But unlike many of Britain’s pre-war motorsport heroes, Elsie “Bill” Wisdom was a woman.
In 1904, Elsie Wisdom was born, one of seven children and the family’s only girl. She spent her childhood playing with her brothers and their friends, and was quickly given the nickname Bill, as her competitive spirit and rough and tumble style of play was more suited to a boy than a girl. Or so they thought at the time, the mores of the era being somewhat different.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Having spent her childhood and adolescence being something of a daredevil, Wisdom’s life being the wheel started on two wheels, terrifying her parents with feats on the motorcycle she’d been given for her sixteenth birthday, and moved on to cars when they determined that four wheels would be less hazardous to her health.
Over the course of her career, Bill tried her hand at almost everything motorsport had to offer. But before her marriage to motorsport journalist and amateur racer 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 1.5l Frazer-Nash at an average 95.05mph.
A few weeks later, husband and wife ran in the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, doing separate runs in the same car. Bill bested Tommy’s time by over a second.
One of the highlights of Bill’s racing career came in 1932, at the Junior Car Club’s 1,000 mile race at Brooklands, a race open to both male and female entrants. Bill’s partner in the two-day endurance race was Australian driver Joan Richmond. The two were to drive a Riley 9 in the race, and spent weeks practicing at Brooklands.
At the end of the first day, the two were running well – on target for an average speed of 85.28mph, and in fourth place despite a tie rod failure near the end of running. But the Riley mechanics spent the night rehearsing changing tie rods on a spare car, and on the second day Wisdom was back behind the wheel within minutes of the track opening. Bill was the first driver in her class to hit the circuit.
With two hours left of the race, Wisdom and Richmond were in the lead, three minutes ahead of their nearest competitors. But their tyres were beginning to wear thin, and there was no time for a change. Taking advice from Dunlop, they decided to press ahead to the finish, where the pair won Britain’s first 1,000 mile endurance race, beating men and women alike.
While Bill is possibly best known for her Brooklands achievements – which included being the fastest woman on the circuit, with a lap of 121.47mph; earning a coveted 120mph badge; getting club approval to race Earl Howe’s fearsome 7.2l Leyland Thomas single-seater; and holding the outer circuit lap record at 126.73mph – she was much more than a one-track pony.
In the twenty years she spent racing, Bill competed in circuit races, endurance races (including several attempts at Le Mans, one as an Aston works driver), hillclimbs, and rallies. She regularly beat her husband in hillclimbs when the two were driving the same car, but Tommy took pride in his wife’s results. The Wisdoms competed as a pair in rallies until 1951, when a serious crash on the Alpine Rally led both to think they’d been too lucky for too long. Two decades years after they started, Elsie “Bill” Wisdom’s racing days were over.
Ann Wisdom, who was an occasional navigator to Pat Moss-Carlsson, is Elsie’s daughter.
Kate Walker is F1 Editor of girlracer and Assistant Editor of GP Week. Follow her on Twitter @F1Kate, or read more of her writing at www.f1katewalker.com.