The first time I met Rosemary Smith was in the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. I had seen her, of course, on television and heard her on the radio. Now, here she was, a living motor racing legend, looking ravishing with blonde hair, immaculate makeup and long scarlet fingernails.
The meeting had been arranged by our mutual friend Paul Howard, who in his wisdom thought I might be the person to write Rosemary’s memoir. I was dubious at first but was soon convinced when she mentioned that two of my teenage crushes – Adam Faith and Oliver Reed – were among the men who had romanced her as a young woman. Now I wanted in.
I knew that two other aspiring ghostwriters had been dismissed early in the proceedings. I told her I had no knowledge of the motorsport industry and had never learned to drive but I did have a degree in English from Trinity. She wasn’t impressed with the degree and didn’t seem to care about my lack of motoring knowledge.
We were two very different women in our late 70s but we hit if off. She said she liked me. I was to learn that those words were not spoken lightly or often by Rosemary Smith. “I will tell you everything,” she said. And that’s exactly what she did.
For a year and a half, we met every Tuesday at 11am in the Royal Irish Automobile Club on Dawson Street. Punctuality was hugely important for Rosemary, we had that in common. I recorded everything she told me and typed it up when I got home. I had to get her voice right or the project was doomed. The trouble was we would often stray from our intended subject matter and talk of events and people of the day. Rosemary seemed to know everyone and I was regaled with lots of extraneous information and juicy gossip, which I enjoyed even though it slowed up the process.
It turned out Rosemary had never kept a diary and had no memory for dates. I knew I would have to double-check everything. I did a lot of googling and trawling through old newspapers to verify the facts of her extraordinary life. One of the most captivating nuggets I found was a 1966 clip from when Rosemary appeared on the popular American television programme What’s My Line? Rosemary had been in America for a 24-hour endurance race in Daytona, Florida, and made a detour to New York to appear on the show. One of the celebrity panellists who had to guess her occupation – Automobile Race Driver – was dancer Ginger Rogers.
You can still find the clip on YouTube. Rosemary was her usual glamorous self but told me she was dying inside. That’s when I learnt that while she was supremely confident behind the wheel, her bravura vanished once she got out of the car. ‘People often got the idea I was stand-offish’, she told me, ‘But the truth is, I was shy’. In fact, over the years, Rosemary went on to be a much sought-after public speaker and enjoyed every minute of it.
I loved that vulnerable young woman on What’s My Line? just as much as the confident lady who sat before me each Tuesday morning. The more she related her stories of her rallying and racing days the more I was determined to do her story justice.
Rosemary’s early rallying career began with the Circuit of Ireland. The first was in 1959 and she went on to complete the rally a further seven times. In 1968, she was third overall. Roger Clarke came first in a Ford Escort, Adam Boyd was second in a Mini Cooper and Rosemary came flying home in her faithful Hillman Imp. This was an astonishing achievement for a woman driver at that time. She went on to drive in the RAC Rally in the UK which led to her being asked to co-drive with Sally Anne Cooper in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1962.
Her career took off after that but all the time she felt she was seen as the dumb blonde; the girl who could sell cars for manufacturers draping her long legs over the bonnet of the latest model. Rosemary also told me that the best cars were almost always given to the men. That didn’t stop her becoming the first woman to win the Tulip Rally in atrocious weather in 1965, a 2,911km drive through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France.
Rosemary went on to compete in rallies all over the world: the Shell 4,000 from Vancouver to Quebec, The London to Sydney Marathon, the East African Safari Rally and many more. There was excitement and danger surrounding all of them but she just kept going. She never let up on her beauty regimes either, always wearing fake eyelashes even while racing. Those eyelashes served a practical purpose because after long, exhausting hours on the road, if she felt them fluttering against her cheek she would be wide awake in seconds. The stories she told of her adventures were hilarious and hair raising. Due to piston trouble, she once went up the Khyber Pass backwards. On at least two occasions when the fan belt went on her motor she had to use one of her stockings as a replacement, much to the delight of the British tabloids.
Rosemary’s life was not all sunshine and glamour. She was badly let down by some people which led to financial difficulties and a period of depression. She met all these challenges with characteristic courage, perseverance and ingenuity, eventually getting back on her feet. She became honorary president of many motorsport clubs, at home and abroad and continued to take part in classic rallies. After she started Rosemary Smith’s Driving School, to ensure young people had the best start to their motoring life, opportunities opened up even more.
The book was nearly finished when Rosemary came to our weekly meeting with the news that she had been asked to drive Renault’s 800bhp Formula 1 car at the Circuit Paul Ricard at Le Castellet, near Marseilles and star in a documentary about the experience. Rosemary jumped at the chance and somehow managed to manoeuvre her long legs into the racer and fly around the track with ease. The documentary went viral on YouTube. She was 79 years of age and probably the oldest person ever to accomplish such a feat. What an ending for the memoir of this incomparable woman.
After her memoir, Driven, was published in 2018 we remained firm friends. She would ring me excitedly with all her news, like the day the actor and racing driver Michael Fassbender called to her house in Sandyford for tea. He ended up staying for hours.
I’m not sure if she was joking, but Rosemary once told me that when she died she would like to be cremated in a pink wicker casket and have Time to say Goodbye played at her funeral. I know for sure that she would want everyone to wear their brightest colours.
Goodbye Rosemary, thank you for your friendship. What fun we had.