May Cunliffe was particularly known for her exploits in a Sunbeam or a Bentley on sand in the 1920s.
Born in 1906, she was only sixteen when she first drove at speed. Her father Alfred and older brother Jack were already involved in speed trials and May was soon joining in, using the family’s 3000cc Bentley.
The Bentley was a standard road-going model that the Cunliffes always drove to the circuit and back. She won her class at the 1926 Southport Speed Trials in this car, over a kilometre from a standing start.
Later on, May wanted more power and became the first driver to own a factory-modified, supercharged Bentley in 1926. This 3000cc car, originally built as a normally-aspirated model in 1923, was the precursor to the more famous Birkin “Blower” Bentleys that raced at Le Mans. May won her class in this car at Shelsley Walsh and the Southport Speed Trials.
Her next car arrived in 1928, another supercharged model. It was a 2000cc Sunbeam built in 1924.
The first part of her career ended that year, when she was involved in a serious accident at the Southport 100 Mile race on the beach. She was part of a battle for the lead with Raymond Mays’ Vauxhall-Villiers when the Sunbeam, travelling at about 100mph, became bogged down in ruts created by previous contestants in the sand, causing it to flip over and land on top of its crew. May was injured but her father, who was acting as her riding mechanic, was killed.
Not long after the accident, she married Harry Millington and had her son in 1932. Unable to leave the sport behind, she began sharing a Frazer Nash with Philip Jucker in 1935, racing at Donington and Shelsley. Jucker replaced the Frazer Nash with an Alta in 1936 and May raced this car too. An accident that ensued at Shelsley in the Alta spelled another temporary end to her career; the throttle got stuck open, propelling her through a barbed-wire fence and leaving her with facial injuries.
It was a long time before she got back behind the wheel again, but she did make another comeback in 1953, racing a Cooper-Norton in the Brighton Speed Trials. She shared the car with Stuart Lewis-Evans.
May’s son Tim inherited his parents’ love of speed and in turn, passed it on to his own son.
She died in 1976.