Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Sheila van Damm



Sheila (left) in 1954, with Pauline Jesty and Joyce Leavens

Sheila van Damm was born in 1922, the daughter of London theatre impresario, Vivian van Damm. As with many other female drivers of her era, her first taste of motoring came during the Second World War, when she worked as a driver in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Encouraged by her father, she learned to fly an aeroplane too. Vivian van Damm employed a female personal pilot himself. Sheila and her sister grew up around showgirls as well as a number of professional women employed by their father.
She got her break in rallying in 1950, driving a works-prepared Sunbeam in the Daily Express Rally. The car was sponsored by her father’s infamous Windmill Theatre, which was known for its risqué revues. Sheila, navigated by her sister Nona, drove a Sunbeam Talbot, with “Windmill Girl” proudly emblazoned down the side. This was to be Nona's only outing as a rally driver; she was horribly car-sick and did not enjoy herself. They were third in the Coupe des Dames, and their performance impressed the Rootes team sufficiently for them to offer Sheila a works seat for the following season.
Her first drive for Rootes was the 1951 Monte Carlo Rally, in a Hillman Minx. She was unplaced. Later in the year, navigated by the veteran Elsie “Bill” Wisdom, she won the Ladies’ Prize in the Closed car category of the RAC Rally. 
In 1952, she remained with Rootes, as she would for her entire rally career. As part of a three-woman team, she drove a Sunbeam Talbot in the Monte Carlo Rally. The other team members were Bill Wisdom and Nancy Mitchell. Sheila is also reported to have won a ladies’ award in an MCC Rally in the UK, in the same car.
1953 was a busy year. It began with the Monte Carlo Rally, in which Sheila was the second lady in her Sunbeam Talbot. Her co-drivers that year were Francoise Clarke, who sat beside her for the RAC Rally, and Anne Hall, who navigated her to the Coupe des Dames and a Coupe des Alpes in the Alpine Rally. They were 24th overall.. Her best finish was eighth overall, in the Lisbon Rally. This was probably her best career result.
1954 saw Sheila in action all over Europe, ably assisted by Anne Hall. They drove a Sunbeam Talbot in the Monte Carlo Rally, but were unplaced, and later came tenth in the Tulip Rally, with a Ladies’ prize and second in class. In the same car, they also entered the Austrian Alpine Rally. For the Stella Alpina, they were allowed use of the Sunbeam Alpine prototype, and made off with the Ladies’ Trophy, and fifth in class. The Alpine Rally gave them another class fifth, and they were second in class in the Geneva Rally. A Coupe des Dames in the Viking Rally was another highlight.
1955 continued in the same vein. The Monte Carlo Rally saw her best result on that particular event: eleventh, and first lady. She was driving another Sunbeam with Francoise Clarke and Anne Hall. With Anne in the navigator’s seat, she won another Coupe des Dames on the RAC Rally, and was second in that category on the Tulip Rally, behind Greta Molander. Sheila and Greta were great rivals at this time, often in close competition for Ladies’ and class awards.

During and after her rally career, Sheila was a popular media personality. She wrote for the Daily Express, which sponsored rallies at the time. In 1955, she confessed to being very hard on Francoise Clark in her role as co-driver and praised Francoise's patience. In the same interview, she also mentioned taking "pep pills" during longer events, which was common practice at the time. She was one of the favourites of rally journalist, Basil Cardew, who championed female talent.
In 1954 and 1955, she was European Ladies’ Champion, after her string of Coupes des Dames. She also helped Rootes to the team prize on the Monte Carlo Rally in 1954, 1955 and 1956.
1956 was her last year as a Rootes driver. She entered the Monte Carlo Rally in a Sunbeam, but did not make the finish. Greta Molander was also among the casualties that year. Anne Hall had now moved back to full-time driving, and Sheila prepared to wind down her motorsport career. The Monte was her last event. 
As well as rallying, she proved a capable record-breaker and road-racer, winning her class on the 1956 Mille Miglia. She drove a Sunbeam Rapier with Peter Harper, and was 72nd overall. She was persuaded out of retirement for the 1957 Mille Miglia, again in a Rapier, with David Humphrey, but did not finish this time. Her record-breaking happened in 1953; during the Monte Carlo Rally, she hit 120mph in her Sunbeam, on the Jabbeke highway in Belgium.
After her competition career was over, Sheila helped her father with operations at the Windmill, and was its general manager between his death in 1960, and its eventual closure in 1964. In the late 1950s, she managed an all-female karting team, comprised of "Windmill girls".

After that, she retired to a farm with Nona, although she remained in touch with her old world through her Vogue motoring column, and her presidency of the Doghouse Club, for “motorsport wives and ladies”.
She died in 1987.

(Image copyright Bournemouth Daily Echo)

No comments:

Post a Comment