During the 1964 running of Great Britain’s RAC Rally, Rosemary Smith and her co-driver, Margaret McKenzie, chase the route in the Hillman Imp.
Photo: Ferret Fotos
My driving roots were from my Dad and my brother who both raced. I was brought up with and around cars. The day I turned 17, the first thing I did was to go and buy my driving license—it’s what you did back then. You put your money on the Post Office counter, asked for a license and walked away with it. The first car I drove was a grey Mini—it was my Mum’s car, but I drove it all the time. So, for me, it became total second nature to drive a car.
These days, it’s unusual to see female drivers or co-drivers in Rally events, they are very few and far between. However, in the 1960s, when I started rallying, there were 14 or 15 all-female driver/co-driver parings. So, things have gone backward as we’ve “progressed” over the years. When I was first taken on by the Rootes Group rally team to compete in the RAC Rally, I had only competed in a few national events in my home country, Ireland. I think I was taken on by the company because they knew I’d be photographed. Their cars, initially Sunbeam Rapiers, were pretty ancient in comparison. Then the little Hillman Imp came along which was much more nimble and a joy to drive—yet challenging. Other entrants and participators of the World Rally events had much bigger budgets and finer cars, but publicity is what the Rootes Group craved. It seemed to me, publicity was all that mattered in those days. Peter Procter was in the Rootes team at the time. He, Paddy Hopkirk and Peter Harper, also team members, were always good to me and helped me. However, Peter Procter, more than anyone, did the most to assist me and help boost my confidence. This was especially true the first time I drove in the Alps. I really hadn’t got a clue —driving on the right side of the road instead of the left was a particular problem, initially. Peter would go out on a recce and tell me to follow him, he’d show me all the lines to take along a particular stage, which was invaluable training for me. He was very kind, but we were living in a different era of competition in those days. It wasn’t unusual for another team member, or indeed a fellow competitor, to give information and assistance to other drivers. There was, more or less, total camaraderie in the sport then. Today it’s all about money; then it was about competing, but not at all costs. I think the biggest amount of money I was ever paid for a season driving contract was £2,000. While we took the driving very seriously, I think we were more of a band of happy amateurs. We still set good standards of driving, don’t get me wrong, but we travelled the rallying world as a cheery group at one with each other. Don’t forget too, the car manufacturers were small businesses then. Unlike today where Ford and General Motors own a number of other makes. Most of the car makers in my day were individual competitors. That all changed in the UK when British Leyland took over a number of carmakers under one umbrella company, which is the trend now. That move changed the competition, the competitors and the budgets.
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