable images of Kay is her seated in the big 1924 Delage, a 10.5 litre V12-engined former Grand Prix car she had been using. She threw down the gauntlet to her France-domiciled rival on 26th October 1934, clocking 129.58 mph on a flying lap. The record stood until the August of 1935, when Gwenda challenged again, setting a new benchmark marginally faster. Not to be outdone, Kay jumped straight in the Delage and beat the record the same day, lapping at an average of 134.75 mph. this was the first time that a female driver had earned the Brooklands badge for a lap at 130 mph or over. Gwenda, driving her Derby-Miller special, joined that exclusive club three days later, hitting 135.95 mph. Kay admitted defeat graciously and went back to her own racing. Gwenda pocketed the 50 sovereign stake and returned to France. The outright record at Brooklands was not that much higher; the famous Napier-Railton car was capable of around 143 mph, and holds that record in perpetuity.

Although her grudge match with Gwenda was over, Kay continued to break records in 1935. She set a new ladies' record at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, driving her newly-acquired White Riley. This car was not the largest but was nevertheless a good buy. She drove it to third place in a Ladies' Mountain race in October, finishing ahead of Gwenda and her good friend, Elsie Wisdom.

The Riley 9 Le Mans Replica that Kay and Elsie "Bill" Wisdom took to Le Mans that year was not as reliable. The duo only lasted for 38 laps before its engine blew. Kay had similar bad luck with former "Bentley Boy" Dudley Benjafield in the 500 Mile race at Brooklands. Their Alfa Romeo 8C went out with after a gasket failed.

Happily, she had better luck in other cars. Another outing in the Delage gave her a third place at the Whitsun Meeting at Brooklands, and she won the Easter Junior Long Handicap, in a Bugatti. The trusty Bugatti, although much smaller in engine capacity than the Delage, was a better racing car; the Delage was more suited to record breaking.

The 1936 season was also up-and-down. Kay could not finish the International Trophy at Brooklands after spinning and then stalling her ERA, a car she did not like and never got to grips with. Teaming up with Bill Wisdom again, for the 500 Mile race, led to another non-finish; their usually-reliable Riley suffered valve gear trouble and eventually sheared a rocker shaft. To add insult to injury, when Kay raced the car again at Donington, a broken oil pipe showered her with heated oil. Thankfully she was unhurt.

Less dramatic, but still disappointing was her visit to Ireland for the Tourist Trophy at Ards. She was scheduled to share a BMW with B. Bira, the Thai prince who had made a name for himself as a driver. In the end, her services were not needed and she sat the race out.

Always up for trying out new cars, she did some events in a Frazer Nash in 1936. As part of Miss Hedges' Frazer Nash team for the LCC's Relay, she did not finish, assisted by Grace Hedges and a Lady Makin. She had better luck at the Brighton Speed Trials, where she won her class.

Saving the best until last, she waited until the final meeting of the season before completing her Mountain win in the White Riley. Earlier in the season, she had finished ninth in the Mountain Grand Prix, driving the same car.

1937 was an exciting year. It began with a trip to South Africa for the Grand Prix season there. A 1.5 litre Riley was shipped over with her but the new engine she intended to have fitted did not make it, meaning she was down on power. She could not finish the South African or Rand Grands Prix but was sixth in the Grosvenor event. Her disappointment was tempered by excitement though, as here she befriended Bernd Rosemeyer, the legendary Auto Union driver from Switzerland. Their friendship led to Kay testing an Auto Union C, a monstrous, ahead of its time Grand Prix car with a 6-litre V16 engine. Of course, this being Kay, rumours of an affair started. These have been denied by Rosemeyer's wife, the aviatrix Elly Beinhorn. Elly always spoke kindly of Kay and would not entertain the idea of her husband and her friend deceiving her.

Back in England, Kay was now a member of the Austin works team. She normally drove the 500cc side-valve car, showing her normal fearlessness when up against larger machinery. Her first race as an Austin driver was the British Empire Trophy at Donington, which she did not finish, due to a broken carburettor jet.

Austin had entered her for all the major races, including Le Mans, where she shared an Austin Seven Grasshopper with G Mangan. They failed to finish, but elsewhere Kay had more luck. At the Coronation 100 Miles at Donington she was sixth overall and later in the season she was fifth again at the same track. Her biggest achievement was probably her outright win in the JCC Relay, with her Austin team-mates, Hadley and Goodacre. They started on scratch, and were four minutes ahead of their nearest rivals. The three locked out the 750cc class at Shelsley Walsh that year, with Kay breaking her own Ladies' record.

Driving with a young racer named P Stephenson, she was sixteenth at the Donington 12 Hours, although they were against much bigger and more powerful cars, and were actually fifth in the up to one litre class. Back at Brooklands, she was running as high as second in the Nuffield Trophy when an oil pipe broke and she suffered a repeat of the incident with the Riley the previous year. Again, she was not seriously hurt. In August, she travelled the short distance to the new Crystal Palace circuit, and was fourth in the Crystal Palace Cup.

Sadly, September 1937 is where Kay's circuit racing career ends. During practice for the Brooklands 500 Miles, she was involved in a dreadful accident. Reg Parnell stalled above her on the banking, slid down and hit her Austin Seven, rolling it down the banking and crushing Kay underneath it. She suffered severe head injuries and was lucky to survive. After being in a coma for a few days and undergoing surgery to her head and face, she eventually made a good recovery, the only permanent damage being some paralysis of one side of her face.

After her recovery, Kay made one final appearance at Crystal Palace in 1938, driving the White Riley. She was second in the Ladies' Race held at the London Grand Prix meeting. Although she was cheered enthusiastically by the crowds, she had lost her nerve, and did not race wheel to wheel again. At this time, she was campaigning for Reg Parnell to have his racing licence returned. The authorities blamed him for the accident and revoked it, although Kay herself never held him responsible, and eventually he was allowed back behind the wheel. Her views were "if you race fast cars, one of the risks you take is that one day you might cop it!"

After retiring from circuit racing, she could not get the motorsport bug out of her system. Even before her Crystal Palace farewell appearance, she had got herself back up to speed with some competition in France, contesting the Paris-Nice Trial and the famous La Turbie hillclimb, in an Austin. She was not among the front-runners, but did better at the more familiar Shelsley Walsh climb, winning the 1938 Ladies' Challenge Trophy.

A little later, she returned to rallying, first as a navigator. Only a year after her accident, she is listed as an entrant for the RAC Rally, apparently in an MG SA. It is possible she was navigating for Joan Chetwynd. She competed at home and in Europe, with the Alpine Rally being her favourite. One of her co-drivers was the French racer Anne-Cécile Rose-Itier, who partnered her for the Monte Carlo Rally one year.

Her competition career received another huge blow in 1938. She had been spectating at Brooklands when a car slid down the Byfleet banking and crushed her and some other colleagues. She suffered more head and facial injuries, although she did manage to recover later.

It was at this time she began her second career as a motoring journalist, which she continued after the war. This part of her career started under a dark cloud in 1939, when she was sent to cover the Monte for the Daily Sketch. She was driving Major Reggie Empson, a former racer and another journalist, to Monte Carlo, when they crashed into a lorry. Kay received even more facial injuries, but recovered again. Empson was killed instantly. A lengthy court battle between Kay and Empson's family followed; she was initially charged with manslaughter, but was not convicted. The driver of the lorry was also charged. The case was eventually settled, and Kay was ordered to pay over £4000 in damages to Stella Empson, Reggie's widow.

Despite this considerable setback, she carried on as a journalist, and was a staff writer for the Sketch. During the war, she shifted the emphasis of her writing from motoring to cookery. She worked for the Ministry of Food as her contribution to the war effort.

Much later, she was employed by Austin as part of its design team, selecting colours for the interior of the Mini, amongst other models. She retired in her mid-fifties, due to headaches and memory problems. These were the result of her earlier head injuries.

Henry Petre died in 1962. Kay never remarried, and made her home in London, after a brief sojourn back in Canada. Although very private, she remained interested in motorsport and still attended race meetings for a long time. Towards the end of her life, she became more reticent in talking about her sporting past. She died, at the age of ninety-one, in 1994.

(Delage photo by Mike Jackson.)

1 comment:

  1. An excellent write up on a super woman. Her achievements were remarkable, especially when no power steering, poor mechanical brakes, solid axles front and rear, leaf springs without good shock absorbers, no synchromesh etc are taken into account. In those days one really had to b able to handle a car. Beat the men properly. Where are todays Kay Perte's? All mouth and little ability and guts!