RIP Rosemary Smith 1937-2023

| 6 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – RIP Rosemary Smith 1937-2023

Rally and racing driver Rosemary Smith died yesterday, 5 December 2023, in Dublin, from cancer. She was 86.

Among her many achievements was victory on the 1965 Tulip Rally with co-driver Valerie Domleo in a works Hillman Imp, one of many factory-backed drives.

Although in an interview in Classic & Sports Car’s November 2003 issue, she shared another success that was the result she was most proud of.

“Getting an Austin Maxi home on the [1970] London to Mexico rally. At the start Lord Stokes flagged us off and said he'd be happy if we made it to Dover.

“Over the Andes at 17,000ft you can imagine how much power it produced but we finished 10th and first lady team.”

Many years later, on 10 May 2017, then aged 79, she fulfilled a dream when she became the oldest person to drive a Formula One car, piloting a Renault round Paul Ricard: “How they let me loose in it I don’t know, but, anyway, it was fun.”

Classic & Sports Car – RIP Rosemary Smith 1937-2023

Smith drove a Renault F1 car at Paul Ricard in 2017 © Renault

Smith was born in Dublin on 7 August 1937 and made her competitive debut behind the wheel of an MG TC at a hillclimb in the Wicklow Mountains, which led to rallying, first as a co-driver and then a driver.

“My dad was a quiet man,” she told C&SC, “and the only time I saw him get really angry was when I turned down my first offer of a works drive. I just wanted to keep my rallying as a sport.”

She competed on Rallye Monte-Carlo eight times, but also cited this as her biggest competitive frustration, when driving a Lancia Fulvia.

“We were up to sixth overall in a huge field of 200-plus entrants. On the last night my co-driver said turn left and I knew we should have turned right but it's a golden rule never to argue with your navigator.

“We got stuck in a snowdrift but still finished 17th. I was sick with disappointment because we would have been the highest-placed women in the event’s history.”

Classic & Sports Car – RIP Rosemary Smith 1937-2023

Rosemary Smith (left) and co-driver Margaret Lowrey-MacKenzie with their Hillman Imp, ahead of the 1965 Rallye Monte-Carlo © Getty

As well as numerous trophies for being the best female crew on an event, Smith claimed many class wins, and her packed career also saw her set a speed record in Cork in 1978.

She had a range of interests and studied and trained in fashion, and established a boutique with her mother. 

“Dress was always important to Rosie. We wore matching outfits in and out of the car,” co-driver and friend Pauline Gullick told rallying news website Dirt Fish.

Later in life, she set up a driving academy and ran awareness-driving programmes for schools across her native Ireland.

So what did she think was the best car she’s ever rallied?

“After years with Rootes, I was offered a Porsche factory drive in 1968 with a 911. lt had great grunt and was very quick up and down the mountains.

“ln the Coupe des Alpes we were second in class, chasing hard down an Alpine pass at night when the brakes went. A shock absorber mount had collapsed and cut through the brake pipe.

“I slapped it into first and smashed into a rock face which stopped us going over the edge. My co-driver had lost two friends the previous year on the same stage so she was already very nervous.”

Images: Getty/Renault


60 years of the Hillman Imp

Every winning marque as the WRC hits 50

Porsche 911 Carrera RSR ‘R7’: the full works