Rosemary Smith, An Appreciation
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.
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.
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.
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.