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Rulers of the road: the story of Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom

Pat Moss (L) with her partner, Ann Wisdom (R), winners of European Women's Championship Auto Rally. (Photo by Brian Seed/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images) - Credit: The LIFE Images Collection via G

Sixty years on from their greatest triumph, Roger Domeneghetti remembers two trailblazing motorists who excelled in a male-dominated sport and era

On the last evening of August in 1960, 83 cars set off from the spectacular courtyard of the Palace of the Prince Bishops on Liège’s Place Saint-Lambert to undertake the prestigious but highly demanding Liège-Rome-Liège rally.

Four days and more than 3,000 miles later, just 13 returned to cross the finish line. They were led triumphantly by the female duo of Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom. It was a unique achievement for a race considered to be the rally drivers’ rally.

Mossie and Wiz, as they were known on the racing circuit, had been introduced by their parents at a British Racing Drivers’ Club dinner. The teenagers had little interest in cars and bonded instead over their mutual love of horse riding, Ann eventually becoming Pat’s groom.

Pat had been winning show jumping prizes since she was eight, once saying that she had so many that it took her six hours a week to dust them all. She was named Juvenile Jumper of the Year at the 1950 Horse of the Year Show and in 1952 she was selected for the British Showjumping team.

However, they were both from storied motor racing stock so it is little wonder they would one day find success on four wheels. Pat’s brother was the late Stirling Moss, widely considered to be the greatest racing driver never to win the Formula One World Championship.

Their parents Alfred and Aileen were also keen competition racers. Aileen became Ladies Trials champion while Alfred came a respectable 16th in the 1924 Indianapolis 500. The pair competed together for the Marendaz team in the 1934 RAC Rally.

Ann’s mother Elsie set the women’s lap record at Brooklands earning a 120mph badge in the process. Before the decade was out she competed at both Le Mans and in the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile Italian road race. Ann’s father Tommy was the motor racing correspondent for the Daily Herald and, like his wife, competed in numerous races, including the Monte Carlo Rally, where he came third in 1934.

Alfred and Aileen bought Pat her first car on her 17th birthday in 1951. Initially she struggled to understand the appeal of racing or driving at speed, however that changed when her boyfriend Ken Gregory, who was also Stirling’s manager, invited her to navigate for him on a rally. Pat caught the racing bug and began competing in national rallies in a Morris Minor convertible. At first these races played second fiddle to her horse racing, but Pat needed a navigator and teamed up with Ann.

Although the 1930s is considered the Golden Age for women drivers, one ended by the Second World War, opportunities for female drivers were beginning to increase again in the 1950s, particularly in rallying.

It was considered less dangerous than circuit racing and was a sport that could be enjoyed by couples competing together.

Cars were becoming easier to drive and more affordable and manufacturers began to acknowledge not only the influence women had on their husbands’ purchasing decisions but also the fact that women drivers were a market in themselves.

Female rally drivers were increasingly being used by companies such as the British Motoring Corporation (BMC), which produced a range of vehicles under brand names like MG and Austin-Healey, as a way of highlighting the increasing feminisation of cars.

Nancy Mitchell and Anne Hall became track stars under the mentorship of BMC competition manager Marcus Chambers and he gave Moss her chance too.

In 1958 she finished fourth in the Liège-Rome-Liège rally. It was a historic achievement – no woman driver had previously finished in the top 10 – and gave her enough points to win the European Women’s Rally Championship. It would be at the same race two years later that Pat, again ably assisted by Ann, achieved her greatest achievement.

Initially known as Le Marathon de la Route (the Marathon of the Road), the race was more than 3,000 miles long and lasted for around four days and nights with the longest break being a four-hour respite at the turning city.

The regulations effectively allowed any car to enter as long as it had four wheels, a two-strong crew and was road legal. Following an accident during the 1957 Mille Miglia in which 10 spectators, including five children, where killed the appetite for racing on public roads in Italy diminished.

Increasingly stringent laws forced the organisers to stage the bulk of the race in the Balkans where the roads were less populated but rougher and more tortuous. Still known as Liège-Rome-Liège, the race used a mixture of mountain roads, of which some were little more than unmade gravel tracks with nothing preventing the cars from falling over the high sides, and public roads.

While the organisers committed to adhering to speed limits on the latter, the time-check schedule effectively made this impossible and the racers were quietly informed as to where police speed checks would be, so they could slow down at the right places. A brutal race for the cars, it was no less testing for drivers. Not only did they have to stay awake for extended periods but they had to contend with normal traffic, livestock and all manner of other hazards.

The prestige of the event was evident from the list of manufacturers gathered for the start in 1960.

Porsche entered 14 cars, Alfa Romeo 10 and Mercedes, Jaguar, Ford, Volvo and Lancia among others also lined up. The ceremonial start took the drivers to the nearby Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, where racing began in earnest.

A short time trial section between the Belgian towns of Stavelot and Montenau was followed by a 1,000-mile run across Germany, Austria and northern Italy where the second time trial took place through the Stelvio pass.

From there it was on to the Yugoslavian border. By this point there were still 65 cars in contention but as the roads became rougher the race became increasingly challenging.

The competitors pressed on into Bulgaria, to Sofia, which acted as a turning point. Here they grabbed a spot of lunch before they headed back north. By the time they reached the first check point back in Italy on the Predil pass only 30 cars were left.

Long-time leader Henri Oreiller was one of those who had been forced to retire after he ran out of spare tyres.

By the time the race returned to the French border Moss and Wisdom had taken the lead, although the physical demands were beginning to take their toll.

Ann suffered from acute car sickness, later recalling: ‘I would say to Pat, ‘I’m going to be sick’. She would grab hold of me so I could open the door. It was a problem.’

She also had hallucinations of burning trees crossing the road brought on by exhaustion, something she tried to combat by dousing herself with water from the pumps they found in village squares along the route.

The car was also beginning to show the strain, suffering a broken gearbox. Fortunately this happened on the relatively smooth roads of France, where the BMC mechanics, like their counterparts in other teams, could follow the racers relatively closely in service vehicles. They were able to replace the damaged part in under an hour and get Mossie and Wiz back on the road still in the lead.’

The pair then had to deal with unexpected traffic on the high, narrow, winding Col d’Allos pass when an official opened the road to public vehicles while they were still climbing.

They still completed the stage with a healthy lead which meant they did not need to take any undue risks on the remaining Alpine time trials. From there it was a straight run back to Liège where Moss and Wisdom received a rapturous reception from the crowds that lined the route for several miles prior to the finish line.

It was an historic achievement—the first time an all-female crew had won an international rally. It was also a triumph for BMC.

Of the 13 finishers, Austin Healeys came first, third, fifth and 10th, giving BMC the Manufacturer’s Trophy, two class wins, and the Ladies award. The Nation’s Team Prize went to Britain.

Mossie and Wiz’s achievement was acknowledged by the Guild of Motoring Writers who awarded them the Driver of the Year prize, another first for an all-female partnership.

The success forced Ann to make a decision. Her boss had seen a picture of her with the trophy in the paper and she had to choose whether to continue working as a secretary or take up racing full time. She made her apologies and handed in her notice.

Two years later the pair won the Tulip Rally, the Netherlands’ oldest rally competition, in a Mini Cooper. It was the first major rally victory by a Mini, preceding Paddy Hopkirk’s victory in Monte Carlo two years later.

Immediately after their Dutch success, Ann, by then married to fellow racer Peter Riley, announced that she was pregnant with their first child and that she was retiring. Pat, who herself married a fellow rally driver, Erik Carlsson, continued racing.

By the time she retired in 1974 she had won three international rallies outright accumulated a further seven podium finishes, won the European Ladies Rally Championship five times and the Monte Carlo Rally Coupe des Dames eight times. But it was her victory in the Liège-Rome-Liège rally 60 years ago that defined her career. Pat died in 2008. Ann passed away seven years to the day later.

‘[Pat] was strong, mentally and physically, and therefore she wouldn’t give an inch, and wouldn’t expect to be given an inch,’ said her brother Stirling many years later. ‘After herwin in the Liège, rallying people realised how fast she was, because they knew how hard that event was.’

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