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Rosemary Smith (1937-2023) – Rally Driver

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‘Thinking back, it was all very dangerous. Two girls, out in the middle of nowhere, in Africa. The dead of night. I remember passing a hut with a noose hanging from a tree. That made me go a bit faster.’

Rosemary Smith is musing upon her triumphant outing for the 1973 East Africa Safari when she and her navigator Pauline Gullack took their Datsun Bluebird 1800 on 2,500-mile circuit of Kenya to become the first ladies past the post. [1]

Their journey began in Nairobi, from where they headed west through the Serengeti to the Victoria Falls, then east via Malawi to the coast at Mombasa and north again to Nairobi.

‘There was so such thing as roads’, says Rosemary nonchalantly. ‘Everything was gravel, dirt and dust until it rained and turned everything into thick red gumbo mud. But with those cars, if you stopped you just couldn’t get going again, so we drove all day and right on through the night, for six days in a row, with an average speed of 83 miles an hour.’

Occasionally they passed rival cars, paused upon the roadside. The memory prompts a wicked chuckle from this veritable Penelope Pitstop. ‘We drove right past them and knocked them further off the road if we could. I had a marker pen and I used to put a cross on the side of the car every time we knocked one, like bombers did in the war. I think our car ended up with something like 28 crosses down the side of it’.

Rosemary Smith was born in Dublin in 1937. Her father, the late John Metcalf Smith, was a motor engineer of English pedigree who ran a garage in Rathmines. [2] During her childhood, Rosemary frequently went to see her father, and later her elder brother, race Chryslers on circuits all over Ireland – Phoenix Park, Dunboyne, the Curragh and so forth.[3] She became enamoured of the sport to such an extent that she was the leading female driver in the world in the 1960s.

At the age of sixteen, Rosemary left school and started a fashion business. One of her first clients was Delphine Biggar, a formidable lady whose husband Frank had won the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally.

When Mrs. B learned that 17-year-old Rosemary liked to drive, she invited her to navigate. Rosemary wasn’t much of a navigator. On their first outing, their Mini fetched up straddling a gorse bush on top of a mountain with Mrs. B cursing like a trooper. ‘She might as well have said nothing to me because my dad was a very strict Methodist and I didn’t understand swearing back then’, says Rosemary.

Mrs. B decided that perhaps Rosemary would be better as a driver. It turned out to be a wise swap and, for the next eighteen months, the duo won just about every rally they entered, speeding down every back road on the island, bounding over potholes and gliding around hairpins, usually at breakneck speed.

And then, one jet-black night, Mrs B directed Rosemary to go straight through the crossroads ahead. Rosemary duly whammed her foot on the accelerator.[4] Three seconds later, crash. The cross-roads was, in fact, a low stone country wall in Co. Kilkenny. The car flipped and rolled, blood splashed, Mrs B was out for the count and Rosemary had to move very, very fast if she was to prevent things becoming fatal. She squished out one of the Mini’s sliding side-windows, losing her shoes in the process; ‘you always lose your shoes in an accident’. And then she ran through the dark night until she found a farmstead.

The farmer appeared, shotgun in hand. ‘Bloody women drivers’ he muttered. They were unable to get Mrs. B out of the Mini because the doors had buckled. So the farmer procured a sledgehammer and smashed a hole in the car, through which they dragged Mrs B. Four hours had passed by the time they finally reached the hospital in Carlow. Mrs. B received 49 stitches to her head but she survived. [5]

The following morning, Mrs B’s husband put Rosemary behind the wheel of his car and ordered her to drive home. Had he not done that, there is every chance that Rosemary Smith would never have driven again.[6]

But drive she did and by 1960, Rosemary had established herself as one of the foremost drivers in Ireland. She started in a Triumph Herald, then switched to a Mini. In 1963, a bride-to-be asked Rosemary if they could do something exciting before she got married. ‘She wanted to do Monte Carlo but she couldn’t drive, so would I drive?’ Along with a navigator, the girls headed to the south coast of France.

While in Monte Carlo, a senior member of the Rootes Group saw the Irish blonde and that was her breakthrough. She remained with Rootes for most of her racing career. In only her fifth year of rallying, and her first in a Hillman Imp, Rosemary won her greatest accolade, the 1965 Tulip Rally. Her victory in the Netherlands established her as the world’s leading lady rally driver. The following year she won the Coupes des Dames in Monte Carlo but was controversially disqualified on the shaky grounds that her Lucas headlights were improper. [7]

Rosemary Smith having her Hillman Imp filled by Florrie at the Maxol station on Tates Avenue, Belfast, circa 1967.

Marcus Chambers, her boss at Rootes, described her as ‘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.’ When the press asked what she carried in her purse, she replied, ‘Lipstick, face powder, and the train schedule in case I break the car.’

She regularly competed in the Circuit of Ireland in an age when just 32 cars would set off, leaving Belfast on the Friday night, reaching Killarney on Saturday, around the Ring of Kerry on Sunday, then right up the west coast to Donegal and east to finish in Bangor on the Monday.

Further afield, the East Africa Safari was just one of several mind-bendingly long rallies Rosemary competed in. The London-Mexico Marathon, for instance, involves a gentle 5,000 miles around Europe followed by 12,000 miles around South America through places like Guatemala and Peru. Training seems to have been a relatively straightforward matter of no alcohol and lots of steak in the weeks before the event.

‘I found that keeping awake all that time didn’t bother me at all’, she says. ‘It was extraordinary when we were on the Trail of the Incas to Le Paz because the men kept keeling over with altitude sickness but the women were fine … we all had oxygen but we never used it.’

‘It was all about endurance, but it’s completely changed now. They only drive during the daytime and they have helicopters flying overhead to tell them there’s a hole here and a boulder there. When we did East Africa, 200 cars started and ten finished’.

During the 1968 London-Sydney, her carburettor burned a hole in one of the pistons of her MkII Lotus-Cortina while she was driving through Iran. With only three cylinders, the car was unable to climb the Khyber Pass in first gear. Full of initiative, Rosemary simply turned the Cortina around and reversed 33 miles up the Khyber Pass.

In 1969, the French denied her entry into the 24 Heurs du Mans on the grounds of her gender. At this time she left Rootes and moved to Ford in Ireland. In 1978, she broke the Irish landspeed record in Cork as part of a bet with biker Danny Keany. She drove a Jaguar with an American V8 engine and clocked 178mph. ‘I went from 0-60 in a flash and I was driving over a ridged concrete road which kept jiggling my helmet over my eyes so I had one hand keeping that up and the other on the wheel’. However, a few moments later, her record was broken when Keany reached 204mph on his 750cc Yamaha motorcycle.

Turtle with Rosemary Smith at Gordon Bennett Rally, Lisnavagh, 10 July 2021. Photo: Rupert Butler.

Shortly before she retired form racing in 2004, Rosemary had a bizarre and vivid dream about a fatal crash involving a Jaguar on a hairpin bend of Belgium’s Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. She was due to compete in the race two weeks later but the dream scared her so much that she withdrew. On the day of the race, she rang a friend in Belgium to discover there had been a fatal crash involving a Jaguar on the very same hairpin bend. ‘Now, when I dream of something, I really take heed of it’.

Rosemary still travels a lot and gives demonstration drives, but she has no desire to compete anymore. Since 1996, she has been teaching youngsters how to drive a normal car on a normal road. Based in Goff’s in Co. Kildare, she has considerable empathy for teenagers endeavouring to learn on the busy roads of modern Ireland. She has also raised a large amount of money for Breast Cancer Research, most recently with the 2010 ‘Rally Girls Uncut’ Calendar.

‘I though when I got to this ripe old age I’d be sitting at home doing my knitting’, she sighs. ‘Absolutely no chance, but I would much prefer to be busy. I still drive the little Hillman Imp I drove in the rallies in the Sixties. She’s a little dote.’


Rosemary was interviewed by Turtle as part of the 2021 Vanishing Ireland podcast series.





[1] Pauline Gullack of Bristol was her navigator for many years. ‘She was brilliant but when she got tired, her accent got so broad that I didn’t know what she was saying. She has a quiet voice anyway. So we just gave up because I was too tired to listen. You get so tired that you think you cannot go on. They were total endurance tests’.

‘But we finished and we won. But what happened was most extraordinary. Two o’clock in the morning. Pitch dark. Out in the middle of nowhere in Africa. That’s very dangerous thinking back on it. The girl that navigated for me was brilliant and she went very silent. I said Pauline [sic], are you awake? And she said, ‘no, but I’m lost’. She never got lost. I said: ‘what do you mean?’ She said, ‘I don’t know where we are’. And I said, ‘ah sure, don’t worry about it’. So here we went for x number of miles and we got to a fork and then we went this way and that and we passed a hut with a noose hanging from a tree so we went a bit faster … Pauline never said a word in all this … and then suddenly we were there, in the Control and they said ‘how did you get here? You started practically last and you’re hear first!’ And I said sure we practiced it, we did a recce. And Pauline said we haven’t been within 100 miles of this area. We never were. Somebody was looking after me. Absolutely extraordinary. The weather was so bad that we lay on the side of the road beside the Kenyatta Buildings under canvas and tried to sleep .. and then up and go again. I know they were absolutely delighted when we did finish and they waited for us outside Nairobi.’

[2] The Smyth family hailed from the Scottish-English borders and occupied one of the last outposts where the English army liked to muster and change horses before advancing to beat up the Scottish. In those days they were called Metcalf-Smith and the annals of Victorian England has a liberal sprinkling of success stories of that name, primarily corn merchants, wine merchants and bankers, as well as an acclaimed Edwardian golfer. Rosemary believes her branch dropped the ‘Metcalf’ part of the name when they moved to Ireland in the 18th century. She says some of the family kept Metcalf and dropped Smith. She also remembers seeing the graves of two ‘Metcalf-Smith’ sisters buried in Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. John Metcalf Smith, a wealthy corn and wine merchant came from Lincoln and died circa 1884. There was also a prosperous banker from Leeds, and Major Cecil Metcalf Smith, a noted golfer before the Great War. Edward Metcalf Smith (1839–1907) was an armourer and Liberal Party politician in New Zealand.

[3] Roger went on to work with Ford in Middlesborough in England and went by the name of Roger Metcalfe Smith. By his wife Jackie, he had two sons, both of whom live in Middlesborough. Roger died in 1978. Her sister Pamela is also since deceased.

After the death of Rosemary’s father, her mother remarried and became Jane Bailey. Her cousin Celia, daughter of John Smith’s sister, is married to Dermot Dunne who was ordained Dean of Christchurch in 2009, having left the Catholic Church in protest against the vows of celibacy.

[4] Rosemary and Mrs B were a team for a year and a half, winning regularly, all in Ireland. The head-on collision with the wall took place at 3am during a rally in Carlow-Kildare.

[5] ‘We her to County hospital where there was only one nurse but it was the doctor’s party night so we had to go on to Carlow and we got there at 7am, four hours after the accident. They took us in and we reckoned there was no hope for her. They stitched my face first. This was back in the 60s so it was all very slapdash. She had 49 stitches around her head but luckily she had a very low hairline so when she was better the hair grew back and you wouldn’t have noticed.’

[6] ‘I thought we’ll that’s that, I nearly killed this woman. I’m stopping. Then her husband came down from Dublin to bring me back and when I went to the passenger seat, he said no, you’re going to drive I said I can’t and he said ‘Drive’. It too us six hours to get from Carlow to Dublin. Every time I tried to pull in, he said get going and he wouldn’t let me stop! I got home and my mother nearly had a heart attack because I was black-eyed and covered in blood, most of it Delphine’s. The very next day my dad said we have to go down to Bettystown and he made me drive as well!’

[7] In time, Rootes were bought by Peugeot who were bought by Chrysler which was a neat symmetry as her father had learned to race in a Chrysler.