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A woman wins the Monte Carlo Rally – in 1927


At the age of 16  Mary Petre Bruce became the first woman to be fined for a traffic offence when she borrowed her brother’s motorbike and took her dog in the sidecar. Through the twenties and thirties she smashed records, on land, water and air, for countless gruelling races and feats of endurance. One of her earliest achievements was to become the first woman to complete the Monte Carlo Rally, driving solo. In this extract from her excellent new biography Of Mary Petre Bruce, Nancy L Wilson tells the tale of a dramatic week in an European winter.

Throughout the year, the determined and headstrong bride kept up a campaign of gently badgering Selwyn Edge, trying to coax him into lending her an AC automobile to drive in the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally. Edge was a canny businessmanas well as a record-breaking racer. He saw the publicity value in having a woman drive one of his automobiles in the prestigious Rally. Even if Mary merely completed the course without an accident, it would be great advertising for his cars. Edge gave her the use of an AC saloon, and she began making plans.

Winner of the Coup des Dames

As her husband had in 1926, Mary selected John O’Groats as her starting point for the 1927 Rally. She carried three passengers: Victor, engineer A.W. Pitt from the AC works, and Robert W. Beare, Motoring Editor for London’s Daily Sketch. Carrying three passengers garnered more points for the entry, as each passenger was equivalent to five hundred extra miles traveled. (Clearly, however, there was a point of diminishing return with this scheme; one man started from Stockholm in a motorbus with 20 passengers. The heavily loaded bus slid into a ditch and could not continue in the competition. Had it completed the course, the bus might well have won.)

The course from John O’Groats to Monte Carlo was 1,700 miles. January weather was, as expected in the far north of Scotland, less than ideal for driving. The roads were icy; snow was everywhere. The night before the Rally, Mary came down with flu and a high fever. Undeterred by illness, she settled herself behind the wheel the next day and they were on their way. At the very first turn in the road after leaving the starting point at the gloomy Gothic hotel at John O’Groats, the car went into a skid on the icy surface. ‘The way in which she dealt with this skid was really masterly,’ wrote Bobby Beare in his Daily Sketch motoring column. ‘The car wagged its tail like an exuberant puppy, but there was never a moment’s doubt that it was completely under control. And I believe Mrs. Bruce enjoyed it—or at least enjoyed ‘putting the wind up’ her passengers.’

From that first skid onward, Mary needed every bit of driving skill she possessed to stay on course. The need for concentration hastened her recovery, and she was soon feeling fine. The first day’s drive took them south over the imposing Grampian mountain range. A thick Scottish mist clung to the ground and drastically reduced visibility. The roads were nearly all under reconstruction, with tedious detours and haphazard temporary bridges. The foursome stopped only for a cup of coffee in Inverness, determined to get through the mountains before dark. At dusk they stopped for high tea at Blair Athol, at the southern edge of the Grampians, and soon were back on the road.

Later that evening they reached the first checkpoint in Glasgow, some 300 miles from their start, where they sat down as dinner guests of the Royal Scottish Automobile Club. The travellers had barely touched their bowls of soup when they were handed a telegram with a weather report: ‘Thick fog 50 miles round Carlisle; mist on Yorkshire moors, heavy snow falling onwards London; frozen roads very dangerous.’ Interest in nourishment evaporated. “Let’s get on with it!” exclaimed Victor. They rose from the table with one accord, and in moments they were back in the car and on the road again, hoping to gain ground while the weather was still tolerable.

Fog and wind-driven snow cut visibility to practically zero as Mary drove through the Scottish Lowlands. They crossed into England in the dark and by early morning had reached the second control point at Doncaster, south of York. It was about then—after 16 hours of driving—that the subject of a relief driver came up for the first and last time. The original intention was that Mary and Victor would share the driving, each taking shifts of approximately 200 miles. The press, however, believing that Mary would drive the entire distance, had trumpeted this news in advance. Having enjoyed the challenge of the run down the length of Scotland, she determined to attempt the feat as sole driver. After 24 hours, with Mary still behind the wheel, they were in London for another checkpoint at Leicester Square. Interest in the event had been stirred by Victor Bruce’s win the previous year, and a crowd of spectators was eager to see this year’s Bruce entry, especially since it was Mrs. Bruce at the wheel. London check-in formalities concluded, they were soon on their way again, south to the English Channel port of Folkstone. They arrived a bare half-hour before the ferry to Boulogne sailed. The only other Channel crossing scheduled that night was going to Calais—a destination that would have added many miles and much precious time to their planned route through France to Monte Carlo. The boat trip was the longest break from driving Mary would have. She made a dash for their cabin, but she was too excited to sleep.

The young Mrs Bruce

It seemed like mere moments before she was behind the wheel again, speeding down treacherous, icy roads toward the next checkpoint, in Paris. Victor served as navigator and the two backseat passengers took turns tapping Mary’s head to keep her awake. They were in Paris at midnight, ahead of their schedule; no doubt recalling the bowls of soup they had abandoned in Glasgow, they took time to refuel themselves with sandwiches and strong coffee.

It was always easier, they learned, to get into a city than out of it. Paris, very much alive in the middle of the night, was a challenge as they headed south, searching for the route out of the city. Six hundred grueling miles lay between them and Monte Carlo—a potholed, mountainous route with dozens of hairpin turns unprotected by guardrails or parapets, to be negotiated in the darkness. Mary credited fast driving with keeping her awake and helping her cope with hallucinations of big black dogs crossing the road ahead of her. To the consternation of Bobby Beare, the one passenger who remained awake through the most treacherous part of the dash through the mountainous Esterel region, she amused herself by spinning yarns of frightful crashes and potential hazards on dark roads such as the one they were traveling.

The welcome lights of Cannes greeted them just before dawn on the fourth day. As the sun rose, the Mediterranean glistened before them; they followed smooth roads up the coast toward the principality of Monaco. A last-minute delay in the resort town of Antibes was a near disaster. Having found their way easily to the central square, they asked a passerby for directions to Nice. Tout droit they were told—or perhaps, Mary thought, it might have been a la droit. In either case, the word droit was clear enough: ‘right’. They turned to the right, once, twice, three times—and arrived back in the central square. Inquiring again of a pedestrian they got the same reply; assuming that they had somehow missed a turn, they exited the square and took several right turns again. Frustration was mounting as they entered the central square once more. The third time they inquired—upon reflection, Mary thought that it had been the same pedestrian every time—they were told again tout droit. She finally remembered a subtlety of the language from her schoolgirl French: there is a distinction between tout droit (all right, straight on) and a la droit, (turn to the right). Scenic touring of Antibes thankfully concluded, they left the square for the last time and went ‘straight on’ up the road to Monte Carlo.

Mary crossed the finish line in front of the Monte Carlo Casino exactly on time, 70 hours and 20 minutes after leaving John O’Groats. As officials, fans, and reporters surrounded the car, Mary, completely exhausted, laid her head on the steering wheel and fell asleep.

As always, she recovered quickly. The next day found her ready and eager for the Alpine reliability trial over a mountainous route high above the Riviera. Up over the Col de Braus, through the ancient village of Sospel, over another pass, and down through the seaside village of Menton: there were three checks, and drivers had to arrive exactly on time. At one point, on the summit of the Col de Braus, they were met by a lady running toward them, waving her arms frantically. The roads were icy, and Mary dared not brake hard; instead she took her foot off the gas and allowed the automobile to slow naturally, hoping whatever the lady was trying to warn them about was far enough away that they could avoid disaster without hard braking and the loss of control that might result. They rounded several corners with no sign of trouble but around one last corner lay a hair-raising scene: five cars all over the road, with only a low parapet between them and a thousand-foot drop to the sea. Mary saw no hole to creep through, and hard braking would still be asking for trouble. At the very last second the drivers involved pushed aside one car just enough to allow her to steer through; they arrived at the next checkpoint dead on time.

Mrs Bruce driving the Mont des Mules

The Monte Carlo Rally continued with the hill climb of the Mont des Mules, named for the massive rock formation on which Monte Carlo is set. Mary won her class in this competition, which tests both the skill of the driver and the power of the car.

The ‘beauty pageant’ for the competing automobiles, the Concours d’Elegance, ended the Rally Week competition, followed by a banquet at Monaco’s elegant Hotel de Paris. As winner of the Coupe des Dames, awarded to the first female finisher, Mary was seated in the position of honour at the right hand of the president of the International Sporting Club of Monaco. The contestants, from all parts of the continent and Britain, gathered in the great square before the palace of Monaco for the grand finale: the distribution of prizes, which concluded the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally.

Mary was on top of the world that night in Monaco. She had proven herself a worthy player in the world of automotive competition, besting all but five of Europe’s top male drivers and capturing the Coupe des Dames. The fame and reputation she yearned for had become reality, but it was a constant hunger; she craved more. And with her customary determination, she set out to get it.

Extract from the ‘Queen of Speed’ by Nancy R Wilson, published September 2012.  Mrs Bruce’s home is now used as a b&b – called Priory Steps – where the new book was launched on the 8th September 2012. The book has its own website but is also available through Amazon.co.uk or Waterstones.

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