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Sheila van Damm was a champion Alpine rally driver

Posted in Cars, Historical articles, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Wednesday, 9 May 2012

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This edited article about Sheila van Damm originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 702 published on 28 June 1975.

Monte Carlo rally, picture, image, illustration

A motor rally in Monte Carlo with the Alps in the distance

The car went like a bomb. Sheila van Damm’s foot was pressed hard on the accelerator and her eyes were glued to the ribbon of road ahead.

She was testing a new production car over a measured kilometre in Belgium, having been asked to do this following her success as a rally driver.

Suddenly, she felt her crash helmet come loose. The canvas side had split and the wind was getting under her visor and lifting the helmet off her head. It was being held by the strap under her chin, which had slipped down her throat and was strangling her.

“I gritted my teeth,” she said. “And held my breath – what was left of it – and kept my foot down until the board marking the end of the timing area flashed past.”

She stopped and friends rushed up to her. Another helmet was banged on her head and off she went again to make another run over the measured kilometre.

Her average speed over the two complete runs was 120.135 mph and her top speed was 120.459 mph. Sheila had broken the Belgian national record for a car of the two to three litre class, and earned the title of fastest in Europe in a production sports car.

Stirling Moss, the ace racing driver, had driven the same car just before Sheila and recorded the same top speed as her. But the title went to Sheila because she was a fraction faster on her second run.

With this success in 1953, Sheila definitely established herself as a skilful driver in a sphere dominated by men. And she proceeded to maintain this reputation in rallies throughout Europe and in America.

After beginning as a private entrant, she became an official competitions driver for Rootes, the car manufacturers, the first woman they appointed to this job.

It was her job to drive their cars in demanding rallies that took her over tough mountain tracks in the Alps and around tight hairpin bends. The object was to prove the car’s worth and to show up any faults that could be corrected on production models.

One such fault was revealed when she was driving through the Dolomite mountains in Italy, in the Alpine rally. Sheila felt a peculiarity with the steering and called to her co-driver that she thought they had a puncture.

Her co-driver leaned out of the window and screamed, “Stop! The wheel’s coming off.”

Sheila stopped the car, sprang out and tightened the nuts which were hanging on by their last threads.

A factory inspection late, showed why they had come loose. Between the nuts and the wheel was a layer of paint, which had flaked away during the car’s battering over the mountains.

In this rally, Sheila and her co-driver won the cup for being the best of the women drivers, the Coupe des Dames, and another cup, the Coupe des Alpes, for completing the course in the time set for it. They were the first English women’s team to win the Coupe des Alpes.

She won another Coupes de Dames in her second Alpine Rally in 1954, despite sliding broadside into some concrete posts while overtaking another competitor. The car’s bodywork was damaged, but it remained mechanically sound.

In 1954, Sheila won three rallies and was proclaimed Ladies’ European Champion – a wonderful year in a motoring career that she was never likely to forget.

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