JAN 29th 2016

From Brooklands Legend To 74MM, The Story Of A Woman Called Bill

A vintage tearoom, all pastel colours and iced fancies, might seem a bizarre tribute to a 1930s motor racing legend. But Bill Wisdom, after whom the tearoom at the 74th Members’ Meeting is named, was far from your average Brooklands hero…

F1 History video promo

The short British Pathé video clip from 1934 at the top of the page tells you why. It’s an interview with Bill after a famous victory driving a Talbot in that year’s Alpine Trial.

The astonishing thing here is not that Bill is a woman – which you knew already of course – but that she was such a complete driver, able to switch with apparent ease between setting fastest laps around the Brooklands banking to winning long distance rallies. While beating the boys at both and – judging by the video at least – always having a smart hat to hand for the postrace interview.

She was an Elsie really, the only girl in a family of six boys. Keeping up with her brothers was perhaps the reason for her highly competitive nature, something that later led to her acquiring the name by which she would be affectionately known for the rest of her life. According to the online motor sport journalist Kate Walker (www.f1katewalker.com) daredevil Bill was given a motorcycle for her 16th birthday – which was hastily replaced by a car after her parents determined that four wheels would be less hazardous for her than two.

Bill Wisdom by Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 22 October 1931

When Bill married racer, rally driver and Daily Herald motoring correspondent Tommy Wisdom it was perhaps only a matter of time before Bill took up motorsport, but according to Kate Walker she began her career reluctantly:

‘Before her marriage to Tommy Wisdom, a life spent racing never crossed her mind. One week after the wedding, Tommy revealed that he had entered his bride in a Ladies’ March Handicap event at Brooklands. She was livid, and refused to speak to him for weeks. But race day rolled around, and Wisdom won by three-quarters of a mile, lapping her borrowed 1.5-litre Frazer-Nash at an average 95.05mph.’

It was the beginning of a successful career for someone who would become known as one of Britain’s foremost female drivers of the 1930s: the fastest woman at Brooklands, among the first to beat male drivers in the early mixed races, and holder of the outer-circuit Brooklands lap record at 126mph.

Le Mans Ref: 734/2 World copyright LAT Photographic

Her greatest circuit victory? That would be the 1932 1,000-mile race at Brooklands where she drove a Riley Brooklands 9 partnered for the two-day event by Australian Joan Richmond. Competing against both men and women, Bill and Joan won what was Britain’s first 1,000-mile endurance race at an average speed of 90mph!

Bill became a regular at Brooklands, earning a coveted 120mph badge and becoming the first woman to race Earl Howe’s 7.2-litre Leyland-Thomas monster, the car in which she set the outer circuit lap record. You can see Bill driving the Leyland-Thomas (car No1) in this short video clip from Brooklands in 1932:

She also tried most other forms of racing that the sport could offer her: in her 20-year career from 1931 she competed at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, in the Alpine Trial, Irish Tourist Trophy, RAC Rally, Monte Carlo Rally, Mille Miglia, and at Le Mans, for the first time in 1933 in an Aston Martin, then as a works driver for Riley in 1935.

After the war Bill concentrated on rallying and it was on the 1951 Alpine Trial driving an Aston Martin with husband Tommy that they had a serious crash, triggering Bill’s retirement from regular competition. Tommy kept on until the 1960s, though, notching up an amazing 23 Monte Carlo Rallies. And motorsport did run in the family: Bill and Tommy’s daughter Ann Riley was pat Moss’s co-driver in international rallying between 1956-62.

Bill Wisdom, who died in 1972, was very much a girl in a boy’s world whose gritty determination and skill and bravery behind the wheel saw her excel in some fearsome machinery against anyone she went up against. A true legend of Brooklands as well as an accomplished all-round driver.

Think of her when you enjoy a cup of tea and slice of cake at 74MM on 19/20 March, while soaking up the world of 1930s motor racing that the Bill Wisdom Pavilion so effectively evokes.

Portrain image courtesy of ‘Bassano’, licensed under Creative Commons, Le Mans image courtesy of LAT.

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