Saturday, 26 November 2016

Mary Handley-Page

Mary in a Sunbeam Rapier

Mary Handley-Page was one of a group of British female drivers who were part of works teams for British manufacturers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Her family was involved in engineering; her father, Frederick Handley-Page, gave his name to a series of aircraft, and his company built the famous Halifax Bomber. Mary was his youngest daughter, born in 1923 and originally christened Patricia.

As a girl and young woman, she rode horses and hunted to hounds. Equestrianism has proved to be a surprisingly good training for rally drivers, the best example being Pat Moss. When Mary was just eight, she was awarded a prize in the Stanmore Gymkhana for "Trotting". The cup was awarded by Amy Johnson, the pilot. She was at the height of her fame and also a rally driver herself.

Her first major appearance seems to have been the 1956 RAC Rally, driving a Rover. Her co-driver was Jo Ashfield. They were second in the Ladies’ standings. The pair rallied together again on the Tulip Rally, sitting in the opposite seats. The car was a Standard, and they were 169th overall.

She was involved with the social and organisational side of motorsport, too. The 1957 Monte Carlo Rally Ball, a charity event, was put on by a committee including Mary and Stirling Moss. The ball's President was Sheila van Damm. Mary and Sheila were friends who sometimes drove together.

Mary returned to the Tulip Rally in 1957, at the wheel of a Sunbeam Mark III. She was back in the driver’s seat, with Francoise Wilton Clarke on the maps. They finished, in 134th place. 

She was part of the works Sunbeam team from 1958 to 1960, driving one for their ladies’ team, with other female drivers. For the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally, she was the leader of a three-woman Sunbeam team, with Lola Grounds and Doreen Reece. Mary and Lola were a good team. As a duo, they were 21st in the 1958 Tulip Rally, in a Rapier. Mary was then sixteenth in the Alpine Rally in the summer.

Lola had moved to the Ford team for 1959, and Mary had a new co-driver in Daphne Freeman, who had got into motorsport through her work as Stirling Moss’s secretary. The new pairing entered the Monte, with Joyce Howard as a third driver, but had an accident and could not finish. As a two-woman team, Mary and Daphne were 39th in the Tulip Rally, again in a Sunbeam Rapier.

Away from rallying proper, Mary was part of a team of female Rootes Group drivers sent to prove to the Belgian motorsport authorities that a Hillman Minx was able to manage 15,000 miles of bad Belgian pavé. Averaging 40mph, the team covered the distance in three weeks during the Rallye des Routes Pavées. The team included Nancy Mitchell, Sheila van Damm, Patricia Ozanne and Francoise Clarke. They were said to be responsible for a sharp spike in continental Hillman Minx sales.

At the beginning of 1960, Mary went back to the co-driver’s seat for the Monte, assisting Jimmy Ray to eleventh place. It was quite unusual for her to be part of a mixed team. With a new co-driver again, Nesta Gilmour, she finished 105th in the Tulip Rally, in a Rapier. The Alpine Rally was another of her favoured events, and she was 27th in 1960, co-driven by Patricia Ozanne.

She continued to drive private Sunbeams in 1961, including a Rapier on the Monte Carlo Rally, with Pauline Mayman and Daphne Freeman. They had been running well, but a puncture prevented them from claiming a penalty-free run. An unusual part of their rally plan was the delivery of smoked salmon to Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. The fish had come from a manufacturer in their start city of Stockholm. It is unclear whether the delicacy reached its intended recipient. Mary and Pauline drove the same car on that year’s Tulip Rally, and were 43rd overall.

For the 1962 Monte, she co-drove for Patricia Ozanne, in a Mini, which Patricia had bought from the works BMC team the previous year. They started from Warsaw, but do not appear to have finished. This was Mary’s last major rally.

She died in 1992.

(Image copyright

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Cora Schumacher

Cora in 2005

Cora Schumacher has raced in a number of one-make series in Germany. At one point, she was the highest-paid female racing driver in the world.

Cora came into motorsport quite late. She married Ralf Schumacher, then a Formula One driver, in 2001. Her own racing career began in 2004, at the wheel of a BMW Mini.

For her debut, she was part of the celebrity team in the Mini Challenge in Germany, with four other drivers who were all TV presenters. She qualified in 22nd place out of 24 for her first race, at Lausitz, and finished in 18th. Her part-season that year gave her a 27th place. Many had been rather disparaging about her going racing, given her “F1 WAG” status and former work as a model, but she kept out of trouble and surprised a few people. One of her most vocal critics was former DTM racer, Ellen Lohr, who made remarks about Cora’s breast implants adding weight to the car.

She surprised even more onlookers in 2005, when she returned to the Mini Challenge and scored her first top ten, and eighth place. Unfortunately, her season was curtailed by a nasty accident, which caused her to sit out much of it. She was 34th in the championship.

After that, she signed up for the 2006 SEAT Leon Supercopa alongside Christina Surer, in a deal that was said to make her the highest-paid woman driver in the world, and the fourth highest-paid German driver, according to the German press. This was billed as the first step on the way to a drive in the DTM. Cora and Christina shared the car, and Cora ended up only racing in two of the rounds.

After her short run in the Supercopa, she took a break from motorsport. In 2010, she returned to the MINI Challenge, with Lechner Racing, for the second half of the season. Her best finish was thirteenth, at Hockenheim, and she was 19th overall.

Her finishing positions improved a little in 2011, and she was more consistent. She just missed the top ten on three occasions, all at Hockenheim, finishing eleventh each time. She was 14th overall.

In 2012, she drove in the Dubai 24 Hours in a MINI, winning class A2. She and her four team-mates were 25th overall. She also spent some time testing a Chevrolet Camaro GT3 car. For most of the season, she raced in the MINI Trophy, scoring six top-ten finishes, the best being an eighth at the Red Bull Ring. This was good for 15th in the championship.

Another break from motorsport followed, during which time she did more modelling, appeared on the German version of Strictly Come Dancing (in 2015) and split up with Ralf Schumacher. They were divorced in 2015.

In 2016, she made a comeback, and signed up for the DTC (Deutsche Tourenwagen Cup), racing a Mini in the 1600 Production class. She joined the championship for the second half of the season, and scored two class seconds in her first races, at the Red Bull Ring. She was also third at the Nürburgring, and was sixth overall in class.

Cora’s racing plans included the 2017 Dubai 24 Hours, in an Audi TT, but she pulled out of the race with an injury. She recovered in time for the third round of the GT4 European Cup, in which she drove a Reiter KTM X-Bow. She was 13th in the Amateur class of the Northern series, with a debut podium position at Brands Hatch. She was third. Driving for the Besagroup team, she entered the Catalunya round of the Southern series in a Porsche Cayman, and was ninth. 

There was more action with Besagroup in 2018. Cora was part of a five-driver team for the Dubai 24 Hours, driving a Mercedes AMG GT. They were 33rd overall and fourth in the GT4 class.

Later in the year, she was part of the team again for the GT4 Central European Cup rounds at the Red Bull Ring and the Nurburgring. She and Franjo Kovacs picked up two fifths, a sixth and a seventh place.

(Image from

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Joan La Costa

Joan LaCosta was a flamboyant French driver (apparently), mostly noted as a daredevil and speed triallist in the USA in the 1920s. Her usual car seems to have been a Miller special.

Joan’s origins are obscure. She appears in the mid-1920s, and by 1925, was proclaimed as the “women’s international champion”, as reported in the Santa Cruz Evening News. The Danville Bee, a Virginia newspaper, elaborated on this, claiming that she won her title in a women’s championship meeting at Indianapolis that year. No details of such a meeting are forthcoming, and Indianapolis was not a welcoming venue to women drivers. The event must have been held somewhere else. Reports from this time suggest that she was most active in Florida. Later, she would claim to have been racing on dirt tracks since about 1923, but this is proving hard to confirm.

There is more concrete evidence of one of the most dramatic incidents of her short career, from 1926. Whilst practicing for a speed record run on Daytona Beach in April, her car caught fire, travelling at about 130mph. The cause of the fire was a broken fuel line. A photographer was on hand to capture Joan leaping from the car, as she steered it into the sea in an attempt to douse the flames. She was not seriously hurt. Only a few days later, she made the record run in a different car, and set a series of new female records, driving at 138mph. The dramatic photos were reprinted in newspapers all across the United States.

Later in the year, she made another record run at Jacksonville beach, also in Florida. This time, she got up to 145mph, smashing her own record. The car was a Miller Special, although not much detail about it is available.

Her talents did not stop with record-breaking. In 1926, Joan entered a match race on a half-mile dirt track, as part of an IMCA (International Motor Competition Association) event in Toronto, Canada. IMCA was the only sanctioning body that allowed women to race at all. She won, beating Louis Disbrow. The two had considerable history, having raced against each other twice, in Canada and Mississippi. The same year as their Toronto battle, Disbrow apparently led a protest against Joan’s inclusion in a Lakewood starting grid. His objection was overturned, partly because her speed-trial times proved that she was faster than several of the male entrants.

IMCA’s leading promoter of the time was J. Alex Sloan, who believed in motor racing as spectacle, and used several woman drivers to add controversy and a touch of glamour to IMCA meetings. At the same time as he was promoting Joan, he was also using Elfrieda Mais, usually as a stunt performer, although she did race occasionally. The row with Disbrow must have had him rubbing his hands together with glee. Disbrow’s position on female drivers was also rather puzzling; his own career had been launched in the 1900s, as a riding mechanic to Joan Newton Cuneo, the first notable American female racer.

Her activities in 1927 are unclear. Her name does not appear on any published start lists for IMCA meetings, but she may well have continued to race at fairgrounds and horse-racing tracks.

In 1928, Joan won a women’s race in Milwaukee, but this was one of her last triumphs. At the end of the year, she announced her intention to retire and take up flying.

This did not happen, although she continued to appear in the news due to a conviction for robbery in 1929. She attempted to steal jewellery from another woman, using a replica gun in a hold-up situation. In defence, she claimed that she had lost “all of her money” at a horse race, and was unemployed. During her court appearance, she fainted and burst into tears of remorse.

By 1931, she had married a meat salesman called Joseph Maurer. At the time, she worked in the offices of a stationery firm, and pronounced herself “through” with both motor racing and aviation.

Joan LaCosta was almost certainly not her birth name. Marriage records show that Joseph Maurer married a woman named Marion Martins in 1931. There was a racing driver named Marion Martin or Martins active in Canada in the summer of 1925, just before Joan LaCosta appeared. She raced against Elfrieda Mais three times, winning once, over a mile, at Regina. Her car was a Frontenac-Ford. She also took part in open races at Edmonton, and set a speed record at Toronto. At the Canadian National exhibition at Toronto the following year, Joan LaCosta makes her confirmed debut. On her arrest for robbery, she was named as Marion Carver. Reports of her trial mention parents living in Memphis, and a former husband named Waldo Martins.

Her original nationality is not clear; she was probably not French, but American or perhaps Canadian. Given the showmanly nature of IMCA’s promoted events, it is not completely surprising that some drivers hid behind noms de course, or exaggerated their origins to make themselves stand out. There was perhaps an element of hiding from a disapproving family or a grudging husband.

She and Maurer had children at some point. Her life after her marriage was spent as a private individual.

(Image source unknown)

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Women's Automobile and Sports Association

A WASA car badge, belonging to motorcyclist Marjorie Cottle

The Women’s Automobile and Sports Association was one of the foremost women’s motor clubs in Britain between the world wars, and the one with the greatest emphasis on competition.

It was founded in 1927 by a group of female motor enthusiasts, encouraged by their experiences in the Wood Green & District MC women-only trial, held in January of that year. The first committee was elected in 1929: the Marchioness of Carisbrooke, Irene Mountbatten, was the first President, assisted by vice-presidents, Lady Ermine Elibank, Lady Iris Capell, and Gabrielle Borthwick. Iris Capell was a rally and trial driver of some skill, and Gabrielle Borthwick had run her own women-only motor garage. The club had its own garage, and offered a suite of hotel rooms for members' use. Among the other early members was Katherine Martin, Aston Martin and Riley racer and wife of Lionel Martin. She joined in 1928. Amy Johnson, the aircraft pilot, was another, along with Mary Bruce. Mary was brought in as "chief motor advisor".

The club’s first event was in 1929. It was a night running of the Exeter Trial, an established trial route usually run by the MCC. The route was 300 miles long, and included three “observed sections”: two hillclimbs and a starting and stopping test. Mary Bruce acted as Clerk of the Course. Thirty-eight cars took the start, with seventeen of those being driven by all-female crews. The drivers included Paddie Naismith in a Ballot, Patricia McOstrich in an Alvis, Victoria Worsley and Mrs Dobson in their MG Midgets, Lady Iris Capell in an Alvis and future RAC Rally winner, Kitty Brunell, in a Talbot.

The club's other project in 1929 was led by Mary Bruce. She had recruited a small team of women to act as motorcycle road scouts, in the style of the AA's own scouts and the RAC's guides. At least two women were recruited, and wore uniforms designed by Mary. This idea was fairly short-lived, despite extensive publicity. Much of this media coverage was disapproving.

In 1930, the club held its own Land’s End Trial, another classic MCC route. Twenty-five drivers took part. Among them were Brooklands stalwarts like Elsie Wisdom, in a Frazer Nash, and Irene Schwedler in her MG Midget. Kitty Brunell was another entrant, as was Florence Scudamore in a Triumph, and founder member Lilian Roper in her AC. It is not recorded who won the event, but Miss Roper only just managed to finish, due to engine trouble. Lilian was one of the senior members of the club, who had been active in motorsport since before WWI and had previously been the Treasurer of another Ladies’ Motor Club.

Members elected to the Club's executive committee came from the worlds of rallying and motor racing, but also motorcycling, powerboat racing, aviation and sports writing. It organised gala evenings for both Amy Johnson and Mary Bruce, in celebration of their flying achievements. Zoe Livesey was one of the representatives of motor boating. Betty and Nancy Debenham stood for both motorcycling and sports journalism.

As well as trials and other motoring events, WASA held at least two golf championships, in 1931 and 1932. They attracted female professionals as well as club members.

WASA members would go on to distinguish themselves in other trials. Florence Scudamore won the Ladies’ Prize in the 1931 London-Gloucester Trial, in her Triumph, and Joan Weekes succeeded her as the ladies’ champion in 1932, driving a Ford. After 1932, Florence Scudamore usually drove a Singer, supported by the works team.

Margaret Allan, who was a race-winner at Brooklands and drove at Le Mans, began her career in WASA trials, using her parents’ big Lagonda. She had watched one of the events as a spectator, and was initially unimpressed with the standard of driving. This spurred her on to have a go herself, as she believed she could win.

Lord Wakefield presented WASA with a trophy in 1930. This was awarded between 1932 and 1938, for the club member judged to have performed the best over the year. The trophy was awarded for penalty-free runs in the Monte Carlo Rally (Mrs Montague-Johnstone in 1932) or for Brooklands heroics (Mrs Wood, 1938), or for the highest scores in the club’s own trials. Mrs Wood kept hold of the trophy during the war, and it was she that gave it to the British Women Racing Drivers’ Club in 1973. It is now awarded for the most meritorious performance for a woman in motorsport during the year, if warranted.

By 1932, WASA was accepted as a bona fide motor club, and was invited to take part in the Inter-Club Meeting at Brooklands. Geraldine Hedges and Irene Schwedler upheld the honour of the club by taking first and third place in the Sports Long Handicap.

The same year, WASA ran a one-lap handicap race at Brooklands, as part of the Guy's Gala, a benefit for Guy's Hospital. Thirteen women took part. Joan Chetwynd was the winner in an MG, followed by Florence Scudamore in a Triumph, and Miss E Wheler in a Delage. Several WASA members took part in the Duchess of York's ladies' race at the same meeting, and in the Hazard Handicap. Iris Capell and Morna Vaughan sat on the Gala's Ladies' Committee.

The club carried on organising its own trials, as well as social events. A Cotswold Trial was held at least twice, in 1933 and 1937, as well as a WASA “Day in the Hills” in 1934, which ran in the Chilterns. Margaret Allan, Doreen Evans, Florence Scudamore and Morna Vaughan were among the winners of First Class Awards in the trial, which was also open to male drivers.

As well as trials for established drivers, WASA organised at least one "have a go" event aimed at encouraging more women to take part. A "Test Run for Good Drivers" was run in 1936, consisting of driving tests and a hillclimb at Hustwood Hill. It was won by Mrs. A Wynne in an Austin 10.

The year before, in 1935, the club sponsored an endurance record run by one of its members, who drove to Cape Town in South Africa. Phil Paddon, from Devon, drove across the Atlas Mountains in the course of her journey. Her progress was followed by the newspapers. This run was an advance survey for a planned event called the "Algiers-Rand Trail", which offered ten thousand pounds to the first finisher. 

The 1937 Cotswold Trial was a mixed affair. Frazer Nash cars predominated, with five of the awards given to Frazer Nash drivers. Two of these were for Midge Wilby and Miss E.V. Watson in the team trophy, and Miss Watson also won the Iris Capell Trophy, donated by the founding Lady member. Midge Wilby earned a First Class Award in the trial.

Motorsport ceased for the duration of WWII. After the war ended in 1945, WASA did not regroup. Some of its members, including Morna Vaughan and Irene Schwedler (now known as Charlotte Sadler), continued to race and rally for some time. At least one other all-female motor club was formed, but it did not last. The closest parallel to WASA today is the British Women Racing Drivers’ Club, founded in the 1960s, which keeps a link to WASA through the Wakefield Trophy.

(Image from