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. Grace 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

No comments:

Post a Comment