Rosemary Smith, An Appreciation

Rosemary Smith, circa 1965 (est.)
Rosemary Smith, circa 1965 (est.)

I freely admit, I had never heard of Rosemary Smith until the incomparable Scroggs suggested her. Now, having done some research, I can’t imagine not doing a post about her! Furthermore, I submit she should be our second inductee into the Hooniversal Dream Girl Hall of Fame, right after Donna Mae Mims.
Great headlights. And we actually mean the headlights. Were not that kind of site.
Great headlights. And we actually mean the headlights. We're not that kind of site. Anyone who will race with Lucas-branded headlights deserves our respect.

You may ask, “Why is she a dream girl? She’s nothing that special to look at!” And you would be wrong. A true car-guy loves a girl who isn’t afraid to get her nails dirty, to jump in there and start turning some wrenches. A woman who can stand toe-to-toe with the best of men and come out on top. Wait… that doesn’t sound right.
So you’re probably asking, as I was, “Who the hell is Rosemary Smith?”. Allow us to enlighten you. Get out your notebooks, there will be a test on this later.
Born in Dublin in 1937, Rosemary Smith started racing in a Triumph Herald in 1960-61. She soon switched to a Mini, then moved over to the Rootes team, racing a Hillman Imp, where she would remain for most of her racing career.
It has been said that rally drivers are the manliest of men. That it is the most challenging form of racing, and the bastion of those with the quickest wits, sharpest reflexes, and greatest level of skill. It must be pointed out, then, that this was the venue of choice for our Rosemary Smith. Not only did she go toe-to-toe, but she did it in a venue that most of us would find far beyond our skill level, and she excelled. Oh, and shall we also mention that she did so in a car that was not exactly famous for its precision handling and performance? I think we shall.
Her car of choice was the Hillman Imp. It was a sporty car for its day, intended to compete directly against the Austin Mini, Volkswagen Beetle and Fiat 500. The factory performance versions were sold with a breathtaking 55 horsepower and 55.6 lb-ft of torque. Don’t forget the .6! The engine was a rear-mounted, 875cc, all-aluminium inline-4, originally used to power a water pump. In order to make the engine fit, it was canted over at a 45° angle. To counteract the rear-biased weight, and reduce the inherent oversteer, the car was fitted with an advanced four-wheel independent suspension, sophisticated technology for its day. In reality, this is all that was required, as the engine itself only weighed in at 175 lbs. While official specs are unavailable, it is rumoured that Ms. Smith’s racing Imp was fitted with a Twin Weber dual-carburettor setup which produced roughly 110 hp and 100 lb-ft of torque. In a car that weighed less than 1500 lbs in race trim, this is quite an impressive figure for 1965.
The Hillman Imp, Ms. Smiths weapon of choice.
The Hillman Imp, Ms. Smith's weapon of choice.

Ms. Smith, as you can see by the photos above, was quite an unassuming figure. With an illuminating smile and a jovial personality, and with the biases of 1965, she was easy to under-estimate. Those who did, however, did so at their own peril. In only her fifth year of racing, and her first in an Imp, she handily won the 1965 Tulpenrallye, or Tulip Rally in the Netherlands. It should be noted that she did not merely win her class — she was the overall winner. From there, she made her presence known every time she hit the course. She finished 8th overall, and won her class, in the 1966 cross-Canada coast-to-coast Shell 4000 rally. And, also in 1966, she won the Monte Carlo rally, however she was disqualified in a highly controversial decision for having improper headlights on her car. The French officials changed the rules, prohibiting halogen headlights, at the last minute, and neglected to inform Ms. Smith’s team. This disqualification would be hotly debated for years, and many speculated that her gender may have factored heavily into the judges’ decision, as the French remained opposed to her competing even as late as 1969, when she was prohibited from driving in the 24-hour race at LeMans, due exclusively to her gender.
Rosemary Smith fears no snow!
Rosemary Smith fears no snow!

Oh, and should we mention, for one of our commenters’ sake, that she also placed 30th overall in the 24-hour race in Daytona, driving none other than a Sunbeam Alpine? I think we should.
But it was not only Ms. Smith’s driving prowess that earns her our respect and admiration. Later in life she became an advocate for more advanced quality and safety standards on British-built cars, and built a successful business teaching schoolchildren how to be better, safer drivers. In 2004, the day after being released from the hospital for heart surgery, she was on a plane to attend a Historic Motorsports show. Even as a 67-year-old woman, she would put many of our most-admired “car-guys” to shame.
Not bad for a woman who was once written off as little more than “a dress-designer from Dublin.”
Rosemary Smith, you are officially a Hooniversal Dream Girl.

Hat Tip to the incomparable Scroggs! for the suggestion. I am in your debt, I genuinely enjoyed researching this article. Thanks to imps4ever.info and anythingaboutcars.com for the photos and info. For further info on Ms. Smith, be sure to read this article!

0 Comments

  1. Excellent read, Mr. Thair, and excellent reco from Scroggro. Keep it up with content like this…please!
    Do I see a bit of BMW 2002 in that Hillman Imp? Or rather, do I see a bit of Hillman Imp in a 2002? Regardless, an Imp sounds like a hoot to drive. *Commencing eBay search*

  2. Recognition and elevation of obscure characters is a wonderful part of hanging out on the “automotive fringe,” and I thank Dearthair and Scroggs for educating us about this fascinating person.
    However, at the risk of becoming THAT GUY, I think we need to acknowledge the elephant in the lady rallyist room: the late Pat Moss. I wonder how many of our loyal readers are familiar with the accomplishments of this incredible woman: she became a factory driver for the British Motor Company rally team in 1955, claimed 4th place overall in the 1958 RAC rally in a Morris Minor, and subsequently won the 1960 Liege-Rome-Liege Rally outright in a big Healey. In 1962, she took the overall win a the Tulip rally, giving the Mini Cooper its first major rally victory (that’s right, not Rauno Aaltonen, not Paddy Hopkirk, but Ms. Pat Moss.) She later drove for the factory rally efforts of Ford, Saab, Lancia, and in contrast to the French chauvenism of the day, for Renault in 1969.
    (I also understand that her brother made a name for himself in motorsports.)

    1. Shhhh. Don’t mention Pat Moss. She’s up next in the Hooniversal Dream Girl Hall of Fame. Well, up soon. There is SO MUCH to write about her that it’s a matter of filtering through it and bringing it to a manageable level.

      1. Ha! I was just coming to mention her and two other Hoonettes.
        Another woman who’d I’d like to have met (although I did meet her husband several times)…
        In addition to Ms. Moss-Carlsson, I’d nominate Denise McCluggage and Shirley Muldowney* also.
        * heard a few first-hand stories of Ms. Muldowney racing the boys on the streets of Bennington, VT and Albany & Troy, NY in her late teens/early twenties. She apparently had an enticing challenge mantra: “If you can beat me, you can…” Well, I let you finish that one..

        1. There are many ladies worthy of dream girl consideration…Michele Mouton, Marie-Claude Beaumont, Janet Guthrie. So many possibilities in this new Hooniverse

  3. When rallying, Miss Smith told the press she always carried three things in her purse– lipstick, face powder, and the train schedule in case she broke the car.
    For the record, Miss Smith didn’t win the Monte Carlo Rally. She would have won the Coupe des Dames (Ladies’ Cup) with co-driver Val Domleo, but after the rally finished the French decided that the Lucas Flamethrower lighting system didn’t meet the letter of the rules. This caused pretty much all the cars from British works teams to be disqualified. Of course, this had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that a Mini-Cooper had finished the rally in first place, while a Citroen DS21 had come in second. Nope, nothin’ to do with that at all. If the Citroen had won, I’m sure the French would have been just as nit-picky about driving lights by the Prince of Darkness.

    1. Thanks for that clarification! I had one hell of a time finding details about her involvement in that scandal, aside from references to the suspicion that she was actually the reason for the scrutiny. The level of contradictory information was almost enough to give me a headache. Do you have a good site I can use to clean up the post a bit so the information is more accurate?

      1. The story of the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally, by “That Guy:”
        In early ’66, Lucas introduced new lights with quartz-halogen bulbs. They were the brightest lights available for cars at the time, but they were shockingly expensive and were only available in tiny quantities. As a result, they were only used by British manufacturers’ works teams. Also, the Lucas Q-H lights were only available with single filaments, which meant that they could not be dimmed– they were simply shut off, and low-beam lighting was provided by the regular headlights. However, the ’66 regulations said that extra driving lambs also had to act as dipped headlamp beams. Several heads of rally teams were uneasy about the new Lucas lights being against the rules, but they decided it probably wouldn’t be a problem.
        When the rally was over, a Mini-Cooper had won for the third time. But the (French) rally organizers didn’t really care about the Mini– they were more excited by the Citroen DS that had placed second. They seized on the questionable lights (some would say Lucas lights are always questionable, but I digress) as a means to disqualify the works Minis and give the title to the DS. In the process, however, the organizers decided they had better disqualify ALL the cars that didn’t meet the letter of the lighting regulations– all the works Minis and works Imps. The lighting dispute wasn’t really about Rosemary Smith, then– she just happened to be caught in the middle of it.

      2. Oh, and the French would never be so rude as to be opposed to a woman rallying… they were only opposed to her racing. Rosemary was listed as a reserve driver on all three of the Rootes Group’s assaults on Le Mans with a Sunbeam Alpine– the rules specifically forbade women competitors, but the Rootes people figured having a woman on their Le Mans team would be a publicity coup, especially if the organizers decided to make a big deal out of it. However, she never got to drive at Le Mans.

  4. Man, what a great story and a remarkable woman. My mom rallied a TR3 back in her day, her mom had a Saab 2 stroke and Grandpa had a Porsche 356 and a Jag sedan as a daily driver (the rounded one, hell, I was a larva at the time. You know what I’m talking about). Anyway, women drivers can be a force to be reckoned with. I remember Mom hauling ass getting me to school running late in a Pontiac Catalina wagon, a Porsche 912, and she does just fine today in Little Suzy, a Suzuki Vitara jeeplet rowing the 5 speed. Good stuff. I’m gonna like it just fine around here, if you’ll have me.

    1. Consider yourself had!
      Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Let’s try again.
      Come on over, big boy, I’ll have you.
      No, that’s not right either.
      I’ll take you seven ways from su–
      Dammit. I. Blame. Charles.
      How about just, “Welcome aboard.”

  5. Rosemary Smith: Classy lady, who can hand out a big can o’ woop-ass.
    Plus she drove with Lucas lights! Hopefully she didn’t enter in night rallies

  6. Wow, it’s amazing what Ms. Smith (and Ms. Mims, for that matter) was able to do in her lifetime. At a time when the culture had most women pegged as housewives and little more, this lady was out there competing heads up against men in the most demanding of motorsports, and kicking ass at it. I can add nothing more, this lady is a model for hoons worldwide.

  7. Hooniverse Conceptual Continuity Moment: Smith’s Daytona 24 run was in 1966- her car finished 2 places ahead of another all-female Sunbeam Alpine, driven in part by Donna Mae Mims.
    And on a tangential note, the list of cars competing in that 1966 race is heartbreakingly incredible.

    1. It has to be an error, but it says that the Corvair that dnf’d (big surprise) had a 427! Still, that is one hell of a fantasy garage list.

  8. What a great idea.
    I nominate Anne Cécile Rose-Itier. Many reasons why (first lady to race the 24 Hours of Le Mans being one)but mostly because while racing an Adler Trumpf she fell in love with her co-driver Huschke von Hanstein. I mean, come on!

    1. I’ve got some cool old pick’em up truck pictures and some pics of a… Catalina (I think, have to check ’em at home), that have never been published by another blog that you’re welcome to for a series such as this.

      1. I’ll accept anything you’ve got for me. I only have a limited number of ideas for posts, and part of the challenge of this style of blog is that it is more taxing on the ol’ imaginationifier. Since we can’t just repost press releases, we have to be more creative.
        I intend to pirate stuff aggressively from my Facebook friends. Arr! Avast!
        Oh… right… feel free to send it along to me at mitch@hooniverse.com

  9. Excellent!!! Thanks for this – I’m an official fan of the “Hooniversal Dream Girl Hall of Fame.” where can I get my T-shirt???

  10. Sigh… clogged tubes yesterday (get bent, Comcast) made me miss a golden opportunity to be “that guy.” I mean, I wrote a “that guy”-ish comment before going to bed on the 14th, but then I broke out my books about the Rootes Group’s rally exploits. Fortunately, Comcast’s terrible service can only keep me from being obnoxious and pedantic for so long.
    In his autobiography, the recently deceased Marcus Chambers (head of the Competitions Department at BMC during the fifties, then Competitions Director at Rootes from 1964-68) described Rosemary:
    “She is the only lady rally driver I have ever known who could arrive at the end of a very tough rally section and step out of the car looking neat and tidy and well dressed.”
    “But one should not be lulled into feeling that here was a pliant young lady who would take orders without questioning them. Her Irish sense of humour and charm, sprinkled with a great deal of common sense, could banish further argument with a withering riposte. She stood no nonsense from predatory males and sent them packing quite promptly if she felt it was necessary.”
    “Rosemary drove for me for nearly four and a half years and during that time she drove Imps in 24 Internationals, finished in 21 of them, with one outright win (the Tulip of 1965), collected 12 Coupes des Dames, nine class wins, and was placed in her class at least six times. Through no fault of her own, she was unlucky to get caught up in the notorious lighting dispute and to be disqualified in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally along with four works Mini Coopers, when she was the moral winner of the Coupe des Dames with Val Domleo.”
    After cuts to the Competitions department led to Rosemary’s departure from Rootes, she landed a job with Ford of Ireland, driving a MkII Lotus-Cortina on the London-Sydney Marathon in 1968. Unfortunately, carburetor trouble in the mountains caused her to burn a hole in one of her pistons somewhere in Iran. Rosemary kept going, driving with three cylinders. Then competitors had to climb the Khyber Pass. With only three cylinders, the poor little Cortina couldn’t make it up the hill in first gear.
    Rosemary turned the Cortina around and drove up the Khyber Pass in reverse.
    Hooniversal dream girl, indeed!

  11. I have known Rosemary since 1997 and she is is still a wonderful lady. She drove Sunbeam Rapiers, Sunbeam Tigers and Hillman/Sunbeam Imps in both rallies and races more than holding her own in all events. However i would like to mention another great female driver before Rosemary. Sheila Van Damm in the 1950s drove Sunbeam Talbots and the early Sunbeam Rapier and did wonderful things with them in rallies and races. Her best feat had to be on the Jabbke Highway in Belgium between Ostend and Brussels. Both she and the great Stirling Moss took the new 2.3 litre 4cylinder Sunbeam Talbot Alpine to 120.459mph over the measured mile. Identical times for the both of them. The six cylinder over 3 litre Jaguar XK120 had achieved 132.6mph over the same stretch of highway earlier so the Sunbeam Talbot Alpine effort was a pretty good effort. Her autobiography "No Excuses" is a really good read. She also had a pilot's licence and her father ran the old Windmill Theatre during the war famous for never closing despite the bombing.

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