As part of a series celebrating pioneering women in our industry, we take a look at one straight talking lady who definitely drove her own path.
Rosemary Smith began her career as a co-driver. She quickly decided navigating was not for her. She switched to driving. Her big break was coming to the attention of the Rootes Group. The Group had recently produced the Hillman Imp. Sales were doing okay-ish but it ran in to an identity crisis along with a somewhat unfair reputation for poor reliability. It badly needed a lift. Rootes turned to the recently signed Rosemary Smith to become the face of the Imp. The car’s fortune never looked back.
The Rootes team pressed home their advantage and decided to pimp the Imp and enter competition racing, who better to head that project up than Rose. With her at the helm smashing male egos to pieces with her numerous successes the Imp turned into a cult car.
Rosie went on to have serious motorsport success. Some of the milestones in her career include several victories of the Coupes des Dames in the Monte Carlo rally, multiple races in the Circuit of Ireland, Scottish, RAC, Alpine, Canadian Shell 4000 and Acropolis rallies.
She competed in the Daytona 24-hour race and three times at the Sebring 12-hour race in Florida where she rubbed racing suits with mega-stars such as Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
In 1968 Rosie completed the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon rally and in 1970 finished 10th in the London to Mexico rally. In the 1965 Tulip Rally in Holland, Rose, driving an Imp, became the only woman ever to win the race. She recalled: “I rallied and represented Ireland all over the world. We never just drove against women. It was car against car. The flag drops, the bullshit stops and away we go.”
Her tremendous driving talent was clearly visible. What was also on show was multiple examples of sexism. She made front page headlines, when barred from racing at Le Mans because she was a woman, a rule the organisers didn’t remove until 1971.
She commented, “In the beginning I was a dizzy blonde, the young one with the blonde hair and false eyelashes. Then after I started winning things, there was a bit more of a grudging acceptance and then when I got the drive with Rootes they started to take note saying ‘She must be quite good’.
“Now when I talk to some people I raced against, I get much more respect. They would say, ‘oh you beat us all ends up’ but they would never have done so at the time. To be beaten by a woman, that would never do”.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the sexism was a quote from Lord Stokes, then Managing Director of British Leyland, at the start of the 16,000-mile London to Mexico rally in 1970. As Rosie in a Maxi along with her co-drivers prepared for the start in London, Stokes offered his encouragement by saying, “Girls, if you get as far as Dover, we will be very pleased with you.”
Thank goodness those days are behind us.
There is much more to the Rosie Smith story, including at the age of 79 being the oldest person to drive and tame a near 1,000bhp F1 car. #AnInspiration.
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