Riley Cars and Women


From the start of motoring, cars have provided greater mobility for both men and women. It is not that a female market did not exist, but only that it was  ignored by many manufacturers wheras Riley for some remarkable reason advertised specifically to women from almost day one  . Numerically  a minority in the world of motoring, women had a big impact on driving and car design. In the earlier days men frequently attempted to limit or prohibit female drivers, and often ridiculed their driving ability, but that didn’t stop the emergence of a number of famous female  (often racing) motorists from the beginning of motor-racing in 1895. The first of  two specific 'Ladies Races'  in the UK were at Brooklands in 1908  as a novelty to bring spectators to the track.  Earlier than this, Camille du Gast had competed in the 1901 Paris-Berlin race on a 20hp Panhard, coming in 33rd, Dorothy Levitt  drove big Napiers in speed-trials and road events from 1903 onwards. In the UK the BARC forbade females to compete  with the later Clerk of the Course, Col Lindsay Lloyd, keeping a  mixed racing ban with the ban later lifted, at BARC meetings at least, in 1928, but then for Ladies-only handicaps.

Due to pressure, the BARC decided in 1932 to let the ladies test their skills against the men in its handicaps, from the Inter-club meeting onwards. As  they discovered that 'Ladies' races were popular, they continued annually, from 1929 to 1935.

 Miss Rita Christine Don, sister of Kay Don also a pilot and driver

A Sister Assist Him. Miss Rita Don, who will accompany her brother, Mr. Kay Don, Florida when he goes try to set up new motor-car record. She  was an expert mechanic. fromYorkshire Evening Post - Tuesday 18 February 1930

Dixon's Riley II,:- "Dixon's Riley The first ladies' race round the Mountain Don. driving Freddie Dixon's Riley after the Yorkshire driver had Just won event In the same car."  from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - Monday 23 October 1933

But by 1938 " Paid Fine After All, Miss Rita Don. sister of racing motorist Kaye Don, toid the Chertsey Bench yesterday she had not been able to pay a fine of £3. Saying that car ownership proved she had means, the magistrate ordered month's imprisonment. Miss Don paid." She is also recorded as being fined for driving the Mall at 33mph; in Hartlepool at 55mph etc so obviously had a hefty right foot and regularly done for speeding

Kay Petre four times, three in a Bugatti (best lap 125.45mph), and one 'round the Mountain' in a Riley; THE WOMAN IN WHITE": Mrs. K. Petre prior to the start of last Saturday's women's Mountain Handicap at Brooklands in which she finished second to Miss Rita Don A

Mrs Tolhurst (Riley),"Inter-Club Meeting at the Track in 1932 Mrs Tolhurst, driving EK Rayson's.Riley 9, won a mixed race, and many other lady drivers competed that day," from Motorsport October 1985

first event, the Racing Short, Mrs. Tolhurst was a firm favourite driving E. K. Rayson's 1,000 Mile Race Page 10, July 1932 motorsport

Mrs Briggs (Riley) 'Bill' Wisdom and cheerful Joan Richmond from Australia winning the very masculine one-day, 1000-mile race of 1932 for Riley at 84.41mph?


Another resolute and successful driver was Margaret Allan, married to Christopher Jennings, editor of The Motor. She won many races in the 6.5-litre Bentley 'Old Mother Gun', not an easy car to trifle with. She got her 120mph accolade in 1936, and was good in a single-seater Frazer Nash. Her husband, a Riley enthusiast, had huge models of paddle-steamers and got a bit annoyed if his guests failed to dock them properly! Luckily, when I interviewed Margaret, they were 'in dock'.



The Riley Brooklands was one of the most successful works and privateer racing cars of the late 1920s and early 1930s, particularly in hill climbs and at Le Mans, providing a platform for the success of motorsports' first women racing drivers like Kay Petrie and Dorothy Champney. It was based around Percy Riley's ground-breaking Riley 9 engine, a small capacity, high revving engine, ahead of its time in many respects. Its longevity is illustrated by Stirling Moss's early racing success after WW2 in pre-war Rileys.


American-born driver Kay Petre, she was born Kathleen Coad Defries in 1903 and moved to England with her husband Henry Petre in 1930. Kay took an interest in motor racing after being events held at Brooklands, a circuit that also had an airfield where her husband would often fly.


The no-nonsense pairing of Mrs Elsie “Bill” Wisdom and Miss Joan Richmond – taken in July 1932.