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. For a time, she took part in aerobatics contests, although aircraft were never really her passion. Vivian van Damm employed a female personal pilot himself. 

Sheila and her sisters grew up around showgirls as well as a number of professional women employed by their father. In her autobiography, No Excuses, she comes across as clearly loving her father, but being somewhat scared of him. She admits to doing anything he told her to do, and that included driving a rally car.
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. Vivian's aforementioned pilot, Zita Irwin, was one of those who persuaded her to have a go. 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 car-sick and did not enjoy herself, returning to her beloved horses afterwards. 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.
Although Nona never took to rallying, Sheila's mother, Natalie, later took it up in the mid-'50s.

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. The three almost always drove together and took turns at navigating, timekeeping and driving. Sheila was always in charge and admits to being rather harsh on her team-mates, although they all understood one another and their idiosyncrasies. Her best finish was eighth overall, in the Lisbon Rally. This was probably her best career result.

The furthest she travelled during her career was the USA; Rootes included her in a team for the 1953 Great American Mountain Rally. Unfortunately, she ran into problems on the tough terrain and was not among the leading finishers.
Sheila almost always drove with an all-female team, and had friendly rivalries with other female drivers like Nancy Mitchell, Madeleine Pochon and Lorna Doone Snow. However, she was also quite at home in the largely-male Rootes team, where the more experienced men were happy to help her out in becoming a better driver. Among them were Stirling Moss and Peter Collins.

1954 was full of action all over Europe for Sheila, ably assisted by Anne and Francoise. 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 produced 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 Clarke 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. She finished but did not place in her class. Greta Molander also had an indifferent rally. 

Anne Hall now moved back to full-time driving, and Sheila prepared to wind down her motorsport career. She had wanted to reunite her original team, but the others were both busy. The Monte was her last event. She had the rare distinction of having finished every rally that she entered. Sometimes she only just managed to finish, but she managed.
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". The theatre had always been her first love and her motorsport career was almost a stopgap before she could take over from Vivian. That said, she enjoyed her rallying and the life it entailed.  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”.

Sheila's unconventional background was replicated somewhat in her own personal life. As well as the final demise of the Windmill in 1964, she had to contend with the sudden deaths of her friends Nancy Spain and Joan Werner Laurie in an air crash. The three had lived together in a menage a trois of sorts; Joan was probably Sheila's lover as well as Nancy's.

After the trials of 1964, she retired to a farm with Nona. Her mental health deteriorated and she received treatment for depression, including electroconvulsive therapy. The two sisters lived quietly and reclusively.
Sheila died in 1987. She had been suffering from cancer in secret for some time. Just two days after she confessed to her family and friends that she had the disease, it killed her.

(Image copyright Bournemouth Daily Echo)

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